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What Is the What

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Overview

A gripping, best-selling narrative based on one refugee's story of escape from war-torn Sudan.

In a heartrending and astonishing novel, Eggers illuminates the history of the civil war in Sudan through the eyes of Valentino Achak Deng, a refugee now living in the United States. We follow his life as he's driven from his home as a boy and walks, with thousands of orphans, to Ethiopia. Valentino's travels bring him in contact with government soldiers, janjaweed-like militias, ...

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Overview

A gripping, best-selling narrative based on one refugee's story of escape from war-torn Sudan.

In a heartrending and astonishing novel, Eggers illuminates the history of the civil war in Sudan through the eyes of Valentino Achak Deng, a refugee now living in the United States. We follow his life as he's driven from his home as a boy and walks, with thousands of orphans, to Ethiopia. Valentino's travels bring him in contact with government soldiers, janjaweed-like militias, liberation rebels, hyenas and lions, disease and starvation-and unexpected romances. In this audiobook, written with expansive humanity and surprising humor, we come to understand the nature of the conflicts in Sudan, the refugee experience in America, the dreams of the Dinka people, and the challenge one man faces in a world collapsing around him.

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Editorial Reviews

Gary Krist
God has a problem with me," complains Valentino Achak Deng, the subject of Dave Eggers's extraordinary new novel, What Is the What. Coming from almost any other person on the planet, this lament would appear hopelessly self-pitying. But coming from Valentino, a Sudanese refugee, it sounds almost like an understatement. At a time when the field of autobiography seems dominated by hyperbolic accounts of what might be called dramas of privilege (substance abuse, eating disorders, unloving parents, etc.), What Is the What is a story of real global catastrophe—a work of such simple power, straightforward emotion and genuine gravitas that it reminds us how memoirs can transcend the personal to illuminate large, public tragedies as well.

The book does this despite being, strictly speaking, a novel. Valentino, who survived almost 15 years of civil war and refugee-camp exile before coming to the United States in 2001, in fact does exist, but the book that purports to be his autobiography is actually a fictional recreation by Eggers. No secret is made of the fact that some of the characters in the book are composites, some episodes are invented, and much of the storyline has been reordered and reshaped for narrative effect. The result, however, is a document that—unlike so many "real" autobiographies—exudes authenticity.
—The Washington Post

Francine Prose
Reading What Is the What does indeed make it impossible to pretend that Valentino Achak Deng and the other Lost Boys and all the men and women and children who have suffered, and continue to suffer, fates like his do not exist. Dave Eggers has made the outlines of the tragedy in East Africa — so vague to so many Americans — not only sharp and clear but indelible. An eloquent testimony to the power of storytelling, What Is the What is an extraordinary work of witness, and of art.
— The New York Times
KLIATT
AGERANGE: Ages 15 to adult.

How can an autobiography be a novel whose author is not the subject of the book? When the subject is one of the “lost boys of Sudan” who may not have a perfectly clear memory of his childhood ordeal but who wants to tell his story. Dave Eggers and Valentino Deng spent months in conversation and in e-mail communication in the writing of this book. Chased from his native Dinka village in southern Sudan by rebel invaders when he was six or seven years old, Deng joined a group of boys who walked across Sudan into Ethiopia, where he spent a decade in refugee camps. Thousands of young boys made this dangerous and painful trip. Many died. Some, like Deng, were eventually brought to the US to a totally new culture. This “novel” has received much praise. Eggers writes smoothly and never seems to interfere with the message of his subject. No one who reads this book will forget its scenes of acute suffering and the triumph of the human spirit. Reviewer: Patricia Moore
March 2008 (Vol. 42, No.2)

Library Journal

Eggers's well-received second novel, a moving first-person account based on the true experiences of Sudanese "lost boy" Valentino Achak Deng, makes an excellent audiobook. When Valentino was seven, his native Dinka village of Marial Bai was raided by Arab militiamen, sending him off on a strange and harrowing journey through depths of terror and despair, toward refuge in Ethiopia, Kenya, and, finally, the illusory promised land of America. Reading in a clear, convincingly expansive African cadence that is a pleasure to the ear, Dion Graham sounds all the right notes of bewilderment, fear, discovery, mirth, and joy in Valentino's coming-of-age in the Kakuma refugee camp and his abrupt exodus to the land of plenty, catching both the otherness and the universality of his experience and providing a compelling personal window on an ongoing global tragedy. A rewarding purchase for libraries of any size.
—David Wright

From the Publisher
New York Times Bestseller
A National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist

“Told with humor, humanity, and bottomless compassion for his subject. . . . It is impossible to read this book and not be humbled, enlightened, transformed.”
—Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner

