What is the What by Dave Eggers

In 2001, about 3800 young men from southern Sudan were brought to 38 different cities in the United States, and were given assistance in starting new lives. These refugees, who’d been orphaned or separated from their families during Sudan’s violent civil war, are commonly known as the Lost Boys (though today, as grown men in their 20s, some of them find the nickname patronizing). Dave Eggers’ new book tells the story of one of these refugees, a child who joined up with the Lost Boys when he was about six years old, after his village had been burned, and his parents lost.

What is the What (the title refers to a Sudanese creation story) is the novelized autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng. Most of Deng’s story related to us by way of interior monologue while Deng himself, having been robbed by strangers, is lying bound and gagged on the floor of his Atlanta apartment. This frame story is revisited briefly between chapters — Deng survives, files a complaint with police and visits the hospital — but the book consists mainly of Deng’s memories: of his pre-war life in Marial Bai (a trading center in south-central Sudan); of his journey with the Lost Boys; of lion attacks and military gunfire; of their refugee camp in Kenya, and their difficult resettlement in the United States.

Fictionalizing an autobiography is usually called ghost writing, and the subject of a ghost written book is traditionally far better known than its author. Here, of course, the reverse is true — Eggers’ literary fame brings attention to Deng’s story. The stocks are already high for What is the What. It comes with glowing endorsements from fellow authors Uzodinma Iweala and Khaled Hosseini, and also from John Prendergast, Senior Advisor of the International Crisis Group. It was even praised by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times. Actually, it’s hard not to say good things about What is the What, especially since all the book’s proceeds are going to the Valentino Deng Foundation, established to aid the Sudanese in America and to rebuild Deng’s hometown of Marial Bai.

I’m glad the book’s been so successful; it makes me feel less guilty about finding it such a drag. But the truth is, I fell asleep so many times while reading it, I’m surprised I ever managed to get to the end. The problem, for me, was that I felt as though I’d heard the story before, and more than once. The frame narrative, about Deng’s current life in Atlanta, is too brief and flimsy to hold up the backstory — I wish Eggers had gone with either one or the other, past or present. Personally, I’d have liked to hear more about Deng’s current life; his ordeal in Sudan seems repetitive and predictable. In fact — and I’ll probably go straight to hell for saying this — I’ve had just about enough of the Lost Boys.

In the past few years, the Lost Boys have had lots of attention. 2005 saw the publication of Joan Hecht’s The Journey of the Lost Boys (2005); Mark Bixler’s The Lost Boys of Sudan: An American Story of the Refugee Experience (2005); and Judy Bernstein’s They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky (“The true story in their own words of the 14-year journey of Benson Deng, Alephonsion Deng, and Benjamin Ajak, now living in the US”). This year saw the release of Christopher Dillon Quinn’s award winning documentary God Grew Tired of Us (I know the feeling), which itself appeared to be a re-working (with voiceover by Nicole Kidman) of ground covered in an earlier documentary, Megan Mylan and Jon Shenk’s Lost Boys of Sudan (2003), There are even rumors of an upcoming feature film directed by Brad Silberling, The Lost Boys of Sudan, possibly coming to a screen near you some time next year.

There were thousands of Lost Boys, but the stories of those re-settled in the US are remarkably similar. Their experiences, in fact, could be condensed into a single narrative, and in this respect, the tale told by Valentino Achak Deng is typical. After walking across the Sudan, suffering a terrible ordeal of physical danger, hunger, and violence, our Lost Boy makes it to the refugee camp in Kenya, where he’s one of those chosen to come to America. Aid workers visit the camp to teach the boys about the customs and lifestyle of America. They’re shown American money, told how much they’ll earn and how much they have to pay in rent, and oh yes, they’re shown some ice, which they’ve never seen before.

When the chosen Lost Boys arrive disoriented in Atlanta, or Seattle, or Detroit, they’re overwhelmed, first by the airport escalators, then by their new apartments, where they’re unsure how to flush the toilet or what to put in the fridge. After three rent-free months, they obtain menial jobs, often for minimum wage, in factories a long way from home. To get to work, since they can’t drive, they wake while it’s still dark and have to take two buses. At first they work hard and send money back home to their relatives every month, never losing sight of those less fortunate than themselves. They start to work two or three jobs to send more money back to Africa, and plan to save up for college.

A year later, our Lost Boy has grown jaded and depressed from working so hard with so little reward for himself. For a while, he falls prey to selfish materialism, and stops sending money home so he can buy a car and some sneakers. Later, however, he becomes more grounded and is welcomed by the congregation of a local church, or gets into college, where he finds an understanding audience for his story. Nevertheless, confronted with the alienation of American suburbia, he suffers acutely from feelings of dislocation, bouts with loneliness, nostalgia for home and their concern over those left behind. Eventually, he starts thinking about going back home.

It’s sad and ironic that the prospect of returning to war-torn Sudan would seem more appealing than life in suburban America, but to some of these disillusioned refugees, this seems to be the case. But then, while they won’t die of starvation in America, or get eaten by lions, or have their hands cut off, most of the Lost Boys in the US are still lost, isolated from family and loved ones, stuck in low-paying, mind-numbing jobs, unable to find anyone interested in their catastrophic stories — until now, that is, when, as a result of media attention, the Lost Boys have found a wider audience. Some of them are now in college. Some have their own blogs and websites. You can even contact the Premiere Speakers Bureau to engage Valentino Achak Deng himself to tell his story, for a modest fee of $3500 (he’ll even fly coach).

There are complex moral questions here that Eggers doesn’t intend to approach; his interest is in telling Valentino’s story, in making the Lost Boys more immediately compelling than the casualties of all the other civil wars going on elsewhere in Africa: Ivory Coast, Chad, the Western Sahara, Darfur, not to mention the rest of the world. And there are plenty of problems right here in suburbia. When Deng is beaten and robbed, you can’t help but feel that the African Americans who victimize him are victims themselves — of the same discrimination, the same racism, and same history of African colonization. Perhaps, since Eggers himself was orphaned at an early age, he sees in Deng a version of his own story, written on a global scale. Perhaps there are Lost Boys everywhere. And if that’s the case, what’s so special about Valentino Achak Deng?