What Is the What

By Murphey, Dwight D. | The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

What Is the What


Murphey, Dwight D., The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies


What is the What Dave Eggers McSweeney's, 2006

What is the What is a partly fictionalized account of the life of one of the four thousand "Lost Boys" who were brought over to the United States in 2001 after fifteen years' wandering and encampment as refugees from the civil war in the southern Sudan. Above all, readers come away with a vivid sense of the cruelties and indifference human beings inflict upon each other, and with an equally vivid sense of the tenacity of life that has so long kept Achak Nyibek Arou Deng, the book's subject, going through all these years.

Deng was born into a Dinka village in southern Sudan before the outbreak of the civil war there (the war that preceded the current war in the western Sudanese region of Darfur). When his village was burned by Arab raiders, he joined the tens of thousands of refugees, many of them unaccompanied children, who trekked across the Sudan for asylum in Ethiopia. He spent three years in the Pinyudo camp inside Ethiopia until the refugees there were driven out with mass bloodshed by the Ethiopians. Horrors of many kinds-including those from humans, crocodiles and lions-accompanied Deng at each step of his odyssey. Eventually, he lived for ten years in the Kakuma refugee camp inside Kenya. It was from there that he and other "unaccompanied children," mostly boys but with a few girls, were brought to the United States in 2001.

To its credit, Eggers' book is not a typical account designed to play upon the empathy and credulity of sympathetic souls who read it. Eggers quite candidly describes that genre: "The tales of the Lost Boys have become remarkably similar over the years... Sponsors and newspaper reporters and the like expect the stories to have certain elements, and the Lost Boys have been consistent in their willingness to oblige. Survivors tell the stories the sympathetic want, and that means making them as shocking as possible." He admits that his own telling "includes enough small embellishments [so] that I cannot criticize the accounts of others." Perhaps, as he says, he cannot criticize those others; but there is much honest candor in the book, as we will see.

Some of this candor has to do with the quizzical irrationality of American altruism. We know, of course, that throughout the history of the United States many Americans have been inspired by an altruism that is unrestrained by reason. This is the giddy "do-goodism" that mixes so many fine qualities with a child-like naivete that is blind to causes and consequences. About this, the book has Deng saying that "we were the model Africans... We were applauded for our industriousness and good manners and, best of all, our devotion to our faith. The churches adored us, and the leaders they bankrolled and controlled coveted us. But now the enthusiasm has dampened. We have exhausted many of our hosts. We are young men, and young men are prone to vice. Among the four thousand are those who have entertained prostitutes, who have lost weeks and months to drugs, many more who have lost their fire to drink, dozens who have become inexpert gamblers, fighters." About his own host family, he says "the Newmyers' generosity was, I believe, irrational, reckless even. It was difficult to understand." The founder of the Lost Boys Foundation, which was set up to assist the Lost Boys living in Atlanta, was Mary Williams, a black American who was fathered by a Black Panther and later adopted by actress Jane Fonda. But she came to be "hurt by the attitudes of some of the Sudanese she served." Deng says "they yelled at her; they questioned her competence, often invoking her gender as explanation for her ineptitude...." Donations evaporated, and she closed the Lost Boys Foundation in 2005.

Such a denouement is bound to lead serious readers to ask a "politically incorrect" question that is certain to shock those who will forever remain unshaken in their giddiness, whatever realities the world presses upon them. …

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