“Dave Eggers has made the outlines of the tragedy in East Africa . . . not only sharp and clear but indelible. An eloquent testimony to the power of storytelling, What Is the What is an extraordinary work of witness, and of art.”
The New York Times Book Review

“Eggers’s limpid prose gives Valentino an unaffected, compelling voice and makes his narrative by turns harrowing, funny, bleak and lyrical. The result is a horrific account of the Sudanese tragedy, but also an emblematic saga of modernity–of the search for home and self in a world of unending upheaval.”
Publishers Weekly

“[What Is the What] sings like a novel–a novel in which every phrase falls with exquisite, revealing precision and the themes of the story play out as satisfyingly as in a large-scale symphony.”
Seattle Times

“A work of significant strengths, What Is the What is not only a valuable cultural document, it’s also an engaging and often compelling read. Eggers has crafted a novel notable for its writing as well as its historical relevance.”
The Globe and Mail

“Hands down, Dave Eggers’ What Is the What stands as the single most thought-provoking, unusual and moving book I have read all year.”
USA Today

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307385901
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/9/2007
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 560
  • Sales rank: 75,262
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Dave Eggers is the author of three previous books, is the editor of McSweeney’s, a quarterly magazine and book-publishing company, and is co-founder of 826 Valencia, a network of nonprofit writing and tutoring centres for young people. As a journalist, his work has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire and The Believer. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area with his wife and daughter.

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Read an Excerpt

What Is The What

THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF VALENTINO ACHAK DENG
By DAVE EGGERS

MCSWEENEY'S PUBLISHING

Copyright © 2006 Dave Eggers
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-932416-64-1


Chapter One

I have no reason not to answer the door so I answer the door. I have no tiny round window to inspect visitors so I open the door and before me is a tall, sturdily built African-American woman, a few years older than me, wearing a red nylon sweatsuit. She speaks to me loudly. "You have a phone, sir?"

She looks familiar. I am almost certain that I saw her in the parking lot an hour ago, when I returned from the convenience store. I saw her standing by the stairs, and I smiled at her. I tell her that I do have a phone.

"My car broke down on the street," she says. Behind her, it is nearly night. I have been studying most of the afternoon. "Can you let me use your phone to call the police?" she asks.

I do not know why she wants to call the police for a car in need of repair, but I consent. She steps inside. I begin to close the door but she holds it open. "I'll just be a second," she says. It does not make sense to me to leave the door open but I do so because she desires it. This is her country and not yet mine.

"Where's the phone?" she asks.

I tell her my cell phone is in my bedroom. Before I finish the sentence, she has rushed past me and down the hall, a hulk of swishing nylon. The door to my room closes, then clicks. She has locked herself in my bedroom. I start to follow her when I hear a voice behind me.

"Stay here, Africa."

I turn and see a man, African-American, wearing a vast powder-blue baseball jacket and jeans. His face is not discernible beneath his baseball hat but he has his hand on something near his waist, as if needing to hold up his pants.

"Are you with that woman?" I ask him. I don't understand anything yet and am angry.

"Just sit down, Africa," he says, nodding to my couch.

I stand. "What is she doing in my bedroom?"

"Just sit your ass down," he says, now with venom.

I sit and now he shows me the handle of the gun. He has been holding it all along, and I was supposed to know. But I know nothing; I never know the things I am supposed to know. I do know, now, that I am being robbed, and that I want to be elsewhere.

It is a strange thing, I realize, but what I think at this moment is that I want to be back in Kakuma. In Kakuma there was no rain, the winds blew nine months a year, and eighty thousand war refugees from Sudan and elsewhere lived on one meal a day. But at this moment, when the woman is in my bedroom and the man is guarding me with his gun, I want to be in Kakuma, where I lived in a hut of plastic and sandbags and owned one pair of pants. I am not sure there was evil of this kind in the Kakuma refugee camp, and I want to return. Or even Pinyudo, the Ethiopian camp I lived in before Kakuma; there was nothing there, only one or two meals a day, but it had its small pleasures; I was a boy then and could forget that I was a malnourished refugee a thousand miles from home. In any case, if this is punishment for the hubris of wanting to leave Africa, of harboring dreams of college and solvency in America, I am now chastened and I apologize. I will return with bowed head. Why did I smile at this woman? I smile reflexively and it is a habit I need to break. It invites retribution. I have been humbled so many times since arriving that I am beginning to think someone is trying desperately to send me a message, and that message is "Leave this place."

As soon as I settle on this position of regret and retreat, it is replaced by one of protest. This new posture has me standing up and speaking to the man in the powderblue coat. "I want you two to leave this place," I say.

The powder man is instantly enraged. I have upset the balance here, have thrown an obstacle, my voice, in the way of their errand.

