Top 10 Essays from CBU Freshman on "What is the What"

Memphis Reads began as an offshoot initiative of a program for incoming Freshman at Christian Brothers University called "Fresh Reads." Every year, incoming Freshman read one book over the summer prior to their first semester at Christian Brothers University, and respond in an essay. Out of the pool of hundreds of essays, a committee within the School of the Arts selects the top 10 essays from and presents each with an award during the orientation weekend. 

So if you're looking for inspiration to read Dave Eggers' What is the What, check out what these CBU Freshman have to say about the books' themes, lessons, and how they make sense of their own worlds. 

What is the What

Tristan Barton

There are many “Whats.” I believe that “Whats” depend on the situation as well as the individual. Our Whats differ as we go through life and experience certain circumstances. Before we can answer the initial question, we first have to ask, “What is a What?”

Donald Winnicott introduced the concepts of the true and false selves to the world of psychoanalysis in 1960. Franciscan Friar Richard Rohr talks on the true and false selves. He calls the false self the ego, the part of us that is self-manufactured, but we find the most socially acceptable. The true self, as Rohr puts it, “is what makes you… You do not create your true self, or earn it, or work up to it…” From what I can gather, a “What” is something that is truly and purely reflective of our true selves, forever binding us to who we really are, despite the nature or the prominence of our false selves. It is not often something that we can determine for ourselves. It is that place within us that always finds its way into our psyche, whether we know it or not, and never succumbs to the dangers of the outside world. In the novel, Deng’s father states, “You have to choose between the cattle and the What.” In other words, to display the true self or the false self is a choice, one we often choose out of desire for instant gratification. To put it simply, if our souls are distant islands, our Whats are our telescopes. And without our Whats, all we see is the vast expanse of water around us, rather than the shore ahead.

In saying this, what is Deng’s What? Deng’s situation involves immigration, constantly moving from place to place. However, amidst the commotion, confusion and persecution in his life, Deng remembers his home in Sudan: the surroundings, his friends, and his experiences, all with great detail. I believe home to be Deng’s What throughout the novel. Of course Deng finds comfort in recalling his early life in Sudan. However, home is more than the house or city he is from. While home takes on a physical form, it also exists in metaphysical form, just as love does. Home, even more than a place, is a sense or an idea. Home allows Deng to feel a sense of belonging, no matter where he is. Most importantly, it is that part of him that is indicative of his true self. His What tells him that all is not lost and that he does belong.

The decision between “the cattle and the What” is perhaps the most difficult for anyone to make. We tend to gravitate towards the cattle in most cases, our materialistic false selves. However, we do have the ability to choose the latter. I remember a time where I had a tough choice: to give something of value to someone in need or keep it for my own gain. The item was a guitar, my only one at the time, and the person, whom I was not too attached to, was too poor to buy one. Looking back now, I realize that humility is what led me to give it away; humility was my What. By putting me in that person’s shoes, my What reminded me of my true self and the things my heart truly desires, beyond the material and temporary. Now, I carry that memory with me wherever I go, reminding myself how my What saved me.


The Choice?

Mary Anna Tucker

"-You didn't tell us the answer: What is the what?

-We don't know. No one knows."

Have you ever heard the quote, "Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them," by William Shakespeare? I believe it also works with this story: All are born into the unknown, some choose to go into the unknown, and others are thrown into the unknown. All people are born into the unknown, and sometimes they grow up with their situation being all they’ve known. Achak and I have this in common. We were both born and grew up in our home town, never moving and only adjusting to life somewhere new when we had to. Achak was one of the people thrust into the unknown, while I chose it.

From the story Achak's father tells him and the Baggara tribe we learn that Achak's people believe that God gave man a choice: either take the cow and harvest its resources, or choose the What. In this tale man chooses the cow. I find that this story greatly contrasts with Achak's account of his journey from his home. Achak had no choice. He was forced into the unknown by unseen circumstances. Whether it be the unknown beasts of the wild, the vast desert landscape, or the understood warring around him, Achak had no idea what to expect out in the dangerous world. He didn't have a choice and was thrown into the middle of the What.

