Posted by: Matt | September 17, 2007

What Is the What

What Is the WhatWhat Is the What
Dave Eggers

Reason for reading: For a number of years now I’ve had an interest in Africa. As a geography major in college I took a class on Africa and wrote a paper on Sudan, which is a focus of this novel/biography.

Quote: “We’re men. Now we can stand and decide. This is our first chance to choose our own unknown. I’m so proud of everything we’ve done, my brothers, and if we’re fortunate enough to fly and land again in a new place, we must continue. As impossible as it sounds, we must keep walking. And yes, there has been suffering, but now there will be grace. There has been pain but now there will be serenity. No one has been tried as we have been tried, and now this is our reward, whether it be heaven or something less than that.”


What Is the What is the story of Valentino Achak Deng. It is categorized as fiction however much of the story actually occurred. Valentino is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. Sudan is a country split in two, the Muslim North and the non-Muslim South. In the early 80s the leader of Sudan declared sharia (Islamic religious law) which threw the country into turmoil pitting the north against the south. Starting in the early 1980s Sudan was embroiled in a terrible civil war which left many young boys (and girls) as orphans. These boys walked across Sudan eventually settling in a refugee camp in Kenya. Eventually thousands of these Lost Boys were resettled in the United States and other countries. Deng was resettled in Atlanta. This book simultaneously relates his trials in Atlanta and his struggle in Africa.

Unfortunately this bloody civil war was largely ignored by the West. While millions were dying in Sudan the West looked the other way. What Is the What is one of many opportunities the victims of this war have taken to tell their tale. This book or possibly one of the many other books about the Lost Boys should be read by everyone. It is incredible what these people suffered in their struggle to survive.

Deng, through Eggers, tells his story with passion. He so badly wants Americans, particularly those who assualt him, steal from him or ignore him, to understand his journey. We cannot possibly know what he and many others have experienced. This is an eye opening story of incredible pain, loss but also of strength.

If you don’t read this book or one others written about Deng and his countrymen at least take the time to learn their story. This is a part of history that should neither be forgotten nor ignored.

Rating: 4.0

All proceeds from this book go to the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation which helps Sudanese refugees in America and rebuilds villages in southern Sudan recovering from the war.



  1. I’m so glad you reviewed this.
    I’ve been haunted by it since I finished it a couple of weeks ago.

  2. De – It is pretty incredible and very sad what these people have had to go through, even after they arrived in the United States.

  3. I didn’t like much about this book. Yes, Deng’s story is sad and tragic and needs to be told, but Eggers’s prose was so tainted with American guilt that I was completely turned off. The Deng character was incredibly un-African (If you’ve read enough African lit, you probably know what I mean.), and I would have better enjoyed the novel if it had felt more authentic.

    For a better African tragedy, try Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

  4. I’d love to read this one as well and I’m so glad that Eggers took the time to work on a story like this – its so important that the rest of the world understand all that happened to these boys and if there’s a way to help them.

  5. marydell – Thanks for your views on the book. I have actually read Things Fall Apart and although I remember the story I may not remember it well enough to see the key differences. I also find your comment about Deng being un-African interesting as I was led to believe that the collaboration between Deng and Eggers was very close, but the difference may be in how Eggers chose to relate the stories that Deng told him. You can find video of Deng telling his story on YouTube, you might want to check out to see how he tells the story in his own words. And I probably have not read enough African lit to fully understand what you mean, but I hope to remedy that in the coming months!

    verbivore – This is the first time I’ve read Eggers but it sounds like something different than his ordinary writing. It is, I think, important to know the story of the Lost Boys.

  6. There’s a lot that’s largely ignored. It’s sad and the stories should be told and heard……..(and you do hear a ‘but’ here but! I can’t quite figure out the second half of the sentence. We can’t save everyone? Life isn’t fair? Stumped.)

  7. Carrie K – I don’t know if the story needs to be heard so that we can do something about it, but I think it is important for people to be aware of what is going on in the world. And I think the U.N. could have done a lot more for the people of Sudan.

  8. You’re right, Matt, it is important that we know what’s going on in the world. We often act as if we’re the only people that matter and have no idea of what’s happening outside our borders or even within them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: