Monday, October 12, 2015

[Memphis Reads 2015] Fresh Reads Top Ten Winner Macayla Henley

The Uncertainty of the What 
by Macayla Henley

What is the What by Dave Eggers is a novel about Valentino Achak Deng’s triumphant journey from the war-stricken village of Marial Bai in Southern Sudan, to the United States of America. Deng starts his story in Atlanta during a robbery. He begins to recall accounts of appalling violence he experienced growing up in Africa. In his village, he lived a typical life like other Sudanese boys. With tension growing in Sudan between the northern Muslims and Dinkas in the south, rebel soldiers soon tore through Deng’s town and he began a solo voyage to escape.  Along the way he found a group of “lost boys” headed to Ethiopia in hopes of finding a refugee camp. Before reaching Ethiopia, Deng faced many challenges that threatened his potential of reaching the camp.

The “What” in the novel is the vital theme. It is first introduced by Deng’s father in the creation story. God gave the Dinka the choice between cattle and the What. The Dinka knew the cattle was a safe choice, because they would provide food and security, so that is what they chose (62). The Dinka were said to have been given the choice before the Muslims because the Dinka were “superior” to them. This religious tension between the two groups inevitably led to war.

In Deng’s story, the metaphoric meaning of the What is simply the unknown. From the very beginning of the novel, it can be seen that the What is the scary, uncertain outcome of life. As the book progresses, the What is brought up time and time again.
“Khartoum wants to ruin Dinkaland. Then we’ll need them to restore order, we’ll need them for everything.  
-So that is the what, I said.
-Dut Majok sighed. I don’t know, I don’t know what the What is” (135).

Deng struggles to understand the meaning of the What. As he continues his story and travels to Ethiopia, he is not met with cities as he once thought. He did not know where the Lost Boys and he were traveling to, but it was still a shock when the time came. “I looked at the land- no homes, no medical facilities, no food, no water. We are not in Ethiopia. This is not that place” (227).

It is at the end when he makes his realization of the What. The What is the uncertain part of life. The Dinka chose the cattle, but the unknown soon came with war. On the very last page, Deng gives an answer to the puzzling title of the book. “Whatever I do, however I find a way to live, I will tell these stories” (535). By the end of the book, Deng has learned that the What is inevitable, and after accepting this, he begins to embrace it. There is no way of knowing what the What is, but it should not be feared. As he said in the novel, “however, I will find a way to live.” No matter what is thrown your way, always find a way to persevere.

What is the What is different than any book I have ever read. It was so compelling and surreal to read about Deng’s life. In comparison, I have no heart wrenching accounts to disclose. I live by the belief that change brings opportunity. Fortunately, at the start of my junior year this was proven true. My high school offered the International Baccalaureate program that I had been groomed for in my first two years there. Even though I had completed the prerequisites, against all advice, I decided to withdraw from the adventure. It was one of the best decisions I could have ever made.

Having made the decision to leave, I was granted opportunities that were some of the best of my high school career. I became more involved with school activities as well as clubs and had the chance to take a class that allowed me to explore in depth my love for writing. If I hadn’t withdrawn, I wouldn’t know about the wonderful course, AP Language and Composition. I maintained A’s the entire year in that class, something I hadn’t accomplished in any prior AP class. Truthfully, I believe it helped me become a better student.

My story is nowhere near as intense or inspiring as Deng’s. But, I’d like to think that Valentino Achak Deng and I do have one thing in common. We decided to embrace the What and not run from the uncertainty of life. “I am alive and you are alive so we must fill the air with our words” (535). If his story was limited to only one lesson, I believe the most important one would be to take a leap of faith whenever you can. You never know “what” could happen.

--Macayla Henley

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