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.