‘How Can I Pretend That You Do Not Exist’

“What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng,” Dave Eggers’ latest novel, is a fictionalized account of Deng, one of the Sudanese “Lost Boys” who immigrated to the United States in 2001.

Valentino Achak Deng’s harrowing tale is amazingly told
by Dave Eggers in the novel ‘What is the What.’ Perhaps the
story can help the world wake up to the atrocities in Sudan

Over the past seven years, a distinctive diaspora of young refugees from southern Sudan  — nearly 3,600 young men often referred to as the Lost Boys — have made their homes in the United States. Several hundred have settled in Louisville, becoming instantly recognizable through extensive press coverage along with their general physical characteristics, smooth and extremely dark skin and lanky stature.

On Monday, Valentino Achak Deng, another Lost Boy, pays a visit to read from a book written by Dave Eggers and based on his life, from his early days in the Sudanese village of Marial Bai to his life in Atlanta, where in the Eggers story he is robbed and assaulted and struggles to get an education.

The book, “What is the What,” is based on Deng’s experiences but also includes fictionalized elements. The title comes from legend known throughout much of southern Sudan. At the world’s beginning, God created humans and then offered the southern Sudanese a choice between cattle and “the What.” Deng’s people chose cattle, while the others chose the elusive and unattainable “What.” The story implies that it is the pursuit of “the What” that generates greed and incites war.

The saga also chronicles how Deng’s life was engulfed by the Sudanese civil war that lasted from 1983-2005 and caused an estimated 2 million deaths. It forced Deng, at about age 6, to flee his home and the fighting, with no knowledge of his family’s fate; to live in refugee camps in Ethiopia; to be recruited by rebel soldiers; and to make his way to another refugee camp in Kenya, where he and other children separated from their families languished for 10 years before being allowed to settle in the United States.

Through it all, Deng dodges bullets, bombs, helicopters, hyenas, lions, disease and death, to which many companions succumb, while growing up and trying to make sense of the world and his life. He deciphers his own truths from his experiences.

• “Boys make very poor soldiers. This is the problem.”
• “Humans are divided between those who can still look through the eyes of youth and those who cannot.”
• “We refugees can be celebrated one day, helped and lifted up and then utterly ignored by all when we prove to be a nuisance. When we find trouble here, it is invariably our own fault.”

The prose — lyrical, rich in personal authority and commanding in its ability to depict the impact of war and violence on individuals and society — is an amazing achievement for Eggers, who is known for his acclaimed debut novel, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” and for founding the McSweeney’s literary journal and publishing house.

[img_assist|nid=4655|title=Photo: UNHCR/Betty Press|desc=Southern Sudanese youth known as the “Lost Boys of Sudan” on the Sudan/Kenya border in 1992. “There were trucks every so often along that walk, carrying the worst-off travelers, sometimes bringing food and water to us,” writes Eggers of the time Deng made|link=|align=right|width=134|height=200]In 2003, Eggers met Deng, now 25 and a student at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. Soon after, Deng asked Eggers to write his story. The process took three years and included extensive research, interviews with Deng, a trip to Deng’s hometown in 2003, and, as Eggers writes, “fiddling and obsessing over the more ‘literary’ aspects.”

The book, as Deng shares in the preface, fulfilled a dream: “Even when my hours were darkest, I believed that some day I could share my experiences with readers, so as to prevent the same horrors from repeating themselves.”

The story rings true to Louisvillians from Sudan who have read the book and to mentors who have befriended them through churches and community organizations here. Holly Holland, a Louisville writer and editor who read the book, has mentored several Sudanese and helped found the Sudanese Refugee Education Fund, which finds scholarships for the Sudanese. She describes what they have endured as “epic,” and says she found Eggers’ account “profound.”

Moreover, Holland recognizes how Deng’s monologues and the dialogue in the book emulate the linguistic habits and stark yet modest vocabulary these young men employ. The most obvious example is when Deng, in a compromising situation, says, “It took all of my power in order to keep myself from evacuating my bowels at that moment.” I can share a real-life example from 2001: While producing a radio documentary about the Lost Boys, one young man told me he left Ethiopia due to “some inconvenience in government.” He was describing the violent process by which Ethiopian rebels who had overthrown their government gunned down the Sudanese. In the book, Eggers has Deng describe it more brutally: “When the sky split apart with bullets and artillery fire, all sped up and the dying began.”

