Deng was one of the Lost Boys in Sudan. After his town was pillaged by militias, he got separated from his family and joined 4000 or so other young boys on a walk to Ethiopia. Some were ate by lions. Others shot. Others just died of hunger. After 3 years in a refugee camp there, Ethiopian militias turned on the boys and drove them out again. So they walked to Kenya. 10 years later, Deng and some 3000 others were taken to the US. He met Eggers; ‘What is the What‘ is the ‘fictional autobiography’ of Deng’s life. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Much as cynical postmodern life tells me they shouldn’t, heroes do still exist. Dave Eggers is one. His ‘Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius‘ is just that. Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern is the best vehicle for new writing around, and The Believer the best writing magazine ever. That’s before we get to the inner-city work of 826 Valencia, the Voice of Witness human rights oral history project. Faith has never been mentioned. I don’t want it to be. He’s simply a person of huge spirit.
One of the questions after the talk was about how much of him is in the book, and how much is Deng, and whether there was a theme running through his work. He commented quickly that he didn’t think there was, in particular, and that he had tried to be as ‘invisible as possible’ in What is the What.
In some ways I’d like to disagree: I think there is a theme. HBOSG is essentially a work of the ego. It is about him-Self,
about getting to know the Self, if you will. His second book ‘You Shall Know Our Velocity‘ tells the story of a suddenly rich American guy going to Africa with the naive intention of giving money to the poor – a project that spirals into disaster, and his own death. And now we have ‘What is the What’.
My thoughts? That the trajectory of his writing has been, having examined the Self, putting the Self to death, and disappearing into the service of the other. And that’s good enough for hero status for me.
Please buy What is the What. All the money is going back to Deng’s town to build a Secondary School and a Library. And please visit his site to find out what you can do to put pressure on governments to act to stop the violence in Sudan and Darfur in particular.