I was faced with my unknown a few years ago when I realized there was something wrong with me. I had always been a moody child. Sometimes feeling like the world was my oyster, other days I would cry if I dropped a pencil on the floor. I was very quick to anger. Everyone believed I would eventually grow out of it, but that day never came; if anything, I got worse as I got older. The highs would get more extreme, causing me to make scenes and scream and yell at people. My lows became deeper, sometimes to the point where I couldn't get out of bed. I knew then there was something seriously unbalanced in my brain. I did some research and realized I might have manic depressive disorder. I know what you're thinking--that's an easy choice: get help. But it wasn't that simple. I had read about how sometimes the medicine given to a manic depressive would cause them to act like zombies: no high or lows, only the middle. All I've ever known was the rollercoaster that my emotions lived on. What if I asked for help and I felt worse than before? But what if I continually got worse and eventually there was no way out? I was terrified. How could I make this choice?

I eventually did make the decision to get help after I screamed at my best friend because I was in a manic-filled anger. I remember how low I dropped after that and I never wanted to go back. I learned through my doctor that there were others ways to treat my form of manic depressive disorder through a lower dose of medicine and counseling that taught me how to control myself. I'm not a professional at it yet, but I'm learning. It was frightening not knowing if I was going to be okay, but if I had known I could be relatively happy most of the time I would've chose to get help much sooner than I did. That's the funny thing about the unknown, or the What. If you could go back, knowing what you know now, what would you choose?  


What is the What

Christian Rue

The “What“ in the novel, What is the What can be interpreted in many different ways throughout Valentino’s life. The meaning of the What is the unsure possibility of what can possibly happen throughout one’s lifespan. It is the ability to choose what your life can be, even if the road taken is an unknown or dangerous path. This philosophy shows that the outcome of one’s life can be put into that individual’s hands and leave his or her fate to him. However, it takes a substantial amount of bravery to choose the unknown than the predictable outcome of a situation.

A significant part of the novel is the conversation between Valentino and his prosperous father about a story Valentino’s father once told him. It was about a decision a man had to make for God. He either had to choose the cattle or  “the What.”  The man pondered on what it could have possibly been, but decided to choose what is known instead of the unknown. While some people may agree with the safe route and choosing what is known, sometimes it is better to go out of one’s comfort zone and discover the unknown. Sometimes, it is easier said than done, because the results are uncertain, but the something better than anyone could expect could be the reward of choosing the What.

Another significant example how the What was symbolized was when Valentino and the rest of the runaways were walking through the forest at night and would constantly hear wild animals following them. Even at one point, lions would follow them in the middle of the night and kill them. At any point, they could’ve turned around and given up and chosen the option that was known to them, but they wanted a new and better life for themselves. They were willing to risk their lives in order to find their own version of the What.

A time when the What was experienced in my life was around my eighth grade year at St. Michael’s Middle School. I had to make a really tough decision on where to go to high school at the time. The three schools at the time were Christian Brothers High School, Saint Benedict at Auburndale, and White Station High School. I was so excited to be preparing for a new step in my life; I wanted to make a decision on where to go. My mom wanted me to go to Christian Brothers, but my grandmother wanted me to go to Saint Benedict due to how close it was to where we lived. My mother was not too keen on White Station, because I had never gone to public school before and she wasn’t sure how well I could handle it. She also told me that if I wasn’t admitted in the schools optional program, I could not attend. It was an easy process to apply for the optional program, but the only thing I could do was wait and see the results.

After a couple of weeks, I received a letter stating that I had been admitted into White Station. It was an exciting moment, because it is so selective.  After being selected, I realized that is where I desired to attend next fall. I wanted to try something new and experience a new environment outside of my comfort zone and was ready for the challenge. I told my mom where I wanted to go and why and she eventually conceded with help from my Dad.

This decision turned out to be one of the greatest decisions I have ever made. The work was really challenging. I had teachers that genuinely knew and wanted to help me improve to a higher level of learning. Most importantly, I made plenty of friends and experienced a whole new level of social interaction while learning at a high level. This taught me to never be afraid of the unknown, because it can turn out greater than what could already be known.


The Uncertainty of the What
by Macayla Henley

What is the What by Dave Eggers is a novel about Valentino Achak Deng’s triumphant journey from the war-stricken village of Marial Bai in Southern Sudan, to the United States of America. Deng starts his story in Atlanta during a robbery. He begins to recall accounts of appalling violence he experienced growing up in Africa. In his village, he lived a typical life like other Sudanese boys. With tension growing in Sudan between the northern Muslims and Dinkas in the south, rebel soldiers soon tore through Deng’s town and he began a solo voyage to escape.  Along the way he found a group of “lost boys” headed to Ethiopia in hopes of finding a refugee camp. Before reaching Ethiopia, Deng faced many challenges that threatened his potential of reaching the camp.