"Are you telling me what do, motherfucker?"

I stare into his small eyes.

"Tell me that, Africa, are you telling me what to do, motherfucker?"

The woman hears our voices and calls from the bedroom: "Will you take care of him?" She is exasperated with her partner, and he with me.

Powder tilts his head to me and raises his eyebrows. He takes a step toward me and again gestures toward the gun in his belt. He seems about to use it, but suddenly his shoulders slacken, and he drops his head. He stares at his shoes and breathes slowly, collecting himself. When he raises his eyes again, he has regained himself.

"You're from Africa, right?"

I nod.

"All right then. That means we're brothers."

I am unwilling to agree.

"And because we're brothers and all, I'll teach you a lesson. Don't you know you shouldn't open your door to strangers?"

The question causes me to wince. The simple robbery had been, in a way, acceptable. I have seen robberies, have been robbed, on scales much smaller than this. Until I arrived in the United States, my most valuable possession was the mattress I slept on, and so the thefts were far smaller: a disposable camera, a pair of sandals, a ream of white typing paper. All of these were valuable, yes, but now I own a television, a VCR, a microwave, an alarm clock, many other conveniences, all provided by the Peachtree United Methodist Church here in Atlanta. Some of the things were used, most were new, and all had been given anonymously. To look at them, to use them daily, provoked in me a shudder-a strange but genuine physical expression of gratitude. And now I assume all of these gifts will be taken in the next few minutes. I stand before Powder and my memory is searching for the time when I last felt this betrayed, when I last felt in the presence of evil so careless.

With one hand still gripping the handle of the gun, he now puts his hand to my chest. "Why don't you sit your ass down and watch how it's done?"

I take two steps backward and sit on the couch, also a gift from the church. An apple-faced white woman wearing a tie-dyed shirt brought it the day Achor Achor and I moved in. She apologized that it hadn't preceded our arrival. The people from the church were often apologizing.

I stare up at Powder and I know who he brings to mind. The soldier, an Ethiopian and a woman, shot two of my companions and almost killed me. She had the same wild light in her eyes, and she first posed as our savior. We were fleeing Ethiopia, chased by hundreds of Ethiopian soldiers shooting at us, the River Gilo full of our blood, and out of the high grasses she appeared. Come to me, children! I am your mother! Come to me! She was only a face in the grey grass, her hands outstretched, and I hesitated. Two of the boys I was running with, boys I had found on the bank of the bloody river, they both went to her. And when they drew close enough, she lifted an automatic rifle and shot through the chests and stomachs of the boys. They fell in front of me and I turned and ran. Come back! she continued. Come to your mother!

I had run that day through the grasses until I found Achor Achor, and with Achor Achor, we found the Quiet Baby, and we saved the Quiet Baby and, for a time, we considered ourselves doctors. This was so many years ago. I was ten years old, perhaps eleven. It's impossible to know. The man before me, Powder, would never know anything of this kind. He would not be interested. Thinking of that day, when we were driven from Ethiopia back to Sudan, thousands dead in the river, gives me strength against this person in my apartment, and again I stand.

The man now looks at me, like a parent about to do something he regrets that his child has forced him to do. He is so close to me I can smell something chemical about him, a smell like bleach.

"Are you- Are you-?" His mouth tightens and he pauses. He takes the gun from his waist and raises it in an upward backhand motion. A blur of black and my teeth crush each other and I watch the ceiling rush over me.

In my life I have been struck in many different ways but never with the barrel of a gun. I have the fortune of having seen more suffering than I have suffered myself, but nevertheless, I have been starved, I have been beaten with sticks, with rods, with brooms and stones and spears. I have ridden five miles on a truckbed loaded with corpses. I have watched too many young boys die in the desert, some as if sitting down to sleep, some after days of madness. I have seen three boys taken by lions, eaten haphazardly. I watched them lifted from their feet, carried off in the animal's jaws and devoured in the high grass, close enough that I could hear the wet snapping sounds of the tearing of flesh. I have watched a close friend die next to me in an overturned truck, his eyes open to me, his life leaking from a hole I could not see. And yet at this moment, as I am strewn across the couch and my hand is wet with blood, I find myself missing all of Africa. I miss Sudan, I miss the howling grey desert of northwest Kenya. I miss the yellow nothing of Ethiopia.

My view of my assailant is now limited to his waist, his hands. He has stored the gun somewhere and now his hands have my shirt and my neck and he is throwing me from the couch to the carpet. The back of my head hits the end table on the way earthward and two glasses and a clock radio fall with me. Once on the carpet, my cheek resting in its own pooling blood, I know a moment of comfort, thinking that in all likelihood he is finished. Already I am so tired. I feel as if I could close my eyes and be done with this.

