What Is The What is the story of war as seen through the eyes of a child, a story of survival, the story of invisibility made visible. It is a difficult story to read because the atrocities visited upon the helpless are unimaginable to our sometimes myopic American sensibilities. How is it possible that such medieval horrors still occur in our world? What Is The What forces our eyes open, forces us to look upon the devastation so casually inflicted upon the children of Sudan. Valentino Achak Deng tells his story through Dave Eggers and in so doing, fulfills a sort of prophecy spoken about him by his childhood priest:
"I think you will have the power to make people see, he [the priest, Father Matong] said. I think you will remember what it was like to be here, you will see the lessons here. And someday you will find your own jailer's daughter, and to her you will bring light." (Eggers, p.260)
Perhaps we, the readers, are the blind jailer's daughter--ignorant of the suffering of our fellow human beings. If so, Deng has opened our eyes by sharing the story of his amazing survival and the plight of many of his brethren in Sudan.
There are no easy answers in What Is The What. Even after having survived the razing of his home village, a death walk through the Sudan desert, a life of grim destitution in refugee camps--Deng finally arrives in the United States of America to a life of further disappointment and difficulty. The entire book is framed by a few harrowing days in Atlanta when Deng lives through a home invasion robbery, the callous indifference of the police and a grueling 9 hour wait in the ER so his bleeding head can be stitched up. These few days are the springboard from which Eggers tells the bigger story of Deng's life. It is impossible not to draw a stark parallel between the jarring inhumanity Deng experiences in Sudan with the blind indifference he experiences in America.
Even so, What Is The What is not all doom and gloom. There are, scattered throughout Deng's life, ministering angels of mercy. A brave young man, Dut, leads hundreds of Lost Boys through the Sudan and toward relative safety in Ethiopia. There are also various aid workers, volunteers, neighbors, pastors, and sponsors who touch Deng's life and help him. And of course, there is Dave Eggers himself who listened for years to Deng's story and then wrote the book.
What Is The What is necessary reading if not easy reading. The staggering array of peoples, places, events and difficulties is at times, daunting. I admit that there were sections I skimmed, details my brain could no longer assimilate. But as Deng writes in the Preface, "this book is a form of struggle, and it keeps my spirit alive to struggle," we the readers must also at times struggle.
There is, however, virtue in the act of struggling. Our eyes are opened, our minds are opened, our empathy increases. After hearing such a story, we can no longer remain silent, indifferent.
"I will tell stories to people who will listen and to people who don't want to listen, to people who seek me out and to those who run. All the while I will know that you are there. How can I pretend that you do not exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist."