Nearly 25 years ago, when Valentino Achak Deng was six years old, his village in Southern Sudan was razed by the murahaleen, paramilitaries working for the government in Khartoum to suppress the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Achak was separated from his family and driven from his home; he was lucky not to have been killed. The people of Marial Bai, like the inhabitants of thousands of other villages across Southern Sudan, were suspected, if not of being rebels themselves, then of providing the rebels with material support. The arrival of the murahaleen was ‘like a shadow made by a low cloud. The shadow moved quickly over the land. The rumbling was horses. I saw them now, men on horses, bringing the land into darkness.’ The speaker is Achak, though the voice is not entirely or straightforwardly his own. What Is the What is both the autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng and a novel by Dave Eggers; a collaboration between the two men, as well as between memory and imagination.
The book itself makes no attempt to explain how such a hybrid came into being. Readers are twice reassured in small type that ‘all proceeds . . . will go to the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation, which distributes funds to Sudanese refugees in America; to rebuilding Southern Sudan, beginning with Marial Bai; to organisations working for peace and humanitarian relief in Darfur; and to the college education of Valentino Achak Deng.’ But Eggers is repeatedly referred to as ‘the author’, and his is the only name on the cover or the copyright page (the subtitle, ‘The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng’, appears only on the title page). This may make sense from the point of view of publicity and sales – Eggers’s name sells books, and selling more books raises awareness of and more funds for the causes that matter most to Achak – but it also inspires unease: Achak may benefit from the text, but he doesn’t own it; he has become a character in a fictionalised version of his life story that legally belongs to someone else. Practically speaking, this hardly matters: the motives for and consequences of Eggers’s actions are unquestionably benevolent, and the book could not have taken the form it has without Achak’s consent and blessing.
And yet, that a story so concerned with so many different forms of dispossession should itself be subject to a variety of appropriation is not unproblematic, and requires a more positive justification than mere silence. Eggers, unlike many of Achak’s American friends and benefactors, does not feature as a character in What Is the What. No doubt it was important to avoid distracting readers with anything that could be mistaken for cute metafictional trickery, one of the less interesting but more remarked-on aspects of Eggers’s first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a lightly fictionalised account of bringing up his younger brother after the deaths of his parents from cancer. But in What Is the What, Eggers is conspicuous by his absence from the narrative, which leaves you wondering how his name came to such solitary prominence on the cover, how the autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng came to be ‘Copyright © Dave Eggers’.
Eggers has described the genesis of What Is the What in a number of magazine and newspaper articles, and perhaps some version of his account will find its way into the apparatus of future editions of the book. Achak and Eggers met in January 2003, introduced by Mary Williams, who ran the Lost Boys Foundation in Atlanta, a charity dedicated to helping Sudanese refugees in the United States. Achak wanted to tell his story – his early life in Marial Bai; his long walk across and out of Sudan; his years spent in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya; his journey to America; the many deaths he witnessed along the way – and Williams thought that Eggers might be both willing and able to help. The initial plan was essentially for Achak to write his autobiography, while Eggers would assist him with his English and ‘straighten the narrative out a bit’, taking on a more or less conventional role somewhere between editor and ghostwriter.
But, after a year, they realised this wasn’t going to work: ‘What we had from our recording sessions . . . was fascinating, but it did not transcend the many human rights reports and newspaper articles already available to the world.’ They travelled to Marial Bai together, and Achak saw his parents again after an absence of twenty years. ‘With tears in her eyes,’ his mother ‘stared at Valentino in plain astonishment. “Is it really you?” she said to him again and again.’
The poverty and deprivation they witnessed renewed Eggers and Achak’s commitment to their project. But after writing the trip up in a series of pieces for the Believer, Eggers came to realise that for him to tell the story in the third person ‘would be distracting and tonally incorrect’. So Achak would have to tell his own story. But, ‘as a journalist’, Eggers was ‘trained not to put any dialogue between quotation marks unless it was on tape’. So the only way to tell the story in a way that stood a chance of appealing to a wide general readership was to write it as fiction. It’s also, though Eggers doesn’t spell this out, a way to pre-empt any small-minded attempts to pick holes in Achak’s account. Should there be any minor factual inaccuracies, no one can use them to try to cast doubt on the honesty of the story as a whole. ‘You have to be a writer,’ Achak told him, when Eggers proposed writing the book as a novel. ‘Do it the way you think it will best reach people.’
