Thursday, 10 April 2014

What Is The What by Dave Eggers

I'm having trouble coming up with the right word to describe reading this book. "Enjoyed" is definitely not the right word - although the book is well-written, it's hard to call it enjoyable, nor is it trying to be. Moving? Something seems facile and reductionist about that, to reduce the story to something that affected me briefly, as if it is all about me.

Difficult? Definitely. In content, not style. Urgent?

What is the What is the fictional autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese man who fled the country on foot as a boy, and lived for more than ten years in refugee camps, before emigrating to the United States. It is about him, told in his words, based on hours and hours of interviews with the author, Dave Eggers. It is fictional in that not enough was available to flesh this out through witnesses, documents, sources, and so Eggers decided to tell the story, but to combine characters, to reimagine scenes from Deng's childhood that were sketchy.

This, of course, raises questions of authorship, as the book is written by Eggers, but in the narrative, he tries to remain invisible. I'm not sure how else it could be done, but I did do some research before I wrote this review, because it felt odd. After having read a couple of interviews about the process, about how they weren't initially sure who was going to write the book - whether Eggers was just helping Deng write his own autobiography, or would be writing it himself, I feel more comfortable, as if my comfort was all that matters.

What this is is a story about the importance of stories, of bearing witness, of telling and retelling and retelling stories that must be told. In the book, Deng is telling his story, but he's always telling it to someone in particular. Not necessarily out loud, but it is always addressed to someone. When I took a "Geographies of Emergency" drama course many, many years ago, we talked a lot about trauma, about the possibility of verifying facts absolutely that are acquired through trauma, what we do when memory contrasts with what we "know to have happened." And the feeling that there are stories that must not be forgotten, that must be told and retold. That the telling of stories can be a way to survive.

Where do our obligations come in as listeners? When must we listen, how do we listen, how do we judge the results?

This story is not easy. It is not necessarily enjoyable. But it must be told, and I had to hear it.

No comments:

Post a Comment