Monday, December 7, 2009

Dave Eggers, southern Sudan, and the nonfiction of fiction

I realize I’m about three years late, but I finally read Dave Eggers’s What is the What.

I enjoyed The What, not as much as the critics who dubbed it “(an) improbably beautiful book,” “an eloquent testimony to the power of storytelling” and “an absolute classic.” (Those comments came from Time, New York Times Book Review and People, respectively, in case you care.)

I hesitate to call anything a classic. I feel like time is the only thing that can make that distinction. (Time, not Time.) But Eggers made me care about his subject — Valentino Achack Deng, one of the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan — which is probably what matters most to Eggers.

I don’t intend to recount Eggers’s story, which is really Deng’s story. Eggers does it well enough. If you are in the least bit curious about the civil wars of Sudan, its Lost Boys or the genocide in Darfur, you should read the book. In fact, if you aren’t curious, you should still read the first few chapters to see if you become interested. Yes, Deng’s story is that important.

What intrigued me enough to write about The What is less important that the story itself. It is a matter of designation.

On the title page of The What, Eggers describes the book as both The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng and a novel. But this isn’t the fictional autobiography of a character. Deng is a real person. He walked across Sudan to Ethiopia, then to Kenya. He saw fellow travelers killed by war, lions, crocodiles and disease.

So why is Eggers writing a novel instead of a biography?

This is a question that critics seemingly glossed over. “Novel, autobiography, whatever...” New York Times said in its review. But it is not a whatever. The truth matters when we are talking about real people, all the more because the book raises money for a foundation.

Why does Eggers fictionalize Deng’s story? Why does Deng let him?

Deng explains in the preface, “I told my story to the author. He then concocted this novel, approximating my own voice and using the basic events of my life as the foundation.”

Deng elaborates in an interview:

It is very close to the truth, but many things in the book are somewhat different than what happened in life. Some characters have been combined. Some time is compressed. They are minor things, but they were necessary.

Eggers adds in the same interview:

All of the events in the book have historical basis. But it really is a novel. I made up many scenes that were necessary to describe the whole sweep of those twenty or so years that the book covers. Sometimes I’d read a human rights report about a certain incident during the civil war, and would ask Val if he knew someone who had experienced that incident, or something like it. Sometimes he did know someone, and we could go from there, but other times I had to imagine it on my own. Some of these scenes were necessary to include, even if Val didn’t have personal experience with them.

Perhaps, it is because I am a journalist by trade, but this explanation does not assuage me. After reading this interview, I immediately wanted to know what parts of The What are from Deng, what parts came from other sources, and what parts did Eggers imagine.

I’m not suggesting that Eggers or Deng are trying to be dishonest. Their hearts are in the right place. They had a story they wanted to tell — a worthwhile story, a moving story. But they decided the most effective way to tell Deng’s story was to change it until The What could no longer be classified as nonfiction.

While it is effective, The What is no longer wholly true; and you wander toward Jayson Blair territory when you sacrifice truth for the sake of story. (The primary difference is, of course, Eggers acknowledges that he deviates from Deng’s story.)

-Jason Lea,

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