"Now shut the fuck up," he says.

These words sound unconvincing, and this gives me solace. He is not an angry man, I realize. He does not intend to kill me; perhaps he has been manipulated by this woman, who is now opening the drawers and closets of my bedroom. She seems to be in control. She is focused on whatever is in my room, and the job of her companion is to neutralize me. It seems simple, and he seems disinclined to inflict further harm upon me. So I rest. I close my eyes and rest.

I am tired of this country. I am thankful for it, yes, I have cherished many aspects of it for the three years I have been here, but I am tired of the promises. I came here, four thousand of us came here, contemplating and expecting quiet. Peace and college and safety. We expected a land without war and, I suppose, a land without misery. We were giddy and impatient. We wanted it all immediately-homes, families, college, the ability to send money home, advanced degrees, and finally some influence. But for most of us, the slowness of our transition-after five years I still do not have the necessary credits to apply to a four-year college-has wrought chaos. We waited ten years at Kakuma and I suppose we did not want to start over here. We wanted the next step, and quickly. But this has not happened, not in most cases, and in the interim, we have found ways to spend the time. I have held too many menial jobs, and currently work at the front desk of a health club, on the earliest possible shift, checking in members and explaining the club's benefits to prospective members. This is not glamorous, but it represents a level of stability unknown to some. Too many have fallen, too many feel they have failed. The pressures upon us, the promises we cannot keep with ourselves-these things are making monsters of too many of us. And the one person who I felt could help me transcend the disappointment and mundanity of it, an exemplary Sudanese woman named Tabitha Duany Aker, is gone.

Now they are in the kitchen. Now in Achor Achor's room. Lying here, I begin to calculate what they can take from me. I realize with some satisfaction that my computer is in my car, and will be spared. But Achor Achor's new laptop will be stolen. It will be my fault. Achor Achor is one of the leaders of the young refugees here in Atlanta and I fear all he needs will be gone when his computer is gone. The records of all the meetings, the finances, thousands of emails. I cannot allow so much to be stolen. Achor Achor has been with me since Ethiopia and I bring him nothing but bad luck.

In Ethiopia I stared into the eyes of a lion. I was perhaps ten years old, sent to the forest to retrieve wood, and the animal stepped slowly from behind a tree. I stood for a moment, such a long time, enough for me to memorize its dead-eyed face, before running. He roared after me but did not chase; I like to believe that he found me too formidable a foe. So I have faced this lion, have faced the guns, a dozen times, of armed Arab militiamen on horseback, their white robes gleaming in the sun. And thus I can do this, can stop this petty theft. Once again I raise myself to my knees.

"Get the fuck down, motherfucker!"

And my face meets the floor once more. Now the kicking begins. He kicks me in the stomach, and now the shoulder. It hurts most when my bones strike my bones.

"Fucking Nigerian motherfucker!"

Now he seems to be enjoying himself, and this causes me worry. When there is pleasure, there is often abandon, and mistakes are made. Seven kicks to the ribs, one to the hip, and he rests. I take a breath and assess my damage. It is not great. I curl myself around the corner of the couch and now am determined to stay still. I have never been a fighter, I finally admit to myself. I have survived many oppressions, but have never fought with a man standing in front of me.

"Fucking Nigerian! So stupid!"

He is heaving, his hands on his bent knees.

"No wonder you motherfuckers are in the Stone Age!"

He gives me one more kick, lighter than the others, but this one directly into my temple, and a burst of white light fills my left eye.

In America I have been called Nigerian before-it must be the most familiar of African countries-but I have never been kicked. Again, though, I have seen it happen. I suppose there is little in the way of violence that I have not seen in Sudan, in Kenya. I spent years in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, and there I watched two young boys, perhaps twelve years old, fighting so viciously over rations that one kicked the other to death. He had not intended to kill his foe, of course, but we were young and very weak. You cannot fight when you have not eaten properly for weeks. The dead boy's body was unprepared for any trauma, his skin taut over his brittle ribs that were no longer up to the task of encasing his heart. He was dead before he touched the ground. It was just before lunch, and after the boy was carried off, to be buried in the gravelly soil, we were served stewed beans and corn.

Now I plan to say nothing, to simply wait for Powder and his friend to leave. They cannot stay long; surely soon they will have taken all that they want. I can see the pile they are making on our kitchen table, the things they plan to leave with. The TV is there, Achor Achor's laptop, the VCR, the cordless phones, my cell phone, the microwave.

