Dave Eggers speaks to Honors College Students
Just days before the 5-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's landfall, LSU students gathered to hear author Dave Eggers speak about "Zeitoun," his critically acclaimed novel about one man's struggle in the aftermath of the storm.
Eggers, an award-winning author, editor, and publisher, spoke to a group of more than 400 students at this year's annual Honors Convocation.
"Zeitoun is a harrowing nonfiction account of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian American contractor whose decision to stay in New Orleans after Katrina had calamitous consequences for himself and his family.
The bestselling novel, which was the Honors College shared read this year, has been named one of the best books of the year by The New Yorker, San Francisco Chronicle, and Chicago Tribune. It is also a Los Angeles Times Book Prize Winner and a New York Times Notable Book.
Eggers opened his talk on a less-than-serious note, apologizing for "spoiling everyone's summer" with required reading, and then recalling the story of a roommate who drunkenly claimed to be the reincarnation of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
But when the laughter finally subsided, Eggers got down to business.
"At the University of Illinois, I studied journalism," he said. "It got me hooked on listening to other people's stories ... and trying to tell the ones that would otherwise go untold."
Eggers said he became interested in Zeitoun's tale after reading "Voices of the Storm," a collection of stories told by Katrina victims published by McSweeney's, his own publishing company.
"I thought right away that this was an opportunity to tell a story about Islam and the immigrant experience ... and also about personal responsibility and personal courage," he said.
During his three-year writing process, Eggers conducted several interviews with the Zeitoun family and did extensive research, including trips to New Orleans and Syria.
The result is a riveting true story told through the eyes of a man whose experience reflected many of the problems that occurred in the aftermath of the storm.
While his wife and four children evacuated, Zeitoun remained in New Orleans during and after the storm, where he used his aluminum canoe to rescue neighbors from flooded houses and provide assistance to anyone in need.
"One of the first things that struck me about Zeitoun ... was that he decided he would stay, no matter what," said Eggers. "He is convinced that God put him there for a reason, seeing every place he goes as a place that might need his help ... and then something terrible happened."
What happened next was worse than any of the dangers Zeitoun had previously imagined.
On September 6, 2005, police officers arrested Zeitoun at gunpoint in his own home. From there, he was locked in a cage, mistaken for a terrorist, and brought to a high-security prison, where he endured various humiliations and was not allowed a phone call.
His wife Kathy thought he was dead.
"There was lots of misinformation and paranoia," said Eggers. "People saw him no longer as an individual, a person of value, a human being. By the time he's in a maximum security prison, there aren't many people open to the possibility that he might not belong there ... He's been stripped of his humanity."
Eggers went on to talk about the high number of wrongful convictions that occur in the United States every year.
"When we operate from a place of fear and suspicion, bad things can happen," he said. "If we presume commonalities, better things happen."
Eggers stressed that the media provides only one side of a story, as evidenced by coverage of Hurricane Katrina.
"The news media would give someone maybe thirty seconds to talk about their experience and then just drive through a neighborhood with their cameras. You can't assume it is one hundred percent true," he said.
The author also challenged students to use their critical thinking skills to challenge assumptions, to have empathy toward those in suffering, and to give others the benefit of the doubt.
"We're up against some bizarre stereotypes ... like, people don't laugh in the Muslim world — that's just crazy," he said.
Eggers said he originally planned to fictionalize the story, but the Zeitoun family chose to make themselves known.
"[Zeitoun] wouldn't let me change it. He's proud of his name," he said. "He insisted it be his story, his name, his city, his family."
Eggers said that the chaotic atmosphere after the storm that allowed such atrocities to occur was the result of many different factors.
"Values (like) hard work, faith, and family are no different in Syria," he said. "The things we hold dear as Americans are ... common to all of us; we have to presume that we want the same things. Then the world's problems become imminently more solvable."
Story by Elizabeth Clausen, LSU Honors College For more information, contact the Honors College at 225-578-8831
Story by Elizabeth Clausen, LSU Honors College
For more information, contact the Honors College at 225-578-8831