Monday, May 05, 2008
monday book review: what is the what
What Is the What, although labeled a novel for reasons I don't fully agree with, is the true story of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the 4,000 Sudanese refugees granted U.S. citizenship after being displaced from their homes due to an unimaginably violent civil war.  Along with 20,000 other children, most ten or younger, Deng was suddenly "orphaned" (fifteen years later Deng makes the unbelievable discovery that his parents did, in fact, survive the attack) when his village was burned down by Arab militants.  Facing no other options, Deng and tens of thousands of children like him walked from the site of their decimated homes to Ethiopia in search of asylum.  Although many children died making the unimaginably cruel journey, Deng was one of the lucky ones who survived, finding relative safety first in Ethiopia, then Kenya, and finally in America.

Wanting to share his story but recognizing his limits as a writer, Deng elicited the help of Dave Eggers (McSweeney's, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), who did a truly phenomenal job.  Eggers begins his story in Deng's Atlanta apartment where he has lived for several years, growing more and more disenfranchised with the promise of the American dream.  Eggers writes, 

When I first came to this country, I would tell silent stories.  I would tell them to people who had wronged me.  If someone cut in front of me in line, ignored me, bumped me, or pushed me, I would glare at them, staring, silently hissing a story to them.  You do not understand, I would tell them.  You would not add to my suffering if you knew what I have seen.
Eggers reveals the details of Deng's difficult past through these "silent stories" told to strangers: the couple who forcibly entered his Atlanta apartment and robbed him at gunpoint, a disingenuous police officer, disinterested hospital staff, the college admissions officer who has little interest in helping him achieve his dream of a higher education, and the like.  

It's hard to imagine why God, fate, luck, or whatever you want to call it would let a man like Deng suffer so much, but while it might be easy for the tone to turn angry it never really does.  Understandably, Eggers' novel is both chilling and painful, but it is also inspiring and funny.  I haven't been as impressed with, emotionally engaged in, and educated by a book this much since The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  Simply put, it was amazing, and I'm a better person for having read it.

Dave Eggers
2006, 475 pages

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Blogger Mary said...

Yay! This one is actually on my bookshelf waiting for me to read it. I will have to move it up on the list.

Blogger cornshake said...

which would you recommend for a book club for honors English majors? the eggers book or Oscar Wao? both of these are among my top 5 choices...but i havent read oscar wao, only heard great things about it.

Blogger Mrs. White said...

Either would be a great choice, so I guess it depends on your purpose. They both do a great job of weaving social injustice, history and engaging storytelling into one awesome package, but Oscar Wao is more "writerly" whereas What Is the What has the appeal of being based on a true story of a current event.

If it were me, I'd probably pick Wao based solely on personal preference I guess, but I really loved them both.

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