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What is the What and Valentino Achak Deng

Filed under: — adrian @ 11:15 am

I love Dave Eggers and I make no bones about it. A Heartbreaking Work is among my favorite books and I’ve read all of his books so far, so I picked up What is the What: the Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng pretty soon after it came out.

But before I go too far, let me clear up one thing: you don’t have to be an Eggers fan to like this book and even if you disliked other of his books, I think you may like this one.

This story is presented in an odd way; it is presented as an autobiography but the author and the name don’t match. Also, it’s labeled fiction. I want to explain these things quickly as well, as I understand them. It’s written in the voice of Valentino but it’s written by Eggers. There are some fictionalized elements, like composite characters and events/ conversation from Valentino’s childhood which he couldn’t remember.

The story takes place largely during the Second Sudanese Civil War (which is not the Darfur conflict but is related) follows one of the Lost Boys of Sudan in his journey from his hometown of Marial Bai in southern Sudan to Ethiopia and eventually Kakuma in Kenya, and it also covers some of his life and hardships in the United States after being resettled here as part of the Lost Boys program.

Raiders burned and ransacked his village when he was still very young (about eight, I think). Valentino spent the next few years walking, avoiding disease, dehydration, attacks from the army, and being shuffled from camp to camp before ending up in Kakuma for many years. When I was eight, I was trying to see if I could jump and touch the sign during recess, he was seeing friends die and starving.

But anyway, you can read about the displaced people of southern Sudan during that war. You can hear about what some of the boys went through. I’d see the documentary (which I’d also recommend) and something on 60 minutes about the Lost Boys, but I hadn’t really gotten a feel for what all happened. It’s different reading one person’s narrative from the beginning to end.

It’s a really good book. Eggers’ prose bring this story to life and even some of his sometimes-annoying literary quirks are diluted in telling this other man’s story.

I saw Valentino speak earlier this week at Kepler’s. I was struck by this in the book as well, but in person it is even more evident. He’s been through more hardship than I could imagine going through in my entire life and, yet, he still has hope. He still has hope and it’s amazing.

One Response to “What is the What and Valentino Achak Deng”

  1. adrian is rad » good eggers interview Says:

    […] good interview with Dave Eggers by the Montreal Gazette. It’s largely about What is the What, which I enjoyed and we all know I’m a big Dave Eggers […]

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