Monday, January 12, 2009
"What is the What"
The movie Rabbit Proof Fence reminded me of the book What is the What, by Dave Eggers. Describing What is the What is complicated, because the subtitle of the book is The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng. – What? (This reminds me of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, written by Gertrude Stein.)
The novel's subtitle refers to a real-life Sudanese refugee who tells us in a brief preface that "over the course of many years, I told my story orally to the author. He then concocted this novel, approximating my voice and using the basic events of my life as the foundation." Valentino is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan: he makes a harrowing journey from his plundered village in southern Sudan to temporary shelter in Ethiopia to a huge refugee camp in Kenya to Atlanta, Georgia, and then (currently) back to his village, where he is now involved in building a school with the help of profits from the book.
What is the What is one of the most riveting, well-written books I've ever read. It brings into unforgettable focus the experience of displacement, through the words of a man recollecting the odyssey of his childhood, accompanied by other vulnerable young boys. Like Rabbit Proof Fence, it shows children attempting to preserve and defend their way of life, their family ties, and their dignity.
In both examples, the act of telling the story is complicated by the mediation of others who can empathize and provide assistance, but who have not had the direct experience. History comes alive in both stories, based on the survival instincts and determination of children. It would be so easy to get these stories wrong – to sentimentalize or exploit them – but in these instances that has not been the case.
The best place to learn more about this book, and the conflict in Sudan, is at the website of the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation.