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What is the What

by Dave Eggers

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What is the What
Sudan has long been a country torn by civil war. Since its 1956 independence from Britain, the government seat in the Arab-dominated North has actively repressed the African-tribal South and the South has responded with rebellion. Though conflict has been more or less continual, short periods of intervening peace demarcate the longer stretches of war. In the 1980s, Northern Sudan led an Islamicization campaign throughout the country while in the South a rebel army, the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), was forming. This began Sudan's second civil war during which the Sudanese government in Khartoum armed Arab militias, the Murahaleen (not unlike the Janjaweed in Darfur), and sent them rolling through the South to brutally ravage the villages of Southern Sudan, where they killed the men, raped the women, and enslaved the girls. It was during these raids when the survivors, mostly young boys who later became known as the "Lost Boys," fled their villages to walk across southern Sudan to Ethiopa.
Most of the Lost Boys came from Dinka or Nuer tribes. Ten year old Valentino Achak Deng was one such Dinka boy who fled his village of Marial Bai and began a journey on foot across hundreds of desolate miles. Along with thousands of others, Valentino spent months walking and starving in sub-Saharan heat, beset upon by the Arab raiders, government troops, and wild animals. During this time he saw hundreds die all around him, and against the odds, he survived the journey to Ethiopia and the Pinyudo refugee camp.

In What is the What Dave Eggers tells the story of Valentino's journey across Sudan and his subsequent thirteen years in two refugee camps. By necessity, What is the What is told as an autobiographical novel, reconstructed as it was for Eggers from Valentino's childhood memories during hundreds of hours of interviews. As Valentino says in his introduction, "though it is fictionalized, it should be noted that the world I have known is not so different from the one depicted within these pages. We live in a time when even the most horrific events in this book could occur, and in most cases did occur."
In 2003, two years after 4000 Sudanese Lost Boys were lifted from refugee camps and relocated in the United States, the conflict in Darfur brought the world's attention to Sudan and the humanitarian crisis there. But the Darfur conflict is not so different from the tragedy that killed more than two million Sudanese during the previous twenty years.

What is the What is essential reading, shedding light as it does on the epic suffering of an entire race of people through the eyes of one who survived and eventually escaped. Moreover, this novel, having grown from an intimate understanding between its author and subject, is authentically and engagingly rendered in Valentino's own voice with Eggers making himself wonderfully transparent throughout.
All proceeds from the sale of What is the What go towards providing educational opportunities for the Sudanese people in Sudan and in the United States. Learn more at www.valentinoachakdeng.org.
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