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What We’re Reading: What Is the What by Dave Eggers

By Allison Bearden

By Allison Bearden, Resource Development Intern, Opportunity International

Every Wednesday, we highlight an article, book or a blog in our “What We’re Reading” series. We feature works that are noteworthy, inspiring, educational or relevant to the work we do at Opportunity. We welcome your comments in the comment field below–tell us what you’re reading, or respond to the piece that we’ve highlighted. The following post is on Dave Eggers’ moving novel, What Is the What, about the real-life struggles and triumphs of one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan.”  

Have you ever looked into the face of a person from a developing country and wondered how the world looks from their vantage point? How does it feel to grow up in the midst of poverty and suffering? If they have been exposed to life in the West, how does its culture appear from the outside? What does economic security feel like after surviving on so little for so long? 

What Is the What is the gripping story of Valentino Achak Deng, an immigrant resettled in Atlanta, Georgia, who was one of the more than 27,000 Lost Boys of Sudan. The Lost Boys are a group of Sudanese young men—along with a small percentage of women—that were displaced or orphaned as a result of the Second Sudanese War, which lasted from 1983 until 2005, and claimed over two million lives. Their nickname was coined by the aid organizations that provided them with basic necessities at refugee camps and eventually helped many resettle in more peaceful places. 

Valentino’s account begins in Atlanta, but alternates between his life in America and his vivid past. As a boy, Valentino is abruptly separated from his family when a group of murahaleen, government-supported rebels, raids his Sudanese village. This begins his desperate and lonely journey to various refugee camps, culminating in his resettlement in the United States. Though his adopted country provides Valentino with personal security and freedom from extreme poverty, he encounters new challenges that continue to test his resolve and provide him with priceless insights into the human condition. 

Though technically a novel, What Is the What is based on years of interviews conducted by writer Dave Eggers with Valentino Achak Deng. It is based entirely upon true events that occurred in Valentino’s life, and is only considered a work of fiction because Eggers took some artistic license recounting Valentino’s earliest experiences, which he was too young to remember in detail. 

Valentino writes the book’s preface, and in it he states, “My desire to have this book written was born out of my faith and beliefs in humanity; I wanted to reach out to others to help them understand Sudan’s place in our global community.” 

Lack of knowledge and understanding are undoubtedly at the roots of some of the world’s longest-standing and bloodiest conflicts. Reading powerful works like What Is the Whatprovides valuable insight into the life of one refugee, and in doing so encourages readers tohttp://www.opportunity.org/be-involved/engage[/intlink] with the world and its diverse people on a deeper level. When we learn what it’s like to walk in the shoes of someone who has suffered, we gain compassion and understanding of all people.

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