Once the introductory applause had quieted down in The Crest Theatre, Dave Eggers settled into his chair and asked his audience of literary fans and admirers the score of the Giants/Phillies game. He said he wouldn’t be able to relax until he knew.
With similar candidness and humor, Eggers opened up about his latest nonfiction book “Zeitoun,” which documents the life and wrongful imprisonment of a Muslim-American man, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, in New Orleans during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Sharing the stage with Eggers was Sacramento State’s Joseph Palermo, an associate professor of history. Together they discussed what it was like to have a relative wrongfully incarcerated, the militaristic government response to humanitarian needs since 9/11, and the research involved in telling the story of the Zeitoun family, which involved travel to Spain, Syria and New Orleans.
Nearly 25 percent of the audience had read Eggers’ latest book because of their participation in the “One Book Sacramento” program, which is sponsoring more than 40 “Zeitoun-themed” events in the Sacramento area this year.
In an impromptu hand-raising poll, the rest of the audience said they were there to hear Eggers speak because they simply loved his books.
While interviewing Zeitoun and his family, Eggers admitted that the process went really slow because it first required trust and openness comparable to a sort of familial bond.
“I used to think I could write a book in a year,” Eggers said, but in writing “Zeitoun,” it took three.
In gathering Zeitoun’s story, Eggers rode along with him as he supervised various job sites being managed by his construction company in New Orleans. It was on these rounds that Eggers said most of the crucial information would come out, learning things about Zeitoun’s imprisonment experience that he had not even shared with his wife.
“When they knew their story was going to be told right, they opened up,” Eggers said.
After Katrina hit, Zeitoun’s wife, Kathy, and their children fled to Baton Rouge, La., while Zeitoun stayed behind to help victims of the storm in any way he could. With a canoe as his main transport, Zeitoun paddled through the devastated city in search of people stranded or isolated by the high flood waters. While assisting others, he was captured by the National Guard under suspicion of looting and/or terrorist activity and sent to a temporary prison compound called Camp Greyhound.
Zeitoun’s wife began to fear the worst for her husband as his daily phone calls ceased. In reference to this point of the story, Eggers said he wanted readers to “feel the anxiety and dread that Kathy felt.”
“I wanted everyone to go through it with her,” he said.
Eggers said he spent more time talking with Kathy than he had anticipated because he often found himself waiting for Zeitoun to come home late from work. Much of Eggers’ own understanding of Islam came through hearing the story of Kathy’s conversion.
“She defied popular stereotypes about Muslim women,” Eggers said.
Although the focus of his book is on the humble character Zeitoun and the perseverance of his family, Eggers said the great act of heroism in the book is when a Christian missionary agrees to make a phone call from prison to Zeitoun’s wife. In the chaos that was Katrina, prisoners were deprived of their rights, even that of a phone call.
“When the system is broken, it takes an individual stepping up to make a positive difference,” Eggers said.
In his research, Eggers found that 1,200 prisoners passed through Camp Greyhound after Katrina with no adequate record-keeping implemented. In speaking with law enforcement and city leaders, many expressed the idea that Katrina didn’t break the system, but exposed it.
With a humanitarian gesture characteristic of the life and work of Eggers, all proceeds from “Zeitoun” are distributed between 13 different nonprofits working within New Orleans.
In regards to the Zeitoun family, Eggers referred to them as an “all-American family,” given the fact that they work hard, remain dedicated to family, and have a strong commitment to their faith.
Zeitoun’s construction business has since rebuilt 200 homes throughout New Orleans.
During a question-and-answer time following the lecture, an audience member asked Eggers how his own faith and spirituality had been informed by his working so closely with a great man of faith like Zeitoun.
“Boy, oh boy,” he responded.
Eggers said he had told someone before the lecture that he wouldn’t be answering any questions relating to spirituality and faith, but in this moment he had been put on the spot.
“My own sense of faith and spirituality is, I hope, irrelevant,” Eggers said. “I admire people of strong beliefs and fortitude.”
Ultimately, Eggers said he just wants to be a storyteller. And when it came to writing “Zeitoun,” he said he had to put on his “journalist hat.”
“It’s not the most fun kind of writing to do, but the result is what you’re after,” Eggers said.
He said he spent countless hours in a shed in his backyard working on the book.
With a smile, he warned aspiring writers of the great burden that will accompany their literary endeavors, “You aren’t going to enjoy yourself,” he said, but nevertheless sardonically urged them to “go forth, and write!”