Questions of authorship and ownership aside, the result is a remarkable book: harrowing, witty, wretched, delightful; and always compelling, always surprising. Both as a child and later as a young man, Achak comes forcefully across as a person of considerable charm, intelligence, wit and resilience; he only very rarely sounds a little too like Dave Eggers.
Two stories unfold simultaneously in What Is the What. It begins, vividly and against expectation, in America, with the arrival of a stranger at Achak’s apartment in Atlanta. ‘I have no reason not to answer the door so I answer the door.’ The ‘tall, sturdily built African-American woman’ who rang the bell asks if she can use his phone to call the police because her car has broken down. He lets her in, and she’s soon followed by a man with a gun. They crack his skull, tie him up, and empty his apartment of valuables. But the thieves don’t have room in their van for the TV, so they leave a young boy to watch over both it and Achak until they can come back. Lying on the floor of his apartment, bound and gagged, his head bleeding and aching, Achak begins to imagine telling his life story to the boy, whose name he discovers is Michael.
Achak’s father was a shopkeeper in Marial Bai, doing business with ‘Baggara and other Arab businessmen’ from the north as well as with local Dinka people. One night, Achak listens as his father tells Sadiq Aziz, his ‘favourite trading partner’, a Dinka creation myth. At the beginning of time, God offered the first man a choice: he showed him a cow, and said he could have either the cow or the What. ‘What is the What?’ the man asked. But God would not tell him. And so the man chose the cow, and God gave the What to the Arabs, though Achak’s father skips over this element of the story when telling it to Sadiq. The traditional assumption has always been that the first Dinka man made the right choice, that the Arabs got a raw deal. But after the murahaleen and government troops begin their raids on Dinka villages, that certainty evaporates. Achak begins to wonder what the What might be. Guns? Power? Much later, it strikes him ‘that the mistakes of the Dinka before us were errors of timidity, of choosing what was before us over what might be.’
When the murahaleen came, Achak imagines telling Michael, he ran and hid with his mother. They watched as their houses were burned, their neighbours shot or captured. The older men were all killed; women, girls and boys were taken captive. Any who struggled or tried to run away were cut down with swords. Achak was separated from his mother, and when night fell he ran alone into the woods. He encountered other disparate groups of displaced people, eventually falling in with some boys led by a teacher from Marial Bai, Dut Majok. Dut’s motives are not entirely clear: is he leading the boys to safety, or to recruitment into the SPLA? Is one a condition for the other? Rebel soldiers they meet in the course of their 800-mile walk to the Ethiopian border call the boys ‘jaysh al-ahmar’ or ‘red army’. In Pinyudo, the refugee camp in Ethiopia, the boys were both ‘aid bait’, an indirect source of supplies from overseas, and soldiers in waiting.
The boys were sustained on their trek across Sudan by fantasies of the luxury that awaited them on the other side of the Gilo River:
We would have chairs in Ethiopia. I would sit on a chair, and I would listen to the radio, because in Ethiopia there would be radios under all the trees. Milk and eggs – there would be plenty of these foods, and plenty of meat, and nuts and stew. There would be clean water where we could bathe, and there would be wells for each home, each full of cool water to drink. Such cool water! We would have to wait before drinking it, because of its coolness.
When they finally reach their destination, ‘there were no homes. There were no medical facilities. No food. No water for drinking. “This is not that place,” I said.’ Fifteen years later, he would find analogous disappointments and sources of confusion in America.
