Cheering for The What

may 2008 058

I’ve just finished reading, “What is the What” and I have to say — it is an excellent, heartbreaking work of genius. No coincidence it’s author — Dave Eggers — already wrote a book by a similar title. This biography of one of the Sudanese Lost Boys had me laughing and at one particularly horrifying point, crying into the soft gray pages. It is a great story that needed to be told 10 years ago. I applaud Eggers for taking such a series of such daunting topics (Sudanese politics and history, refugee life, asylum, immigrant life in the United States) and making them humorous, entertaining and thought-provoking. For example, one of my favorite scenes puts the narrator at an Atlanta Hawks game sitting with Manute Bol — the token spokesman for Sudan in the United States. There he sat with a gaggle of other Sudanese refugees, newly moved to Atlanta. They were all malnourished, confused by their surroundings and totally overwhelmed by their environment. If being in the stadium with the basketball game occurring wasn’t odd enough to their much more simple sensibilities, imagine half-time. These conservative men were about to lose their minds when the cheerleaders came out:
“They performed a hyperactive and very provocative dance to a song by Puff Daddy. We all stared at the gyrating young women, who put forth an image of great power and fierce sexuality. It would have been impolite to turn away, but at the same time, the dancers made me uncomfortable. The music was the loudest I have heard in my life, and the spectacle of the stadium, with its 120-foot ceiling, its thousands of seats, its glass and chrome and banners, its cheerleaders and murderous sound system — seemed perfectly designed to drive people insane.”
Then, as if to add insult to their cultural injury, these refugees watched as the women loaded guns (guns! They’d just barely escaped with their lives) with t-shirts. T-shirts were precious to this group. They’d traded clothing along their routes to survive. I’d never before considered what a ridiculous scene this must be to a foreigner and how it flaunts American excess at each cartwheel.
Four out of five bananas, absoloodle.

A few of my favorite excerpts, from the voice of the narrator, Valentino Achak Deng:

After being assaulted in his own home in Atlanta by African Americans who nearly kill him and refer to him as “Africa” and “Nigeria” during the attack, he says:
“Each time I find myself giving up on this country, I have the persistent habit of realizing all that I have here and did not have in Africa. It is annoying, this habit, when I want to count and measure the difficulties of life here. This is a miserable place, of course, a miserable and glorious place that I love dearly and of which I have seen far more than I could have expected.”

And so poignantly when discussing his love through war, refugee camps, and establishing life in a new country that might as well be in a new solar system, he says,

“I cannot count the times I have curses our lack of urgency. If ever I love again, I will not wait to love as best as I can. We thought we were young and that there would be time to love well sometime in the future. This is a terrible way to think. It is no way to live, to wait to love.”

If you are interested in Africa, the immigrant experience in the United States or the Sudanese Lost Boys — this is a must read. We have a large population of Lost Boys in Phoenix. Many work at the airport. I’m know I’m going to embarrass myself next time I see them; I imagine a series very inappropriate but well intended hugs and handshakes. A perhaps a sincere apology, if I can muster it, that I had no idea what’d they’d gone through until now. I am so sorry such inequity and injustice can occur.


9 Replies to “Cheering for The What”

  1. Ah! I’m in the middle of this book right now. I keep thinking about all the Sudanese students who were in my classes when I was teaching at the local community college, and I can’t believe how little I knew about where they’d come from. This book does an amazing job at telling the story.

  2. Thanks for writing about this, I am going to have to see if my library has it. We have a large community of immigrants of all backgrounds here, and I love having my kids be exposed to all the different cultures. I’m hoping to teach them to value the struggles that most of them have gone through. This book will be a fantastic to reminder to me as well.

  3. Dangit! I wish I would have had this suggestion a week ago when I was choosing for book club. Oh well. I’m still going to read it. Sounds great!

  4. I am in the middle of watching Oprah and the kids who wrote “From Me to We” and the O Abmbassadors.

    I am in tears. It is such a beautiful land. What I wouldn’t give to make a trip with you.

  5. This is on my list. Funny, how we never really think about the half time rituals at games and how they must be perceived by others.

  6. Thanks for the book recommendation. It’s amazing to discover how we are seen through others’ eyes. Some good, some not so good; but I think this is also true of every region or country in the world just as it is of people themselves. It’s important to learn about other people and the struggles they endure.

  7. I feel the same way about baseball games. How can anyone stand the assault on the senses?

  8. Thank you for this book recommendation. I was surprised to see this book sold in Target but it made me happy. It was the last shelf copy. I love your blog, thank you for sharing your experiences with the rest of us in “cyber-space.”

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