My introduction to Dave Eggers was his startling semiautobiographical A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a stupendous and rather abstruse bit of metafiction. I must say that I was a little surprised to see Eggers tackle a subject like the Sudanese civil war–not that I doubt his multiculturalism or his sensitivity to the plight of the less fortunate1, but I was always under the impression that Eggers’ forte was firmly in the school of Euro-American esotery.
It is difficult enough to raise awareness about the conflict in Sudan (Darfur, specifically) today, but even fewer people know that today’s problems actually follow the violent, protracted civil war that raged in the late 80s and early 90s in Sudan. I won’t bore you with the specifics: look it up if you’re curious–better yet, read this book. Eggers’ What is the What is based on the real-life struggles of Valentino Achak Deng, an honest-to-goodness Sudanese refugee who is friends with the author. I should stress, as the author does, that What is the What is fiction: a novel built upon a framework of stories told to Eggers by the real Deng over a period of years. this makes the book straddle an odd sort of state between fiction and nonfiction—Eggers exploits this to weave a tale that is patently not postmodernism or metafiction, but a sort of plaintive mourning for the sorry state of Sudan and the plight of Sudanese refugees in America. The frame narrative—Valentino in present-day Atlanta–acts as a sort of ironic foil for the main character’s flashbacks that detail everything from the burning of his village to the mass exodus of Dinka children, to his time in a refugee camp, to his resettlement in America. I say ironic because Eggers insists on drawing parallels between the sort of injustices a Sudanese refugee faces in an unforgiving American city: he has a job, attends school, and has experienced much generosity, but the book opens with his being held hostage in an apartment while two African Americans loot his belongings. Later, at the hospital, he waits for aid, feeling overlooked and abused. The paralles are subtle, but Eggers is too careful a writer for it to be coincidence.
What I think is most impressive about this book is the difficulty in writing—as a hyperliterate white author—in the voice of a Sudanese refugee over a number of years, and moreover doing it with a fealty to the personality and understanding of the character. Having thought a lot lately about narrative voice and the assumptions of authorial narration, I noticed this in particular, because Eggers’ narration isn’t overly complex (ok, he slips sometimes, but not severely), as it shouldn’t be from the perspective of a young, uneducated Sudanese boy or an older and wiser but still naïe Sudanese man, yet he wields the relatively simple syntax and language that flexes its inherent power to move and affect the reader. It’s an impressive feat, truly.
I’m glad to see issues like this being brought up in “hip” fiction like this. It’s not an authority on the history of the Sudan, but it’s a powerful glimpse into the personal horrors of genocide and the opportunity for regrowth and regeneration.
- One his his pet projects is 826 Valencia, a non-profit tutoring center for children[↩]