30 November, 2010

'What is the What?' - Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers launched a genre with his 'memoir' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. By taking a premise of truth and muddling it with embellishment, exaggeration and fabrication, Eggers presented the world with 'creative non-fiction'.

With What is the What, he continues to defy classification. The book's byline is:

A novel

So which is it? An autobiography or a novel?

Well, are the two in fact mutually exclusive? It's perfectly appropriate for Achak to have engaged someone else to write the book - his grasp of English at the time when the project began (2003) was insufficient to produce the book himself. But why 'a novel'? Eggers actually explains this decision in an essay on the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation website: after two years working on the book, including a visit to Sudan, he found the non-fiction narrative too much like oral histories that had already been published to be effective. There was no evocation of place; for Eggers as a writer, no capacity to bring the facts alive for the audience. Eggers realised that he needed to produce a novel, one that replicated Achak's tone, for the book to have effect.

And it works. As much as possible the book sticks to the facts - for example, it's true that Achak's eventual flight to the US to be repatriated was scheduled for September 11, 2001. However, when the story begins, and the murahaleen first attack Achak's hometown of Marial Bai, he was only six years old - his memory of events and locations was not going to be perfect, and it is in fleshing out these details that Eggers the storyteller comes into his own in partnership with Achak, the one who experienced it all.

The book operates on two timelines: a current storyline, when Achak is living in Atlanta, and has been attacked and robbed in his home; and the chronology of fighting, fleeing and refugee life that he experienced in the desert of Sudan and refugee camps of Ethiopia and Kenya. The characters Achak encounters in America, whether they are his assailants, assistants at hospital when he goes for an MRI following the attack, or customers at the gym where he works on reception, become his audience.

For this is a story that must be experienced. Part of the reason Eggers and Achak chose the novel form was because it needed to be a visceral story: primary sources were the stuff of textbooks and news reports. The 'real' Achak and the Achak narrating this novel want people to really listen to what happened. To understand that spending thirteen years in a refugee camp, after months of being hunted in the desert; watching friends join the army in their early teens to escape the camp; being separated from every member of your family and believe them dead from the age of six; being forgotten by the world; escaping to America only to discover that noone thought through the realities of refugee resettlement - all of this is part of one problem, a problem that still exists. Sudan is still at war and in poverty.

It's appropriate that there is confusion over what this book is - truth or fabrication. Achak's story is unbelievable, yet it is the reality for him, the other 20,000 lost boys, the millions killed and the millions more still living in Sudan, or indeed in refugee camps. For Achak, the reality of America was unbelievable - that he could be rejected at a college because the parents of 'nice blonde girls' wouldn't want them running into him in the hallway; that it could take 15 hours for him to receive an MRI; that police could ignore robbery and assault.

So the question isn't so much 'what is the truth?', but rather 'what is right' - that these events can happen? - or to take literally the question of the title, 'what is the what'? The 'What' in the story is what Adam and Eve did not take as an alternative when God offered them cattle, which they knew would feed them for many generations. The 'what' is the life Achak would have had if he had not spent 13 years in refugee camps, if he had spent his childhood with his brothers and sisters, if his country had been able to return to farming and self-sufficiency without fear of attack. It's not the life he had, but he is able, regardless, to say with certainty that he remains blessed.