What is the What

What is the What - Dave Eggers I did wind up loving this, but it took some time. This is a novel--and non-fiction. As put in the Preface, the book is the "soulful account" of the life of Valentine Achak Deng, one of the "Lost Boys" of the Sudan from the time he was separated from his family in Marial Bai to the thirteen years he spent in Ethiopian and Kenyan refugee camps, to his "encounters with vibrant Western cultures, in Atlanta and elsewhere." Many an author would have just chosen to call it a biography and in the tradition of Truman Capote, make up many details, claim the license of"creative non-fiction" and call it a day. Eggers did something a bit different. Eggers at first planned a conventional biography, but as I read in an article afterwards, he kept feeling his own voice got in the way. So after discussing it with Deng, what he wrote instead was a "novel" based on his life--one that allows for the liberties and dramatizations of fiction, but firmly based on his experiences and attempting to capture his voice. I prefer that choice, mixing non-fiction with fiction and calling it a novel, than doing the same and claiming it as non-fiction, but it did still leave me with questions at times about what really happened. At first I didn't think this was succeeding very well. Eggers tells the story by weaving in the story, told past tense, of Deng's life as a refugee in Africa and an immigrant in America with his present in America, told present tense, beginning with him being assaulted and robbed in his own apartment. He mentally tells his story to the people dealing with him in that present--from the robbers to the police officer to the emergency room receptionist to the clients of the gym where he works. And, considering the present he's experiencing, the voice at first came across to me as rather whiny and self-pitying. Plus, his voice came across to me at first as rather formal and stilted--not inappropriate really to someone for whom English was a second language, but I faced it with a little skepticism not at that point knowing Eggers' process. Was this the voice of someone from Sudan? Or what Eggers thought one would speak like? I even at one point wondered if the preface itself was fictional. But no, I looked it up and Deng is a real person, who really went through the experiences in this book, and eventually I let go of my mistrust and let myself be drawn in and allow myself to care, and by the end I cared a lot. I also, especially given the beginning, feared this would be only a litany of horror and misery. But despite the tragedy, I found the story ultimately upbeat. Maybe it's because despite all the terrible things people do to each other, I couldn't help but be struck with the stories of incredible generosity along the way--from Sudanese, Kenyans, a Japanese relief worker, and Americans. The story is not completely bleak, even if much is heart-breaking; there was enough that was heart-warming to not make this too depressing a read. It's amazing just how resilient we humans can be. And you do learn a lot along the way--about Sudan, about refugee camps where people are "penned up like cattle" for decades and yet find a way to have some sort of life--and sometimes escape. About a part of Africa where slavery lives on. About people exploiting refugees ("Aid bait") refugees exploiting the system ("recycling"), about bride prices and forced marriages and boy soldiers and "What is the What." That last refers to a Dinka myth. I'll leave you to find out about it in the book. Which I certainly hope you will read. Hey, sales to go to a foundation for education of Sudanese children--so all good.