What is the What
An interview with Valentino Achak Deng and Dave Eggers
If you simply looked at the state of his hotel room, Valentino Achak Deng might be any other college student enjoying New York City on fall break. The bed is unmade, a pair of pants splays across the floor; an open box of powdered cookies beckons. “It’s not normally like this,” says the 6-foot-3-inch Deng, busy picking up after himself.
It’s almost encouraging to see this hint of youthful normality from the twenty-something Sudanese. After all, his has been an extraordinarily unordinary childhood. Born in southern Sudan, he fled his village at age 9 when the second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005) broke out. Arab militiamen burned every building to the ground and Valentino was separated from his mother and father. He had no idea whether they were alive or dead.
Along with an estimated 20,000 other boys, he spent the next decade literally running for his life. He evaded lions and rebel gunfighters and walked to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, where he lived a nearly normal life in bursts, all the while hoping for a greater escape to America. In a bizarre fluke of nature, he was on a plane departing for the U.S. on the morning of Sept. 11.
Not long after he at last made it to America with a group of Sudanese who came to be known as the Lost Boys, he heard from Dave Eggers, the bestselling memoirist and founder of McSweeney’s, the publishing house and sponsoring arm of writing labs like 826 Valencia. Eggers had been tipped off to Valentino’s story by an activist in Atlanta. “My attitude was, it can’t hurt at all to hear his story,” says Eggers, sitting on the bed in Deng's tiny hotel room.
That was four years ago, and since then they have worked to tell Valentino’s story in Eggers’ words. What is the What is finally finished, and it is the first major “nonfiction novel” since Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. A week before the book’s official launch, the two authors explained what the journey was like for them.
Valentino, what does it feel like to hold your story in your hands?
Valentino: Wow, it feels good! Every time I come in here, I pick up [the book] and hold it. [He clutches it to himself.] The first time I saw it, I was like, “Awesome!”
One of the conclusions of this book is that you were born to tell your story. Did it help to have someone take the burden for you?
Valentino: It did. I met Dave when he started to write the book. Dave called me and said, “Valentino, what happened there? Can you remember what happened? Can you recall what your hometown was like, who were the people there?” And then he began asking questions that had never been asked before, even by journalists.
As hard off as you are throughout this story, it seems you are constantly aware of others that had it worse, like women. Why?
Valentino: I am very much concerned about the future of women. During war, the women suffered far more than men, and in a male-dominated society, you know, it’s the men who bring the war. Before I fled [my home village], I saw women crying because their daughters were abducted, their sons were abducted. Some of the wailings that affected me the most were those.
Women in my group [of escapees] also could fall victims of many things: They could be abducted, or they could be raped, or they could be forced to marry. And these are additional forces to the general hostility that everybody is facing. I didn’t go through that. I thought, “OK, if things get bad they will just kill me.”
Dave, did you have to come up with different ways to approach Valentino to shake these memories loose?
Eggers: I had to guess. I had to say, “On this day you probably thought about this”—and I started writing episodes from scratch without even asking, and then I’d show it to him and ask, “Is this anywhere near the truth?”
Valentino, does it sound to you like your voice?
Valentino: Yep, in most cases it does. Let’s say 99 percent of the cases.
Is it the voice you think in, or the voice you speak in, or a bit of both?
Valentino: Both. There are times when I would pause when Dave sent a [section] and I wondered, “How is he able to imagine this?” And I’d ask him, “How do you manage to put yourself in my place?” I came to realize we had been together a long time, and we went to Sudan together and it probably helped him.
Were there memories you feel like you rescued?
Valentino: Yes. Like my mother’s mood before war, my father’s mood before war. My father’s business. All that went away and I was only able to think about how will I reunite with my family.
And there were some good times, too, especially among the girls you meet at one of the camps. In one place, Valentino’s character says something like, “People say that girls like my company.”
Eggers: That’s how Val puts it, too. When I asked him about the many implications of Valentino, he had some answers very much like, “Oh, yes, I do very well with the ladies.”
Valentino: I have this reputation of getting along well with women.
Eggers: Part of it has to do with the fact that as a youth educator in one of the camps, Valentino was very enlightened about women’s issues. So when he would say, “Yeah, I get along very well with the ladies,” it sounds to us like one thing, but to him it meant another thing. I was trying to capture this all the way through.
How did you decide what to leave out?
Eggers: That was the thing—we had to cut back. It was just too much. In the book, Valentino was dealing with leaving to America, he was dealing with the death of a friend. Once we decided to make it a novel some of the most unbelievable stuff we actually had to cut back on, as it seemed we were just heaping it on. One of the most popular things to mention in the media is the fact that the Lost Boys were attacked by lions. So I put one attack in there—but there were many more.
Valentino, you finish the story and your belief in God is still really powerful, while many other people might finish and think: How could God abandon them so?
Valentino: There was no way I could have survived the journey without God. Drinking stagnant water, water that was smelling. Eating food that was completely wild; eating wild beans and trees and fruit; and not dying. I should have died! Something kept me alive. I thought, “That must be God.”
Now that this book is out, do you anticipate hearing from a lot of the other Sudanese refugees?
Valentino: Yes. It will probably include politicians calling me, and I know some of them will read the book and like it. But when they read this they will call and will say, “Thank you for writing this,” or “I condemn you but it is perfect!” (laughs) More people are going to call me, and I will have to determine in the future whether I can take these calls.