What is the What

What is the What Summary and Analysis of Book I, Chapters IV-VI

Summary of Book I, Chapter IV

Valentino begins to silently recount a patchwork ‘perfect day’ to TV Boy. On this perfect day, he was six years old living in Marial Bai in south Sudan. He had gotten out of school early, and he and his best friends Moses and William K saw a bicycle for the first time.

He then describes spending time with the beautiful Amath. She was too old for him, but he still was in love with her. She asked him to go to the river and get some water. It took him a while, but eventually he was able to find a container and capture a sediment-free scoop. He ran back to her, but he tripped right before he could hand the water over.

Summary of Book I, Chapter V

Living in Atlanta has been different for Valentino. Even though there is a large Sudanese population in the city, all the factions are separated into their own tribes and are antagonistic towards each other.

Valentino resents not being unified like they were during the crisis, but he then realizes he tape on his mouth has become loose. Once it comes off, he tries to get TV Boy's attention. The boy tries to ignore Valentino by turning up the volume on the television, but Valentino will not stop calling to him. The boy then grabs a telephone book and drops it hard on Valentino's head.

Summary of Book I, Chapter VI

The telephone rings; the boy answers the phone and refers to himself as Michael. Michael and the man on the other end have a conversation, and Michael mentions that Tonya said she would be back, but she has not returned.

Knowing Michael's name takes Valentino back to his childhood. William K woke Valentino up and dragged him to the market. A man named Michael was surrounded by men, all of which were angry that Michael's hands had been chopped off. William K told Valentino that Michael had been living on the streets in another town. Under Sharia Law, his hands were chopped of because he stole a brick in order to keep the flap of his plastic home on the ground. This marked a turn in the government because using Sharia Law went against the previous Addis Ababa Agreement, which ended the First Sudanese Civil War.

Later, Valentino goes to his father's store. Deng Arou is having a conversation with Sadiq, an Arab. Sadiq asked Deng to recount the Dinka creation story. He does: God asked the Sudanese people he created if they would choose cattle or What. Sadiq asks the question "What is the What?" to which Deng says that is the exact dilemma that God put the Sudanese in (62). He would not tell them what the What was, but they had to choose between the unknown or cattle. The people, knowing that cattle were sustainable, chose cattle. God was testing them to see if they would be practical.

Yet Valentino knew his father was lying; in the real story, God gave the Arabs the What. They became jealous of the Dinka's fertile land and cattle, so they attacked the Dinka and stole their cattle and land. Deng only told Sadiq the false story to be polite.

A few weeks later, war in Sudan broke out. Rebels from the First Sudanese Civil War began attacking soldiers throughout the country. The rebels in Marial Bai robbed Deng's store, and from that moment the rebels tried to run the town. Weeks later, the army left Marial Bai in the night without warning. The rebel presence grew, and they called themselves the Sudan People's Liberation Army. Yet like the army, they left almost as quickly as they arrived. They recruited men and stole supplies before moving on to the next village.


One of the strengths of What is the What is how it seamlessly flows between Valentino's current situation and his life back in Africa. While his life wasn't as easy or technologically advances as his life in Atlanta, it is clear that his happiest moments come from his childhood in Marial Bai. His childhood home holds happy memories of his friends, family, and first love.

As the tape comes off Valentino's mouth and he tries to make contact with Michael, Michael drops a telephone book on Valentino's head. This is a significant metaphor for how Michael sees Valentino. Even though he is just a young boy with an elder, he feels like he has enough superiority over Valentino to use violence to keep him silent.

These actions are reminiscent of what Valentino went through in Africa on his walk from Sudan to Kenya. Having Michael treat him like this was difficult to swallow because Michael is just a young boy, yet his entitlement comes from his position of power as an American.

The crisis that caused Valentino to free his home was started by civil unrest brought on by religious tension. Sudan was split into the Muslim north and the Dinka south. While the First Sudanese Civil War and the resulting Addis Ababa Agreement kept the military and the rebels appeased, there was still unrest in the Dinka rebels who felt like a primarily Muslim military presence was unwelcome.

This religious tension is shown in the creation story that Deng does not tell Sadiq. God blessed the Dinka because he knew they were superior to the Muslims. Accord to Dinka tradition, this caused the northern Muslims and the southern Dinkas to be at odds with each other.