Lino Nakwa and Daniel Achol, Sudanese natives who moved to Louisville, say the passages they have read reflect their experiences and their memories of their homeland.

“The clarity and style of the language in which it is written is very commanding,” Achol wrote from Berea College, where he is a senior. Yet, he also expressed skepticism over the author’s decision to fictionalize the story, concerned it might diminish the authenticity.

Photo courtesy of The Valentino Achak Deng Foundation.: Valentino Deng and Dave Eggers (top) discuss building plans for a community complex in Marial Bai with architects.

Photo courtesy of The Valentino Achak Deng Foundation.: Valentino Deng and Dave Eggers (top) discuss building plans for a community complex in Marial Bai with architects.

Still, Achol is impressed with how accurately the prose captures his country and the war. Based on my own experiences as a humanitarian worker in southern Sudan and with many Sudanese during the 1990s, I find deep resonance in Eggers’ descriptions of the region’s various landscapes and the brutality of the war, as well as his rich characterizations and voices and his interpretations of the time’s political events. The prose powerfully evoked familiar emotions, reviving in my imagination a place, time and people that were a significant part of my life.

“What is the What” is only the latest story about these Sudanese. Previous books include “The Lost Boys of Sudan” and “They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky,” and film documentaries include “Lost Boys of Sudan,” an Emmy-nominated work that aired on public television in late 2004, and “God Grew Tired of Us,” which won several awards at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival.

Still, Deng and Eggers have crafted a work that readers can internalize, and it could conceivably reach people in much the same manner as did Anne Frank’s diary, in which the young Jewish girl chronicled events and feelings while hiding during the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam in World War II. That profound work helped the world understand the suffering and devastation of the Holocaust, and one hopes “What is the What” can similarly speak for the victims of contemporary wars in remote places.

“Not on Our Watch,”: a new book by Don Cheadle and John Predergast, provides strategies that individuals and groups can implement to stop genocide in Darfur, Sudan.

“Not on Our Watch,”: a new book by Don Cheadle and John Predergast, provides strategies that individuals and groups can implement to stop genocide in Darfur, Sudan.

Further, the book is a conscious call to action on several levels. It acts to support the Lost Boys in this country and Deng’s hometown, by funneling some proceeds toward educating Sudanese immigrants and building an education center in Marial Bai. (Getting interviews with Eggers or Deng has proven difficult, as they plan to travel to Marial Bai this summer to build an educational center that may be completed by late 2008.)

On a global level, the book aims to be an agent to end genocide in Darfur, Sudan’s western region and home to 36 tribes of Arabs and non-Arabs. Fighting there between rebel groups and the government and its allied militias has caused more than 200,000 deaths and displaced more than 2 million people, according to the United Nations. To rally the public to help victims of the fighting, Eggers is donating other proceeds to organizations working for peace and humanitarian relief in Darfur.

Even before January 2005, when the Khartoum government and leaders from southern Sudan signed peace accords to end more than 21 years of civil war in the south, conflict loomed in Sudan’s western region of Darfur. And though “What is the What” is a story about the war in the south, Eggers uses Darfur as a point of reference early in the story, writing that during the earlier war “the Sudanese government practiced and perfected the genocidal violence that it later unleashed on Darfur.” Writing in The Nation in March, Alex de Waal, a British expert on Sudan, identified Khartoum’s exploitation of Darfur’s people and resources as the cause of the fighting, and equated current actions with those during the civil war in the south.

“Please enjoy these photographs,”: writes Deng on the Web site for The Valentino Achak Deng Foundation. Eggers took this in Marial Bai in December 2003.  Credit: Dave Eggers

“Please enjoy these photographs,”: writes Deng on the Web site for The Valentino Achak Deng Foundation. Eggers took this in Marial Bai in December 2003. Credit: Dave Eggers

Along with the previous books and films, “What is the What” also provides the public, through companion Web sites, specific strategies for putting pressure on the U.S. government and intergovernmental organizations to stop the Darfur genocide. (For example, McSweeney’s Web site has a page titled “Ten Things You Can Do for Sudan.”) Those efforts were reinforced late last month when actor Don Cheadle (“Hotel Rwanda”) and John Prendergast, a senior adviser to the International Crisis Group, released their book “Not on Our Watch: The Mission to End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond.”

