“Zeitoun is a more powerful indictment of America’s dystopia in the Bush era than any number of well-written polemics,” wrote Timothy Egan of the New York Times, referring to the book by Dave Eggers chosen as this year’s reading for the 6th annual One City, One Book event.
Consider the book’s setting: it is Baton Rouge, Lousiana, after Hurricane Katrina, a city flooded, broken and semi-deserted in the wake of a natural disaster. It will have to be repopulated, and here is a chance for America to represent its best self. The locals, diverse in their ethnic backgrounds but united by their hometown, will work together to build their city up again in harmony with each other and with the natural habitat of the Bayou.
But of course, this isn’t how it turns out. Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian immigrant with strong ties in the Baton Rouge community, is trying to do just that when he finds himself among the many Muslim immigrants jailed and stripped of their rights by the armed forces the government has dispatched in its absurdly misdirected reaction to the disaster.
In many ways, Zeitoun reveals the precise forms that the challenges to bioregionalism take in our current society. Even when we are forced to repopulate an area from the ground-up following a natural disaster, we let our contemporary political prejudices, fears, and misunderstandings take the helm of our ship. Forget the knowledge and capacity we’ve developed to focus on local restoration, ecological sustainability, and cultural adaptation: we can’t even get the basics of treating each other with basic human respect right.
In many ways, the One City, One Book program is an interesting exercise in collective understanding. If you choose to participate by reading the book, you can connect with strangers who live in your city on a level you otherwise wouldn’t be able to. When else would you find yourself delving into topics such as disaster relief, Muslim immigrants’ rights, and police brutality with perfect strangers at a nearby bookstore, or on the subway after recognizing you’re holding the same book? Presented in almost any other way, these topics are seen as socially and politically polarizing, and you couldn’t unite people across an entire city to read and talk about them if you paid cash.
In an era dominated by YouTube and other dynamic media, it’s also pretty cool to have a city-wide book event endorsed by the Mayor, scheduled with workshops at venues across town, and heavily advertised on municipal transportation. The choice of a nonfiction book written by local-turned-national writer/hero Dave Eggers is also heartening. Eggers, founder of 826 Valencia, a nonprofit youth writing center in the Mission which as expanded to found offices all across the country, does almost as much work in education as he does in writing.
In the end, events like this one get people engaged with social questions more effectively than our politicans, proving yet again that authors have an important role to play in making this world a better place.
Check out the events in this year’s One City, One Book program listed here: