“ . . . between May 16, 1983 and January 9, 2005, over two and a half million people died of war and war-related causes in Sudan, over four million people were internally displaced in southern Sudan and nearly two million southern Sudanese took refuge in foreign countries.”
—preface, What is the What
These facts permeate the narrative of What is the What, a piece of journalistic fiction ala Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. The stories are chilling; even more chilling because they are true, or mostly true. Dave Eggers admits he filled in the gaps of his hero’s memory and therefore, wrote a novel.
But Valentino Achak Deng of southern Sudan is very real.
Just before the killing breaks out, Achak, tells the story of creation as told to him by his father:
God created the first Dinka man and woman and offered them the cow, which the man knew would supply everything they needed: milk, money and prosperity. Or, they could choose the What. But what is the What? God said, I cannot tell you what is the What. So they chose the cattle and this was the correct decision.
God was testing the man for his ability to appreciate what is good and available, rather than trading for the unknown.
Years later, his father said Achak’s opportunity to go to the United Sates was the What, but urged him to go anyway. And for Achak, one of the Lost Boys of southern Sudan, the What was not good.
The Jungle is Atlanta
Achak is resettled in Atlanta. As casualties of the Sudanese civil war, the Lost Boys will always be somewhat lost, even in Atlanta. What is the price for clean sheets, electricity and nourishing food? Are these physical comforts worth the diminution of his soul? Achak helps other resettled Lost Boys, but is a few dollars from his gym wages the best kind of help he can give?
After five years, Achak, who had been a leader in his refugee camp, still has not achieved even modest success in Atlanta. He works for low wages at a gym and he struggles at the community college. His trusting nature causes him to let a woman asking for help into his apartment who, with her partner, robs and beats him. He is left tied up overnight to retell his life story in his head.
Eggers’ retelling of Achak’s story transports the reader to Sudan, walks the readers’ hearts with those boys and allows the readers’ souls to suffer with them. What is the What is no dry 60 Minutes piece.
Eggers returns the reader back to Atlanta periodically for an update on Achak’s current indignities: the robbery, the helplessness, and the indifference in the emergency room. In his head, Achak tells his stories to the people who pass through his current life. He speaks to the African-American boy who guards him, calls him “TV Boy.”
He speaks to the photos on the computer screen of people who have just swiped their gym membership cards.
How can anyone who has witnessed and survived so much slaughter, disease and starvation be put through the banal trials he suffers in Atlanta? Achak’s emotional suffering in Atlanta was worse than in Sudan.
In the refugee camp, Achak had gone beyond the suffering there. “It keeps my spirit alive to struggle,” says Achak. He had been educated, he had become a leader, and he affected positive changes in other refugees’ lives. Then he comes to the US and is marginalized and is unable to overcome day-to-day barriers.
No End to the Suffering
What is the What reminds me that just when you think you are safe, you’re not; there is no end to suffering. Eggers conveys the boyish humanity of The Lost Boys, Achaks’ longing for his village despite everything, and his memory of his mother. He cherishes the memory of being wrapped in her bright vibrant yellow dress, the sun he revolved around before the killing began and he became lost.
Eggers explains the politics between northern and southern Sudan, the Arabs and the Dinka, in a way that grinds into your soul. No detachment allowed. Now a new generation of Lost Boys are traveling across Sudan.