Saturday, February 10, 2007

Dave Eggers and "What is the What"

Thursday night L. and I attended the culminating event in Notre Dame’s 40th annual literary festival. The featured author was Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, his memoir (see link below for an extensive list of all his publications). Eggers recently completed a new project that chronicles the life of Valentino Achak Deng, who emigrated with the wave of “Lost Boys” from Sudan.

Eggers was warmly introduced and began his lecture with a flurry of microphone adjustments and a shuffle of papers. After briefly reading from his new work, titled What is the What, and introducing us to his fictional version of Valentino, he introduced us to the real Valentino. If it had been previously announced that both the author and his subject would lecture, I hadn’t been aware of it. It would prove to be a powerful presentation. I went into the lecture mildly curious about Eggers. I emerged with an awakened consciousness (and a commitment to buy his new book).

Several years ago Eggers was invited to meet Valentino, who had decided that his goal was to write a book about his experiences. In the beginning it wasn’t clear if Eggers would help Valentino compose his own memoir or perhaps serve as his scribe. In the end, something brand new was formed. Eggers listened to Valentino’s story—his 800-mile trek with a flock of children from Sudan to Kenya, Valentino’s childhood confrontation with death and violence, the constant concern about the fate of his family left behind in a burning village. Eggers listened, time passed, and their friendship deepened. Eventually trust moved the two men beyond the stark tragedy and allowed them to uncover the profound humanity and tenderness that Valentino experienced despite the inexorable reality of violence that colored his coming-of-age.

Eggers listened and made a crucial realization: he couldn’t write Valentino’s story in the third person. He needed to tell the truth about Valentino. And to tell the truth, he needed to use the tool of fiction. So, after gaining Valentino’s consent, he wrote Valentino’s memoir as fiction, telling his story using a first person narrator. He became Valentino. The readers, in turn, are invited to become Valentino. By living through the terror and injustice of Southern Sudan, we can move beyond an intellectual discussion of totalitarian states and genocides. We bypass the head entirely. We live like Valentino, all heart. Eggers doesn’t go maudlin on us. Valentino’s heart is his organ of survival and decision-making. Think blood, hot and quick in fear, or thin from hunger. Think of a little boy whose heart pumped day after day despite being attacked on all fronts.

It was a powerful presentation. I was already impressed by Eggers writing and his social justice work. I think I am a little bit in love with him too—you will know what I mean if you hear him speak.

And the best news—this really gets my social justice, English teacher blood flowing—all the proceeds from the book go to Valentino’s foundation. He plans to rebuild his village in Sudan and provide college scholarships for other Sudanese immigrants.

Consider this is a strong recommendation to buy a book that I have not yet read.

The Valentino Achak Deng Foundation
849 Valencia St.
San Francisco, CA 94110

For more information, visit

Dave Eggers' Biography and List of Books

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I really agree with all that you have said and having recently read the book, I recommend that everyone go to the nearest bookstore and buy it(so the Sudanes dont suffer anymore) and because it is one of the biggest reality checks you will ever face.