Spiritual Autobiography and Dave Eggers' "What is the What"

By Johanna L. Beck
2014, Vol. 6 No. 12 | pg. 4/4 |

Throughout the novel, he performs many compassionate acts for his fellow Lost Boys, including accepting a job burying his peers. Upon the death of his good friend, William K, Valentino chooses to stay behind and risk losing the group to give him a proper burial. Yet, the adult Valentino only looks back on this event as an example of how terrible things were for those fleeing, not as an instance of commendable kindness and compassion, recalling “It was a broken world, I knew then, that would allow a boy such as me to bury a boy such as William K” (Eggers, 2006).

Through his silent humility and raw honesty, he is able to bear witness to the horrendous atrocities that occurred during the Sudanese and consequently, becomes a more reliable spiritual narrator.

From 1990 to 1996, over four thousand memoirs and other autobiographical texts were published in a period Joyce Carol Oates terms “the age of the New Memoir” in her article, “Trauma, Coping, Recovery” (2003). These modern texts display a sequential pattern of deep pain and trauma, emotional release, and a conclusion of consolation over time. What is the What certainly shares aspects with the works characterizing “the age of the New Memoir,” but it primarily differs in its hope for recovery and reconciliation. Because of the novel’s incorporation of ongoing global problems, Valentino cannot resolve many of his experiences fleeing Sudan and struggles to adapt to life in the United States.

He explains in the preface, “This book is a form of struggle, and it keeps my spirit alive to struggle. To struggle is to strengthen my faith, my hope, and my belief in humanity” (Eggers, 2006, p. 5). Unlike other spiritual autobiographies, the continuation of Valentino’s problems and failure to resolve them are essential for communicating the reality of the situation of the Sudanese refugees. His struggles keep these memories alive and he recognizes the effects of such difficulties on his life. It may be easy for readers to understand how struggle can strengthen one’s faith and hope; however, Valentino’s claim that it also strengthens his belief in humanity is perhaps most surprising after learning about all that he has endured.

This wisdom and ability to overcome both physically and emotionally aligns this novel with other new memoirs as it demonstrates clearly the stages of trauma, coping, and quasi recovering, yet without a firm resolution. Tidy endings and the ability to find a stable conclusion keeps the problems and trauma “in the past, suggesting that there can be a finality to experience” (Gosselin, 2011, p. 142).

However, there is never a finality to experiencing the many horrendous traumas of the Sudanese Civil War. Consequently, Eggers choice to deviate from traditional spiritual autobiographies and their distinct resolutions, creates a more real experience for the readers and portrays a stronger image of suffering, struggle, and spiritual strength.

By witnessing the horrendous actions of others and reflecting upon the difficulties experienced, the novel simultaneously explores two distinct worlds and groups of emotions: those of the Lost Boys and those of the governments and militia at war. This addition to the narrator’s personal reflections captures aspects of which many other spiritual autobiographies are incapable. While both Augustine and Mary Rowlandson wrote their spiritual autobiographies at interesting times in history, neither comments on the situation of the world around them as much as Valentino in What is the What.

Instead, their focus is primarily on their life with God and the events that happen to occur because of God’s will, and not on their interactions with the outside world and greater political and social influences. In The Limits of Autobiography, Leigh Gilmore explains how modern autobiographical texts and memoirs “would be inconceivable were it not for the social and political movements of the past thirty years” (2001, p. 16).

The changes in our modern world have allowed for texts such as Eggers’ novel to evolve with details that are now expected and welcomed by today’s readers. Valentino’s incorporation of this historical period makes his ability to survive and remain emotionally stable even more remarkable and intriguing to readers.

He reflects on his life, “I have examined my course, whether or not I have made mistakes, whether I have been a good child of God. And though I have tried to remain on course, and I have redoubled my efforts to pray and to attend Mass regularly, I have also realized that it is time to start my life again” (Eggers, 2006, p. 331). This brief conclusion demonstrates Valentino’s ability to move past these troubles and start anew, regardless of his inability to fix the events of the past.

As an autobiographical novel existing between the worlds of fiction and nonfiction, What is the What successfully generates a new form of spiritual autobiography, as the speaker confesses, “This book is the soulful account of my life” (Eggers, 2006, p. 5).

While it is reminiscent of its historical predecessors such as Augustine and Mary Rowlandson, the novel shows a distinct deviation with a greater emphasis on questioning a seemingly complacent and negligent God. The life-writing traits and unique moments of prayer and reflection also frame the novel in a more modern light, fitting for the time and place of the life being illustrated.

The alterations to the traditional spiritual autobiographical narrative pattern found in this novel ordain Valentino’s account as that of a modern struggling saint. Egger’s placement of this novel outside of the world of absolute nonfiction allows the narrator this leeway to bear witness with proper reflection and to convey a more accurate and comprehensible story of the Lost Boys.

Only through this spiritual style and reflective form is Eggers effectively able to convey the lessons learned during the Sudanese Civil War and create a warning for the world that these atrocities can happen again.


