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Author Dave Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng, collaborators on the novel What Is What, visit Pittsburgh. 


In his most recent novel, What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, Dave Eggers again plays with the line separating fiction from nonfiction. Like A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius, his account of raising his younger brother after the deaths of his parents, What Is the What is a book grounded firmly in reality.

In fact, the titular Deng is a real person, and the book is the result of years of communication and collaboration between the two. In the early stages of writing, neither author nor subject was even entirely sure whether the book would be fiction.

Deng is one of the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan, his idyllic youth in the East African Dinka tribal village of Marial Bai hopelessly lost when the long slog of Sudanese civil war began. Like thousands of other children, Deng spent years running, in refugee camps and through the wilderness, to Ethiopia and Kenya, eventually turning up in Atlanta. There, he enrolled in community college and met Mary Williams, of the Lost Boys Foundation, who introduced him to Eggers.

The two -- who visit Pittsburgh on Mon., Oct. 29 -- decided almost immediately that a book was in order, and began a long process of interviews and correspondence. Eggers has said in interviews that Deng's voice was so distinct and compelling that it had to be preserved, and that at times he wasn't sure whether he was writing about Deng or helping Deng write his own book. Deng was in basic writing classes at community college; he was pretty sure that Eggers, whose many literary ventures include the magazine McSweeney's, would be doing the heavy lifting.

Some parts of the book -- childhood conversations, particular moments of strife -- were invented for the sake of the narrative. But other storylike details -- such as how Deng's arrival in the U.S. was thwarted by his arrival date of Sept. 11, 2001 -- are real. So while the book is billed as fiction, it's entirely grounded in reality.

Staggering is generally classified as nonfiction, and Eggers took heat from his family, notably his sister Beth, for playing with the facts of their lives. The literary license included messing with the passage of time and introducing long fantasy sequences. While such alterations were made clear to readers in the preface, later editions included an apologetic postscript, "Mistakes We Knew We Were Making."

In What Is the What, because a few episodes didn't actually happen to Deng, Eggers classified the book as fiction, possibly to avoid undermining Deng's very real story.

Eggers and Deng revisited Marial Bai, where Deng -- currently a student at Allegheny College, in Meadville -- has plans to rebuild the village with proceeds from the book. He has said he hopes to build a school, library, community center and women's center.

On Mon., Oct. 29, the American Shorts Reading Series brings Eggers and Deng to the New Hazlett Theater. They'll talk about writing the book and the situation in Sudan, and will present photos and video from their trip. The second part of the evening's program, devoted to music and art, will feature Los Angeles-based rock band Lavender Diamond, local singer-songwriter Steven Foxbury, and folks from Unicorn Mountain, Pittsburgh's own McSweeney's-esque multimedia tendency.

Dave Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng and guests 7:30 p.m. (doors at 7 p.m.) Mon., Oct. 29. New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side. $15 ($10 students). 412-622-8866

click to enlarge Who is the who: Dave Eggers
  • Who is the who: Dave Eggers

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