Excerpt: Dave Eggers' What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng

If pressed upon to tell The Truth and nothing but the Truth, The Excerpt Reader will avow, like most Western readers I guess, to a strong abstention from any non-western literature. 

That will include the odd African, Eastern or at times even North American novel that might make it through the cultural barrier separating between this world and the Other.

This, even when taking into account that, if pried upon a little, The Excerpt Reader's lineage would burst with Baltic and Oriental remnants upon the slightest touch. 

Thus, even if a novel like Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart or Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger were to miraculously land on my book-shelf (I actually received the latter as a birthday present some two years ago); Even if Zadie Smith's White Teeth were to be televised and screened on my TV (it actually was, but I didn't make it through the first chapter of the British series; What's more, I actually bought the book myself, in free will and good mind, about 10 years ago in Heathrow airport at a bargain price, along with some 2-3 other paperbacks); Even then I am ashamed to say I would be reluctant to pick any of these books up and actually give them the reading they deserve.

It would have to take a "miracle", hence, something like incidentally stumbling upon an odd remark from a fellow Facebook  user, claiming: "Reading Vernon God Little in the car and What Is The What at home. Some contrast!" to make The Excerpt Reader pop out of its shell and give this 'African' novel's excerpt a good rummaging-through before giving it its just verdict.

True, you might justly claim that Dave Eggers' What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng is not a 'proper' African novel, in that it was written by an American writer and not by Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee, as the oxymoronic title suggests (was 'Biography' not enough? Are we to believe that Eggers embodies Achak-Deng so thoroughly in this narrative that he can claim to be speaking as/for him?!), but the book is after all based on the real life story of Achak-Deng, so there is some 'justice' in Eggers' endeavors here, as well as in my reading it, i guess (If it weren't for the Western transcription of the 'African' events and emotions described here, I sadly confess I most likely would not have been tempted enough to read the excerpt at all).

The first excerpt is taken from the book's first chapter. Chronologically speaking, we're starting from the 'end', when Sudanese refugee ValenDeng is living in the US, after over ten years of wondering from one country to the other, seeking shelter.

The US is no haven, as we are quickly led to understand: shortly after settling in, Deng is mugged by two african-americans, probably junkies, who take his money and beat him up, while repeatedly referring to him as 'Africa', or 'Nigerian' ("In America I have been called Nigerian before-it must be the most familiar of African countries", write Eggers/Deng, as if protecting the readers from the other 'truth', or prejudice: that all black people look the same..).

Thus, even in the midst of the 'white' world; amidst all the wealth and opportunity, Deng is confronted with the same type of cruelty, the same type of ignorance he has fled from in his motherland: " I have the fortune of having seen more suffering than I have suffered myself [...] I suppose there is little in the way of violence that I have not seen in Sudan, in Kenya," making the suffering he has had to endure in Sudan relatively bearable, as cruel as that sounds: "[...] Strewn across the couch and my hand is wet with blood, I find myself missing all of Africa. I miss Sudan, I miss the howling grey desert of northwest Kenya. I miss the yellow nothing of Ethiopia."

Deng's conclusion is inevitable, even if somewhat 'softened' by Eggers, who still owes his American identity its due defense: "I am tired of this country. I am thankful for it, yes, I have cherished many aspects of it for the three years I have been here, but I am tired of the promises."

The second excerpt is finds us a little bit further up the road (or down the road, if you prefer, as it is set a few years before the first chapter). 

Thirteen years old Achak Deng (known simply as Achak at this point) is on the road, together with some 80,000 other Sudanese refugees, on the look for a permanent resting place.

Again, Achak is confronted with existential thoughts: "After my walk to Kenya, when Maria found me on the road wanting to be lifted back to God, I spent many months thinking about why I should have been born at all."

Intentionally or un-, Eggers seems to transcribe Achak-Deng's narrative into a simple and 'childish' stream, either because Deng was a still child at the time of the told events, or in order to make the events described 'simpler' and more easily accessible to the western mind. 

But there's nothing 'simple' or easily comprehended about the life Achak-Deng has had to endure: "[...] I grew up in refugee camps. I lived in Pinyudo for almost three years, Golkur for almost one year, and Kakuma for ten. In Kakuma, a small community of tents grew to a vast patchwork of shanties and buildings constructed from poles and sisal bags and mud, and this is where we lived and worked and went to school from 1992 to 2001. It is not the worst place on the continent of Africa, but it is among them."

Living on one meal a day (a concept almost unfathomable to the average western citizen, living amidst all the plenty), Achak-Deng (or is it Eggers?) strives to display 'normality' nevertheless: "we ate and talked and laughed and grew. Goods were traded, men married women, babies were born, the sick were healed and, just as often, went to Zone Eight and then to the sweet hereafter. We young people went to school" but the refugee camp and the life of want is threatening to become a permanent solution for the sea of refugees inhabiting it: "we came to accept that Kakuma would exist forever, and that we might always live within its borders."

All this is delivered unto the reader as in retribution, either for 'our' inability to understand or for our lack of basic care for fellow human beings and the conditions they have to endure: "There is a perception in the West that refugee camps are temporary. When images of the earthquakes in Pakistan are shown, and the survivors seen in their vast cities of shale-colored tents, waiting for food or rescue before the coming of winter, most Westerners believe that these refugees will soon be returned to their homes, that the camps will be dismantled inside of six months, perhaps a year."

There is no escape from the truth, which is repeated in various forms, a few hundred times no-doubt, throughout this 'Autobiography': "Kakuma was a terrible place for people to live, for children to grow."

All this retribution, I am led to understand, is coming in much too late. 

The events described in Achak-Deng's narrative passed some ten to twenty years ago, as the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation makes very clear: "Between May 16, 1983 and January 9, 2005 over two and one-half million people died of war and war-related causes in Sudan, over four million people were internally displaced in southern Sudan and nearly two million southern Sudanese took refuge in foreign countries."

Transcribed by Eggers and published in 2006 to great critical and public acclaim, What is the What is a perfect example of the western flirtation with dementia. Catastrophes only become 'relevant' once they're gift-wrapped, neatly packaged and delivered to our doorsteps (wasn't the erection of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1993 a similar western 'gesture' towards a significant event of human suffering, coming in some 50 years too late?! Aren't the Vanity Fair pieces about the Haiti earthquake's aftermath, beautifully laid out with Sean Penn and Bill Clinton photo shoots, coming in about 6 months too late?!)

Blessedly ignorant and willingly blindfolded we wrap our western guilt with paperbacks and magazine prints.

VERDICT: BUT IT (If only to subdue that western conscience of yours)

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