Amy’s Marginalia: What is the What?

whatisthethwatThis book probably gets the award for strangest title.  However, you could probably share some pretty bizarre titles as well.  The obscure title refers to a story the protagonist’s father tells about the origin of their people, the Dinka, who live in Southern Sudan.  God creates cows and offers them to the Dinka as his gift, but he also offers the choice to accept a mysterious alternative: “The What.”  The Dinka accept the marvelous cow, but they always wonder, “What is the What?”

This story haunts “Lost Boy” Valentino Achak Deng’s quest across Sudan to safety from the war ravaging his country.  This isn’t an easy book to read.  It’s about war, suffering, famine, and death.  But it’s also about hope and the quest for something greater, “The What,” that carries Valentino to refugee camps in other countries and eventually to a new life in the United States.

Admittedly, I didn’t know much about the Lost Boys or the plight of Sudan, prior to reading What is the What.  One thing you take from reading the book is a much greater understanding of the past 30 years of conflict in Sudan.  You don’t need to know anything about the political climate over there to enter the world of the book.  The author assumes that you, like me, are the typical, ignorant American when it comes to the plight of people in African nations.

I initially read it because the college where I teach featured it as our book of the year.  I know I wouldn’t have read it otherwise because it’s a hard book, not because the prose is difficult, but because the subject matter is heavy.  It’s so much easier to pick up a romantic piece of fiction that doesn’t challenge me at all.

I need to read “hard” books because they stretch me.  Just like the trials I face in life, they often aren’t the most enjoyable experiences at the time. But part of the discipline of reading, like the discipline of living, is recognizing that you never grow unless you accept and embrace some “hard” things, knowing that they make you a better person in the end.

Okay, nobody is going to want to read this book because I make it sound like it’s pure torture.  No, it’s not quite like that.  It’s just a hard subject to read for recreation.  Read it for other reasons. Read it to become a better informed person, to know more about people who are likely living in your communities.  These refugees from Sudan are probably all around you, but you know little about their stories.  Read it to experience a life different from your own pampered existence in the U.S.  We are blessed, and it’s good to recognize it, especially when we’re so busy whining about our economic crisis at the moment.

Dave Eggers is also a talented author.  He weaves together multiple timelines in this story and introduces a vast range of very unique people.  You see and feel Africa, a place so foreign to most of us that we need an expert guide to show us around.

Valentino also has a website, where he introduces his charitable work, focused on helping his homeland of Southern Sudan and his town, Marial Bai.  You can see videos of the town and the schools he is building.  Click here for the link.

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I read a similar book “God grew tired of us” after one of the “boys” came to speak at our college. The book was later made into a movie. Yes, we Americans mostly don’t realize what is and has been going on over there.

    Sometimes I wonder what it is about Africa that makes it such a difficult continent. Back in the late 1950’s there were two popular books written by a pastor to Africans about Christian morals as they related to sexuality, “Letters to Philip” and “Letters to Karen”. I recently looked at those two books and realized if the message had been taken to heart, the appalling African AIDS epidemic might not be ravishing that continent today. They were truly prophetic books, warning people to follow God’s ways as His ways were for their best interest.

    AL: You might have already read this, but I thought Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible had some excellent commentary on Africa and the difficulties missionaries face over there.

  2. I’m in the middle of Dave Eggers’ “You Shall Know Our Velocity.” Dave is fun.

    AL: Honestly, the only other thing I’ve read of Eggers is his editing of the “Best of the Year” collections. I’ve been told by several people that I need to read his A Heatbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.


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