The sky is darkening, my guests have been in our apartment for twenty minutes or so, and Achor Achor won't be back for many hours, if at all. His job is similar to the one I once had-at a furniture showroom, in the back room, arranging for the shipping of samples to interior decorators. Even when not at work, he's seldom home. After many years without female companionship, Achor Achor has found a girlfriend, an African-American woman named Michelle. She is lovely. They met at the community college, in a class, quilting, which Achor Achor registered for by accident. He walked in, was seated next to Michelle, and he never left. She smells of citrus perfume, a flowery citrus, and I see Achor Achor less and less. There was a time when I harbored thoughts of Tabitha this way. I imagined us planning a wedding and creating a brood of children who would speak English as Americans do, but Tabitha lived in Seattle and those plans were still far away. Perhaps I am romanticizing it now. This happened at Kakuma, too; I lost someone very close to me and afterward I believed I could have saved him had I been a better friend to him. But everyone disappears, no matter who loves them.

Now the process of removing our belongings begins. Powder has made a cradle of his arms and his accomplice is stacking our possessions there-first the microwave, now the laptop, now the stereo. When the pile reaches his chin, the woman walks to the front door and opens it.

"Fuck!" she says, closing the door quickly.

She tells Powder that outside is a police car, parked in our lot. The car is, in fact, blocking their own car's exit.

"Fuck fuck fuck!" she spits.

This panic goes on for some time, and soon they take positions on either side of the curtained window that looks out on the courtyard. I gather from their conversation that the cop is talking to a Latino man, but that the officer's body language seems to indicate that the matter is not pressing. The woman and Powder express growing confidence and relief in the fact that the police officer is not there for them. But then why won't he leave? they want to know. "Why doesn't that motherfucker go do his job?" she asks.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from What Is The What by DAVE EGGERS Copyright © 2006 by Dave Eggers. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Introduction

“Told with humor, humanity, and bottomless compassion for his subject. . . . It is impossible to read this book and not be humbled, enlightened, transformed.”
—Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner

The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Dave Eggers’s brilliant new novel, What Is the What, which Francine Prose in The New York Times Book Review hailed as “an eloquent testimony to the power of storytelling” and “an extraordinary work of witness, and of art.”

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Foreword

1. In what ways can What Is the What be understood as a hero’s journey? What features does it share with classic works like Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid or more modern works like Richard Wright’s Black Boy and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road? What are the most significant features of Valentino’s journey? In what ways is Valentino’s story both unique and universal?

2. When he is in the United States, Valentino says that he wants everyone to hear his stories. “Written words are rare in small villages like mine, and it is my right and obligation to send my stories into the world, even if silently, even if utterly powerless” [p. 29]. Through Eggers, Valentino has found a way to send his stories into the world. Are they powerless to alter the suffering he and his fellow Sudanese have endured? What powers do they possess?

3. What are Valentino’s most appealing qualities—as a character in his own story and as a narrator of that story?

4. What is the significance of Valentino addressing his stories to people who aren’t listening—to Michael, TV Boy, to Julian, the intake person at the hospital, to members of his gym, etc.? Why would Eggers make this narrative choice?

5. Why is a personal story—Valentino’s story—of the violence and oppression in Sudan more valuable than any purely historical account could be? What emotions does Valentino’s story arouse that a more objective treatment could not?

6. What are Valentino’s most harrowing experiences? In what ways do they shape his character? What enables him to survive theseordeals and even excel in the refugee camps?

7. What is the “what” of the “What Is the What” story? Does the novel point to a solution to this riddle?

8. At the end of the novel, Valentino addresses the reader directly: “All the while I will know that you are there. How can I pretend that you do not exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist” [p. 535]. Why would Eggers and Valentino choose to end the novel in this way? In what ways have Westerners pretended that people like Valentino don’t exist? What is Valentino saying here about the power of the imagination and the power of storytelling?

9. In what ways does What Is the What illuminate the genocide that is still ongoing in Sudan?

10. Explore the irony of Valentino escaping from Africa and the terrible violence there to being beaten and robbed in Atlanta. Why does Valentino feel, after he has been victimized—and after his experience with the police and the hospital—that he doesn’t actually exist?

11. Why does Valentino describe America as “a miserable and glorious place”? [p. 351]. How are his struggles in the United States both different from and similar to his struggles in Africa?

12. Valentino says that “the civil war became, to the world at large, too confusing to decipher, a mess of tribal conflicts with no clear heroes and villains” [p. 349]. To what degree is it true that there were no clear heroes and villains, no clear victims and oppressors, in Sudan’s civil war as Valentino describes it? In what ways do SPLA forces behave just as brutally as the murahaleen and government forces they are fighting?

13. When the Lost Boys are chased from a village by the SPLA, Valentino realizes that “there were castes within the displaced. And we occupied the lowest rung on the ladder. We were utterly dispensable to all—to the government, to the murahaleen, to the rebels, to the better-situated refugees” [p. 225]. What essential problem does Valentino’s realization reveal? Is this desire for hierarchy intrinsic to human nature or is it always historically conditioned?

