Dave & Deng

Valentino Achak Deng’s life has been marked by two extraordinary events. Born in Sudan, the first came when he fled his village at age 9, when the second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005) broke out. Arab militiamen burned every building to the ground and Valentino was separated from his mother and father.

The second event came after he made it to America with a group of Sudanese who came to be known as the Lost Boys, and heard from Dave Eggers, the best-selling memoirist (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) and founder of McSweeney’s, the publishing house, journal and sponsoring arm of writing labs like 826 Valencia.

Eggers had been tipped off to Valentino’s story by an activist in Atlanta. “My attitude was, it can’t hurt at all to hear his story,” Eggers said. That was four years ago, and since then they have worked to tell Valentino’s story in Eggers’ words. The result, What Is the What, is the first major “nonfiction novel” since Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. The two authors explained what the journey was like for them.

What does it feel like to hold your story in your hand?

Valentino Achak Deng: Wow, it feels good! Every time I come in here, I pick up [the book] and hold it. (He clutches it to himself.) The first time I saw it, on Sunday night, I was like, awesome!

One of the conclusions of this book is that you were born to tell your story. Did it help to have someone take the burden for you?

Deng: It did. I met Dave when he started to write the book. Dave called me and said, “Valentino, what happened there? Can you remember what happened? Can you recall what your hometown was like, who were the people there?” And then he began asking questions that had never been asked before, even by journalists.

Dave, did you have to come up with different ways to approach Valentino to shake these memories loose?

Dave Eggers: I had to guess. I had to say, “On this day, you probably thought about this”—and I started writing episodes from scratch without even asking, and then I’d show it to him and ask, “Is this anywhere near the truth?”

Does it sound to you like your voice?

Deng: Yep, in most cases it does. Let’s say 99 percent of the cases.

Is it the voice you think in or the voice you speak in, or a bit of both?

Deng: Both. There are times when I would pause when Dave sent a [section] and I wondered, “How is he able to imagine this?” And I’d ask him, “How do you manage to put yourself in my place?”

Dave, after writing this book, will it be hard to go back to writing straight literary fiction?

Eggers: No, actually, it won’t be that hard, in part because we have a few other projects like this going. For instance, when we were in Marial Bay in 2003, we met three women who had just been returned to Marial Bay via Save the Children. These three women were taken when they were little girls, and they were made to be servants and later on concubines to northern generals and officers in the army. Some of the proceeds from Valentino’s book will go to a book that will deal with telling the story of these former abductees, which hasn’t been told at all. We hear sort of rumors—vague news reports about slavery in Sudan. But I don’t think there has been anything comprehensive.

I don’t know what I am going to write next—but I do look forward to writing some pure fiction where I don’t have to bother Valentino 20 times a day with questions.