"What is the What" as a Religious Memoir

By James K. Aumack
2014, Vol. 6 No. 10 | pg. 3/3 |

Thirdly, What is the What asks basic questions about human life in relation to the whole of reality because Deng’s faith is tested in times of hardship. Throughout the text, Deng’s strength and drive to continue his journey is constantly being tested. Eggers’ description of Deng’s struggles forces readers to question the reason for continuing on with a journey that brings constant adversity. He was first tested when Maria Bai was raided, yet he found the Lost Boys. Next, he was tested throughout the desert with starvation, disease, wild animals, and government forces, yet he found safety in refugee camps in Ethiopia and at Kakuma. Deng constantly faced extraordinary difficult life decisions throughout his journey across the desert, but at the same time he was more fortunate than previous generations in that he was given the opportunity to receive an education. Deng’s faith in God is constantly being tested because of all the hardship, yet his reflection on his journey is a positive one: “Why should I be so fortunate? It seemed, then, that God had had a plan. God had separated me from my home and family and had sent me to this wretched place, but now there seemed to be a reason for it all” (p. 300). Deng, who lost everything and was forced to travel across Africa, could have given up on his journey at any time. Instead, his faith in God served as a reminder that he has a purpose in life.

At the beginning of the book, Eggers sets up a narrative that begins with Deng’s experiences in America, but then it switches to his journey with the Lost Boys. What the author is doing throughout the book when he switches to Deng’s life in Sudan is portraying to the reader an exodus narrative. This is a traditional narrative that is often seen in fairy tales in which the character follows a four to five stage process on their journey. In Gerald R. Griffin’s (1984) review of The Journey Narrative in American Literature: Patterns and Departures, he states that the venturing out process of the exodus narrative is one that “delineates those figures who would establish a new home for themselves, in spite of all the arduousness which such a flight might entail. Their sense is that they will not return from the new territory” (p. 607).

Griffin highlights the criteria of the exodus narrative, and like Deng’s, this type of narrative is important because it is often written about in the form of struggle, in that the journey that one goes on is a long and laboring one. In life, people experience circumstances that may force them to leave their homes and begin a new journey. For example, beginning a new job, or changing roommates, or moving to a new country, all are challenges that one faces away from home. Then, one can choose to give up on their journey because of these challenges, or they can reinvent themselves and learn from their experiences. One way that people do this is through religion. Instead of looking at the situation in the present moment, religious individuals often try to look at challenges in terms of what it means for the future. For example, if one is struggling financially, he or she may question what God intends to teach them through this process.

There are those, however, who would not agree with this. Existentialists would argue that God does not have a plan for man; rather man controls his own destiny. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism and Human Emotions (1957), he writes “existentialism’s first move is to make every man aware of what he is and to make the full responsibility of his existence rest on him” (p. 16). Sartre attempts to inform his readers that because God does not play a role in how the lives of humans play out, then man must rely entirely on his own strength. Augustine, on the other hand, would argue that God never disowns man. He believes that God plays an active role in people’s lives unless they choose to live a secular life. In Confessions, Augustine writes “no one can lose you, my God, unless he forsakes you. And if he forsakes you, where is he to go? If he abandons your love, his only refuge is your wrath. Wherever he turns, he will find law to punish him, for your law is the truth and the truth is yourself” (p. 80). Overall, when challenges arise, religion can be used to make tough decisions, and to find meaning and purpose for experiencing challenging situations. Like Augustine, Deng continues to refer to God’s plan when faced with hardship throughout his exodus in Africa.

Another important point of discussion that arises from reading Eggers’ book is how exactly an individual adapts when facing adversity. In other words, there are certain changes that one must make in order to come out of a challenging situation. For people in Deng’s situation, receiving an education and the opportunity to immigrate to an industrialized country was a privilege that many people in Sudan had not experienced. Eggers writes about Deng’s thoughts of being given the chance to start a new life in America, stating that “it was an unusual time for us all … A woman of southern Sudan could be a saint, and the Lost Boys could be flown across the ocean to represent Sudan in America. If one event was possible, so was the other. Nothing was out of the question” (p. 489). Essentially, Deng and the Lost Boys were given the opportunity of a lifetime — a chance to reinvent themselves. Deng realizes that despite all of their misfortunes, the Lost Boys were not only able to learn English while they were in refugee camps in Africa and Ethiopia, but they would also be able to further their education in America. Their generation is fortunate in that they were provided with the education to break the cycle of being limited to the trades of their fathers and instead become doctors and lawyers. In turn, if they progressed and succeeded in America, they would be able to help those who are still being oppressed in Sudan. Deng’s religion helps him reinvent himself, and it specifically helps him realize his purpose to tell his story and become a public speaker in the United States. Like Deng, anyone has the option to give up, but reinventing oneself when challenges arise is paramount to overcoming adversity.

