(4 out of 5 stars)
This book was a recommendation from a woman I met on a plane. We sat next to each other and she was terrified of flying. She tried to distract herself by talking to me whenever there was the slightest bit of turbulence. I didn’t mind.* I also had the privilege of looking through every single photo on her camera. Needless to say, I knew quite a bit about her by the end of the flight. I took home with me a little piece of paper where she had scrawled down the name of this book, amongst other things.
What is the What is written by Dave Eggers, author of one of my favorite books, Zeitoun (see review here). It’s written from the point of view of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee living in the United States. Valentino tells the story of his nightmarish fleeing of his home country as one of the Lost Boys of Sudan during the Sudanese civil war. Valentino walked with thousands of other orphan children to Ethiopia (~750 miles, or approximately the distance from San Francisco to Salt Lake City). He chronicles the many times horrific and seemingly insurmountable obstacles that he and other children faced along the way, ranging from dealing with government soldiers and rebels, fending off hyenas and lions, to battling disease and starvation. Valentino’s story does not end after he moves to Atlanta, Georgia. What is the What also explores the difficulty of life in America for refugees.
Overall, I thought What is the What was extremely thought provoking and well-done. The novel is actually based on the stories told to Eggers by a real-life Sudanese refugee named Valentino Achak Deng, “over the course of many years” orally. It’s a little heavy, it can be a bit of a downer, but that’s real life for you.
Some memorable quotes:
“I will not wait to love as best as I can. We thought we were young and that there would be time to love well sometime in the future. This is a terrible way to think. It is no way to live, to wait to love.”
“This boy thinks I am not of his species, that I am some other kind of creature, one that can be crushed under the weight of a phone book… The pain is not great, but the symbolism is disagreeable.”
*The woman on the plane actually took some Zanax and possibly some sleeping pills an hour into the flight so I was left to watch Justin Bieber: Never Say Never in peace.