Thursday, April 19, 2007

What is the What

After an early false start which proved disastrous to area gardens and vineyards, Spring is again attempting to arrive. Our fox again ventures from his hole, birds are weaving a new nest above our front door, and leaves are timidly beginning to unfurl from tangles of brown branches. Nature is wearing a light heart on its sleeve but I'm still feeling a bit Apocalyptic. As I write these words a verse in Matthew occurs to me: "The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head." Ca-ching. I've just finished Dave Egger's What is the What, the story of Sudanese Lost Boy Valentino Achak Deng. If you are feeling a bit grumpy about your own state of affairs this substantial read (475 pages) offers a stiff antidote. Valentino's childhood odyssey is even more violent, gruesome and heartbreaking than the son's in McCarthy's The Road, and it actually happened to him.

I've admired Dave Eggers since first reading his memoir A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius. Anyone who can make me laugh as hard as I did when I came to the stapler drawing in the preface has won a lifelong fan. My admiration grew as I became aware of the inner city literacy programs he's organized, the lavish attention he pays to the graphic design of the books he publishes through McSweeneys (sometimes superior to their content) and his many literary and publishing innovations. Now I have to admire his international activism. Along with giving Valentino a voice, he's using all proceeds from sales of the book to fund the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation which will go to, according to the website:

The rebuilding of Marial Bai [Valentino's village]: In the summer of 2007, Valentino will travel back to Marial Bai and begin work on a large complex there which will feature a library, a women's center, a youth activity center, a community gathering center, and a sports program.

College educations for Sudanese immigrants in America: As can be seen in Valentino's life, even with support networks, it's very difficult for Sudanese in America to attain college educations. The Foundation will help provide scholarships to aid the educational pursuits of Sudanese immigrants, and will assist programs that serve the Sudanese diaspora.

I often struggle with the idea that the art I spend so much time on should "do" something. Provide some benefit to the world. Eggers has figured out how to do both and do them well: he's contributed a work of art which has also become a vehicle to make some little part of the world a better place. Check out the website by clicking the header above. Then thank God for the pillow you lay your head on, the food in your stomach and that outside your door is nothing more menacing than furry foxes or twittering birds.


Jenni said...

You know I love Dave Eggers! I have What is the What on my shelf waiting to be read, too. You read really fast.

Karen Miedrich-Luo said...

Is that a bird's egg that has dropped from the nest? I just noticed!