“What is the What,” the latest book from Dave Eggers, declares itself as simultaneously a novel and an autobiography, and curiously, it manages to work on both levels. All the literary derring-do Eggers has shown in his previous efforts — the 2000 Pulitzer-nominated “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” plus a more recent novel and collection of stories — is put to more potent use in the new book, in which Eggers adopts the voice of an actual Sudanese refugee named Valentino Achak Deng.
The words belong to Eggers, but the story is Deng’s. The two men met in January, 2003, introduced by a woman who founded the Atlanta-based Lost Boys Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to aiding in the U.S. resettlement of the “Lost Boys of Sudan,” a group of some 17,000 largely unaccompanied children who made a harrowing, roughly 1,000-mile exodus from Southern Sudan in 1987 during an upsurge in fighting in the country’s long-standing civil war.
In a situation strikingly similar to what’s unfolded more recently in Darfur, villages in Southern Sudan were brutally marauded by militiamen, destroying crops, burning homes, and shattering families. The Lost Boys sought shelter first in Ethiopia and later at Kenya’s sprawling Kakuma refugee camp. Along the way, many hundreds fell prey to disease, dehydration, and attacks by lions, militiamen, and bombs dropped by government troops. In 2000 and 2001, more than 10 years after their initial displacement, about 4,000 of the Lost Boys were resettled in cities across the U.S., including Atlanta, where Valentino Achak Deng, who is now 25, landed just weeks after 9/11.
“What is the What” offers a 478-page account of Deng’s journey that is unsparing in the misery it depicts, but also richly embroidered with sharp detail and fully drawn characters. Eggers reimagined scenes from Deng’s life, adding details, reconstructing dialogue, and in several instances creating composite characters. The resulting collaboration between writer and survivor yields a finely nuanced portrait of life inside an African genocide. There is a wrenching love story, an invigorating dose of humor, and plenty of painfully intimate renderings of what war does to a human soul. Deng and Eggers debunk a number of legends that have sprung up about the Lost Boys, including the notion that they were uninvolved with the war in Sudan. A significant portion of the Lost Boys, they assert, were were trained or served as child soldiers, conscripted into the rebel Sudanese People’s Liberation Army [SPLA].
It would be nice to imagine that after years of subsistence living in refugee camps, Deng’s relocation to the U.S. offers an easy salvation, but despite the efforts of kindly, church-going Georgians, Deng’s sense of dysphoria pervades. The novel opens with him being robbed, beaten, and held for hours at gunpoint inside of his Atlanta apartment. His primary concern during the hours he is lying bound and gagged on the floor is that he will be late reporting to his minimum-wage job at a yuppie health club. Deng, speaking through Eggers, refers to America as a “miserable and glorious place.”
Eggers, who lives in the San Francisco Bay area, interviewed Deng relentlessly over three years. Each man traveled to the other’s home; they exchanged long emails; and Eggers often left Deng alone with a microcassette recorder and a request for detailed memories. Late in 2003, the two traveled together to Southern Sudan and specifically to Deng’s hometown of Marial Bai, where he was reunited with his mother and father, an experience Eggers wrote about more journalistically in “The Believer,” a magazine belonging to his indie-publishing empire.
Another byproduct of this unusual mind-meld is what appears to be a genuine friendship between Eggers and Deng. When I met them on a recent rainy Tuesday at a diner in midtown Manhattan, they were relaxed and seemed a bit relieved that the book — which Eggers originally thought could be written quickly — was finally in print. Eggers polished off a cheeseburger, while Deng, a towering, gentle presence with elegant school-boy diction, sipped tea. Even though he’s not yet 30, Deng has lived many lives: This fall, he took up a new identity as a full-time student at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennyslvania, where he says he is one of four African students in an overall population of 2,100. He is hoping to craft his own major, not surprisingly, in diplomacy.
Valentino, what did you think when you first met Dave?
I had wanted to find a writer to help me document my life. And then here is Dave, who has written this book ["A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius"] that I believe made him understand what I have been through. He raised his brother. He missed his parents at the same age I missed mine. I thought, what I’m going to say to him, he’s going to be able to understand it well.
