What is the What

January 17, 2008 4:49:21 AM PST
When former mayor John Street chose "What is the What" as the One Book, One Philadelphia selection, the morning team decided to join in and read it together.We thought it was a great chance to take part in something that would unify and uplift the city. We couldn't have been more right: What is the What is an amazing book about a young boy's triumph over hardship, fear, violence and terrifying odds. The book opened our eyes to the government sanctioned massacre of the people of southern Sudan. And it introduced us to someone we now hold dead, Valentino Deng, the protagonist at the center of the story.

Mutual friends put Valentino in touch with bestselling author Dave Eggers. Eggers is famous for his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, his story of raising his younger brother after the death of their parents. The mutual friend thought Eggers would have special empathy for Valentino and what he went through, being separated from his family as he fled alone into the Sudanese wilderness.

Eggers almost never talks to television reporters. But he is deeply committed to helping young people---he runs a non-profit in San Francisco that helps poor youth learn to express themselves through writing. He was touched by the idea that so many young people watch our show and meet us when we visit their schools. Our mutual hope that that everyone watching, especially the young, would identify with this young, regular-guy author and want to pick up his book. So Eggers granted his third ever television interview.

Eggers told Matt and me he and Valentino talked for weeks on the phone and in person. At some point he realized there was no going back, that he was committed to writing Valentino's story. It would take four years, lots of phone calls and travels. He went back with Valentino to his village in Sudan, he met his friends and family and he introduced Valentino to his life. A special moment was when Valentino came out to San Francisco to hold Eggers' newborn daughter.

Valentino's story is not an easy one. The Arab-backed government of Sudan is in conflict with the mainly Christian southern region of the country. The government backed Arab raiders as they mauraded across the southern region, burning and looting villages and terrorizing, raping and killing people. One day Arab horsemen come to Valentino's village of Marial Bai. He and his mother tried to flee to his aunt's village, but the raiders were close behind. Among flames and screams, Valentino flees.

He soon found other boys in similar circumstances. Hungry and many of them naked, they made their way across the Sudanese brush, headed to Ethiopia. Later, Valentino would have to go to Kenya, to a camp called Kakuma. Overall he would face 13 years in the camps, as well as memories of awful violence, terrible conditions and multiple instances of watching other boys die.

Valentino had told some of these stories before and Eggers found he could be very business-like in repeating them. But the longer the two spent together, the more that surfaced that Valentino had not discussed. Sometimes the memories were happy, of boys laughing and still forging bonds in the worst of circumstances. Some were painful, remembrances of things children shouldn't see. At times, Valentino needed to take at least the night to think and gather himself. Sometimes he needed a week.

But Valentino does ultimately get some great news about his family and made his way to America. Unfortunately, his road here wasn't simple and smooth. He had to navigate his way through jobs and years of gathering community college credits to try to get into university. He also faced tough times personally, going through difficulties with a girlfriend and finding himself often at odds and scared of the African Americans he finds in his urban neighborhoods.

Still, Valentino never gives up. He continues to plan a good and happy future. He makes plans to give back and build schools in his Sudanese village. And he maintains his beautiful smile. Eggers said he learned so much from Valentino about resilience, optimism and hope.

Watch our interview with Eggers in the video box above. And link here to this Free Library of Philadelphia to find their list of events going on over the next few weeks to celebrate the book. And if you can, please join us on the morning show in reading the book and being part of our city-wide converstation.

---Karen, Matt, Tam and David