14. What Is the What is about war and displacement and the struggle to survive. In what ways is it also a novel about friendship, love, and family? What moments of compassion stand out in the novel? What are Valentino’s most positive relationships?

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Reading Group Guide

1. In what ways can What Is the What be understood as a hero’s journey? What features does it share with classic works like Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid or more modern works like Richard Wright’s Black Boy and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road? What are the most significant features of Valentino’s journey? In what ways is Valentino’s story both unique and universal?

2. When he is in the United States, Valentino says that he wants everyone to hear his stories. “Written words are rare in small villages like mine, and it is my right and obligation to send my stories into the world, even if silently, even if utterly powerless” [p. 29]. Through Eggers, Valentino has found a way to send his stories into the world. Are they powerless to alter the suffering he and his fellow Sudanese have endured? What powers do they possess?

3. What are Valentino’s most appealing qualities — as a character in his own story and as a narrator of that story?

4. What is the significance of Valentino addressing his stories to people who aren’t listening — to Michael, TV Boy, to Julian, the intake person at the hospital, to members of his gym, etc.? Why would Eggers make this narrative choice?

5. Why is a personal story — Valentino’s story — of the violence and oppression in Sudan more valuable than any purely historical account could be? What emotions does Valentino’s story arouse that a more objective treatment could not?

6. What are Valentino’s most harrowing experiences? In what ways do they shape his character? What enables him to survive these ordeals and even excel in the refugee camps?

7. What is the “what” of the “What Is the What” story? Does the novel point to a solution to this riddle?

8. At the end of the novel, Valentino addresses the reader directly: “All the while I will know that you are there. How can I pretend that you do not exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist” [p. 535]. Why would Eggers and Valentino choose to end the novel in this way? In what ways have Westerners pretended that people like Valentino don’t exist? What is Valentino saying here about the power of the imagination and the power of storytelling?

9. In what ways does What Is the What illuminate the genocide that is still ongoing in Sudan?

10. Explore the irony of Valentino escaping from Africa and the terrible violence there to being beaten and robbed in Atlanta. Why does Valentino feel, after he has been victimized — and after his experience with the police and the hospital — that he doesn’t actually exist?

11. Why does Valentino describe America as “a miserable and glorious place”? [p. 351]. How are his struggles in the United States both different from and similar to his struggles in Africa?

12. Valentino says that “the civil war became, to the world at large, too confusing to decipher, a mess of tribal conflicts with no clear heroes and villains” [p. 349]. To what degree is it true that there were no clear heroes and villains, no clear victims and oppressors, in Sudan’s civil war as Valentino describes it? In what ways do SPLA forces behave just as brutally as the murahaleen and government forces they are fighting?

13. When the Lost Boys are chased from a village by the SPLA, Valentino realizes that “there were castes within the displaced. And we occupied the lowest rung on the ladder. We were utterly dispensable to all — to the government, to the murahaleen, to the rebels, to the better-situated refugees” [p. 225]. What essential problem does Valentino’s realization reveal? Is this desire for hierarchy intrinsic to human nature or is it always historically conditioned?

14. What Is the What is about war and displacement and the struggle to survive. In what ways is it also a novel about friendship, love, and family? What moments of compassion stand out in the novel? What are Valentino’s most positive relationships?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 172 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 172 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 16, 2010

    Life-Changing Novel!

    What Is The What by Dave Eggers is the thrilling, remarkable memoir of Valentino Achak Deng who, along with other thousands of children, also known as the famous Lost Boys, faces the reality of growing up with no home to return to. When forced to leave his village in Sudan at the age of seven, Achak and the other Lost Boys encounter man-eating lions, countless days and nights without food, and the bombing blood-bath attacks from the Arab militia. Fleeing across three countries to reach the safety refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, Achak finally finds freedom when he is chosen to live in America. Little does he know that in the United States, he will face occurrences even more difficult than his life back in Sudan, encountering a robbery in his Atlanta apartment, being held captive and beaten. I absolutely enjoyed this extraordinary novel, which brought tears to my eyes, along with countless smiles and laughter. It kept me on my toes with it's suspense in action and drama. This book will take you you to life in this third-world country, and what it feels like to watch numerous innocent villages burned to the ground.

    6 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 8, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    This book is so amazing that it would even make book club bearable

    Living in Salt Lake City, one of the cities chosen by the U.N. for relocation of the displaced Sudanese refugees, I've had the chance to forge friendships with some of the so-called "Lost Boys" of Sudan. Almost without exception they're hardworking, intelligent, kind, and fun-loving guys. In fact, most of them know Achak Deng (the man the book is based on) and lived much of what he lived. The story of Achak Deng in and of itself is captivating and moving but Eggers deftly crafted the story and the dialogue to vividly bring him to life. This is one of my favorite books and has become a favorite to most of those I've referred it to. I highly recommend it to all!

