What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng (part I of II)

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I recently read two remarkable books, and I’d like to talk about them both, in separate posts.  The first is What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, the story of one of Sudan’s Lost Boys as told by Dave Eggers.  The second is The Devil’s Highway, by Luis Alberto Urrea.  Both these books became bestsellers, and have been reviewed and discussed extensively elsewhere.  I write about them now because I only read them a little while ago. 

Each of these books revived for me an experience I used to have commonly as a child, but much less frequently in adulthood.  I would pick up a book and not be able to focus on anything else until I had finished it.  I would read on the bus to school, under my desk [clarifying: the book, not me] during class, and often during lunch break.  Late at night I would sneak to my bedroom doorway to read by the light in the hall, which was ostensibly left on to comfort my siblings and I from nighttime terrors.  On Saturdays, I would shut myself in the bathroom for hours to read and avoid my chores.  On Sundays, I resented the three hours that church took away from my books.  As an adult, I read primarily nonfiction, and much more slowly given the multiplying demands on my time, and I thought maybe I had lost that childhood compulsion completely.  But with each of these books, the hunger to continue the story continued until I had read both of them in the same week.  This I find a little strange, considering that either one could be the most depressing book I have ever read. 

Here is the story of the Lost Boys of Sudan in a nutshell, from my previous discussion of the documentary God Grew Tired of Us:

Young black Sudanese boys were targeted for slaughter in Sudan’s civil war in 1987, causing some 27,000 of them to flee across the desert. Young boys suddenly became caretakers for even younger boys. Thousands died of disease or starvation. Roughly 12,000 eventually made their way to Kenya were they lived without family, unable to return to their wartorn homes, with barely enough food to survive on and no material possessions to speak of. Some two million people died in the war.

About 4,000 Lost Boys (and a few Lost Girls) were resettled in communities throughout the U.S. during 2000-2001.  The 9/11 attacks put an end to resettlement in the U.S.  I didn’t know it at the time, but I saw two men who I assume were Lost Boys at a rally to raise awareness of the slaughter in Darfur in New York’s Central Park in the fall of 2006.  They were quite striking among the thousands of American kids at the rally.  Here is the picture I took: 

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Southern Sudanese in Central Park


The poster says "Southern Sudanese in Solidarity with Darfur." 

The cover of What is the What says that it is a novel, which strictly speaking, it is.  But Valentino Achak Deng is a real person who went through almost unimaginable travails.  From Gary Krist’s Washington Post review of the book, excerpted on Amazon

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.

Deng, in the preface to the paperback version, explains:

[I]t should be noted that all of the major events in the book are true.  The book is historically accurate, and the world I have known is not different from the one depicted within these pages.

In an essay published after the book, Eggers describes the background of the story

Sudan had been in a state of civil war off and on since its independence from Britain in 1956; the conflict that swallowed southern Sudan began in 1983, when the Sudan People's Liberation Army, aiming to represent the needs of southern Sudan, rose up against the northern, Arab-dominated government in Khartoum. The SPLA and its leader John Garang demanded a greater share of the country's resources, better infrastructure and more autonomy for the south, among other things. In response, the government of Sudan instituted the "to catch a fish, drain the pond" method of warfare. The government armed and unleashed tribal militias upon hundreds of villages in the south. The militias - then known as the murahaleen but not dissimilar from the Janjaweed now at work in Darfur - were urged to depopulate the south, to wreak havoc and terror, and they were paid both directly and in booty. Whatever the militias could carry off from the villages was theirs to keep. They swooped into villages by the hundreds, killing men, raping women, burning homes and crops, and abducting girls and boys to be bought and traded as servants and sex slaves in the north. The Sudanese government also bombed southern villages with Russian-made Antonov planes and obstructed the delivery of aid and food to the region, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths. The level of mayhem at this stage of the war defies description.

Krist summarizes Deng’s experiences in the early stages of the conflict in Sudan:

Valentino is just 7 years old when his Dinka village of Marial Bai is raided by a gang of government-supported Arab militiamen. He is able to elude the marauding horsemen, but he can only watch as his village is burned and his people are murdered, immolated or kidnapped. Unsure whether his parents are alive or dead, he joins a group of similarly bereft children -- some of Sudan's so-called Lost Boys -- and sets out on a cross-country trek to what he hopes is sanctuary in Ethiopia.

