Book-Blogging: What is the What and You Shall Know Our Velocity
If you do some research on the science and mechanisms of memory, it quickly becomes clear that memory is, more or less, an artifice, a construction – a best approximation. Picture your first kiss with the man or woman that you love or loved. As you recall that memory, you’re modifying it, infecting it with the present context in which you exist; maybe you’re idealizing it through rose-tinted, maudlin glasses, or disparaging it as a youthful falsehood.
Any way you look at it, the essential truth of the moment is… gone, reconstituted into at least a partial fiction.
Similarly, reading a book in a certain context can change the meaning, what resonates with you, and the thoughts that stick around long after it’s put down. Living in east Africa while reading two of Dave Eggers’s finest novels, What is the What and You Shall Know Our Velocity! profoundly changed the way the books made me feel and think. Both are linked, geographically and thematically, to the area, and I suspect I have a special appreciation for them because I read them here.
But regardless of whether you currently find yourself in America or Angola, Uruguay or Uganda, both of these books should be on your reading list. They are equal parts moving, inspiring, and fun. Eggers brings his slightly-manic, slightly-genius prose to bear on stories of losing and finding; loving and loathing; rupturing and redeeming.
What is the What, by Dave Eggers
“When God created the earth, he first made us, the monyjang. Yes, first he made the monyjang, the first man, and he made him the tallest and strongest of the people under the sky… and he made their women beautiful, more beautiful than any of the creatures on the land… And when God was done, and the monyjang were standing on the earth waiting for instruction, God asked the man, ‘Now that you are here, on the most sacred and fertile land I have, I can give you one more thing. I can give you this creature, which is called the cow…or you can have the What.”
What is the What, a “non-fiction novel” written by Dave Eggers, is the author at his finest.
It’s written in the voice – and memories – of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the thousands of Sudanese “Lost Boys” displaced by the civil war between the Sudanese government and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). It’s fictionalized non-fiction; not wanting to be constrained by the fallacies of memory, Eggers and Deng choose to consciously tell a tale that gets at the truth of the feelings and thoughts rather than the truth of the moment.
Forced to leave his family behind in their village of Marial Bai – only finding out years later if his mother and father are alive – Achak walks east to Pinyudo, a refugee camp in Ethiopia, all the while fending off lions, hunger, and bombs. You can feel his desperation, depression, and desolation as he walks, and walks, and walks. Friends stop walking, and die.
Pinyudo is an improvement on walking, but not the idyllic place Achak and the other Lost Boys are looking for. Clashes with the local village and the SPLA break the peace, and it is only a suitable “home” for a short time. Things escalate and they are forced to, once again, walk.
And so Achak walked some more, this time south to the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, where he’d live for the next ten years of his life. He was recognized as a youth leader and was able to move in with a family from his village – which puts him, in the hierarchy of unaccompanied minors, quite high up. Eventually, the Lost Boys are given a place to be found – the United States. Achak is one of the last to be brought over, but finds benefactors and a support network, and is a prominent member of the Sudanese transplant network.
The book is framed by, and returns to often, Achak’s life in Atlanta, and much of his story is told through an internal conversation he has with captors, who come to his apartment rob him. It highlights how, even in the relative safety of American life, the Lost Boys are still a bit lost.
Whether you’re interested in South Sudan or not, this is a remarkable tale that you’ll probably enjoy; give it a shot.
You Shall Know Our Velocity! by Dave Eggers
You have $100 that you have decided to give away. There are two people in front of you; one begs you for the money, the other is stoic, but clearly in need. Who do you give it to? More importantly, how does the whole situation make you feel?
I come across this in myriad ways every day in Uganda; you probably do too, in America or elsewhere. The guy who asks for a slice on pineapple or a beer; the child who says, in a sing-song voice, “You give me money?”; the silent woman sitting on the ground, hand out and palm up. Someone, somewhere, asking for something, with their mouth, hand, or eyes.
It’s easy to superficially capture an encounter like this, but it’s much, much more difficult to capture how it feels. Eggers manages to do this in a way that’s beautiful, enlightening, and honest – usually through the internal struggles that the main character, Will, has with himself and his made-up recipients.
Will and his friend, Hand, are on a quest to disburse a bunch of money, and decide to travel the world to do so. Like all best-laid plans of travelers, theirs is stymied by the vicissitudes of airline schedules, unnavigable roads, and their ambition.
At its core, the novel is an adventure story told by an emotionally-wrecked adventurer, wracked by self-doubt, self-loathing, and a need for perpetual motion, in the hopes of staying away from his thoughts. It seems that by disgorging himself of the weight of the money – both the way it was procured and the way he failed to use it for its first intended purpose – he believes he’ll be able to save himself from… himself.
If you’re going to reach just one of Eggers’s books… don’t. Read at least two, and make those two A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and What is the What. After those two, I suspect you’ll be interested in reading You Shall Know Our Velocity!, too.
And once you finish reading it, read this – a section that’s included in the middle of some versions, but not others. It will completely change the way you view the book.
 Radiolab’s episode on this, Memory and Forgetting, is one that I constantly recommend to friends, and heartily recommend to you now. This is a pretty accessible piece on memory reconsolidation. Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein remains one of the most fun, engaging, and enrapturing books on memory I’ve read, too.
 Proof positive: reading Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, on recommendation from a girlfriend, makes for an interesting, insecurity-inducing read.
 “And there is a chance that everything we did was incorrect, but stasis is itself criminal for those with the means to move, and the means to weave communion between people.”
 The title of the book, incidentally, comes from a story that a minor character told Hand about an indigenous Chilean population known as the Jumping People. When attacked by the conquistadors, they fled their home and left a note: “YOU SHALL KNOW OUR VELOCITY”