When he has been in the United States for only a few months, Achak is taken to a basketball game with a number of other refugees from Sudan. Twelve of them sit in the front row, wearing suits that are a size too small, alongside Manute Bol, ‘the most famous Sudanese man in history, a former NBA player who diverted a large portion of his earnings to the SPLA’. ‘Picture us sitting,’ Achak says, ‘trying to make sense of it all’: the ‘gyrating’ cheerleaders, the deafening music, the largely empty stadium, and the two classes of refugee, the 12 in the front row with the superstar, and the 168 who had to sit further back. The scene is a neat synecdoche.
After the robbers have come back for Michael and the TV, Achak tries to alert the downstairs neighbours to his predicament by kicking on the floor. He knows them to be committed Christians, as he is. ‘Hear me, Christian neighbours!’ he thinks. ‘Hear your brother just above!’ But ‘no one is listening. No one is waiting to hear the kicking of a man above. It is unexpected. You have no ears for someone like me.’ The Christians downstairs are the imagined audience for the next part of Achak’s story, the next in a series of ordinary Americans going about their business oblivious to Achak’s history or even his presence. They in turn are replaced by the receptionists at the Emergency Room, where Achak spends the night being ignored after his old friend and flatmate Achor Achor comes home and rescues him, and then by the members of the health club where Achak works behind the reception desk. What Is the What is in part the story of a man in search of people who will listen to his story. It would perhaps have been hard then, if not impossible, for Eggers to put himself in the book without immodestly appearing as some kind of saviour, the answer to Achak’s prayers for an audience and a voice, though he doesn’t entirely not appear that way even so.
It seems extraordinary that Achak should have survived the attack on his village, never mind the hardships that followed. There is a version of the anthropic principle at work here, of course: had Achak not survived, we wouldn’t be hearing his story. But he doesn’t owe his life simply to luck. He believes God sustains him, and his faith is surely a help, even if God isn’t. Time and again, Achak is saved by his determination, his will to live. His survival instinct tells him when to hide and when to run; he resists the lure of joining the ranks of the SPLA, which many boys don’t or can’t. He’s a fine judge of character, knowing whom to trust – the woman in the village near a refugee camp, who feeds him and tells him he could be her son – and whom not to. A woman in uniform calls out to a group of boys: ‘Come to me, children! I am your mother! Come to me!’ Achak hangs back as ‘the unknown boys ran toward her . . . When they were twenty feet from her, the woman turned, lifted a gun from the grass, and with her eyes full of white, she shot the taller boy through the heart.’ Achak and Achor Achor turn and run, as the woman still calls after them: ‘Come back! . . . I am your mother, come back, my children!’
This murderous anti-mother, a figure from any child’s worst nightmare, let alone an orphan’s, is the last of a series of horrors that Achak faces while fleeing the Pinyudo refugee camp, back into Sudan, after the coup that overthrew Mengistu in Addis Ababa in 1991. Many of the forty thousand refugees never made it across the river. ‘The first shots seemed small and distant. I turned to follow the sound. I saw nothing, but the gunfire continued and grew louder. The attackers were nearby. The sounds multiplied, and I heard the first screams. A woman up the river spat a stream of blood from her mouth before falling, lifeless, into the water.’ It’s pouring with rain, and the river is swollen. It’s also swarming with crocodiles. And Achak can’t really swim. Dut Majok helps him across. ‘A scream came from very close. I turned to see a boy in the jaws of a crocodile. The river bloomed red and the boy’s face disappeared. “Keep going. Now he’s too busy to eat you.”’ On the far side, Achak and Dut lie hidden on the riverbank, and watch the slaughter. Later, they bump into Achor Achor. ‘“Good,” Dut said. “You have each other. See you at Pochalla.” Dut returned to the river, looking for the injured and lost. That was the last time we saw Dut Majok.’ Achak and Achor Achor together begin the long walk south through Sudan to the Kenyan border.