Meanwhile, Louisville has had its share of events to raise awareness about and funds for those from Darfur who are suffering. Last year, the Louisville attorney and art collector Paul Paletti exhibited photos by the war photographer James Nachtwey, who has worked in Darfur, and brought him to Louisville for a lecture. This year, The Muhammad Ali Center and Catholic Charities exhibited “Surviving Darfur,” a photo essay from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Also, members of area churches and synagogues have urged action to stop the genocide. And Deng’s Louisville appearance is sponsored in part by the recently formed Kentuckiana Interfaith Task Force on Darfur, a coalition of local social service organizations, social activist and religious groups, and individuals.

Taskforce member Bob Brousseau says he started realizing the extent of the carnage about 18 months ago, after he began reading columns about it by New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof. “Something about it just clicked,” Brousseau says, “and I felt that I had to do something.”

Photo courtesy of McSweeney’s: Valenino Deng, whose life is the basis of the Dave Eggers novel “What is the What.”

Photo courtesy of McSweeney’s: Valenino Deng, whose life is the basis of the Dave Eggers novel “What is the What.”

Brousseau began working with his synagogue, The Temple, to form its own taskforce on Darfur. His involvement grew after he met people from other groups who had organized a forum for Human Rights Day at the Jewish Community Center. By March, members of this informal group had coalesced, and they helped generate a crowd for a showing of “Escape from Darfur,” a documentary by Louisville filmmaker Andrew Thuita about refugees who have settled in Louisville. They held Jamnesty, a concert with area musicians that raised $5,300 for an organization called Save Darfur and the U.N. World Food Programme.

Then there are Louisvillians like Mark J. Perelmuter, who has been a mentor to many Lost Boys here since 2001. Perelmuter, an orthodontist who has family members who survived the Holocaust, plans to attend Monday’s event; a year ago he marched in Washington, D.C., with thousands of others protesting the Darfur genocide.
Several months after the march, President Bush signed into law The Darfur Peace and Accountability Act, which called the killing genocide and directed the government to assist the International Criminal Court to bring justice to those guilty of war crimes in Darfur.

But Perelmuter worries that there is no plan to stop the violence.
“Unfortunately, a year has gone by since that Washington rally, and the dying continues,” he wrote via e-mail.
Many believe U.S. inaction is largely due to our government’s untruths about Iraq since 2001 and the current state of the war there, which have collectively weakened the United States’ ability to mobilize the global community.

Still, Perelmuter remains resolute that demonstrations and letters to lawmakers can lead to change in Sudan. “Our leaders will respond to this genocide seriously if they see overwhelming demand from the people,” he wrote. “After that, it is up to our leaders to develop a plan of action that will be effective in recruiting other nations and alliances to stop the killing.”

While war — whether in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo or Rwanda — has always alarmed Perelmuter, Darfur is more personal because of his relationships with the Sudanese here, who say the tactics behind the massacres reported from Darfur correlate to their own experiences during the last civil war.

“I know these young men. They still have families there. I’ve heard their stories,” Perelmuter says. “I know the faces of victims attached to these events. We shouldn’t need to personalize inhumanity to oppose it, but this has become personal to me.”

While there is no plan on the table to end the genocide, developments last Wednesday offered hope: The International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants against a Sudanese cabinet minister and a militia leader, who are charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity in leading attacks in Darfur. The Sudanese government is required to deliver the two suspects for trial in The Hague.

While peace in all of Sudan seems like a distant prospect, the story by Deng and Eggers and Deng’s current U.S. tour might help motivate people to learn more about Sudan and the real ravages of war.

 By its very nature, “What is the What” places great faith in the need for people to hear truthful stories with a large share of tragedy. And in the closing chapter, Deng stresses the importance of telling stories even when people don’t want to hear them.

“Whatever I do, however I find a way to live, I will tell these stories. … I speak to you because I cannot help it. It gives me strength, almost unbelievable strength, to know that you are there. … How blessed are we to have each other? I am alive and you are alive so we must fill the air with our words. I will fill today, tomorrow, every day until I am taken back to God. I will tell stories to people who will listen and to people who don’t want to listen, to people who seek me out and to those who run. All the while I will know that you are there. How can I pretend that you do not exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist.”

For links to more information about organizations working with the Lost Boys, those working for peace and providing humanitarian relief in Darfur, visit www.leoweekly.com. Contact the writer at [email protected]