Sunday, December 17, 2006

What is the What

There is a brief throwaway sentence that occurs when Achak and his friend pass a white photographer taking a photo of a starving mother and her baby. That photographer is both a stand in for Dave Eggers and also, I think, an example of what he didn’t want to do with this book.

We walked past a small tent, inside of which a white photographer was taking pictures of a Sudanese mother and her emaciated child. (336)

What is the What is a fictionalized biography of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the Lost Boys from Sudan. Most of my knowledge of recent African history comes in the form of photographs of the sort this Western photographer was taking, that things are horrible and there are malnourished people crowded into tents in the desert. The images are heartbreaking, but the situation behind them was one that I vaguely understood, the details a little hazy. However, despite the good that may possibly come of these photographs, there is something a little exploitive about these photographs and that is what Eggers was getting at in that brief scene, that the photographer is just looking for a good image, perhaps one that is going to win a Pulitzer, that the photographer doesn’t talk to these subjects, doesn’t know their stories.

With this book, Eggers does something similar and also drastically different. This is still a book about one of Sudan’s tragedies by a white person (which surely will be fodder for some good postcolonial criticism), but it puts a human face on tragic images and stories we have heard. By hearing one story in its entirety and awfulness, it makes it a lot easier to understand why something multiplied by the millions of people that experienced something similar is so horrible. And also Eggers exploits this situation for not his gain, but for Deng’s gain and the gain of other refugees. All the proceeds of the book go to the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation.

Several critics have already pointed out that Eggers is a good person to write this story, in that he is also a “lost boy” of sorts, as his A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius details, having lost both of his parents within five weeks of each other. And though this book could very easily be nothing but a series of terrible photographs one after the next, breaking you down to absolute tears, this book is not. Rather, it tells this story, horrible as it is, with laughter mixed in – that even in the awfulness of the refugee camps, there were moments of beauty.

But that there are human beings alive who went through all of this and came out alive is amazing and heartbreaking. People are going through similar stuff now, of course, in Darfur, and southern Sudan is still suffering from Khartoum. I thought I had some idea of what people were talking about when they mentioned the Lost Boys of Sudan, but I had no idea. The stuff that this boy endured is beyond comprehension, one horrible event after the next. Muslims on horseback backed by the central government destroying his village, killing and looting wantonly, sending him and thousands and thousands of others to walk on foot across the country, avoiding militias, hunger, and even lions, to get to Ethiopia. And then Ethiopia itself convulsed politically, making it no longer safe for the refugee camp there and people that had already endured so much, lost so much, were chased out of the country with rifles, were shot at it as they swam across the river back into Sudan, the country that didn’t want them, people even being eaten by crocodiles in this river. Then another deadly march to Kenya to another awful refugee camp, and on and on.

If there was ever a country that might have been deserving of some interventionist military action, Sudan was certainly it. Much of the violence and why it has lasted so long is due to oil. Amazingly, George Bush Sr. even played a role in this. When he was at the UN, he showed Sudan satellite maps that indicated there were big oil reserves there, and thus entered Chevron, and thus started the violence toward and displacement of the people in the south of Sudan. The West no longer has oil investments in Sudan, knowing that it’s with oil profits that Khartoum is able to terrorize its citizens, but that doesn’t really matter when China is there to buy up their oil.

And I am getting distracted from the book, which is what I had meant to talk about, but this is the effect of this book, that it really stirs in you an outrage about recent and current events. This book is a very important book and really excellent as a narrative, but I don’t think that it is his most artful book, and I don’t think that was the goal, so I think that that is okay. There were a couple of times when I was near tears reading some sections and since I can’t think of the last time I have experienced that with a book, I would say that that is something. This book has also changed my perceptions about a few things, and perhaps done the most powerful thing that anything can do, to alert me to the fragileness, the humanity, of people around me, to in some ways make me more conscious of the suffering around me that I otherwise put out of mind.

This is achieved throughout the whole book, but Eggers hits home this point, perhaps a little too heavily, in the last few pages, hitting that manic pitch he can get into (and which is why I love him) about the ties of humans to humans, sounding a lot like a couple of the sections from AHWOSG, such as this one from AHWOSG:

There is nowhere I stop and you begin. I am exhausted. I stand before you, 47 million, 54, 32, whatever, you know what I mean, you people…and where is my lattice? I am not sure you are my lattice . . .Don’t you know that I am connected to you? Don’t you know that I’m trying to pump blood to you, that this is for you, that I hate you people, so many of you motherfuckers— When you sleep I want you never to wake up, so many of you I want you to just fucking sleep it away because I only want you to run under with me on this sand like Indians, if you’re going to fucking sleep all day fuck you motherfuckers oh when you’re all sleeping so many sleeping I am somewhere on some stupid rickety scaffolding and I’m trying to get your stupid fucking attention I’ve been trying to show you this, just been trying to show you this..

And then this from What is the What:

Whatever I do, however I find a way to live, I will tell these stories. I have spoken to every person I have encountered these last difficult days, and every person who has entered this club during these awful morning hours, because to do anything else would be something less than human. I speak to these people, and I speak to you because I cannot help it. It gives me strength, almost unbelievable strength, to know that you are there. I covet your eyes, your ears, the collapsible space between us. How blessed are we to have each other? I am alive and you are alive so we must fill the air with our words. (474)

In both, there is this desire for human connection, that perhaps through storytelling, the sharing of our own stories, we can get closer to one another. Eggers, like all of us, is lonely and shows, tells, that the only way to overcome that, to fight that, is to make that human connection, to talk and talk and talk. He never really says anything about listening, but I think that that is understood, that if someone is talking, surely someone is listening.

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