Achor Achor is not the only friend Achak is surprisingly reunited with. His two best friends from Marial Bai, Moses and William K., both of whom he believes to be dead, cross his path again: William K. a few weeks after leaving Marial Bai; Moses at Pinyudo. Moses was not killed by the murahaleen, as Achak believed, but taken captive and sold into slavery. He shows Achak the brand behind his ear. For a while he was kept in a barn with hundreds of other boys under 12, and used as a source of blood for government soldiers in need of transfusions. Then he was sold into the household of an army commander, whose children whipped him and made him eat the rubbish: ‘animal fat, tea bags, rotten vegetables’. It made him sick, and then he ‘decided’ to be sick all the time, so his owner sold him to a slave trader to get rid of him. Eventually Western charity workers bought his freedom.
Slavery ‘is a fairly booming business, or was a few years ago’, Achak the narrator comments. ‘The issue is complex, but like many matters in Sudan, it is not as complex as Khartoum would want the West to believe.’ This is a well-aimed rebuke. Yet it is surely also the case that many matters in Sudan – the conflict in Darfur, for example – are not as simple as some of those in the West would like to believe. Seeing a situation as more straightforward than it is can make people grab hopefully for easy solutions that all too often prove elusive. Wanting something to be simple won’t make it so, and then what do you do when it turns out not to be? When the SPLA split into opposing factions in the early 1990s, ‘the civil war became, to the world at large, too confusing to decipher,’ Achak says, ‘a mess of tribal conflicts with no clear heroes and villains.’ The challenge for the West is to acknowledge the complexity of the situation without using it as an excuse to walk away.
What Is the What does not shy away from complexity. Achak is not presented as a pure and noble victim; he is honest about his less honourable feelings. He indulges in fantasies of revenge: ‘I closed my eyes and pictured the Arabs falling from their horses in explosions of blood . . . They were shot by the rebels and now William K. and I were crushing their faces with our feet. It was glorious.’ What he hates even more are the people supposedly on his own side who won’t help him: ‘The new soldiers chased us from the village, beating whomever they could . . . I had never felt the rage I felt at that moment. My anger was more intense than it had ever been toward the murahaleen. It was born of the realisation that there were castes within the displaced. And we occupied the lowest rung on the ladder.’ Once he has climbed a few rungs, he begins to resent those coming up below him, ‘to loathe how many of them there were, how needful, gangrenous, bug-eyed and wailing’.
One of the strangest things about suffering is that it does not preclude the continuation, in some form or another, of what you might call normal life. It takes place not only while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along, but often while the person suffering is doing those things, too. Eggers has long known this. In A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, he describes watching TV with his mother in the later stages of her illness. She has a nosebleed. This is serious because a side effect of her treatment is that her blood doesn’t clot.
I climb onto the top of the couch, above the cushions, on top of the back of the couch . . . I reach down so my head and arms are both aiming in the same direction, with my arms just reaching her nose and my head resting comfortably on the top of the couch, with a nice view of the set. Perfect. She looks up at me and rolls her eyes. I give her a thumbs up. Then she spits green fluid into the half-moon receptacle.
Achak doesn’t watch much TV in the refugee camps, but he goes to school, plays with his friends, obsesses over girls, gets a job with a Japanese NGO, arranges basketball games, joins a drama group, goes to Nairobi to perform in a play, falls in love with a girl called Tabitha, has his first kiss among the bicycles on sale in a giant supermarket.
He lived in Kakuma, a camp in the desert in the north of Kenya, for a decade. The name, the refugees were told, is the Kenyan word for ‘nowhere’. ‘There was little in the way of grass or trees in that land; there were no forests to scavenge for materials; there was nothing for miles . . . so we became dependent on the UN for everything.’ And these are people who lost everything in the course of a struggle for self-determination.
Do not think it was lost on us that the Kenyans, and every international body that monitors or provides for the displaced, customarily places its refugees in the least desirable regions on earth. There we become utterly dependent – unable to grow our own food, to tend our own livestock, to live in any sustainable way. I do not judge the UNHCR or any nation that takes in the nationless, but I do pose the question.
In America too, when he finally gets there in September 2001 – he had been due to fly on 9/11 – Achak and the other so-called ‘Lost Boys of Sudan’ find themselves scattered and heavily dependent on the magnanimity of strangers, for everything from furniture and explanations of how the system works to the writing of their autobiographies: ‘I do not judge . . . but I do pose the question.’