Monday, January 28, 2008

What is the What

What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng
By Dave Eggers


I really liked this. I think as an American, it can be hard to learn more about other cultures and countries. Much of the world news doesn't register more than a blip in the daily (television) news here, and many regions of the world don't even get that coverage.

As a result, Africa has always remained a enigmatic continent, with my exposure to it being limited to the "help the starving Africans" commercials, the Nigerian 419 email scams, and a jumble of "third-world" keywords like starvation, widespread AIDs and lack of access to clean water.

What is the What does a phenomenal job at giving an ignorant reader (like me) a keen understanding of 1) what someone from Sudan had to go through to survive physically, emotionally and spritually and 2) some of the global political reasons for why things are the state they are in Sudan. What is the What is essentially an autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, a Lost-Boy survivor from Sudan, with Dave Eggers just lending his knowledge of the English language to tell (and promote) the story.

Some issues in the book are simply quite unsettling. It's one thing to think about foreign policies in the abstract from a comfy chair, but yet another to hear how it affects Achak's and others lives. How it can split up families, kill best friends and lovers, etc.

It's also quite uncomfortable thinking about how in moving from Sudan (later Kenya) to the US, Achak no longer has to constantly worry about war, diseases, starvation, but still has to deal with a system and a culture that is insiduously emotionally difficult and inequitable. That the culure of my country can be so harsh on immigrants was very thought-provoking.

I highly recommend this book.