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 9, 2010

    Heartening

    Working in Africa for years, I am exposed to many heartening stories. Yet this one is done so smoothly and thoroughly to allow us to feel connected and learn more about the realities of refugee existence, war, transitioning to a new country like America, and then ultimately giving back to the Sudanese village that truly has needs.

    I appreciate the story told to the various persons Achak meets in his daily encounters in life in America. As so many immigrants and refugees do, especially a dark tall Sudanese man, they get asked so many questions about their lives. It was easy to picture him at the health centre chatting about his incredible history in the most simple of terms to a woman on her way to her seemingly meaningless challenges in comparison - to lose weight, get one more mile in, lift an extra five pounds, etc. She could never understand in a two-minute chat, unless she reads the book!

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 19, 2007

    What is 'What is the What?'

    'What is the What?', David Egger's latest memoir/novel, trancends both genres-- creating something new. It's not exactly a novel, becuase it isn't fiction-- the Sudan is a real place, and 'the What' really happened there to a boy there named Valentino Achak Deng. But it isn't a memoir either because Deng didn't write it, and the author admits to creating composite characters and generally smoothing the narrative. To appreciate the tragedy of this story, it must be a memoir. I recently read 'Beasts of No Nation' and one of my problems with that story is that while it depicted a similar real tragedy: there was no real individual behind the story. The memorative quality of 'the What' makes the story more believable and the tragedy greater. But make no mistake: 'What is the What' has all appeal of a novel, and a great one. Merely writing down facts as they happened, even tragic facts like the ones here, could not build a story with the weight and power that the What has. Eggers has shown this skill of blending truth into a novel before, in 'A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius', and his skills have, if anything, grown since that book. This book is better than AHWOSG on many levels. Time and practice seem to have smoothed and reinfoced Eggers' prose: the writing here is not as clever but it is wiser. Also, there are symbolic levels in 'The What' not present in AHWOSG. (IE Does a Bicycle= the what? &/ the presence of Moses, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob). They say that truth is better then fiction, and also that winners write the history books. To these proverbs I would add one more: Sincerity is better than Truth. It is the blank sincerity of Eggers' writing that makes Valentino Achak Deng's story come alive-- no matter which parts were exagerated or smoothed. Deng's story is certainly a history of loss and losing, and so the old adage would say that he should be left out of the history books. But Eggers's sincere writing gives Deng the pen and the pages of a novel so good it may valued as history.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 11, 2009

    Eye opener

    We all know there is suffering, injustice and poverty around the world. Nevertheless, we are all so involved in our own worlds, our routines, etc., that we seem to forget.
    By reading this book, you "remember" and make up your mind to stay away from the indiference and the voluntary blindness you have lived in before.
    This is a book based on a true story. All the characters presented also become very real to us. The author's writing style is very direct and all the above mentioned elements keep us turning the pages without stop until the book is finished and then we just sit down and reflect about it.
    I highly recommed it to anyone interested in what is going on with our world.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 11, 2009

    With Gratitude...

    What a powerful, inspiring, and very moving story of one boy's journey of unimaginable tribulations. Thank you Mr. Achak Deng for sharing your story with the world. Thank you for surviving and making a positive difference!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 9, 2009

    What Is the What is a compelling, informative and touching read.

    I was drawn into the story from the beginning. I learned a lot about the situation in the Sudan and with the refugees. But I did not find it overwhelming (in a negative way). I believe the author keeps it balanced so as not to draw you down too far.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 8, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Get a real feel for what is happening in Darfur, Sudan.

    The horror of what continues to happen in Sudan is brought to real life in this book. The killings in Darfur, the escape as refugees to Ethiopia and Kenya, their lives in the camps and the opportunity for a few to create new lives in the U.S. are written for you to experience what they went through. This is a disturbing read in the story it tells but it is well written as it alternates between the past and present life of the main character. I recommend it to anyone interested in world events, however, you will wonder if this is a repeat of the holocaust and why aren't we doing more to stop the genocide and violence?

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 19, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Every Person Needs to Read this Book!

    Just the fact that this book is a personal account of one of the "Lost Boys" of Sudan makes it an eye opening experience. This is a book that everyone should read. It will educate you on the events going on in the Sudan and it will break your heart to read of the travesties that have occured. Reading this story will give you an empathy for people you never knew you had and it will change your life for the better. This story is sad, happy, humorous, and devastating. Read this book today! You won't regret it.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 16, 2009

    What is the ending?