But the march itself proves to be an ordeal as horrific as the one he has just escaped. Disease, hunger, lion attacks and the depredations of rebels, raiders and unfriendly locals take a high toll on the marchers. "It is very easy for a boy to die in Sudan," Valentino observes at one point, with awful understatement. At times, Valentino believes that all he need do is stop and close his eyes for death to come.

Deng stays for a time in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, but it turns out to be unsafe, so the boys flee for their lives and walk to a refugee camp in Kenya.  There they lived for more than ten years before a lucky few were invited to come to the U.S. as refugees. 

The resettlement of the Lost Boys had ambiguous results, but was on balance, a positive development (more on this in my next post).  But the 4,000 or so Lost Boys and Girls who came to the U.S. represent only a small fraction of refugees from the region.  There are hundreds of thousands of refugees living in camps around Africa.  Some of the refugees have lived there for years, even decades, unable to return home to Liberia, Southern Sudan, Darfur, or Uganda. 

Now new conflicts are creating new refugees in Kenya and Somalia.  As much as the U.S. should be lauded for its role in helping stabilize the conflict in Southern Sudan a few years ago, we have not played such a positive role in Kenya and Somalia.

One thing that becomes clear in the course of reading the book is that Sudanese are like people everywhere.  Sudan is not populated by uncivilized people who simply can’t live together in peace.  It is not a lost cause unworthy of attention from the West.  It is, however, a place where unscrupulous leaders like Omar El-Bashir, Sudan’s president, have promoted communal tensions and exploited them for their personal enrichment.  It is a place where the racism and intolerance present in most societies can find full expression in violent conflict, unhampered by legitimate government or rule of law.  It is a place where Western powers bargained with each other for lands that weren’t theirs and drew arbitrary borders that fragmented existing societies and power structures, sowing the seeds of conflict more than a hundred years later.  It is a place where powerful countries like the U.S. and China strive for natural resources and strategic advantage at the expense of local people. 

The idea of resettling 4,000 Lost Boys was a generous one, and many generous Americans welcomed them into their lives and worked to help them succeed here and progress toward the goal of most of them to eventually return home.  What is the What tells about some wonderful, openhearted people. 

But 4,000 is a drop in the bucket of the millions killed, wounded, displaced, or suffering in Africa partly because of the fearful, blinkered policies of the U.S. and other powerful countries.  Addressing the results of the conflicts in central and eastern Africa is better than ignoring them; better still would be to address the root causes of the conflicts and stop inflaming them on behalf of our own chimeric security objectives. 

I first assumed that Eggers had heard of the story of the Lost Boys and then sought out a collaborator among the Sudanese community in the U.S.  But rereading the preface to the book, I found that it was Deng who had the idea for the book and reached out, through an intermediary, to Eggers.  Deng then began a foundation to channel all profits from the book to assist in rebuilding Sudan.   

Early on, Valentino and Dave decided that any and all proceeds from the book would be controlled by Valentino and used to help the Sudanese community. Valentino knew immediately that he would send most of the funds home to his village of Marial Bai. When he returned there with Dave during the writing of the book, he was overwhelmed by the difficulties facing his people. Southern Sudan was (and still is) recovering from war, and the extreme damage to infrastructure has left most of the region in poverty.

Valentino decided that he would use the funds from What Is the What to provide better educational opportunities for the Sudanese both in southern Sudan and in the United States. To help achieve his goals, Valentino established the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation in the fall of 2006. Its creation coincided with the publication of What Is the What. All proceeds from the book are donated—and will continue to be donated, as it’s published in paperback and overseas—directly to Valentino’s cause.

Deng and Eggers have produced a remarkable work, one that combines the artistry of great literature and the moral power of true-life narrative.  It provides an amazing window into the struggles and triumphs of migrants, and it provides a relatable, individualized story of the conflict in Sudan. 

I’ll have more in my next post about the Lost Boys’ experiences in America.

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I’ll continue now with the second part of my review of What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, by Dave Eggers.  The first part was here, in case you missed it.  The book illuminates a rather... Read More


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This page contains a single entry by David Bennion published on February 23, 2008 11:40 AM.

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