What is the What

What is the What Themes


Valentino finds himself in a number of different homes throughout What is the What. While he was born in Mariel Bai, a village in Sudan, that home was destroyed. Valentino had to wander across Africa trying to find a new place to call home. Yet even when he settled in refugee camps, he still knew that he would not stay there forever yet not knowing where he would go next or when he would be leaving. What is the What challenges the notion that home is a permanent place while asking the question of what actually constitutes a home.


Immigration is a major theme in What is the What. Valentino has to go through the process for eleven years, making him wait the longer than many other refugees. There are a number of different factors that lead to Valentino's detention in Kenya, and the novel shows how hard it is for refugees to find safe haven in countries like the United States.

religious tension

In countries like Africa where there are a handful of major religions trying to gain more territory and followers, there is tension between the different factions. The problems in Sudan begin when Islamic extremists begin destroying villages and cities that housed rebels who wanted freedom from Sharia law.

the casualties of war

One aspect of What is the What is that Eggers does not shy away from is the effects of war and how people are lost every day because of other people's conflicts. Parents, children, brothers, and sisters are all victims in the Sudanese conflict. Valentino's family members are casualties in the initial attacks, and he sees hundreds of others killed. Seeing death is inevitable, and it is something that Valentino spends years trying to escape.


What is the What is an anomaly when it comes to its structure. While Eggers is the author, the feelings, sentiments, and experiences all belong to Deng. Using Deng's voice as the narrator is a deliberate choice on Eggers' part, and it creates a unique situation where Deng gets to tell his own story in his own voice, though Eggers is the one who wrote the story down.


Valentino does not have much time to be a child in What is the What. When he is just a boy, he loses his family and is forced to struggle for his own survival. The camps are easier because there is a slight bit of stability, but even then problems still arise. Yet while Valentino has to experience these very adult and horrific issues, he still deals with his own adolescence, like dating Tabitha and having a teacher use sex to get her students' attention during class.

cultural differences

Valentino has come into contact with a number of different peoples and cultures. The two primary ones are Sudan and America, and Valentino has a very difficult time assimilating into the United States. Even as an adult, he is still learning lessons like not to open doors for strangers at night. Even with all the problems and horrors he encountered in Africa, he is still naive about how people treat each other in the United States.