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The Book Nook

Le Coin Lecture

Curl up and grab one of these books to help you navigate the work that's ahead.

This list is meant to help, challenge, and encourage discussions around DEI, Anti-Racism and Emerging Leadership practices. 

April, 2024

What is the What by Dave Eggers.png

Credit: Penguin Books

What is the What by Dave Eggers

By: Nyo Malek

What's this about?

What is the What chronicles Valentino Achak Deng's life from adolescence to adulthood told through a fictional non-linear narrative. The story follows Deng's childhood in Marial Bai, South Sudan, and his subsequent fleeing at seven years old due to the 1985-2005 civil war. As a minor without parents, a Lost Boy, he continued his journey of seeking safety and refuge along with thousands of other children and families. He settled in a refugee camp for 13 years, walking the distance of three countries. The novel also touches upon his life as an adult immigrating to the United States and navigating the challenges of Western society.

About The Author

Dave Eggers is an American author with a journalism degree from the University of Illinois and an honorary doctorate from Brown University. He is the founder of McSweeney's, an independent publishing company. He is also the co-founder of 826 Valencia, a youth writing and tutor centre that created over 70 other branches. Eggers has been awarded the American Book Award, the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award for Education, and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.


Memoir, Autobiography, Fiction, Historical Fiction, War, Genocide

What We Liked

By telling the story in a historical and fictional context, Eggers has weaved an impactful and memorable story about the effects of war and genocide that highlights the importance of community, survival, love, and loss. Eggers's use of Deng's voice to narrate the story provides authenticity and levity to the strong subject matter. Deng's story teaches the audience the ultimate tale of resilience and perseverance when life's complexities pour onto an individual.


What we remember: Egger’s sharing the arc of Deng’s life from adolescence to adulthood highlights that loss and survival do not just end when fleeing a war zone and reaching the “safety” of a refugee camp. Instead, they are a continual theme in Deng’s life in North America. These themes aren’t just the experience of one person’s story, but this is my family’s story and the story of millions of Sudanese people.

What this book is : An accurate depiction of survival and perseverance when experiencing the effects of war and genocide.


What this book isn't :  An easy binge-able read. Deng’s story is heart-wrenching and may require several sessions to complete the book.

Why Read This Book

Living in a world where genocides are actively occurring in several countries, including Sudan, again, What is the What reminds us of the human lives that are irrevocably altered due to geopolitical conflicts outside of their control. You are left with a very visceral reaction to what being in survival mode is when the stakes genuinely are between life and death. 

If the idea of war happening in your city seems foreign, read this book to familiarize yourself with the experiences that millions of people are going through. If you are an organization that promotes the principles of DEI or an educator looking for a book for your students to read, choose this one.

Quick Quote

“But without William K, I would have forgotten that I had not been born on this journey. That I had lived before this.” 


“I will not wait to love as best as I can. We thought we were young and that there would be time to love well sometime in the future. This is a terrible way to think. It is no way to live, to wait to love.”


“Whatever I do, however I find a way to live, I will tell these stories. I have spoken to every person I have encountered these last difficult days...I speak to these people, and I speak to you because I cannot help it. It gives me strength, almost unbelievable strength, to know that you are there. I covet your eyes, your ears, the collapsible space between us. How blessed are we to have each other? I am alive and you are alive and so we must fill the air with our words. I will fill today, tomorrow, every day until I am taken back to God. I will tell stories to people who will listen and to people who don't want to listen, to people who seek me out and to those who run. All the while I will know that you are there. How can I pretend that you do not exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist.”

Get the Gist

You can read a summary of the novel here and a sit-down talk with Dave Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng here.

How does it fare?

“A work of truly staggering heartbreak and hope… What is the What describes tragedy and violence of almost unimaginable scope, but Valentino soldiers the burden as if it is his due and describes it with a matter-of-fact resignation and few moments of self-pity. Real or fictional, he is a character worth getting to know.”

Winnipeg Free Press

“Dave Eggers has done something remarkable with this book. He has managed to cross many barriers both real and artificial to tell the story of one man’s tragedy and triumph in a way that emphasizes his simple humanity above the drama of his terrible situation. It is a book that shows there is no reason why geographical and cultural divides should prevent us from attempting to understand one another as citizens of this world.”

– Uzodinma Iweala, author of Beasts of No Nation

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