What Is The What Summary

Dave Eggers

What Is The What

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What Is The What Summary

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The novel What is the What by Dave Eggers is a fascinating example of what can happen when fiction and non-fiction mix into an autobiographical account not actually written by the subject of the autobiography. Fully titled, What is the What: An Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, this is a novel written in 2006 about the life of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee who was selected to immigrate to America. The story follows two plotlines, one with Achak’s grueling journey through Africa, experiencing disease and hunger with many other refugees in Ethiopia and Kenya, and the other is the story of him experiencing other issues after immigrating from South Sudan to his now home in Atlanta, Georgia, in the U.S.

The story begins in his Atlanta home, where an African American woman comes to Achak’s house with a guise and ends up robbing him with the man that is with her, and as Achak is tied up and the criminals steal from him, he tells the story of his journey. He tells of how privileged he felt, in comparison to the other people in his village in Southern Sudan, especially as he was surrounded by loving family and friends. He has a future of taking over his father’s shops when he retires, but the rebel Sudan people’s Liberation Army (SPLA) wants to bring Islamic law to the entire reluctant country, and so they begin to destroy the Dinka villages, and despite the chaos and bloodshed, Achka is able to escape into the forest and join a group of other escapees on their way to Ethiopia. Valentino travels long with a large group of boys, many of which die on the way, but Achak reunites with an old friend, William K, however to his dismay, William K is lost to disease and madness just before they reach their destination.

Back in America, Achak is robbed, and beaten, and after the robbers leave, Achor Achor, a friend of Achak’s, comes over and unties him and they call the police. The police seem disinterested to be of any assistance, so they go to the hospital, but Achak receives the same prejudiced behavior from the hospital staff, baffling Achak and his friend about how they are being treated, even in America.

Achak continues his story, where at this point he had crossed into Ethiopia, and set up in a refugee camp near the Gilo River. After such a long journey, he was elated to finally be safe and sound in a village, but the conditions in the Ethiopian village are far worse than he had expected. More young boys join the camp, and soon enough they are divided into groups so that the elders can educate them, however as they grow older, the SPLA rebels start coming by to recruit some of them into their army, and just as Valentino is the head of his group, and approaching the age of recruitment, the Ethiopian army comes in and devastates the camp, pushing the refugees out.

The group of young boys, dubbed “The Lost Boys” are now coerced into another journey filled with hardship, as they move into Kenya, where they discover that conditions are even worse, and they are forced to live off one meal a day. However, things grow tolerable the longer they stay there, and Achak joins a family, meets a girl named Tabitha, plays sports and goes to school, and the elders of the camp give him an opportunity to visit Nairobi as a youth leader. Later on, the authorities finally notice him, and pick him to be one of few people to immigrate to the United States. Even though it is all he wanted, now that he is chosen, he reconsiders it as he worries he will never see his family again, however when he meets with his father, his father tells him to go to America, become educated and successful, and return when he is ready.

Back in America, Valentino goes to work still bloody and beaten, because the doctors would not even see him, and many of his coworkers wonder if his appearance had something to do with his race, and the fact that “Sudanese people get into so many fights.” Valentino is depressed with how things worked out for him in the United States, especially when the girl that he was with, Tabitha, ended their relationship when they both moved to the States and she left to Seattle, and shacked up with another Sudanese man who murdered her when she finally broke up with him. All this, along with the constant recurrent theme in the story of war, poverty and disease, makes Achak rethink his life. In the end, Achak wonders whether leaving a war-torn continent and moving to one where they are not accepting of refugees from a war-torn continent really made things any different for him; to his mind, he has only exchanged one form of persecution for another one.