“They will feel the guilt in knowing that they could have done something sooner had they only been listening.”
What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng by Dave Eggers.
The Lost Boys of Sudan (2003). Unrated. Out on DVD. Directed by Megan Mylan & Jon Shenk. With Santino Majok Chuor & Peter Kon Dut.
Like many others in the country, I have been aware of the human rights atrocities and virtual genocide currently taking place in the Darfur region of northwest Sudan — but before Darfur, there was the unrelated Second Sudanese Civil War, which began in 1983 and consisted of many of the same abhorrent acts perpetuated by the same government. Millions of southern Sudanese were killed or died of disease or starvation and many millions more were displaced, becoming refugees in Ethopia and then Kenya. Before reading Dave Eggers’ novel, What is the What, that conflict was only a faint glimmer in the back of my mind, in that I think at one point I had a vague understanding that it had happened. I am sure that is the case for most of this country, as well, and least for people in my generation.
What is the What is a fictionalized version of Valentino Achak Deng’s autobiography, written by Eggers from Deng’s perspective. They have explained that the reason for the choice to make it a work of fiction was in order to recreate dialogue, fill in gaps in Deng’s memory and make it more vivid and readable than a non-fiction work would have. It makes sense, given that a large bulk of the action takes place when Deng was a 6 or 7 year old boy, and to classify a work as non-fiction would have robbed the book of much of its detail, however exaggerated it may be. Most of the book is a blend of fiction and non-fiction, and while I did spend a lot of time wondering which was which, the product of this unique style is a powerful, poignant, tragic piece of literature.
Eggers does a phenomenal job of telling the story in Valentino’s voice, or at least in a voice far different than any of his previous work. If you didn’t know it was a Dave Eggers book, there is almost no way you would have figured it out from reading it — there are only a couple of places in the novel where there are glimpses of his unique voice. Some critics have had an issue with Eggers’ choice to write from Valentino’s perspective, but I had no problem with it at all. Valentino’s voice is unique in its own right and throughout you get the feeling that he is telling you the story as if you were sitting across from him.
And what a story it is — Deng had to flee his village of Marial Bai as a 6 year old when war broke out and found himself without any of his family members or friends. He walked barefoot all the way across Sudan to Ethiopia, attaching himself to a large group of boys, witnessing unfathomable horrors and surviving under grueling conditions. After again being forced to flee from there, he ends up at Kakuma, a refugee camp in Kenya, where he spends most of his formative years before finally being resettled in the U.S. Eggers presents Deng’s story as remembrances and flashbacks during the course of one particularly hard day in the U.S., and the structure works effectively to compare and contrast Deng’s past life with his current one in America.
What is the What is a remarkable story, certainly one of the best books I’ve read in a while and absolutely worth checking out, any way you can. Eggers and Deng have found a way to bring the story of the Lost Boys to light and this, moreso than his debut novel, is Eggers’ heartbreaking story of staggering genius.
While What is the What touches on the difficulties Valentino faces once he makes it to America — difficulties many immigrants face — this is the subject of the 2003 documentary Lost Boys of Sudan. I saw the film after finishing What is the What and it shows another side of the story of the Lost Boys. The film condenses most of the background story of the Lost Boys in the first few minutes, leaving the rest of the fairly short (87 minutes) running time to the experiences of its two subjects, Peter Kon Dut & Santino Majok Chuor in their first couple of years in America.
We begin in Kakuma where a group of boys is excitedly preparing for their resettlement in America, with Peter and Santino ticketed for Houston, and you’ve never seen anyone so excited to go to Houston. That wears off as the realities of the situation set in — they’re living 6 to an apartment in a tough area, left practically to fend for themselves, working minimum wage jobs and not having the opportunity to go to school. While they clearly have a higher standard of living here, it comes with a new set of challenges — for example, their family and friends back in Kakuma expect money to be sent home.
Peter is a very bright kid who realizes that in order to succeed he needs to worry about himself, while the sweeter, more naive Santino is constantly being taken advantage of by friends and family. It is a fairly sparse film, and because it is so engaging, and because the two subjects are interesting, you’re left wanting more, and unfortunately there isn’t much information online to fill in the last five years of their lives. The film is still worth seeing on its own as a thumbnail sketch of the story, but it works best as a complement to What is the What.
The story of the Lost Boys is truly one that needs to be heard — for while it is the story of the Southern Sudanese refugees, it could just as easily be the story of any children of war. Especially important with our own country at war is the underlying message — that the differences our leaders hold as justifications to take us to war are minute when compared to the similarities all people share. When these events repeat themselves, as they have and will around the world, we may still turn away and shield our eyes and try to ignore them, but What is the What and Lost Boys of Sudan show us exactly what we’ll be turning from.
What is the What – Grade: A
Lost Boys of Sudan – Grade: B