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What is the What, a Bestseller Novel by Dave Eggers

Updated on January 24, 2013

"A testament to the triumph of hope over experience, human resilience over tragedy and disaster"

–Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

A Bestseller by Dave Eggers


What is the What is an epic novel based on the life of Valentino Achak Deng, who, during the civil war between the north and south of Sudan, was forced to leave his village, family and friends, to trek for thousands of miles, through the harsh deserts of Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya, to find a relatively "safe haven" in refugee camps (where he lived for thirteen years).

During his long journey through the inhospitable wilderness, he overcomes famine, dehydration, militia persecution, government bombers, human killers and lurking wild animals, to finally reach the life he hoped for.

When he is taken in by the USA and moves to the States to find freedom, he still finds difficult challenges: a new culture and lifestyle to which he has to adapt, and which is far from being the perfect civil paradise.

What is the What Review

What is the What is a moving novel that makes you laugh and feel deeply touched by a man truly out of the ordinary, a real fighter.

Achak's kind nature is endearing, charming and fuuny at the same time. Even though he has to face and suffer the most terrible aspects of hate, war and madness; even though he goes through terrible experiences of loss and physical deprivation, and has absolutely nothing, he still holds on to his dreams of a better day to come.

This is a bestseller that enlightens and gives a great lesson of courage and determination; a novel that puts things into perspective and makes us aware of the tragic circumstances in which many people live, even up till today. It also makes us ponder upon our own humanity.


"Told with humor, humanity, and bottomless compassion for his subject….. It is impossible to read this book and not be humbled, enlightened, transformed." -Khaled Hosseini, bestseller author of The Kite Runner.


Valentino Achak Deng Foundation

In 2006 Achak managed to start his undergraduate studies, pursuing a degree in International Studies and Diplomacy; shortly thereafter, he founded the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation, to which the proceeds from What is the What are directed.

The Foundation's goal is to increase access to educational opportunities for those affected by the conflicts in Sudan.

In 2008, Valentino returned to his home town (Marial Bai) to construct an educational center comprising a twelve-classroom secondary school, a teacher-training college, a women's educational and vocational resource center and a public library.

Achak plans to continue the work of the foundation by constructing similar centers throughout Sudan and by aiding in the educational pursuits of Sudanese students throughout the world.

About Valentino Achak Deng

Achak was one of many unaccompanied children, who got separated from, or lost their family, during the civil war, leaving Sudan in the same extreme circumstances, the so called Lost Boys.

When Achak arrived to the States, he struggled to reach out to others through public speaking, illuminating his life as an example of the atrocities many successive governments of Sudan committed, and continued to commit, against its own people.

In spite of the public speaking opportunities available through the Lost Boys Foundation, Achak wanted to reach out to a wider audience by telling the story of his life in a book. And thus, he came into contact with Dave Eggers, with whom he collaborated to create What is the What, which deservedly got to be a bestseller.

Since Achak was very young when some of the events in the book took place, they had to pronounce What is the What a novel; nevertheless, all of the major events in the book are true. The book is historically accurate, and the world Achak knew was not different from the one depicted in the novel.

About Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers grew up in the Chicago suburbs and attended the University of Illinois. He is the editor of McSweeney's, an independent publishing house in San Francisco.

In 2002, he opened 826 Valencia, a writing and tutoring lab for young people in San Francisco. Satellite chapters of 826 have since opened in Brooklyn, Ann Arbor, Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston.

In 2004 Dave Eggers cofounded the Voice of Witness, a series of books that use oral history to illuminate human rights crises around the world.

Map of Sudan

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B markerMarial Bai -
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Achak´s home town.

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About the Title

The title of this novel is inspired from a story Achak's father told him when he was a boy, a story that teaches a lesson about gratitude and appreciation:

The What/Cattle Dilema:

When God created the Earth, he first made the Dinka, the tallest and strongest of the people under Sudan's skies. When he was done, and the Dinka were standing on Earth, waiting for instructions, God asked them:

"Now that you are here, on the most sacred and fertile land I have, I can give you one more thing. I can give you this creature, which is called the cow…."

God showed man the idea of the cattle. They were in every way exactly what the Dinka would want; the cattle would bring them milk and meat and prosperity of every kind, keeping them happy and healthy.

But God was not finished, he said:

"You can either have these cattle, as my gift to you, or you can have the What".

"What is the What?" asked the Dinka.

"I cannot tell you; still you have to choose. You have to choose between the cattle and the What."

The men could see the cattle right there in front of them, and they knew that with the cattle they would eat and live with great contentment. They could see the cattle carried something godlike within themselves, they knew they would be fools to pass up the cattle for this idea of the What.

The Dinka chose the cattle, and God has proven that this was the correct decision. God was testing the Dinka to see if they could appreciate what they had been given, if he could take pleasure in the bounty before him, rather than trade it for the unknown. And because the Dinka were able to see this, God had allowed them to prosper.

On the contrary, God had given the What to the Arabs, and the Arabs lived in the dessert, without water or arable soil. These choices and outcomes were what started the resentment, differences and conflict between the north and southern inhabitants of Sudan.

Documentary, The Lost Boy's Crossing

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Comments "What is the What, a Bestseller Novel by Dave Eggers"

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    • Claudia Tello profile image

      Claudia Tello 4 years ago from Mexico

      Lastheart: thanks for your interest and feedback, you will be happy to have read What is the What, one of the books that are a real treasure.

    • Lastheart profile image

      Maria Magdalena Ruiz O'Farrill 4 years ago from Borikén the great land of the valiant and noble Lord

      Claudia Tello great article and wonderful share. Yes!!!! I will have it in my collection.

    • Claudia Tello profile image

      Claudia Tello 5 years ago from Mexico

      Glad to be of help PDXKaraokeGuy! I really recommend What is the What, one of the best books I´ve read lately.

    • PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

      Justin W Price 5 years ago from Juneau, Alaska

      I've skimmed through this book at the bookstore several times. I've wanted to read it, just haven't gotten around to it. I also was not sure whether or not it was a novel or not, so, thanks for clarifying :-)

    • Claudia Tello profile image

      Claudia Tello 5 years ago from Mexico

      Hi Natalie Sack, thank you for your nice comment and feedback, it is really appreciated.

    • Claudia Tello profile image

      Claudia Tello 5 years ago from Mexico

      Hi Rusti Mccollum, you are welcome! It is my pleasure. I hope you do get to read What is the What, its a very interesting and pleasurable read. Achak is an amazing real life character and Dave Eggers a very good writer: the perfect combination. Let me know how you found the novel when and if you do. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • NatalieSack profile image

      NatalieSack 5 years ago from Pittsburgh, PA

      Nicely done, and beautifully formatted!

    • Rusti Mccollum profile image

      Ruth McCollum 5 years ago from Lake Oswego, Oregon

      Thankyou for your recomendedation of those books.