Summary of Book I, Chapter I
Valentino Achak Deng is a Sudanese refugee living in Atlanta. One night, he opens his door to an African American woman who says her car has broken down. She asks to use his phone but to keep the door open since it will only take a few minutes. After she enters, an African American man walks into the house. Valentino realizes that he has been duped and that the African-American couple is robbing him.
The woman, Tonya, walks into the bedroom and starts rummaging through Valentino's belongings, and the man, who Valentino names Powder due to his powder-blue jacket and jeans, beats Valentino and tells him to be still. Valentino wonders when his roommate Achor Achor will be back. The man and the woman try to leave, but they notice a policeman standing nonchalantly in front of the building.
Valentino begins to drift off, thinking about his past life about being a Lost Boy of Sudan and losing his friends along the way. He also thinks back to his Christian baptism and how the priest named him Valentino, even though nobody in Africa could pronounce it.
Summary of Book I, Chapter II
While Valentino is helpless on the floor, Tonya and Powder wait at the window to see if the policeman has left. They have rounded up all the worthwhile items in the home and placed them by the door. Valentino stays silent and wonders if they would continue to rob him if they knew about his life back in Africa. He doubts they would.
Valentino knew that America had its problems, but movies and films he saw as a young boy perpetuated many of these ideas. African Americans were often portrayed as thugs and gangsters, and that was all he knew about what it was like to be black in the United States. Tonya and Powder, though, constantly call Valentino names like "Africa" and "Nigeria."
Once the cop drives off, Tonya and Powder leave to pack up the car. Afterwards, Valentino walks around to assess the damage. As he walks into the living room, though, the thieves are back in his house. He bolsters his voice and says he called the cops, but Powder calls Valentino's bluff and punches him in the stomach so hard that Valentino thinks he is going to die.
Summary of Book I, Chapter III
Valentino wakes up in pain, but he is bound and gagged on the floor. A younger boy is watching television in his kitchen. Valentino guesses the boy's age of ten, which is one year younger than when he was in Ethiopia and saw men with AK-47's gun down other bound and gagged men. The boy ignores Valentino, but Valentino does not think the boy means him any harm. Instead, he sees himself in the boy. The way the boy walks around and lays down make Valentino remember being a young boy in Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya.
His mind wanders back to when a lion attacked his first group of boys on their journey. The boys were walking in a single-file line at night with Dut Majok, their teenage leader, when a large black silhouette jumped out of the bushes. The lion then trotted off with the boy dead in his jaws. Another boy started running away, and the lion easily caught up with him and killed its second victim. Dut made the boys sit down and rest even with the lions nearby. He wanted to know more about the area due to the proximity of government armies.
Valentino addresses the boy, who he dubs TV Boy, in his mind and tells him the best way to fall asleep: to stitch together the best moments of his life in order to create a perfect day and then think about that day over and over. Valentino testifies to this method.
What is the What uses Valentino's narration to describe many cultural differences between Africa and the United States. The most compelling is how Valentino sees Tonya and Powder as well as the way they see him.
Valentino gets the sense that Tonya is the leader of the duo. Powder seems reluctant and feels bad for Valentino. Though he calls Valentino "Nigeria," he knows that Valentino is an immigrant and might not understand the nuances of how America works. He even goes so far as to say that he is teaching Valentino a lesson about opening up his door at night to strangers.
Valentino grew up believing that black people in America were all thugs and criminals, which is obviously not true. But since Tonya and Powder are trying to rob him at gunpoint, he knows that they have seen these same images of African Americans and feel like acting violent is the only way they can succeed in life. Valentino knows that America perpetuates this stereotype, which he considers an act of war.
While the reader knows a little about what Valentino has seen, they can get the sense that he did not have a stable home for the majority of his life. This sentiment is echoed while Tonya and Powder are rummaging through his belongings; while he does not have a sentimental tie to things like his microwave and television, he feels a twinge of sadness knowing that Tonya and Powder are taking bits and pieces of his home. It is similar to what the older men in Africa did to him by demolishing his family and home; they take away bits of Valentino's happiness for their own gratification.
When Valentino is watching TV Boy from his bound and gagged state on the floor, he sees himself in how the boy walks and acts. It makes him remember even more about his childhood. He sees how this boy is innocent even though he is complicit in a robbery; he is watching television, looking for food, and sleeping underneath a pile of towels. It is similar to how Valentino tried to have a normal life while war raged around him in Africa.