DE: It wouldn’t have worked if we didn’t get along really well. It’s a relationship that we knew would require hundreds of hours together. Valentino’s incredibly patient and giving. If he weren’t it would’ve been really difficult. I really wanted to write the book right away so that it could help. It was like, okay we’re going to get this out. We’re going to tell this story. We’re going to get you this money and it’ll help you pay for your college and help your hometown and your parents. We’re going to do it right away, it’ll just take a year or so, and of course, it didn’t happen that way. And year after year went by, and Val never complained. He never said, “You know what? I think I need to find someone a little speedier.”
Can you talk about that crossroads you must have come to in figuring out what category the book fell under. Is it autobiography? Is it fiction?
VAD: I wanted to tell the story. The war in Sudan took so long, and so many people have died in that war. And it took a very long time for that conflict to attract the international media. I felt like this is a situation that needs an elaborate telling, that my own life could be a microcosm of the Sudan wars. So I began to tell the story, roughly, and Dave would ask detailed and specific questions.
DE: We got through one linear take on the whole story and that took some number of months and then there was another run-through where it was like, oh, we’re missing this part, we’re missing that part.. And then for a long time, I tried to write through and fill in the gaps and make it a whole story, as opposed to “this happened, that happened.” After a while, I realized that Val was sticking to a script in a way. He would say, “Here’s the lion attacks; here’s the elephant we had to eat. Here’s this little boy dying. Here’s the bombing, here are the landmines.” He was going from calamity to calamity, because those are the headlines.
But I knew we had to get off that script and dig deeper into the whole life. I remember writing him an email and saying, “We have the basics, but what were you thinking about when you walked to Ethiopia? Were you, for example, joking around in the middle of it?” It seems like an insane idea, but then again, it’s human nature. There are a lot of hours in the day, and you can’t be miserable every minute.
You two visited Sudan together as part of your research. Can you describe what that experience was like?
D.E.: He was the first of the Lost Boys to go back.
V.A.D.: We went in December 2003 and we went there for three weeks, almost four weeks.
D.E.: A lot of that time we spent in Nairobi, trying to get a flight. Because there are no commercial flights, we had to find somebody who would let us sneak onto an aid flight, basically. I remember Val walking across the patio of this hotel in Nairobi, and I had just gotten word that somebody was going to let us fly in [to Sudan], and he was going to his hometown. [to Deng] I remember you clapping at the table
V.A.D.: Yeah, like, are we going to go? Have you booked the flight? Are we really going to Marial Bai? I couldn’t believe it.
D.E.: We flew on a Russian plane. It was big — full of cargo and then us. So we were sitting on bags of grain and there were bikes stacked up right behind our heads.
V.A.D.: It really was in rough shape, the plane. It looked very, very old.
Did your family know in advance that you were coming?
V.A.D.: It all happened so quickly. They didn’t know I am coming. But luckily, we met one of my friends from Kakuma, who, as we left, he called a guy on the radio and told people that Val is on the way. So they heard only a few hours before our plane touched down in Marial Bai.
D.E.: So when we got off the plane, Val’s parents were right there. They live about 200 yards from the airstrip. When we got off the plane, it was only a few minutes before Valentino saw his mom and dad. It was surreal, because they definitely knew that their son would be getting off the plane, though it was pretty clear that Valentino didn’t recognize them, and they might not have recognized him. His dad is a soft-spoken man who was very quiet during the reunion, and met privately with Val later on. His mom sat with us in the Save the Children compound and was crying, sitting next to Val, holding his arm, and virtually speechless. Val was, too. He didn’t say anything for a long time. I think it was all too much to figure out.
Over the next few days, people who knew him, and knew his family, would walk, a two days’ walk, to come and visit. The local SPLA commander came to pay his respects, but at that point, I still didn’t know the full story with the SPLA. Like most of the Lost Boys, Val wasn’t forthcoming about the role of the SPLA. It was with the local commander that I first understood.
That there had been a relationship between the SPLA and the Lost Boys?
