Thursday, January 25, 2007

What is the What

I finally finished What is the What, a new novel by Dave Eggers. Lately I've been reading really slowly and not frequently - it took me about a month to read this book! It's a painful book to read, because of the (beyond) sad events of the story, and it's an important book. People are saying, and I agree, that it's one of the most important books of our time, and that Eggers is certainly one of the best writers of his (our) generation.

The story is about one of the Sudanese Lost Boys, young men who were misplaced due to conflicts in Sudan, who walked hundreds of miles to seek refuge after losing their families and villages to war. It is told in the voice of Valentino Achak Deng, who, despite growing up in these horrors, has a sensitive and kind heart, who's hopefulness and thoughtfulness provide insight into the capacities of the average human being.

What is the What is the result of a collaboration between Eggers and Deng - they met after Deng, along with other refugees were granted a kind of asylum in the United States, and were introduced through Mary Williams (daughter of Jane Fonda), a founder of the Lost Boys Foundation in Atlanta. In Deng's preface, he writes, "I told my story orally to the author. He then concocted this novel, approximating my own voice and using the basic events of my life as the foundation... though it is fictionalized, it should be noted that the world I have known is not so different from the one depicted within these pages."

When I was given the book, I started flipping through the pages, looking for the footnotes and endnotes of Egger's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which I loved. This book has less of the post-modern "trappings" of his other work, but the narrative is ingeniously split between present-day events (Achak being robbed and beaten in his Atlanta apartment) while he addresses, consecutively, his attackers, his Christian neighbors, who don't hear him call for help, the receptionist at the hospital, and so on. This telling of events, of specifically addressing his audience and seeking to share his experiences, is what makes What is the What both so incredibly moving and inclusive, but also elevates the novel to a status that myself and others call it "one of the most important books of our time." Why? Because it recreates events happening a world away (happening today) from something I barely understood to something personal, something the reader will not be able to mentally separate themselves from after reading. (McSweeney's helpfully provides a list of manageable TEN THINGS YOU CAN DO FOR SUDAN).

I've got so much respect for Dave Eggers (and Deng). After publishing A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, he started McSweeney's and 826 Valencia - a non-profit center to promote writing and provide tutoring for children age 6-18 (and publish their work!) which now has chapters in 6 cities AND the profits of What is the What are going to the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation, to help aid in the rebuilding of Marial Bai, Achak's village.

I hope you'll be able to read this book too, it's an amazing experience.

1 comment:

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