What is the What

What is the What Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Dinka creation story

When Deng Arou tells the Dinka creation story, it serves as a backstory for What is the What. It is an allegory because it gives a backstory for each of the different factions in the war. Because the northern Sudanese Arabs chose the unknown What, they were unsatisfied with their lives. The Dinka, however, only wanted to the stability of good land. Because the Arabs were unsatisfied, they went to war in order to take the Dinka's land.

blue dog

The blue dog is a motif that reoccurs in the novel. It symbolizes the boy's disappointment when they realize that they have been to the same village before. Yet the dog's gained weight is also indicative of the horror that happened while the Lost Boys were gone; the dog feasted on the townspeople after they died.

Michael and Julian

Michael and Julian represent the people that Deng is trying to speak to in his book. They represent the Americans who need to know what is happening overseas. That is why Valentino directly addresses them. He wants to reach out and make his presence known by acknowledging the others around him and making them listen to his life's story.

the dead elephant

The dead elephant that the Lost Boys eat represents their situation. They are so hungry that they will eat anything, even raw elephant meat. But even with food in their stomachs, they are not any better off. The same thing happens when they boys reach the refugee camps. Having the bare minimum does not constitute a life.

the What

When Valentino's father tells the Dinka creation story, he mentions that the What is ambiguous. This is echoed in Valentino's life; he does not have the stability that the Dinka are supposed to have. Instead, he has the What. He did not have a choice like the Arabs and Dinka did, but still his life is filled with ambiguity like what the What is supposed to provide.