The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng. Fictionalized biography—or autobiography or memoir brings up the question of whether any memoir or autobiography is strictly nonfiction. Our memories, as other books I’ve read lately have pointed out, are notoriously unreliable. Any attempt at memoir is liable to be “filled in” with a little fiction. Author Dave Eggers and the subject of this book, Valentino Achak Deng, chose to call What Is the What a work of fiction, since Mr. Deng could not vouch for the exact accuracy of all of his memories of specific conversations and incidents, some of which happened when he was quite young. However, Mr. Deng says that the major events in the story are true and historically accurate.
That said, I learned quite a lot about the civil war in Sudan and the “Lost Boys” from reading this book. Valentino is a real person, and he asked Mr. Eggers to help him tell his story.
What Is the What is the soulful account of my life: from the time I was separated from my family in Marial Bai to the thirteen years I spent in Ethiopian and Kenyan refugee camps, to my encounter with vibrant Western cultures beginning in Atlanta, to the generosity and the challenges that I encountered elsewhere.
As you read this book, you will learn about me and my beloved people of Sudan. I was just a young boy when the twenty-two-year civil war began that pitted Sudan’s government against the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army. As a helpless human, I survived by trekking across many punishing landscapes while being bombed by Sudanese air forces, while dodging land mines, while being preyed upon by wild beasts and human killers. I fed on unknown fruits, vegetables, leaves and sometimes went with nothing for days. At many points, the difficulty was unbearable. I thought the whole world had turned blind eyes on the fate that was befalling me and the people of southern Sudan. Many of my friends, and thousands of my fellow countrymen, did not make it. May God give them eternal peace.
“Whatever I do, however I find a way to live, I will tell these stories. … I speak to you because I cannot help it. It gives me strength, almost unbelievable strength, to know that you are there. … I am alive and you are alive so we must fill the air with our words. I will fill today, tomorrow, every day until I am taken back to God. I will tell stories to people who will listen and to people who don’t want to listen, to people who seek me out and to those who run. 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.”
The story of Valentino Achak Deng’s adventures and misadventures in Sudan, Kenya, and the U.S.A. is “soulful” and insistent and absorbing. Mr. Deng speaks in the book quite honestly about the temptation to embellish and exaggerate the already harrowing experiences he and the other “Lost Boys” went through for the sake of a Western audience, about the jealousies and immature behaviors that some of the Lost Boys exhibit, and the difficulties that they have in making a new life for themselves in the United States. The book is as much about survival and what it takes to endure such trauma as it is about Valentino Achak Deng’s specific experience. As such, it is valuable reading for anyone who is suffering, or who expects to suffer, injustice, categories that include all of us.