D.E.: Yeah. Most of the stories were about the boys walking alone. And then this guy, the local SPLA commander, said, “Well you know of course we helped arrange their transport to Ethiopia. We wanted them to go to school.” He just blurted it out, basically, that as much as many boys like Val found groups to walk with, there was also some planning. The SPLA had in some ways planned for the young boys to go to Ethiopia. It wasn’t entirely as random as most people think.
Was there ever a certain point where you two talked about Dave writing the book from a journalistic point of view, using a more dispassionate, third-person voice?
D.E.: Well, that’s how it started. Those pieces I wrote in the Believer, that was actually an attempt at establishing a style for the book. At one point, that was how the book started: I thought it would start with us going back to Sudan and then would begin flashing back from there. But writing it that way required too much of me, actually. I thought, I don’t want my voice in this book. I don’t want to be a character. Finally, very late in the game, actually, I realized that the only way to disappear was to write the story as an approximation, or an extrapolation, of Val’s voice.
V.A.D.: And it also took me a while to realize that I have to have a certain way of telling the story that is going to be a book and not a story for the newspapers. That means I had to recall as many details as I can and that came from Dave’s questions. He would ask me, “How was life in Marial Bai?” And I described Marial Bai, what life was like. And then he would take something that I mentioned and say, “How was this? I want you to elaborate, provide more detail on this particular event.” I would think about that. At some point, it takes me weeks to answer the e-mail because I have to recollect and try to put myself back there.
Right, because you were only 5 or 6 when your village was attacked.
V.A.D.: I was very young. I think some of the questions remained unanswered because I cannot recall.
D.E.: It was funny early on, I would say, “What was it like in Marial Bai?” And Val would say, “It was nice.” I would say, “No, no, no.” It took a while for him to know what kinds of details the book required. And it finally broke through with the Royal Girls of Pinyudo [a group of good-looking girls Valentino encountered at a refugee camp in Ethiopia when he was about 10]. He actually wrote out an account. It was beautifully told. It was so alive. You could tell that he was gleeful, using exclamation points and stuff. That really helped me to get his voice from that part of his life.
The book has a lot of female characters, including a very cruel female soldier in Ethiopia. After all we’ve heard about the Lost Boys in recent years, I was surprised to know there were so many girls and women present.
V.A.D.: Yeah, there were girls. They weren’t in a ratio that would match the boys to girls, but there was a good number of girls for a society in exile. Then their numbers started to diminish as they grow older. This is a society where girls get married off at an early age — 14 or 15 — and they were married to soldiers or to commanders. We lost them so quickly among us. By the time we left Kenya to the United States, most of these girls were married women and they weren’t allowing families to go.
When Dave asked me those questions about girls, I told him, “I don’t want us to spend much time on this.” He started asking more questions, and I was like, “Do you really want to know this?” And he said, “Yeah!” He sent me an e-mail and said tell me about these girls. I went and wrote, “They were nice and they were good.” And then he wrote back: “All right, there has to be a reason they were nice. Tell me the details.” And I began to write the story, and I sent it to Dave. And later on I looked at it, and I felt pretty excited about it. I said, “Wow, in spite of what I went through, there was some fun here. There was some happiness here.” And this is important for readers to know, too — that I didn’t just suffer, that I had fun occasionally.
Did you worry that your readers wouldn’t be able to handle the tragedies and the violence of this story?
D.E.: We actually had to lighten it up a little bit. We left out a lot of different episodes: another lion attack, more experiences with land mines, an encounter with a lone militiaman. If it’s strict nonfiction, it’s a bit too much, so we actually had to brighten the corners a little bit, and look for some of the happier moments, and reduce some of the things that would make it too unbelievably sad. It was strange to have to do that.
The novel begins with Valentino being held hostage at gunpoint in his apartment in Atlanta. As tragic as life in Africa was, life in America for the Lost Boys seems to be far from idyllic.
