reginadelmar’s #CBR5 review # 45 What is the What by Dave Eggers

Listening to the news about South Sudan, I can’t help but think of the author of this book and what may be happening to him today.  What is the What was written about 7 years ago.  It is the biography of Valentino Achak Deng, a “lost boy” of Sudan.  It is characterized as a novel because Deng cannot remember all of the details and all of the conversations going back to when he was 7 years old.

The book is told in the first person and begins in Deng’s Atlanta apartment that he shares with another Sudanese. A man and a woman con him into opening the door, beat him, tie him up and rob him.  As he lies there, he begins to tell of his childhood in Marial Bai. He has experienced things much worse than robbery, yet the fact that this is happening in the country in which he sought asylum and safety is jarring.

The British and Egyptians drew Sudan’s borders in the 1950s combining the predominantly Muslim North with the predominantly Christian South. The North and South fought in the 70s.  A peace treaty was signed in 1972, which resulted in an uneasy peaceful period and then things really fell apart in the 80s.  When Deng is 7 years old, the murahaleen from the North overrun his village killing men, women and children.  Deng runs into the forest to escape. He wanders into groups of adults not knowing whom to trust.  Eventually he hooks up with a former teacher who tells the small group of boys that the will walk to Ethiopia for safety.  The group swells to hundreds of boys as they walk from the west to the east.  Along the way they must avoid the SPLA, the army that takes boys and forces them to be soldiers.  They also must avoid the murahaleen and wild animals.

The boys make it to Ethiopia and are in the Pinyudo refugee camp for about a year.

When the Ethiopian government changes, the refugees are forced back into Sudan. Deng is forced to flee again, this time to Kenya.  He spends nearly a decade in the refugee camp at Kakuma before being granted asylum in the US. Throughout this time he doesn’t know the fate of his family and cannot return home.

Throughout the book, Deng also tells the story of what happens to him in the apartment in Atlanta and to other refugees who have made it to the states. They are scattered around the country, some are helped by Americans, but it is clearly difficult to be dropped into the US culture and economy. Deng aspires to obtain a university degree. He has little money, dead end jobs and loses loved ones in the US as well.

Given all he has been through, it is amazing how optimistic Deng remains. The book is moving and beautiful, well worth a read

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