Dave Eggers lecture has appealing format

Karah Kemmerly

Author Dave Eggers and Kathy and Abdulrahmen Zeitoun, subjects of “Zeitoun,” the summer reading selection for the class of 2014, are coming to Whitman College on Tuesday, Sept. 28. This book of nonfiction entails one family’s struggle that begins in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and expands to detail events in both Spain and Syria. Eggers and the Zeitouns will be speaking about the book and the couple’s experiences during a public event in Cordiner Hall.

Instead of a standard author lecture, this year’s presentation will be formatted as a moderated discussion. Jocelyn Hendrickson, assistant professor of religion, will be asking questions to facilitate discussion between Eggers and the Zeitouns.

“I think this style is more appealing to the audience than a standard author talk. Because it allows me to direct questions to the Zeitouns, we can hear more of their comments and get a better back-and-forth between the author and the subjects,” she said.

Juli Dunn, director of academic resources, has been working with Eggers’s agent to organize the event. She feels that this format will give insight on more than what strictly occurs in the book.

“Because it is not a lecture, I suspect that it will take on a life of its own depending on what directions Professor Henrickson’s questions take the conversation.  My guess is while the focus will be on the events of the novel, the discussion will likely take us elsewhere,” she said.

Hendrickson also pointed out that Eggers will be more comfortable with this format.

“The agent suggested that Eggers will be much more animated and accessible in a conversational setting,” she said.

Hendrickson also feels that the discussion will provide students with a much deeper understanding of what they have read.

“A lot of students I’ve talked to have asked questions about why Eggers chose to focus on certain aspects of the story. This format will be great for those students because now they have the chance to ask him directly,” she said.

To make sure students’ questions are answered, Hendrickson plans to approach students in her Encounters and Introduction to Islam courses in order to find out what they want to know before composing her list of questions.

Dunn feels, however, that the most powerful part of the lecture will be having Kathy and Abdulrahmen Zeitoun present.

“I think when the book is based on the real-life story and experiences of persons from our society, it is easy to fall into the trap of reading their life stories as stories of characters, rather than real people.  I think to recognize that they are flesh and blood people and be able to interact with them in person will be a very meaningful experience for all who attend,” she said.

Dunn’s perspective is also reflected in how “Zeitoun” is rather unique with its pragmatic, philanthropic intentions. All proceeds from “Zeitoun” go to The Zeitoun Foundation, an organization founded by Eggers and the Zeitouns that works to rebuild New Orleans and promote human rights.

Sophomore Osta Davis, a student academic adviser in Jewett Hall, is glad that this year’s book has such a philanthropic impulse.  

“It’s exciting to see Eggers bridging the gap between literature and action. This book and The Zeitoun Foundation show that writing a book can have a big real-life impact,” Davis said.

First-year Shelley Stephan is most interested in hearing from the Zeitouns’ perspective.

“The story was just so unreal and shocking. To actually see the Zeitouns will be amazing. I’m excited to hear them in person instead of through the text,” Stephan said.

First-year Luke Rodriguez also wants to hear about the Zeitouns’ experiences in-person.

“As a middle-class northwesterner, I don’t have a personal connection with the story. I want to hear from Kathy and Abdulrahmen so that I can relate to it better. They can give more insight and help me to understand,” he said.

Rodriguez nevertheless expressed doubt about the main focus of the lecture.

“I am afraid that the talk will be focused on Eggers and why he chose certain details for the book. I don’t really want that. I’m interested in the story more than the book,” he said.

Hendrickson supplements this perspective with her interest in life post-book.

“I don’t want to spend too much time on small book details. I would like to know what made Eggers choose the Zeitouns’ story out of all the Katrina stories. And I would like to know what has happened to Kathy and Abdulrahmen after the book. I wonder if the book has changed their lives or changed their view of New Orleans,” she said.  

To continue the dialogue, Eggers and the Zeitouns will also visit classes. Kathy and Abdulrahmen will speak with Hendrickson’s Introduction to Islam class, while Eggers will visit Adjunct Assistant Professor of Sociology Noah Leavitt’s Social Problems class.