Dave Eggers’ Real and Imagined Sudan

Dave Eggers entered the lit­er­ary world with a big bang. His first book, A Heart­break­ing Work of Stag­ger­ing Genius (2000), came out of nowhere and sat on the best­seller list for 14 weeks. It also made Eggers a Pulitzer Prize final­ist and almost the recip­i­ent of a rich movie deal — had he not turned it down.

This wun­derkind’s ear­ly suc­cess nat­u­ral­ly cre­at­ed high expec­ta­tions, and his next efforts, a nov­el in 2002 and a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries in 2004, nev­er quite cap­tured read­ers’ imag­i­na­tion in the same way. Now, with What Is the What, we see Eggers com­ing back home to non-fic­tion, albeit a very dif­fer­ent form of non-fic­tion than the one we dis­cov­ered in AHWOSG. Here, the post-mod­ern devices drop out of sight, and what we get is more the imag­i­nary jour­nal­ism that we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly encoun­tered in the works of Tru­man Capote and Nor­man Mail­er.

The What is the What recounts the long jour­ney of Valenti­no Achak Deng, one of the 20,000 “Lost Boys,” who fled the Sudanese Civ­il War (1983–2005) and, though most­ly younger than than 10, trav­eled alone to Ethiopia, Kenya and, in some cas­es, the Unit­ed States. (About 4,000 end­ed up in the US in 2001.) Because Valenti­no began his odyssey as a mere six year-old, the whole ques­tion of mem­o­ry get raised. How much does a child remem­ber? Broad out­lines maybe. But how many facts, details and con­ver­sa­tions fade away? As Eggers explains in a recent inter­view , the cre­ative ele­ments added to this oth­er­wise fac­tu­al account serve to fill in these gaps in rec­ol­lec­tion, and the ele­ments, them­selves, are based on his­tor­i­cal records and Valenti­no’s gen­er­al sense of things. It is here that Eggers’ notion of imag­i­na­tive jour­nal­ism sets itself apart from many oth­er attempts at new jour­nal­ism. The point of imag­i­na­tion for Eggers isn’t so much to dress up dry facts and dri­ve the nar­ra­tive along, but to make the his­tor­i­cal record more com­plete and, in a gen­uine way, give a fuller account of a per­son­al expe­ri­ence. Per­haps this comes off as a mean­ing­less shade of dif­fer­ence. But, when you get down to it, it’s more sub­stan­tive than not.

Arti­cles and Reviews:

This hour-long radio inter­view with Eggers and Valenti­no is def­i­nite­ly worth a lis­ten.

NPR Fact Page: Ded­i­cat­ed to Eggers’ new book, this page includes links to a recent NPR inter­view, excerpts from the new book, and his­tor­i­cal infor­ma­tion about the Lost Boys.

You can get more con­tex­tu­al infor­ma­tion from the PBS site, which accom­pa­nies its film, Lost Boys of Sudan.

Plus check out the reviews in New York Mag­a­zine and The New York Times.

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