The “What” in the novel is the vital theme. It is first introduced by Deng’s father in the creation story. God gave the Dinka the choice between cattle and the What. The Dinka knew the cattle was a safe choice, because they would provide food and security, so that is what they chose (62). The Dinka were said to have been given the choice before the Muslims because the Dinka were “superior” to them. This religious tension between the two groups inevitably led to war.

In Deng’s story, the metaphoric meaning of the What is simply the unknown. From the very beginning of the novel, it can be seen that the What is the scary, uncertain outcome of life. As the book progresses, the What is brought up time and time again.

“Khartoum wants to ruin Dinkaland. Then we’ll need them to restore order, we’ll need them for everything.  

So that is the what, I said.

 Dut Majok sighed. I don’t know, I don’t know what the What is” (135).

Deng struggles to understand the meaning of the What. As he continues his story and travels to Ethiopia, he is not met with cities as he once thought. He did not know where the Lost Boys and he were traveling to, but it was still a shock when the time came. “I looked at the land- no homes, no medical facilities, no food, no water. We are not in Ethiopia. This is not that place” (227).

It is at the end when he makes his realization of the What. The What is the uncertain part of life. The Dinka chose the cattle, but the unknown soon came with war. On the very last page, Deng gives an answer to the puzzling title of the book. “Whatever I do, however I find a way to live, I will tell these stories” (535). By the end of the book, Deng has learned that the What is inevitable, and after accepting this, he begins to embrace it. There is no way of knowing what the What is, but it should not be feared. As he said in the novel, “however, I will find a way to live.” No matter what is thrown your way, always find a way to persevere.

What is the What is different than any book I have ever read. It was so compelling and surreal to read about Deng’s life. In comparison, I have no heart wrenching accounts to disclose. I live by the belief that change brings opportunity. Fortunately, at the start of my junior year this was proven true. My high school offered the International Baccalaureate program that I had been groomed for in my first two years there. Even though I had completed the prerequisites, against all advice, I decided to withdraw from the adventure. It was one of the best decisions I could have ever made.

Having made the decision to leave, I was granted opportunities that were some of the best of my high school career. I became more involved with school activities as well as clubs and had the chance to take a class that allowed me to explore in depth my love for writing. If I hadn’t withdrawn, I wouldn’t know about the wonderful course, AP Language and Composition. I maintained A’s the entire year in that class, something I hadn’t accomplished in any prior AP class. Truthfully, I believe it helped me become a better student.

My story is nowhere near as intense or inspiring as Deng’s. But, I’d like to think that Valentino Achak Deng and I do have one thing in common. We decided to embrace the What and not run from the uncertainty of life. “I am alive and you are alive so we must fill the air with our words” (535). If his story was limited to only one lesson, I believe the most important one would be to take a leap of faith whenever you can. You never know “what” could happen.


What is the What

Sarah Frazier

What is the What, by Dave Eggers, was a memorable book that makes you wake up and see what other people are going through in the world. Valentino is just one man who told his story, and there are thousands who have stories like his. In the book alone, Tabitha, Dut, Achor Achor, Moses, Maria, the Royal Girls, Dominic, Samuel, Amath, and others didn’t have their stories told. In the book, Valentino refers back to a made-up story, called “What is the What,” that his father told him and he compares the story to events that happened in his life.

In the story told by his father, God gave his people an abundance of cows, lands, food, women--everything that a person would want-or people could have the “what.” No one knew, or still knows, what the What is.  Valentino, for years and years, wanted to go the United States and go to college. He thought he would be happy there with no worries or problems. He had a tragic life that would make the reader tear up. He finally had the chance to come to America. Throughout the book, Valentino talks about how he isn’t happy in America. But hearing him talk about all the events in Sudan, Kenya, and Ethiopia, it seems that no one would ever want to go back to that. Surprisingly, in the last chapter, he says he wants to go back to Sudan and be with his family.  He had everything he ever wanted in America: an education, freedom, clothes, food, money, a job, a car, an apartment, friends, no worries of being attacked by the government, and somewhat more safety-except with the incident at his home with the lady, man, and Michael.  It’s overwhelming all the things people have in America compared to the rest of the world. If a person owns a car and a house, they are richer than 80% of the world. Valentino had all these things and was willing to give it up. He didn’t know what to expect over in Sudan. If he went back, he would probably have the same amount of things he had had as a kid. Also, he could be attacked by the government at any time. God gave Valentino the chance to go to the United States and start a new life, but he wanted the What, going back to Sudan and to his family.

