Gen X’s most gifted author gives voice to a former Sudanese refugee
For those of us in the Gen X rearguard, few books articulate our unique recipe of existential angst as well as Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Even so, I cringed when I learned that the master of meta-self-awareness planned to assume the voice of a Sudanese refugee for his next marginally fictionalized memoir.
Having made four trips to Africa, I could hardly imagine meeting anyone on the continent’s darker reaches who wouldn’t frown on the cynical navel-gazing of A Heartbreaking Work. In nakedly exposing his own need for attention and moral superiority, Eggers exuded a spoiled slacker condescension that somehow managed, despite all, to be endearing. It mocked its own flaws. But, who has time for narcissism in a work where boys are being abducted into slavery by Arab raiders, recruited by rebel forces, beaten by unsympathetic villagers or eaten by lions?
Fortunately, not Eggers.
With the success of A Heart-breaking Work and his quarterly journal McSweeney’s, Eggers no longer needs to prove his staggering genius; and in the lives of the Lost Boys portrayed in this work, there’s no shortage of heartbreak. The author is free to simply tell a story. And it’s a hell of a story—in every possible sense of the word.
What Is The What begins in Atlanta. Protagonist Valentino Achak Deng has been robbed in his modest apartment. There, bound and helpless, he realizes he wants to be back in Kakuma, Kenya, where “there was no rain, the winds blew nine months a year, and eighty-thousand war refugees from Sudan and elsewhere lived on one meal a day.” In his mind, he tells his story to his captors, as he’s silently told it to all those he’s encountered since coming to the States.
This former Sudanese Lost Boy reflects on his own heartbreaking story five years after its anticipated happy ending—a flight from a refugee camp in Kenya to the U.S. and its unlimited opportunities. But life in America can be difficult, too. And underneath Valentino’s shy, polite demeanor is a man struggling to accept that God has assigned him a Job-like lot in life.
Valentino’s impoverished—but in many ways idyllic—childhood came to a blunt end, he relates, when his village was attacked by the Murahaleen, Islamic slave traders on horseback. He joins other boys on a march first to a refugee camp in Ethiopia and finally to Kakuma, where he spends the next 13 years. It’s a harrowing, epic tale of flight from evil, of coming of age in a refugee camp and of tragic romance here in America. The atrocities are at times overwhelming; sometimes Valentino’s companions give up, and sometimes they’re taken—by soldiers, by wild animals, by starvation and disease.
Treachery is everywhere—in stories of the Khartoum government luring 68 Nubian chiefs to a conference, only to summarily execute the lot; of Lost Boys being lured by women soldiers with promise of protection, only to be chillingly gunned down; of SPLA rebels inspiring boys to join the army, where they beat one to death during training.
Where Eggers used A Heartbreaking Work as a vehicle for his philosophical musings and wit, What Is the What matter-of-factly recounts events without saccharine sentiment or flowery prose. (Eggers even avoids much embellishment, according to the real-life Valentino, who introduces the story: “We live in a time when even the most horrific events in this book could occur,” he acknowledges, “and in most cases did occur.”)
Evil so widespread and casual is difficult to grasp. It makes the book read as much like Tolkien as non-fiction, but, amazingly, through one refugee’s voice, we also see hope. We see generosity in the camps, the generosity of those helping the Lost Boys in the U.S., the generosity of Sudanese immigrants working in meat plants so they can send funds back to Sudan. And though it doesn’t make the book one whit better, it’s worth noting that all proceeds from this novel’s sale will go to causes benefiting the Sudanese people.
On my first trip to Africa, I visited the home of a family in rural Kenya that had just lost a child. The grief of the wailing mother was overwhelming. As we left the house, the father grabbed me by the arm and said, “This is a very normal thing. Death is normal here. I don’t want you to worry about it.”
Since then, AIDS has swept through the region, decimating villages like the one I was in. The massacres in southern Sudan have been followed with genocide in Darfur and drought and starvation elsewhere. These things are routinely shuffled onto page 10 of the newspaper in some kind of “world roundup.”
The crisis fatigue that weighs down our outrage only heightens the importance of the voice of a lone Sudanese man, heard through the clear, unadorned prose of What Is the What. “I am alive and you are alive so we must fill the air with our words.”