D.E.: I think that a lot of the guys came here with really high hopes and expectations: This is a country that’s for the most part peaceful, it’s prosperous, certainly we’ll be taken care of, we’ll go to college, we’ll have degrees in a few years and then have great-paying jobs. Well, that falls apart right away when they realize that they have three months of aid and then they’re on their own.
The vast majority of guys had to get low-paying jobs right away. How do you go to college or prepare for college when you’re working 40 to 60 hours a week at $8 an hour? Even in Val’s case, as an acknowledged leader of all these guys, it took five years even to be able to get into a college.
What was it like for you, psychologically, to take on Valentino’s story?
D.E.: Well, I think the very matter-of-fact way that Val tells it helped me ingest it in a matter-of-fact way. You have to totally suspend your normal assumptions about life on earth, basically.
After hearing a story like that, you mean?
D.E.: Yeah. As we kept recovering things, more would come out. Even very late in the process, Val was still leaving out the most incredible parts. At one point, while we were covering the part of his life when he was at Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, he mentioned that he had once attempted to leave the camp, so he could return under a new name. This was a way of getting an extra ration card, and thus more food. So we were talking about this “recycling” trip for a while, and I thought we had all the details, and I had written it all out. Then one day I asked, “How did you get back to Sudan, by the way?” And he said. “Oh, you know, well, I was on a truck full of corpses.” And it was a detail he’d just, like, thrown away.
But that was one of the things I thought, “No, no, this can’t be true,” because it seems fictional. Could there really be a truck full of corpses and half-dead people on their way back to Southern Sudan to be buried there? Well, of course this did happen, and it was corroborated by other reports that said that the drivers of such trucks wouldn’t bury the bodies, they would just dump them wherever they could and use the truck to transport people — you know, living people who could pay a fare — back into the country.
So I think you actually just have to close your aperture a little bit in terms of your own empathy. You can be as empathetic as you can possibly be, which I hope I was, but at the same time your senses are dulled. Just as aid workers’ senses are dulled, or doctors’, or whoever sees a lot of blood and calamity.
Valentino, is it traumatic for you to go back and remember these things — being a child driven from your village, or walking for months as other children died around you, or watching the SPLA execute a group of prisoners? Do you put that in a part of your mind that you just normally don’t go back to?
V.A.D.: I think my age at the time helped me to endure what happened. I wasn’t old enough to take some things as an abuse of my rights and victimization. I was still young, below 15 or 14 years old. So something that happened, I simply discarded it a few days later. We were all boys and then teenagers, so when there was time for happiness, we were happy. We don’t talk about the past because we assume that everybody saw it. It is not a new story for us. And why would somebody in our group take on what had happened in the past, if it would limit his talents or his abilities to persist and be well?
But now that I am older, I can revisit what happened. I want to use those stories to correct the future — to make sure it doesn’t happen to other children in the future.
Dave, how does your experience now with Sudan and the people of Southern Sudan influence the way you react to the situation in Darfur?
D.E.: I have all kinds of feelings. We know that it’s the same guys, the same militias that attacked Southern Sudan who are now working in Darfur. In many cases, it’s the same guys exactly, just with a different name. They’re called murahaleen in the south and Janjaweed in the west. They’re using the exact same tactics, surrounding a town, marauding, raping, pillaging, abducting, poisoning the wells, and burning the place to the ground. To see it happening again and again is infuriating, and the apathy is infuriating — or at least the inaction.
When we went to Sudan, Darfur was just starting to unravel. The weirdest thing is that now, when you see newspaper articles and pictures of Darfur, you think it’s just desolation. All you see is these vast expanses of nothing, or you see emaciated children in refugee camps, or a mother who has lost her child, and the grim black-and-white pictures meant to make clear how horrible it is.
I think that people need to know that this isn’t just par for the course for this part of the world. As Westerners, we can say, well, look, it’s a wasteland to begin with and these people have been killing each other for hundreds of years. I think that’s what Khartoum wants us to believe — oh, it’s just tribal skirmishes.
