What is the What by Dave Eggers

340514Fiction — print. Vintage Books, 2007. Originally published 2006. 538 pgs. Purchased.

Eggers’ novel is actually the biography of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee and member of the Lost Boys of Sudan program. Due to his young age at some of the story’s more pivotal moments, Deng and Eggers had to pronounce his story a novel. However, as Deng explains in his preface to the book, the book is historically accurate and the events detailed are as he remembers them to be. I wasn’t expecting this novel to be a biography when I picked up the book; I actually thought this “preface” was a part of the narrative until I reached the end of the book and learned more about the Valentine Achak Deng Foundation.

The novel begins with Deng being robbed and assaulted in his own home in the United States. The events and the presence of one of his attackers in his home over a period of time causes Deng to recount the carnage of his life in Sundan, a country where between May 16, 1983 and January 9, 2005 over two and a half million people died of war and war-related causes, over four million were internally displaced in southern Sudan, and two million southern Sudanese took refuge in foreign countries (pg. xiv). The region at the center of this book became an independent state on July 9, 2011 known as the Republic of South Sudan, and the rebel political movement that dominated so much of his life, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) became the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, a political party in South Sudan.

The book continues with Valentino narrating his journey to Ethiopia and Kenya, where he was attacked by armies and wild animals and stricken by hunger, and his life after he is settled in United States through flashbacks. There were moments when I wasn’t sure how much longer I would continue with this chunkster of a book, but I would turn the page and be thrown back – mouth agape – at Deng recounts his life.

“Before nightfall, the camp was dedicated to education and nutrition, with us attending classes and eating healthfully and in all ways seeming to the UN observers a mass of unaccompanied minors. But at night, the camp belonged to the SPLA. It was then that the SPLA took their share of the food delivered to us and the other refugees, and it was then that operations were undertaken and justice meted out.” (pg. 326)

Next week, my class on trafficking will be discussing the militarization of refugee camps. I was particularly intrigued by Deng’s time in a refugee camp administered by the United Nations. The divergence of materials to support the SPLA, the script the boys were taught to say and all the insights into the workings of the camp were masterfully explained and I’m excited to discuss this issue in my class next Friday. The politics of the Lost Boys “escape” to America, viewed largely as a “failed experiment” is also a fascinating topic that I hope we will be able to discuss.

At over 500 pages, this book took me awhile to read and there were many moments were I was bogged down by so much information. It’s easy to get lost, and I’m still not completely sure I have the timeline down correctly. Still, there are moments of absolute fascination and I do feel like Eggers and Deng managed to communicate more deeply about the realities of life in Sudan.


  1. I enjoyed this one. I just finished a similar book, In the Sea There are Crocodiles, and I kept thinking back to this one. That book covers a young boy’s real journey to escape Afghanistan. It’s considered fiction, just like What is the What, but is based on the boy’s true story. I kept comparing it to What and I really liked Egger’s book better.


  2. Shannon (Giraffe Days)

    I’ve always wondered about this book – I thought it was fiction too, but I wasn’t sure what it was about! Now I know. And I’d quite like to read it one day, but I’ve got a few of Eggers’ books and haven’t read any of them yet! (one is Zeitoun which is also a fictionalised biography of someone real – you’ve probably read that one?)


    • Actually, I haven’t. This was my first book by Eggers. I’m not sure what I will read next, if I do read more by him. I’ve heard really good things about A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius so I might go with that.


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