RUNNING FOR HIS LIFE
The power of stories to help heal the devastation of war and heartbreak is illuminated in Dave Eggers’ new novel about one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, writes John Freeman
THREE months ago, at the National Book Critics Circle Awards in New York City, Dave Eggers subtly gave away the riddle to the title of his astonishing new novel, What is the What. While two other fiction finalists read from their work, Eggers brought Sudanese migrant Valentino Achak Deng, the subject and inspiration of the novel, on to the stage. Both were wearing black suits, white shirts, no tie. ‘‘ We tend to dress alike after this process,’’ Eggers joked.
Eggers then read for 11/ minutes, followed by Deng, who voiced the book’s closing few sentences into the kind of silence that comes when a roomful of New York publishing executives listen to someone who has lost everything but his story.
‘‘ Whatever I do, however I find a way to live,’’ Deng read, ‘‘ I will tell these stories; it gives me strength, almost unbelievable strength, to know that you are here. How can I pretend that you do not exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist.’’
In a country that took years to acknowledge genocide in Darfur, let alone the north- south conflict in Sudan — which Deng escaped by the skin of his teeth — this was a powerful moral statement. It also explains why Eggers’ novel has become such an improbable bestseller.
Published in the US last year by Eggers’ McSweeney’s imprint, What is the What has gone on to sell more than 120,000 copies in hardback, a huge increase from Eggers’ previous two works of fiction. In the middle of its run, Publishers Group West, McSweeney’s distributor, went bankrupt, leaving them to scramble to get out more copies.
Since the publication, Deng has been on the road constantly, despite his classes at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, where he is completing his degree. His speaking performances are packed and the proceeds go to a foundation to help rebuild his home village Marial Bai, an initiative that Eggers assisted him to set up ( at valentinoachakdeng. com).
Six months ago, however, all this hullabaloo was a long way off. The day after the finished books arrived from the printer, Eggers and Deng sat in a tiny, cramped hotel room off Manhattan’s Washington Square Park, the neighbourhood where Henry James and Willa Cather once lived and wrote their novels.
Looking at the state of his hotel room, Deng might have been any other college student enjoying New York City during autumn break. The bed was unmade, a pair of pants splayed across the floor and an open box of powdered biscuits beckoned. ‘‘ It’s not normally like this,’’ the 190cm Deng says, tidying up after himself.
It is almost encouraging to see this little bit of youthful normality from the 25- year- old Sudanese man. After all, his was an anything but ordinary childhood.
Born in southern Sudan, he fled his village at the age of nine during the second Sudanese civil war ( 1983- 2005). Arab militiamen burned every building to the ground and Deng was separated from his mother and father. He had no idea whether they were alive or dead.
Along with an estimated 20,000 other boys, he spent the next decade running for his life. He evaded lions and rebel gunfighters and walked to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, where he lived a nearly normal life in bursts, all the while hoping for a greater escape to the US. In a bizarre fluke, he was on a plane departing for the US on the morning of September 11.
Not long after he made it to the US with a group of Sudanese who came to be known as the Lost Boys, he heard from Eggers, the best- selling memoirist and founder of McSweeney’s, the publishing house and sponsoring arm of writing labs such as 826 Valencia.
Eggers had been tipped off to Deng’s story by an activist in Atlanta. ‘‘ My attitude was, it can’t hurt at all to hear his story,’’ Eggers says.
What followed from here, according to Eggers and Deng, was at times a friendship, at times an unholy alliance between fact and fiction and always a labour of love. For a long time, Eggers worked on the book as if it were a biography until it became clear that sticking to the factual record would be too limiting.
‘‘ All along he was the fact- checker,’’ Eggers says. ‘‘ I’m terrified about getting everything wrong. Any time I wrote something, I’d send it to him and ask: ‘ Would it have happened this way?’ As often as not I was right. But over time I guessed better. In the end, though, it didn’t
have to be factually true, it had to be plausible.’’
Deng, as one of the celebrated Lost Boys, had been interviewed before but never in this fashion. ‘‘ There were times when I would pause when Dave sent a [ section] and I wondered: ‘ How is he able to imagine this?’ And I’d ask him: How do you manage to put yourself in my place?’ ’’
It helped that the two of them travelled together to Sudan, hopping on a cargo plane carrying relief supplies. It also helped that Eggers, as he describes in his debut memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, had experienced loss. Eggers’ parents died within months of each other from cancer, leaving him to take care of his little brother.
But as soon as What is the What became a novel, it needed shape. Rather than invent, they needed to cut back. The details were just overwhelming. For instance, on his walk from Sudan to Ethiopia, Deng was attacked by lions numerous times, not just once. Several of Deng’s friends committed suicide.
Astonishingly, none of this caused Deng, who is Catholic, to question his faith. After arriving in Atlanta, he says: ‘‘ I kind of reflected on my situation and what I had experienced. Drinking stagnant water; eating food that was completely wild; eating wild beans and trees and fruit; and not dying. I should have died. Something kept me alive. I thought, that must be God. And when I learned about miracles, I thought, these are certainly miracles.’’ As Deng talks, Eggers listens quietly and does not comment. It’s clear this is Deng’s way of making sense of the world. This is his large story. There is the Book and the book, and What is the What will remain the book. But he is proud.
‘‘ Wow, it feels good!’’ Deng says, lifting up the novel, a huge smile on his face. ‘‘ Every time I come in here, I pick up [ What is the What] and hold it. The first time I saw it, on Sunday night, I was like, awesome!’’
Sitting on the bed, leaning against the wall, Eggers smiles. ‘‘ There isn’t a word in here that Val hasn’t read,’’ he says.
‘‘ I have a printed manuscript at home,’’ Deng adds, then asks Eggers: ‘‘ Did you add more after that?’’ A smile breaks across Eggers’ face and he smirks at Deng. ‘‘ Yeah, I added some really embarrassing episodes that I made up.’’
For a moment it seems as if Deng is going to take his collaborator literally, then Eggers laughs. ‘‘ No. He saw every draft.’’
It’s an awkward moment, but in the gap comes a release. Deng laughs. Can humour really carry the burden of the war or heartbreak? It can, and so can stories, Eggers seems to be saying. In a world where there is anguish and genocide and loss, that is the what. John Freeman is president of the US National Book Critics Circle. What is the What is published this month by Hamish Hamilton, $ 29.95.
Fact as fiction: Writer Dave Eggers and Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng, whose story he tells