I was born and raised in Jordan, between Israel and Iraq, for 14 years. I loved it and had a childhood that I would never trade for another. I lived in the desert and had friends from all over the world: Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, England, Norway, Canada, South Korea, the Philippines, Bolivia, Brazil, Jordan, Africa, and a couple from America. When I was 14 years old, my parents told that we were moving to America. I was terrified; I didn’t know what to expect, except the things I saw from movies. I was happy and loved my life in Jordan, and I had to trade it. For what? I wouldn’t know anybody and the culture would be completely opposite; it was like moving to another planet.  I liked what God gave me and had the amazing experience of living in the Middle East; and I had to trade it all.  It was hard at first, I’ll admit, trying to understand American culture and making new friends. However, now I’m thankful that I moved here. I love America and wouldn’t want to trade this experience for anything. I like how I got to experience two different worlds.

Valentino’s story was a hard one to read. The events that happened in his life are something that no one should go through. However, it was an eye-opener and I pray that I never complain about little, stupid things again. Valentino has a life story that everyone should have opportunity to read.


Meaning of the “What” 

Victor Smith

What is the "What?" The moment Valentino’s (Achak’s) father tells the story of God offering man the cattle and the What, it becomes very clear that the What literally represents the unknown. But metaphorically, the What represents much more. When one chooses the unknown over the known, that act of taking a risk, for better or for worse, defines the What. Metaphorically the What stands for a leap of blind faith. More often than not, man chooses the What over the known. It is in our curious human nature to want to know what is on the other side, what possibilities await us, what change in our lives can result from our decisions.

Thus being said, the What is more than just the embodiment of the unknown. It is also the embodiment of people’s dreams, visions, and hopes, as well as their ruin and failure. In the year 1492 Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue chasing the What. The first Apollo missions to the moon launched into space toward the What. In this book, young Achak must constantly wander through Kenya, Sudan, and Ethiopia, without knowing what lay ahead of his path. That does not change much, even when he arrives in the United States. For Achak, the What either represents survival or death.

Every day, all over the globe, each person has his or her own “What” and “known” to choose between. For everyone, the What means the unknown. But metaphorically, the What can symbolize numerous different things, circumstances, and results. Though some are more serious than others, collectively our Whats give us more reason as a species to keep living and moving forward. So as long as we live, just like the refugees of southern Sudan, we will always be asking ourselves the question, “What is the What?”

I have had to choose several times already between the known and the What, but I will always remember one of the most important decisions I’ve ever made in my life. It may not seem so important at a glance, considering the fact that I was only four years old at the time, but from a broad perspective, it has forever changed my life.

One of the first things people learn about me when we first meet is that I am not from this country. I was born in the small capitol Belmopan in the small country of Belize. It is a former British colony, now overflowing with crime, poverty, and tourists. My mother came to the U.S. long before I did, leaving me with my grandmother for a couple years. When she came back to Belize, she had decided that America was by far a much better place to live. She wanted to go back with me, her only child, but first asked me if I wanted to go, since my father was opposed to it. I had to choose either the known, which was knowing that I did not want to live with my father, or the What, which, in my case, represented the unknown life I would have with my mother in an unknown country. Obviously, I chose the What.  Looking back on my life now, from the moment I left Belize to this day, I don’t regret my decision a bit. The What I chose has positively changed the course of my life and more importantly, is my life.


What is the What

Latifa Juma

Achak’s father narrates how God created the world. After creating the Earth, the first thing he created were the monyjang. He blessed them with everything possible: beauty, fertile land, and most importantly cows. After all of this, God decided to test the monyjang. He asked them if they wanted the cows or would they prefer the What. Of course, the monyjang chose the cows because they could see that the cows were a blessing. They provided food and would multiply and grow. Achak’s father didn't mention in his story to the baggara that God then gave the What to the Arabs. That is why they are inferior and the Dinka are superior. The Arabs also wanted to be blessed with God’s bounty, so they stole the Dinka’s cattle and grazed them on Dinkaland. Arabs were unable to do that on their land, because they lived in the desert. That is the literal meaning of the What in Achak’s father’s story, but I think throughout this book, metaphorically the What is uncertainty. Achak has been given the What. Even though he didn’t ask for it, it was given to him. He went through his life with uncertainty. Most children at his age know what grade they are going to attend, what outfit they want to wear for Christmas, or what they want to eat for lunch. However, Achak’s childhood and even adulthood was filled with uncertainty (the What). During one of the lion attacks, Achak states, “the lion was a simple black silhouette, broad shoulders, its thick legs outstretched, its mouth open.” This is what Achak had to go through, the uncertainty that he might or might not live until the next day. Each day held a new adventure, new uncertainty, and new problems to be faced. When Achak is thinking about the version of the story his father told him, he states, “and though it was unfair, that was how God has intended it and there was no changing it.” Little did he realize that would apply to his own life just a short while later. It wasn’t fair what happened to him, but it was what God had intended.  

