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What is the What May 28, 2007

Posted by a Wristfister in Uncategorized.


Review by: Yasmin

“What is the What” is the semi-fictionalized autobiography of Valentino Achek Deng – a Sudanese youth of the lost boy generation. The story, told in the voice of Valentino but written by Dave Eggers (author of “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”), begins in the Southern Sudanese village of Marial Bia – home to Valentino’s father’s business and extended family. The idyllic setting does not last long before armed muraleen (Arabs supported by government in Khartoum) raid Marial Bai killing villagers indiscrimantely, burning homes and seizing the surviving women as war booty. Valentino narrowly escapes this only to watch from afar as his family is killed. Over the next 10 + years, Valentino and thousands of other Sudanese boys trek across the deserts of the Sudan to various refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. These boys lead a life of total deprivation. They watch helplessly as young boys are eaten alive by lions, forced to join the rebel army as child soldiers, die of starvation and disease, and later waste away years in refugee camps. After 13 years as a refugee, Valentino is re-settled in the US with 4,000 other Lost Boys. And so one would presume, a happy ending. Not quite. In America, Valentino is confronted with the senseless violence and discrimination of a different kind. After many dissapointments in the US, Valentino meets Dave Eggers and tells him his story. It should be noted that all the proceeds of this book go to the Valentino Achek Deng foundation. The foundation intends to educate those “lost boys” in the US and help rebuild the Sudan, beginning with Marial Bai.

Sudan has been in the news of late for the current Darfur Crisis. I encourage you to read “What is the What” to gain an understanding of the civil war that lead up to the current crisis. As we can not rely on today’s mainstream tv media to educate us on Darfur, these books become all the more valuable as they easily de-construct a complex politcal history. A NY Times Op-ed columnist recently noted that in 2006, the Darfur crisis only received 11 minutes of coverage on ABC prime time news – compared with a staggering 23 minutes for the false identification of the Jon Benet Ramsey killer. Its clear where network televisions priorities lie.

As to the title, “What is the What” – it is the question a Sudanese man poses to God when given the choice between “the what” and a life of comfort. The book did not leave me with a clear answer as to what is the what, but I invite you to form your own response.


“Even when my hours were darkest, I believed that some day I could share my experiences with readers, so as to prevent the same horrors from repeating themselves. This book is a form of struggle, and it keeps my spirit alive to struggle. To struggle is to strengthen my faith, my hope, and my belief in humanity. Thank you for reading this book, and I wish you a blessed day.” – Valentino Achak Deng



1. Bowie - May 29, 2007

Very nice review for what I can imagine is a difficult and heart-wrenching read.

I agree with you about the lack of international coverage in American news media. Somewhere along TV’s history, the newscasters got caught up with the business side of the things (this wasn’t always the case; worthy news was news then, now its all about focus groups and endorsements) and suddenly its about the sound bite and image. Ironically, Jon Stewart cuts to the heart of issues faster these days.

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