Dave Eggers reading “What is the What”

Dave Eggers has a strong streak of social consciousness, as can be seen through his 826 Valencia writing program for kids, the content of You Shall Know Our Velocity, where the character travels the globe looking to give people money, and in the 2005 book Surviving Justice: America’s Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated, a book of interviews with people saved from the death penalty. The topic of his new book, What is the What, doesn’t swerve from this socially conscious path. It’s a novelized biography of Valentino Achak Deng, a survivor of the Darfur genocide, who is part of a group of children known as the Lost Boys because they walked for months trying to escape to Ethiopia. In another example of Egger’s social activism, all the proceeds from the sale of What is the What are going to Deng, who has a set up a foundation to use the money to educate the Sudanese.

When I went to the Hammer Museum reading with Eggers in LA last night, I expected an interview with Eggers, but it turned out Eggers was interviewing Deng. The talk was modeled after the three years Eggers had spent interviewing Deng, amassing all the information needed for the book, and seemed to have two purposes: First, to promote What is the What, of course, but secondly, and more importantly, to raise awareness for the genocide continuing in Darfur. Eggers perpetual hand-wringing did not interfere with either of those purposes, although it did make me wonder whether his fingers and palms would start bleeding by the end of the hour long talk.

The novel/memoir follows Deng as he flees Sudan, joins with other boys, escapes lions, heat, starvation, and persecutors, finally escapes the country, spends ten years at a refugee camp in Kenya, and then is resettled in the US just after 9/11, where he endured beatings for being Sudanese (Osama Bin Laden spent a number of years based in Sudan). As Eggers was reading passages, I found his prose was much more minimalist than his other books, very straight-forward and spare, probably trying to match Deng’s natural voice.

In the discussion with Eggers, Deng’s religious bent also came through as he thanked God for his transfer to the U.S., talked about forgiving those who had tied him up with a phone cord and robbed him, and said that all things work together for a reason. His specific faith orientation was never mentioned, but when I read the book I’m curious to see how much of his spirituality made it in.

A note on Egger’s genre straddling: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was a memoir, yes, but with fictional elements. And What is the What is a biography, but it has been novelized, which means Deng and Eggers recreated all the conversations that Deng couldn’t possibly remember. Publisher’s weekly calls it a "fictionalized memoir" while Booklist says it’s "mostly true." In bookstores it’s being categorized as a novel, but its marketing strategy is highlighting the real-life basis. In fact, Wikipedia has a colon after What is the What with the addition, "An autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng." What’s ironic is that a common technique in creative non-fiction is to re-create plausible dialogue, and those books still are categorized as non-fiction. In fact, what memoir doesn’t have re-created dialogue? Unless entire scenes or characters are created, I would think it would still fall in the non-fiction camp. In fact, I would guess that especially in pre-James Frey days, many creative non-fiction books took more license that Eggers takes. But in the aftermath of Frey, we now categorize the book as fiction while selling it to readers by assuring them it’s all true.

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