What Is the What

What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng

First edition cover
Author Dave Eggers
Cover artist Rachell Sumpter
Country United States
Language English
Genre Fiction, memoir
Publisher McSweeney's
Publication date
October 25, 2006
Media type Print (hardcover)
Pages 475 pp
ISBN 1-932416-64-1
OCLC 75428313
813/.6 22
LC Class PS3605.G48 W43 2006

What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng is a 2006 novel written by Dave Eggers. It is based on the life of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese child refugee who immigrated to the United States under the Lost Boys of Sudan program. It was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Plot summary

As a boy, Achak is separated from his family during the Second Sudanese Civil War when the Arab militia, referred to as murahaleen (which is Arabic for the deported), wipes out his Dinka village, Marial Bai. During the assault, he loses sight of his father and his childhood friends, Moses and William K. William K escapes, but Moses is believed to be dead after the assault. Achak seeks shelter in the house of his aunt with his mother, who is frequently identified throughout the book with a yellow dress. Before they are hidden, they hear the screaming of Achak's aunt, and his mother goes to investigate. Achak never sees her again. He evades detection by hiding in a bag of grain, and credits God for helping him stay quiet.

He flees on foot with a group of other young boys (the "Lost Boys"), encountering great danger and terrible hardship along the way to a refugee camp in Ethiopia. Their inflated expectations of safety and relief are shattered by the conditions at the camp. After Ethiopian president Mengistu is overthrown and soldiers open fire on them, they flee to another refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya. Years later he is selected under the Lost Boys of Sudan program to immigrate to the United States. There he encounters a new set of trials. The account runs in parallel to his story of subsequent hardships in the United States.


In the preface to the novel, Deng writes: "Over the course of many years, Dave and I have collaborated to tell my story... I told [him] what I knew and what I could remember, and from that material he created this work of art."[1]

The book is typical of Eggers' style: blending non-fictional and fictional elements into a non-fiction novel or memoir. By classifying the book a novel, Eggers says, he freed himself to re-create conversations, streamline complex relationships, add relevant detail and manipulate time and space in helpful ways—all while maintaining the essential truthfulness of the storytelling.[2]

However, not all critics were impressed. Lee Siegel sees as much of Dave Eggers in the novel as Deng, unable to tell the two apart, saying[3] "How strange for one man to think that he could write the story of another man, a real living man who is perfectly capable of telling his story himself—and then call it an autobiography."

Deng and Eggers in October 2008

Questions of "expropriation of another man's identity" were addressed by Valentino Achak Deng and Dave Eggers in a discussion about the division between the speaker and the spoken for.[4] After Eggers was approached with the idea, he began to prepare for the novel. He says that at this point, "we really hadn’t decided whether I was just helping Valentino write his own book, or if I was writing a book about him." Valentino points out that, "I thought I might want to write my own book, but I learned that I was not ready to do this. I was still taking classes in basic writing at Georgia Perimeter College."

Dave Eggers discusses the difficulties in writing a book of this nature:

"For a long while there, we continued doing interviews, and I gathered the material. But all along, I really didn’t know exactly what form it would finally take—whether it would be first person or third, whether it would be fiction or nonfiction. After about eighteen months of struggle with it, we settled on a fictionalized autobiography, in Valentino’s voice." Eggers explains that this choice was made because "Valentino’s voice is so distinct and unforgettable that any other authorial voice would pale by comparison. Very early on, when the book was in a more straightforward authorial voice, I missed the voice I was hearing on the tapes. So writing in Val's voice solved both problems: I could disappear completely, and the reader would have the benefit of his very distinct voice."[4]

In 2007 The Ohio State University selected the novel as one of two choices for the freshmen book club, and distributed thousands of copies to incoming students.[5] Duke University required the incoming Class of 2012 to read the novel, praising its literary merit.[6] The University of Maryland chose it as their freshman book in 2009. Macalester College required all incoming freshmen to read it in 2011. The University of Maine required first-year students in its Honors College to read the novel in 2012.

The novel inspired some of the lyrics from David Byrne and Brian Eno's album Everything That Happens Will Happen Today.[7]

Tom Tykwer plans to adapt the novel into a film.[8]

In 2009, the novel received the Prix Médicis étranger in France.


  1. What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, Preface (First Vintage Books Edition, October 2007)
  2. "A Heartbreaking Work of Fiction", by Bob Thompson, Washington Post, November 28, 2006; Page C01
  3. "The Niceness Racket", reviewed by Lee Siegel, The New Republic, April 19, 2007
  4. 1 2 "Interview with Dave Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng"
  5. "What is the What Brings Plight of "Lost Boys" to Ohio State First-Year Students", "OSU Department of English"
  6. "Incoming Freshmen to Read Dave Eggers' 'What is the What'", Duke University Office of News & Communications, Tuesday, April 8, 2008
  7. Dean Stattmann (2008-07-30). "David Byrne and Brian Eno Release New Album". Celebrity Cafe. Retrieved 2008-08-09.
  8. "Exclusive: Tom Tykwer Goes International"
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