What is the What

One of the issues I sought to address in my “Documenting Injustice” seminar last semester was the use of oral histories in describing various “injustices.” In looking at texts such as Walker Evans and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, my class and I addressed questions about the role of the author in shaping representations of cultural Others (often returning to Bill Nichols’ formula, “I am speaking about them to you”). These questions persistently returned to me as I read Dave Eggers’s What is the What over the holidays while visiting my parents. What is the What is the “novelized autobiography” of Valentino Achak Deng, from the moment he becomes a refugee separated from his family in southern Sudan through several years of living in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya to his arrival in Atlanta, as part of the Lost Boys Foundation. The novel powerfully captures Deng’s experiences, whether the daily challenges of living in refugee camps, the emotional anguish of being separated from family, or the humorous escapades of growing up, while also raising questions about the possibilities and limits of oral histories as a mode of representing reality.

The novel opens with Valentino, living in Atlanta, opening his door to a woman he believes to be a neighbor asking to use his cell phone, but she is, instead, planning to rob the apartment. After the woman and her partner overpower Valentino, they leave him bound and gagged with a 10-year old guardian, whom Valentino chooses to call “TV Boy.” TV Boy becomes one of many “witnesses,” as Valentino relates sections of his story. Eggers’s decision to frame the story in this way works quite well, in large part because it captures the sense of bewilderment and confusion presented by Deng’s new life in America, but also because we are constantly reminded that what we are reading is, in fact, a story, a novelist’s interpretation of someone else’s real experiences. It also underscores the way in which many of these witnesses will not or do not listen, essentially ignoring the storyteller, choosing, in the case of “TV Boy,” to watch television instead in order to drown out Deng’s story. In places, the novel does read like human rights literature, providing details about the years of civil war in the Sudan for readers who may be unfamiliar with even the basic details of that conflict, but in most cases these details seem to grow out of Deng’s experiences, allowing his individual challenges–and those of his friends and family–to stand in for a larger whole.

The book also introduces questions about the role of documentary or oral histories in enacting or promoting social change. Deng wanted his story told in part to raise awareness of the humanitarian situation in the Sudan, and proceeds from the book go to the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation, which benefits Sudanese in America and Sudan (Deng’s website features footage of him returning to Marial Bail in the summer of 2007). Also worth checking out: Voice of Witness, an oral history series founded by Eggers that “seeks to illustrate human rights crises through the voices of the victims,” and this video interview with Deng on YouTube. I’d love to write more about What is the What, but I already feel like I’m several days or weeks behind for the upcoming spring semester (classes start on January 9th, and because I went home for the holidays and then to MLA, I don’t feel like I’ve had any time off). Still, I think Deng’s story will stick with me for some time to come.

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