Today's NYT review of Dave Eggers new book, What is the What, provides an opportunity to continue this thread about authenticity, authority, and voice. What is the What is a fictionalized memoir about Valentino Achak Deng, one of the "Lost Boys" of Sudan.
In his review, Michiko Kakutani lauded Eggers book as "a startling act of literary ventriloquism," calling the story Eggers crafts of the raw stuff of Valentino Achak Deng's life " a testament to the triumph of hope over experience." And I am sure it is. But how startling an act will depend on how literally it compares to the real life stories told by three of the so-called Lost Boys in a book they co-wrote with their mentor, Judy Bernstein: They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan. (see my November 1 post, below).
I know, from correspondence with Ms. Bernstein, that Eggers was influenced by They Poured Fire; he acknowledges as much in a note in What is the What. I will have to read Eggers work to decide for myself just how closely that influence affected his narrative. Did it shape the arc of the story, provide details for voice, action, dialogue? And, if it did, should we then ask, So what? Is this just a latter day example of the sort of entering into the subject that Styron displayed in Confessions of Nat Turner? After all, isn't the point of a work of fiction to create a story out of a life or an event that will move people who read it because it enables them to enter a life not their own, empathize, and, so doing, grow wider in their own humanity?
But, for the record, I think They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky deserves at least some mention in subsequent reviews that will undoubtedly laud Eggers' achievement. What is triumphal about these young men's stories in They Poured Fire, directly written as memoir, is, in part, the sheer fact of their being able to write such a story after so short a time of transition to their complex and confusing new life in America, and to be able to write these stories required figuring out how to conjure and then process very difficult memories--which is a different kind of 'literary ventriloquism', I suppose.
But more than this, the book is beautifully written, moving, and an eloquent and direct testament to "human resilience over tragedy and disaster." And, as I learned from interviewing these three young men, as well as Judy Bernstein, their co-author, their efforts are designed to create funds for an educational program dedicated to the future of these and other "Lost Boys."
I know Eggers has created a fund for his original story-teller--Valentino Achak Deng. Perhaps that is as it should be; after all, it was Valentino's story that provided the catalyst for Eggers' novel. But it is also seems so very American to pick one to reward out of the many hundreds who survived the long march across the desert and the longer still emotional journeys they undertook in their trek to reach the USA. How much these "Lost Boys" depended on, and still depend on each other; so much so that they find it difficult to comprehend American individualism, even though they acknowledge its attractive pull.
Undoubtedly, that Eggers can achieve authenticity in the narrative and move readers by his ability to get inside such a story and voice is a reflection of his enormous capacity as a writer and certainly commendable; as others have noted, his achievement also demonstrates what Hannah Arendt long ago called the ability of the imagination to go visiting and think ethically from a position outside the immediate location that the speaker ordinarily inhabits. This is, after all, the point of literature.
To some extent, all story-telling traffics in ours' and others' lives to craft a narrative. So, no, I'm not advocating an "ownership" approach to experience. I believe literature is one powerful way we humans can reach past the parochial narrowness of our "own" lives and connect with and learn from the lives of others.
I just wonder how to make sure the original source has duly credited.