I admit, I picked up this book because I had heard of it before and it was on the sale rack at Barnes and Noble. Not necessarily a promising beginning, I have found myself reading some pretty horrible books via that method!
But, What is the What reawakened my interest in cultural differences and, specifically, the cultures of Africa. I have felt a heart tug towards Africa in my life many times, and this was a reawakening.
What is the What is a fictionalized biography of Valentino Deng, a Sudanese boy whose village was destroyed during the civil war and who, without his family, became one of the "Lost Boys" of Sudan. He spent years (13?) wandering from the wilderness to refuge camps, threatened by animals and armed militia. He experienced countless challenges including witnessing the death of friends, injury and starvation. Finally, in his early 20's, Deng was sent as a refuge to the United States.
The book, narrated by Deng, flips back and forth between "present day" - where Deng has to navigate his new world as a stranger - and the experiences of his past.
While I was reading the book, I had a few different people ask me about the title. I don't want to give too much away, but the title refers to the Sudanese creation story and, in particular, one point where God offers the Sudanese people "the What". Upon hearing the story, Deng and his friends naturally ask, "What is the What?" And part of this story is about different people's impressions of what "the What" really is.
The story is in turn heartbreaking, exhilarating, funny, informative and inspirational. I didn't want to put it down. And it has led me to read further about the Lost Boys and about the history of Sudan, which I think was probably the point of Deng sharing his story.