what is the what: the autobiography of valentino achak deng, by dave eggers.
ever since i stumbled onto dave eggers’ first book, a heartbreaking work of staggering genius, i’ve been a fan (i still count that book in my top 20 all-time reads). his 2nd and 3rd books, you shall know our velocity and how we are hungry, we both unique and wonderful, in their own ways. i’ve also picked up a handful of additional books in which eggers has written an essay, a foreword, or a chapter. all good.
now, with ‘what is the what’, eggers returns, in some ways, to the brilliance of ‘heartbreaking work’. not only is it in an almost-similar caliber of writing (i say almost: i won’t put this in my top 20, but it’s a truly excellent book), it also returns to eggers’ grey area between biography (or, in the case of ‘heartbreaking work’, autobiography) and fiction. with ‘heartbreaking work’, eggers told his own story, while fully admitting that all of it wasn’t true, but most was. so, technically, it was fiction; but much more than ‘inspired by a true story’, it was mostly true. same with this book:
‘what is the what’ is, as the subtitle says, the autobiography of valentino achak deng, one of the lost boys of sudan, who after 10+ years of running and living in a refugee camp, was relocated to atlanta. valentino is a real person (here’s his website). and the story of the book is his real story, mostly. but it’s fiction. eggers and valentino met a bunch of times (even traveling to sudan together), and valentino told eggers his entire story. then, eggers wrote the book as an autobiography, in valentino’s voice. and as a ‘mostly accurate’ story, rather than pure non-fiction.
really, it’s a great book. wonderful insight into life in africa, the life (and thinking and worldview) of an oppressed refugee, and the life (and thinking and worldview) of a modern-day american immigrant from a 3rd-world country.