    This book gives the reader insight into the lives of the Lost Boys. It is told in first person by one of the Lost Boys. And, although it holds your interest easily for the first half or so of the book, it begins to bog down. And, while I'm sure that's exactly how the Lost Boys felt about their journey as well, as a reader I lose interest.

    Plodding on at that point, I begin to wonder how this book will end. My suspicion was right.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 20, 2009

    Eggers Delivers

    I bought this book because I loved Eggers's memoir and wanted to read more of his work. I wasn't disappointed. He is a master storyteller, bringing to light the atrocious reality of Sudanese refugees with poise and in a unique, believable voice.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 15, 2008

    A reviewer

    I am in my mid-fifties and an avid reader. I read all matter of subjects in both fiction and non-fiction. When I read to the last sentace of this book I felt privileged to have the oportunity to have read this story. I am deeply effected by the humanity and courage told. I will never again have anything but admiration for the southern Sudan people, or any other immagrant fleeing a war torn country. You wont hear me whinning again.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 12, 2008

    What is the What

    I did a five page book review on this book for school and I really enjoyed this book. Although I do read a lot of books along the same subject line, this was among the best. I would definently recommend it to people who want to learn more about the Lost Boys of Sudan. However there are a lot of downfalls of the book also. So I would say read the book anyways. It was totally worth it to me.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 2, 2008

    Incredibly Moving Story of Survival

    The best book I have read this year! This incredible story of how a Sudanese 'lost boy' survived will make you think about the meaning of life. It will also give you insight into the conditions of refugees in Sudan and other African nations, as well as immigrants to this country. It is a story that is at times harrowing, touching and funny. Not to be missed!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 20, 2008

    What is a great novel

    Mr Eggars is a brillant writer. (I also loved 'A Heartbreaking Work'.) Although it is a 'sad' story that he tells, this is not at all a depressing read. I was entertained, highlighted so many parts of this beautifully written novel, and enlightened. Before the US goes into other countries, stories like this should be required reading, for at least the 'diplomats'.LOL

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 20, 2008

    You will never forget this book-an incredible read.

    When I bought this book I was familiar with the author having read one of his other books. So, I knew the writing would be good. Well, this book blew me away with not only the writing, but with the incredible story behind the writing. The story of a real survivor, one of 'the lost boys' of the Sudan civil war, this book is one you will continue to think about and digest for a while. I finished the book two weeks ago and still can't stop dwelling on it. As the reader, you will learn a great deal about African politics, unimaginable suffering, friendship, the common bonds of humanity no matter where in the world you live, and yet the book is gripping and compelling and uplifting to read because of the unusual and creative way in which events are told. The book reads like one of the best fiction novels you've ever read, but yet is based on real people and events. It was difficult for the author and his collaborator to present some of the events as fact, as they were seen and remembered by a young child, and no verification was possible, thus resulting in the label 'fiction.' This does not detract from the book in the least, and you cannot help but be moved by this book. Lest you worry that the book is too depressing or moralistic or political-don't!!! The incredible spirit of the boy and man behind this story is uplifting, and you will thank yourself for having read it. Do yourself a favor and get your hands on this book!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 17, 2007

    A reviewer

    I bought this book at an airport in Amsterdam thinking it might be good. I almost finished the whole book on one flight across the Atlantic. It's very hard to connect to the author, a Sudanese man living in America. His story is told frankly and in a semi-humorous way like he's used to talking about seeing children blown up to bits. Horrifying. When finished with the book, I felt more inclined to do something about Human Rights. I hope you will to.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 20, 2007

    The Definitive Book on the Lost Boys

    Eggers takes an already incredible story and makes it even better than it already is. This book is a great read that evokes incredible emotions. The trials and tribulations that the Lost Boys faced in Sudan are beautifully illustrated through Eggers amazing grasp of the English language and its usage. All in all, one of the most powerful books I have ever had the pleasure to read.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 26, 2007

    What an outstanding book!

    Many people asked me why I was reading such a 'depressing' book. I did not, however, find this book depressing. The resilience of the human spirit never cease to amaze me. How Valentino found his spirit and humanity through all of the tragedy that befell him is awe-inspiring. I can never complain about anything as painful as his experiences. Is that not what books should do for us--show us that there is very little that we cannot overcome? What a lesson he teaches in this book. Thank you Valentino and Dave Eggers.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 4, 2009

    Amazing

    This book is a must read! Especially with what's going on currently in Sudan--a warrant out for the arrest of their president for war crimes! This book looks at the situation in Sudan from a young boy's perspective and his coming of age as he struggles to survive in his own country, refugee camps and then in the US, where he is presumably safe. Great book...hard to put down!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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