But when we went to Marial Bai, it was an active, bustling village with a marketplace and songs and families and church, and everything that makes up a life, every aspect of humanity as we know it — here or anywhere else. It was a living place, in part because the U.S. had stepped in and brokered a cease-fire between the north and the south. It was still rebuilding — there were ruins everywhere of the village’s former homes and municipal buildings — but there was stability. And things are getting better in Southern Sudan all the time. When we went there, there wasn’t one telephone; now there are cellphones owned by individuals. I guess my point is that in the West our perceptions of Africa are sometimes skewed, and we forget everything we take for granted about normal daily life is at stake in Darfur. A normal life is possible for the people of Darfur if the U.S. steps up and insists that Khartoum put a stop to the genocide.
The book is structured almost as an epistolary, with Valentino addressing various Americans he meets, usually under rather demeaning circumstances. The first third of the book is directed specifically at the three African-Americans who rob his apartment and hold him captive. How did you make the decision to use that as a narrative device?
D.E.: That was the last piece of the puzzle, figuring out how to tell the story. At some point after Val was attacked in real life, we were sitting on a bench at Stanford — we went there a few years ago so Val could visit the campus and meet the admissions people — waiting for our appointment, looking at the “complaint card” the Atlanta police had given him. He was attacked, robbed, held at gunpoint, and the Atlanta police gave him a little business card that said “Citizen Complaint” or something like that, with a phone number on it. It was like the thing you’d be given after complaining about the sound of some party next door. That’s the kind of card he got for being attacked and held at gunpoint.
Anyway, we were talking about whether or not he had been targeted because he was fairly new to the country. He said something like, “I wish some of these people knew my story because maybe they would have acted differently.” And I thought about that in a few different contexts, wishing that people who even just bumped into him would know
I remember the passage where this is articulated in the book. Valentino imagines saying to his captors, “You would not add to my suffering if you knew what I had seen.” Is this book an answer to that, Valentino? Do you hope that people will understand better what you have seen, or what the people of Southern Sudan have seen?
V.A.D.: I always assume, because of my background, that I am being targeted because I’m from Southern Sudan. But with these particular criminals, they just spotted me and targeted me for reasons I don’t know. In spite of how much horror and hostility went on in Sudan, nobody before had shown me that hate — holding the gun in front of me, insulting me and kicking me — an act that tells me he really hates me.
Sometimes people hurt others because they don’t know them. They just look at them and say, OK, he’s a target of opportunity. If we knew one another, we wouldn’t have that. When we don’t know people we just act discriminating to them. That’s what that passage in the book is trying to say. For me, I get angry first, but then when I think about it later, I have to think about the role I can play. Should I add to the problem? Should I make it worse? Or should I be a solution?
About the people who attacked me in Atlanta, I consider it a gone case and I have forgiven them. I don’t think they knew what they were doing.
D.E.: [smiling] That’s very Christian of you. It would probably take me longer than that to forgive somebody who held a gun to my head.
V.A.D.: Dave was very upset when I informed him that I have been mugged.
The loneliest parts of the book seem to be the parts that take place in the United States. Are you happy here?
V.A.D.: That incident was the most loneliness I have ever felt, but no, actually, I feel lively, more confident, more surrounded here in America than in Sudan. It cannot be compared. Since I have come to America, I have helped many Sudanese and I thought that I have made great differences. The first proceeds from the book went to paying school fees for Sudanese college students in Atlanta. The next thing I want to do is build a community center in Marial Bai, and I feel so positive about that.
D.E.: All the proceeds of the book will go to the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation. So next summer, Val will go back and be able to build the center.
V.A.D.: There are things I know now that people there could use to better themselves. Before I went home in 2003, I thought that I had suffered the most. But when we went back, I witnessed the ruins: I saw the survivors of two decades’ war, I saw Marial Bai and other towns and the infrastructure there. All that’s left of life there is a shamble. Everything in South Sudan was brought down to state of complete nothingness. While I was being protected in refugee camps and then living in the U.S, these people were surviving on almost nothing, and in spite of consistent assaults by militias and the government for 23 years. I thought, “These people have suffered a lot, and they are not supposed to suffer like this.” Now I don’t think of myself as someone who’s suffered a lot.