I'm not sure how to be articulate in this post, so I'm just going to start by being up front: Everything I say about this book will sound like a cliche. It's powerful, heartbreaking, etc, etc. And now that we have that out of the way . . . Just read it.
I originally picked up What Is the What , by Dave Eggers, because it seemed like a good literary supplement to one of my favorite documentaries, Lost Boys of Sudan. It's a film I used to show when I taught high school, and it conveys both the tragedy of Sudan's children and America's (somewhat failed) efforts to help these boys as they grow into young men while refugees in a foreign land.
The film and book are certainly similar in terms of their subject matter, and though I had my doubts about Eggers in the first few pages, he slips effortlessly into the voice of the narrator, Valentino Achak Deng. What was not clear to me at first was the back story behind the book, which is just as interesting. It is in fact an autobiography, novelized by Eggers. Valentino Achak Deng, a refugee from southern Sudan who resettled in the United States as a young man, met Eggers, asked for his assistance in writing his story, and the two worked on the book together for over three years. Additionally, Eggers agreed that all proceeds from the book would go to Deng, who established the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation, a nonprofit that is currently building the one of the few secondary schools in southern Sudan.
The school is making concerted efforts to educate Sudanese children with a focus on reaching out to young girls, who often do not attend school and/or are pushed into early marriage. I could go on and on about this project, but you can read more about the book and project here and help fund the school here. The small donation I was able to make today will buy a bag of cement.
I know this post is a departure from my usual subject matter, and a journey into heavier subject matter at that, but I really hope that more people read this story. I don't think I can fully articulate the importance and human-ness of it on my own.
(In other news, I was--- hopefully temporarily--- laid off today. I'm hoping that reading books like the one above and trying to stay engaged in what's important to me will help me remain philosophical about it.)