Many stories have been documented in recent years of the horrific state of humanity in many regions of Africa. As a person whose day to day existence can easily be completely removed from even knowledge of such experience, hearing the stories of the lost and the displaced never fails to weigh on my heart. In his recent book “What is the What,” Dave Eggers tells the story of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese man who walked across his country with the Lost Boys as a child, grew up in a refugee camp and eventually relocated to Atlanta, Georgia. What makes this book different from others of similar topic is the literary craft within it. As an author writing a true story, Eggers has done an incredible job relaying Deng’s story in a way that keeps the reader thinking and reflecting the entire way through.
Eggers begins the narration with a break in and mugging in Deng’s home. The story of twenty four Atlanta hours are paralled and alternated with the 15 plus years that he spent from the time he was forced to flee his village in southwest Sudan until the day that he is relocated from a refugee camp in Kenya. The story progresses because Valentino tells parts of his story, silently in his head, to each of the people that he encounters in the twenty four hour period. This is the brilliancy of the craft. We, as readers, become the people he is talking to: whether we be his captor who has broken into his apartment, the receptionist at the hospital or the people at the gym where he works, we are the ones who desperately need to hear and digest this story.
In the eleventh chapter of the book, Valentino is tied up in his own apartment, kicking and flailing in hopes that one of his neighbors would hear and help. In his head, he is shouting: “Hear me, Christian neighbors! Hear your brother just above! Nothing again. No one is listening. No one is waiting to ear the kicking of a man above. It is unexpected. You have no ears for someone like me (page 142).” In lives of comfort, it is unexpected to find such suffering and such stories. It is difficult to hear them.
Eggers causes the reader to question how many people we pass or interact with without knowing their stories. Are people merely faces? And if we hear the story, do we forget it, take it as a commodity or let its sorrows and small joys resonate within us to the point of realizing our common humanity?
Deng and thousands of other boys walked to Ethiopia in hope of safety and food, in danger of death each day, be it bombings, guns, or starvation. Along the way, all of the boys imagine what kind of place Ethiopia will be and place upon it all of their misplaced dreams that have been lost. In a poignant moment upon arrival, Valentino realizes that the dreams they had for Ethiopia were misplaced as well: the landscape was just as bleak as where they had come from. All he can repeat is “This is not the place (page 256)” over and over again. This is what runs through my head as I look out into the suffering that exists in my neighborhood, my city, my country and my world. This is not the place it was designed to be.
Too often I resign my heart and my hopes for the world the way that Valentino did as he continued walking : “This time I had no dreams of bowls of oranges. I knew that the world was the same everywhere, that there were only inconsequential variations between the suffering in one place and another (page 349).” The brokenness in the world can seem so all encompassing, so big, so damning. But. This is where I turn back to Eggers’ narration of the novel. We must listen to the stories of those around us. We must help one another bear the burdens of this life together. To ignore the stories of those around us is to become like the people to whom Deng talks to, in his head at teh gym where he works, near the end of the book: “The rooms become crowded…people become tense. The members are determined to work out and it is frustrating to them when they cannot do it on the timetable they had planned (page 503).” I am challenged by this book to take in stories. To have ears. To let the stories of my brothers and sisters invade my heart. To try to lose my grip on the meaningless concerns that occupy my mind.
This story is challenging and sorrowful, yet beautiful and hopeful. It is true that “this is not the place.” Earth and its inhabitants alone cannot restore what is broken. But we can listen.