What Is the What – the Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng
Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s, San Francisco, 2006
Whew! In novel form this book tells all you ever needed to know about the Lost Boys of Sudan. The story begins with the civil war violence in 1983 that shattered the peaceful villages where Sudanese of various backgrounds lived together more or less harmoniously. Fleeing destruction of their world by Arab marauders, first hundreds, then thousands, even ten thousands of black African youngsters – mostly boys, but a few girls and later whole families - began to trek from their villages into the unknown in search of safety and peace. Months and hundreds of miles later, these refugees found little succor in squalid camps in Ethiopia. Later they were forced to move hundreds more miles back through the Sudan into northern Kenya. There they settled into a teeming camp that became home for ten years. Finally, several thousand of these wanderers were granted refuge in America.
Their walk was of epic proportions. The traumatized children were afflicted by disease, weariness, malnutrition, hunger, lack of leadership and rogue SPLA soldiers. They were pursued by raiders, shunned by most villagers, attacked by government warplanes and some were eaten by lions. Yet they mustered their courage, buried their dead along the way, supported one another and buoyed by hope, they marched onward across the swamps and deserts of Sudan. Pinyudo camp in Ethiopia was not the paradise they envisaged, but offered a year’s respite. Yet that too unraveled in an orgy of violence. Again the boys trudged onward. Beset by troubles and responsibilities that most children never encounter, they grew up on the walk and in the camps.
They settled into a more predictable limbo in Kakuma camp in northern Kenya where they went to school and became young adults. Ultimately as word of their travails spread, several thousand Lost Boys and Girls were admitted into the United States to begin new lives in America. It was a dream, but the reality of the dream was fraught with new obstacles of how to cope with America and how to come to terms with themselves and their pasts.
The novelization of Achak’s story with him as an engaging narrator permits the Lost Boys saga to be told in detail and with great emotion. The author uses flashbacks from present day Atlanta to recall events. Achak’s insight into himself and his relationships with others is genuinely touching. Not only are readers educated on the terrors of Sudan and the trek, but also on the reality that unsophisticated young African men confront in contemporary American society.
Geographical fault finder that I am, I noted two errors: Kitale, Kenya was referred to as Ketale in several passages and Kenyatta Airport was regularly misspelled as Kinyatta.
In summary, the saga of the Lost Boys is overwhelming. This book delivers a full dose of intensity - at times it was too much. I had to take a few breaks. Even so, What is the What is a worthy read. Finally, even though it was mentioned from time to time during the narrative, I never really understood what the what might be – perhaps some sort of universal truth - so the title of the book escaped me entirely.