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What Is the What

A book by Dave Eggers

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Struggling with Identity

  • Jun 17, 2010


Spoiler Alert: Plot elements were used

Every child finds his or her own coming-of-age process in a gradual acculturation with common surroundings. A heavy representation of this process is linked to one’s name, designating the essence and nature of any certain individual. In his novel What is the What, Dave Eggers addresses the Achak’s multiple names to stress his struggle with maturing into a stable identity.

Achak starts his life journey embracing names that define very different aspects of his life. In Marial Bai, the city in Sudan where he was born, he is known as Achak Arou, son of Deng Arou. Through this designation, he has a last name that perpetually links him to his family, identifying him as part of the Arou line. Moreover, the native name, Achak, ties him back to the culture and environment of his own people, the Dinka. It is with this name that Achak associates his early life and usually describes himself, taking pride of his origins. The persistent harkening back with references to his given name throughout the novel indicates that Achak acknowledges the importance of his true home in Sudan. In a sense, nevertheless, it can be seen that Achak has this inability to fully change into a whole new person as he encounters the diverse scenarios in his flight, never forsaking his important and defining childhood. The Dinka, however, are also a christianized people, and Achak is part of the Catholic community. Embracing Christianity, Achak also adopts his baptismal name, Valentino. The fact that he is not even able to pronounce it correctly at first suggests his difficulty to adapt to a new lifestyle. Nonetheless, Achak is eventually able to undertake the task to adjust and easily presents himself as Valentino. This exemplifies how the Christian faith has become a true and legitimate part of who Achak genuinely is, denoting his success in going through this stage that shapes his identity. More than that, Achak, by accepting his new name, is bestowed with a significant commission that basically dictates who he is to become as a person. The name lends itself to the fulfillment of a life akin to that of St. Valentine, a benevolent man willing to bring hope and recovery to the lost. Although he is not initially comfortable with the idea, Achak progressively becomes a leader among the lost boys. His valued position enables him to at first provide immediate assistant to his fellow lost boys, and eventually awareness about the peril they undergo. Living this dual life of a boy rooted in the Dinka traditions and of a benign Catholic believer, Achak merges two distinct identities into one new one, open to change again as his life expedition continues.

Growing up into a young adult, Achak was given more names, labels from society, creating expectations he had to meet. As a student in one of the reservations in which he had to live, Achak was, like all his classmates, called Dominic by his drama teacher. The reason, she alleges, she does that is because she cannot remember the names of the boys. This is used to emphasize Achak’s part of a whole as opposed to a distinct personality. In the school is learns to be one with the community, a lesson he applies when he reaches America in easing his transition. Furthermore, the denotation of the name, from the Latin meaning “godly,” exalted the boys as agents of purity and kindness. From this setting, the reader sees Achak’s development to becoming a humble yet charismatic character, already wonderfully telling his moving stories then. Concluding his passage from infancy to adulthood as far as it goes, Achak is then called “Gone Far.” This title does a good job of entailing the accomplishments in Achak’s life, summing them up in a eulogistic term. Evidently, leaving his war-destroyed home, pilgrimaging through Africa seeking survival, and yet being able to reach out for a better future in America is truly an outstanding feat. But more than merely reflecting Achak’s life, this name encourages him to be proud of who he is and what he has done. It is this name that suggests his will to showcase his endeavors in becoming a better person and changing according to where life leads him. In being Gone Far and proving Gone Far, Achak must show the world that despite of being the “Sleeper” in his valleys, he is capable of finding a positive identity gathered from his experiences.

In America, Achak is known as Dominic Arou, a godly Dinka, until he changes his name to the current Valentino Achak Deng, a benevolent Catholic from Africa. As a Gone Far, he continues to tell his stories, which are no longer silent, to the American public, gathering funds to contribute back to his origins. A single name is not enough to contain the meaning of Achak’s proper identity, so his different facets of personality are each apportioned to a title, all of which, when put together, disclose what Achak has come to be.

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More What Is the What reviews
review by . July 30, 2010
'What is the What': A Book that will Break you Heart in the Best Way Imaginable
Dave Eggers wrote the autobiography of Valentino Achack Deng; a sincere and heart-wrenching tale of a young boy from Marial Bai engulfed in the civil war that tore the country of Sudan apart. It is this man's tale of escaping from death, becoming a part of the Lost Boys, living in Ethiopian and Kenyan refugee camps and journeying to America. It is the story of a boy becoming a man in a rapidly changing world. It is a story of a country losing its culture and future. It is a story about survival. …
Quick Tip by . June 17, 2010
splendid and gripping... illuminating and unexpected. eggers's prose finds new purpose in the heart of the sudanese civil war.
Quick Tip by . June 17, 2010
powerful, chilling, a rare look into a world that many of us cannot imagine
review by . December 19, 2008
What Is The What? is a collaborative effort. Written as though it were an autobiography of a Sudanese refugee named Valentino Achak Deng, What...? is still classified as a fictional novel. As stated in the introduction, Deng told the story of his life to Eggers over the course of a few years. Eggers then wrote the novel based on the real life events. The clasification as fiction could be due in part  to the fall-out from "A Million Little Pieces" by James Frey. In any case, Eggers weaves the …
review by . February 06, 2009
Beginning with a naively trusting man being robbed and beaten by criminals who were invited in after pleading to use the phone, "What Is The What" grabs you from the get-go, both by the plot and by the matter-of-fact and stark voice of a Sudanese refugee in which the story is told.      Not resembling Egger's other works at all, "What Is The What" is the memoir of Valentino Achak Deng, as told to Eggers in numerous interviews and conversations, and the fact that the story leaves …
review by . December 25, 2006
"What Is the What" is Dave Eggers' fictionalized biography of Valentino Achak Deng's Sudanese experience. If most of the events were not true or at least based upon actual experiences, the horrors exposed would be hard to be. As is, they are hard to stomach. So much of today's biographical and autobiographical writing is "Yuppie Angst" (rich, spoiled brats crying about their hangnails). Here we find real suffering. Because of its geographical setting and religious backdrop, "What Is the What" also …
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Dalmo Mendonca ()
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About this book


What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng is a 2006 novel written by Dave Eggers. It is based on the real life story of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee and member of the Lost Boys of Sudan program.

As a boy, Deng is separated from his family during the Second Sudanese Civil War when the Arab militia, referred to as murahaleen (which is Arabic for traveller), wipes out his Dinka village. He flees on foot with a group of other young boys, (the "Lost Boys"), encountering great danger and terrible hardship along the way to a refugee camp in Ethiopia; they are forced to flee a second time to another refugee camp in Kenya and finally, years later, he moves to the United States. The story is told in parallel to subsequent hardships in the United States.
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Books, Cafe Libri, Fiction, Africa, Sudan, Lost Boys, Valentino Achak Deng, Sudanese, Mcsweeneys, Dave Eggers


ISBN-10: 1932416641
ISBN-13: 978-1932416640
Author: Dave Eggers
Publisher: McSweeney's; 1 edition (October 25, 2006)

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