Lastly, Eggers’ What is the What fits the criteria of a religious memoir because Deng’s faith is evident in times of hardship. Specifically, he responds positively when his faith is tested in the United States. Eggers begins his book by setting up a narrative of Deng’s handling with the situation of being robbed. Deng witnessed death on a colossal scale throughout his travel with the Lost Boys, so he had high hopes that his life would improve drastically while living in Atlanta. Although he was given the opportunity to receive an education, Deng still dealt with death in Atlanta, and he struggled to adapt to living in a new country. When people experience such a large amount of loss, a negative reaction is understandable and in some cases, expected. Eggers questions how exactly people use their religion to adapt upon being forced into unchartered territory. When Deng is robbed, he struggles to make ends meet, has difficulty transferring to a four-year university, and suffers the death of Tabitha; he hits a wall. In the midst of these circumstances, he is unable to see how dealing with these things is a part of God’s plan. In response to them, Deng begins to distance himself. Eggers writes “Now I have the same thoughts about God, my faith, that I had for these friends. God is in my life but I do not depend on him. My God is not a reliable God” (p. 358). When people deal with suffering, they often look to place blame on anyone but themselves. It is quite obvious that the struggles that Deng experiences are not because of his wrongdoings, so questioning God for allowing his struggles to continue is a natural reaction. Since Deng does have a negative reaction toward God in response to his hardship, this may not appear to be a religious memoir. Although Deng does not respond positively, at first, he ultimately realizes that God does indeed have a plan.

Deng’s reaction, however, is not unique to his situation. People have begun to look to see what connections religion has in several different areas in the lives of immigrants. Cadge and Edmund (2007) have discussed future research and they said that recently religion “has been carefully considered as an independent variable that influences factors such as immigrant economic mobility or civic political participation” (p. 370). Adapting to new surroundings is a reality that everybody faces. People that move to a different country entirely are tested almost immediately. Many face financial problems or simply struggle with integrating their beliefs in a new environment. One way this can be dealt with is through religion. When one is tested financially or is struggling in school, or having difficulty finding a job, their faith is tested. One can blame God for theirs struggles, or they can use their religion to help them adapt. Deng decided that his struggles were not so horrific that he would be unable to accept that God has a plan for him. At the end of the book, Deng comes to grips with his constant struggles when he says, “I will live as a good child of God, and will forgive him each time he claims another of the people I love. I will forgive and attempt to understand his plans for me, and I will not pity myself” (p. 533). When forced to have to adapt to a new environment, it is difficult to look at the big picture and understand exactly what life lesson is meant to be learned. Deng ultimately reacted positively to the challenges he faced in the United States, and he maintained his faith because he believed God had a plan for him.

By asking basic the basic questions about the meaning of human life in relation to the whole of reality, Eggers’ What is the What fits Olmsted’s definition of religious memoir because Deng’s faith is portrayed in times of hardship when he uses religion on a personal level and in relationships, and because he maintains his faith throughout his exodus from Sudan and several refugee camps, as well as responding positively when his faith is tested in the United States. Eggers’ book is labeled as a fictional autobiography, but it is also a religious memoir. This is important because it is too easy to read the book and label Deng as an overly religious person for someone who has experienced so much hardship. It is too easy for a non-religious person to read about his journey and say, ‘he is naïve for trusting in a God that has taken so much from him,’ when really it would be naïve for not holding on to his faith in times of great challenge. Religion plays a role in the betterment of human beings in that it pursues the goal of “cultivating goodness and bringing happiness to all human beings” (Gyatso, 1990, p. 270).


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Cadge, W. & Ecklund, H.E. (2007). Immigration and Religion. Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 33, pp. 359-379.

Deng, A., Chol, N.B., & Youree, B. (2008).Courageous Journey: Walking the Lost Boys' Path from the Sudan to America. Far Hills, NJ: New Horizon.

Eggers, D. (2006). What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng: A Novel. New York: Random House, Inc.

Frahm, O. (2012). Defining the Nation: National Identity in South Sudanese Media Discourse. Africa Spectrum, 47(1) pp. 21-49.

Griffin, G. (1984, Dec.). [Review of the book The Journey Narrative in American Literature: Patterns and Departures]. The New England Quarterly, 605-609. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/365070.

Gyatso, T. (1990). Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama. Great Britain: Hodder and Stoughton Ltd.

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Murphey, D. D. (2007). What is the What.The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies,32(3), 388-392. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/216800325?accountid=11999.

Olmsted, R. W. (1989). Philosophical Inquiry and Religious Transformation In Boethius’s “The Consolation of Philosophy” and Augustine’s “Confessions.” The Journal of Religion, Vol. 69, No. 1 pp. 14-35.

Perry B.G.F. (1998). The Relationship between Faith and Well-Being. Journal of Religion and Health. Vol. 37, No. 2, pp. 125-136.

Rowlandson, M (W). & Weis, L. F. (1930).A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin.

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Wenger, M. (1991). Sudan: Politics and Society. Middle East Report. pp. 3-7.

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