06 February 2008

What is the What

Not to jump on the bandwagon or anything, but this morning I finished reading Dave Eggers' What is the What. It was fantastic. You can find reviews and information here. The book tells the story of one of Sudan's Lost Boys. The Lost Boys are boys who walked across southern Sudan to Ethiopia only to be chased on to the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. Eggers writes a compelling tale in which the details are so shocking that it is difficult to believe they're true. Sometimes I had to remind myself that although the book is a work of fiction, it is a fictionalized memoir based on reality. You should read this book.

In case the book doesn't seem real enough, there are plenty of sources on the old internet to help you do a little bit of research. Valentino, the main character, has his own foundation and website. Where you can read about his efforts to help rebuild his hometown, Mirial Bai. There is also an award winning documentary about the Lost Boys as well as a documentary photography project.

All of this, of course, leaves me with questions. What's a person to do about these types of stories? I'm capable of reading the novel and feeling shocked, ashamed, and angry about the tale it tells. A story like this is clearly a call to action. In the preface, Valentino writes,

Even when my hours were darkest, I believed that some day I could share my experiences with readers, so as to prevent the same horrors from repeating themselves.

He did his share and his story has been published to great acclaim. But how can storytelling prevent a the same thing from happening again unless the reader takes some action in response to the story?

The first thought that occurs is a donation. But to whom do you give? Is your purpose to prevent the situations that create hundreds of thousands of refugees or to try to ensure that those refugees have an opportunity to rebuild their lives? Is political action a better route? But then what type of action can I take as an individual? Write a letter? Organize or attend a protest? Vote for a particular candidate? In other words, if you recognize that the world needs to change and you want to help change the world, it is a completely overwhelming thing to think about. Perhaps the best an individual can do is to choose a course of action and try to follow through. Maybe by telling the (very few) people who will read this post that they should read this book, I am helping. But that really isn't very convincing at all right now. What are your thoughts on the question(s)?


  1. How do you get away with blogging once a week when you are sworn to once a day?
    I guess that's how it is with Neujahrsvorsaetzen. Who am I to talk.

  2. Oh my, I know exactly what you mean. As soon as I read this book I thought what can I do? Can one person make a difference? This book was amazing and I wish everybody would read it. I borrowed this book from the library but am now going to purchase it as 100% of all proceeds from the book goes to Deng's foundation. It's the least I could do.

  3. maw, i didn't know that. i suppose that will be my next buy at the bookshop then!

    christine, nice questions. for me being aware and informed is an important step. then, deciding on which issues are most important to you to support financially, and finally who you trust to do the most with your money. how about you?

    hey lars! what was your new year's resolution?

  4. Wow, you've finished the book already. I suppose i must be a slow reader then.
    What can you do? When reading this book i was shocked, first, by the harsh world a six year old boy had to grow up in, and second, by the reactions of us, Western people, towards refugees. If more people read this book or talk about it (in their blogs), perhaps our collective eyes might be opened and we will be able to deal with refugees in a human and solidary way.

    PS. While reading this book, i taught Rita Verdonk should read it. You think i should send her an exemplar.

  5. Lars: blogging once a day while home! Was in Norway over the weekend. Great loophole, eh?

    Maw: I like your idea. How about buying one and giving it to a friend? takes care of the donation and spreading the word at the same time!

    myyear: I think that ultimately a pure financial contribution doesn't really work for me. It seems there must be a way to make a difference that isn't based on giving a stranger money... Ultimately, it seems that changing the way people think is the big (unattainable) goal.

    Hein: I couldn't put it down... Amazing read! Rita should definitely have a copy.


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