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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