References

Augustine. (2009). Confessions. New York: Classic America. (Original work published)

Bell, R. (1977). Metamorphoses of Spiritual Autobiography. ELH, 44(1), 108-126.

The Bible: New International Version. (1984). Colorado Springs, CO: International Bible Society.

Bowman, F. P. (1976). Suffering, Madness, and Literary Creation in Seventeeth-Century Spiritual Autobiography. French Forum, 1(1), 24-48.

Eggers, D. (2006). What is the What: the autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng : a novel. San Francisco: McSweeney's.

Gilmore, L. (2001). The Limits of Autobiography. “Represent Yourself.” Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. 16-44.

Gosselin, A. (2011). Memoirs as Mirrors: Counterstories in Contemporary Memoir. Narrative, 19(1), 133-148.

Leigh, D. J. (2000). Circuitous Journeys: Modern Spiritual Autobiography. New York: Fordham University Press.

Martin, D. (2006). Rescripting Spiritual Autobiography. Exchange, 35(1), 92-101.

Miller, E. (2011). Dave Egger’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius: Memoirs as a “Pain-Relief Device.” Journal of the American Psychoanalytical Association, 59, 983-1008.

Moschella, M. C. (2011). Spiritual Autobiography and Older Adults. Pastoral Psychology, 60, 95-98.

Oates, J.C. (2003). “Trauma, Coping, Recovery. Times Literary Supplement, June 20, p. 15.

Parke, C. N. (2001) “Literary Lives: Biography and the Search for Understanding.” Biography. ProQuest. 24(4), 933-936.

Phifer, N. (2002). Memoirs of the Soul. Cincinnati, Ohio: Walking Stick Press.

Rowlandson, M., Baym, N., Franklin, W., Gura, P., & Krupat, A. (2007). A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

David Eggers’ What is the What is a memoir about the life of Valentino Achak Deng and his personal experience with warfare, famine, and disease in his home country of Sudan and the neighboring countries he travels through as a refugee. Eggers provides Deng’s account of the displacement of over 20,000 children... MORE»
Advertisement
When starting on an autobiography, the author must ask themselves how they will choose to deal with the aspect of time in their work. Will they choose to follow the events of their life lineally or in a stream of consciousness recall? This contemplation creates what Gunn calls the impulse: “The impulse arises... MORE»
In the autobiography, time and history, at first glance, seem paramount. After all, autobiography is the account of the things that have happened in a person’s life, selected and made ready for public consumption, usually written in the first person. However, the understanding of autobiographical narratives can vary from story... MORE»
In recent years the memoir has come to the forefront of American literature as a popular form for both writers and readers. The best seller list is often clogged with memoirs, or, at least, books that claim to be memoirs. Despite the nagging question of how true any autobiographical information really... MORE»
Submit to Inquiries Journal, Get a Decision in 10-Days

Inquiries Journal provides undergraduate and graduate students around the world a platform for the wide dissemination of academic work over a range of core disciplines.

Representing the work of students from hundreds of institutions around the globe, Inquiries Journal's large database of academic articles is completely free. Learn more | Blog | Submit

Follow SP

Latest in Literature

2019, Vol. 11 No. 10
Depicting the rugged reintegration of Ichiro Yamada, a no-no boy imprisoned during WWII, Japanese American author John Okada presents a traumatized and conflicted Japanese American community during the mid-1940s in his novel No-No Boy (1957). Applying... Read Article »
2019, Vol. 11 No. 04
This paper explores the conflict between hegemonic and new masculinity in Phil Klay’s Redeployment, illustrating the changing conception of gender roles and masculinity in storytelling about war. This paper juxtaposes traditional conceptions... Read Article »
2019, Vol. 11 No. 02
The corpus of Older Scots literature is hyper-attentive to the themes and issues surrounding nationhood and sovereignty. Authors of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries often espoused and exploited the national pride of the Scottish people, producing... Read Article »
2019, Vol. 11 No. 01
Until the outbreak of civil war, the United States would continually try and fail to subdue the existential threat of slavery, with each attempt exacerbating the sectional tensions between slave and free states. In 1830, Massachusetts Senator Daniel... Read Article »
2019, Vol. 11 No. 01
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov is a masterpiece of literature that seems to transform into a remarkably personal experience for anyone who approaches the text. The book reads in many ways like a game full of mysteries and innuendos and has in its... Read Article »
2019, Vol. 11 No. 01
The staged plays of the early Jacobean period are valuable textual products for the literary critic, the cultural researcher and the historian alike. These plays are significant containers of knowledge about the mutually reinforcing social and political... Read Article »
2018, Vol. 10 No. 10
Innocent lamb, savage tiger, free-flying eagle – time after time animals interrupt poetry as the ideal, the muse, the hero, or the grotesque operating alongside humanity. In tracking animal imagery throughout contemporary Irish poetry, we... Read Article »

What are you looking for?

FROM OUR BLOG

How to Read for Grad School
7 Big Differences Between College and Graduate School
How to Manage a Group Project (Video)