When What Is the What was published in 2006, it became a sensation.
Its astounding, beautifully written story — about a boy of 7 forced out of his village in Sudan by civil war who, with hundreds of other children, trekked across the deserts of three African countries before reaching refuge in the United States — made it a critically acclaimed bestseller.
But it was noteworthy also for the way it was created. Its subtitle was The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng: A Novel, and its author was Dave Eggers. Autobiography or novel? Fact or fiction? And what was the role of Eggers, a literary darling whose works included the memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and the novel You Shall Know Our Velocity?
Eggers and Deng will talk about that collaboration and other subjects when they appear Thursday evening at Eckerd College. The event is the culmination of the college's yearlong initiative "The Plight and Promise of Africa."
Here is an excerpt from What Is the What, describing an incident that occurred after Deng and hundreds of other "lost boys" were bombed by a military plane in Sudan.
When we walked again, few boys spoke. Among the living, many boys were lost that day; they had given up. One such boy was Monynhial, whose nose had been broken years ago in a fight with another boy. His eyes were close set and he did not smile and rarely spoke. I had tried to talk to him, but Monynhial's words were brief and put a quick end to conversations. After the bombing, Monynhial's eyes were without light.
— I can't be hunted like this, he told me.
We were walking at dusk, through an area that was once populated but was now empty. The light that evening was beautiful, a swirl of pink and yellow and white.
— You aren't being hunted, I said. — We're all being hunted.
— Yes, and I can't be hunted like this. Every sound from the woods or the sky crushes me. I shake like a bird caught in someone's fist. I want to stop walking. I want to stay still, at least until I'll know what sounds to expect. I want to stop all the sounds, and the chance that we'll be bombed or eaten.
— You're safer with us. Going to Ethiopia. You know this is true.
— We're the target, Achak. Look at us. Too many boys. Everyone wants us dead. God wants us dead. He's trying to kill us.
— Walk a few days longer. You'll feel better.
— I'm leaving the group when I find a village, Monynhial said.
— Don't say that, I said.
But soon he did. The next village we passed through, he stopped. Though the village was deserted, and though Dut told him the murahaleen would return to this village, Monynhial stopped walking.
— I'll see you some other time, he said.
In this village, Monynhial found a deep hole, created by an Antonov's bomb, and he stepped down into it. We said good-bye to him because we were accustomed to boys dying and leaving the group in many ways. Our group walked on while Monynhial stayed in the hole for three days, not moving, enjoying the silence inside the hole. He dug himself a cave in the side of the crater, and with thatch from a half-burned hut, he created a small door to cover the entrance, hiding himself from animals. No one visited Monynhial; no animal or person; no one knew he was there. When he became hungry the first day, he crawled out of his hole and through the village, to a hut where he took a bone from the ashes of a fire. Clinging to it were three bites of goat meat, which were black outside but which sated him that day. He drank from puddles and then crawled back into his hole, where he stayed all day and night. On the third day he decided to die in the hole, because it was warm there and there were no sounds inside. And he did die that day because he was ready. None of the boys who walked with me saw Monynhial perish in his hole but we all know this story to be true. It is very easy for a boy to die in Sudan.