I have had similar experiences as Achak. However, my experience is nothing compared to Achak’s. Achak went through great difficulty, but we both came to America because of the same reason: war. I was also given the “what.” The war in Afghanistan brought my family to the United States. I was only five years old, and like Achak, I didn’t know what the next day would hold. Thankfully I had my wonderful mother and siblings with me to take the difficult journey with. I didn’t know what America had in store for us. Slowly but surely I got the hang of my new life. At first it was very difficult, because I didn’t understand the language or culture, but everything worked out. One uncertain moment I still remember was when my mother took us for our interview to come to America. It was in another part of the city. It took hours on the train to get there and once we were there, we stayed in line for our turn; it seemed like forever. After the interview, I didn’t know what was going to happen next. The following week, my mother got a call saying that our case was approved and we should prepare to leave for America. And here I am.


What is the What
Gabriela M. Morales Medina

… and when God was done, and the monyjang were standing on the earth waiting for instruction, God asked the man, “Now that you are here, on the most sacred and fertile land I have, I can give you one more thing. You can either have this cattle, as my gift to you, or you can have the What”…

-God , creation  myth
As  told by Arou in What is the What

In the creation myth told by Valentino’s father, Arou, to the Baggara, God offered the monyjang people two things from which they could only choose one: the cattle or the What. The cattle represented stability, safety and the known; with the cattle they were sure that they would always have food, milk and would live good lives. On the other hand, the What represented the unknown and all of the challenges it could bring, so the people in the story chose the cattle.

Because of the uncertainty that the What represents, the people in the creation story viewed it as a fool’s choice, yet during the duration of the novel, we see that Valentino chooses the What countless times. Why would he choose the unknown over the known: what is sure to happen over what might happen? The answer is that he chooses it because, at the moment, he has no other options. For example: when the government army attacked Marial Bai, Valentino was given a choice, he could stay there and allow himself to be captured or he could flee to the forest. If he chose the first option, he knew that more likely than not he would end up imprisoned or dead, yet he had no idea of what might happen to him if he chose the second option. Would he wander alone until he starved or was killed by some animal or might he be lucky enough to find some of his people? He didn’t know the answer to this question, yet he still chose this option. Why? Because it gave him a fighting chance; because in this case the known was a terrible fate while the unknown, the What, was the opportunity for something better.

Now, I believe that just like the people in the story and Valentino, we too are given the choice between the known and the What. In fact, I even dare to say that we are given this choice on a daily basis. In every action we take we are choosing between staying in our comfort zone and doing what we always do or doing something new and different. For instance, back home in Puerto Rico, when a student graduates from high school, they’re usually expected to attend the University of Puerto Rico, or as it’s more commonly called La UPI . During my time as a student in high school, this was the goal I worked for. That’s where everyone wants to study, I kept telling myself, yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that that wasn't where I wanted to go. After a lot of thinking, I realized that: number one, I couldn’t study what I wanted to major in at La UPI and number two, that if I kept doing what everyone else did, I’d never do anything worth while with my life. Thanks to this I decided to research and apply to universities in the US and what would happen. Little did I know that thanks to that decision, I would travel out of the country by myself for the first time, meet people I knew nothing about and be able to win a scholarship to attend university in Memphis, a place so different from the one I grew up in.

I chose the What and thanks to it I’ll be starting a great adventure at Christian Brothers University, something that I never expected to happen. So in the end, what I’m trying to say is that in some cases, it is better to choose what is known to us since it would be unwise to constantly be risking one’s own safety, yet I believe it to be equally or even more inadvisable to never take risks at all, for if we don’t take risks and dare to do something new, how can we gain anything better than what we already have.