Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Is there such a thing as nonfiction?

This week, my students finished Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun (McSweeney’s Books, 2009). They loved the real-life story of hero, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, who stayed behind to assist those in his New Orleans neighborhood when his family (four children and a wife) fled Hurricane Katrina.

It is a powerful and moving book, detailing the racial profiling that led to Zeitoun’s false arrest, his ensuing torture as wrongly-accused terrorist suspect, and the aftermath of the ordeal—his wife’s post-traumatic stress issues and the family’s financial woes. Eggers makes certain in his “Notes About This Book” that readers know he has done his homework by interviewing numerous people, reading widely, and noting that the book “was written with the full participation of the Zeitoun family, and reflects their view of the events.”

However, my students struggled when presented with a Feb. 4 Los Angeles Times article detailing a 2011 police report detailing the arrest of Abdulrahman Zeitoun for domestic violence. The graphic report claims that Zeitoun “began to strike her [wife Kathy] with a closed fist to the head. The oldest daughter of Mrs. Zeitoun heard her mother screaming for help, ran into the room, and struck Mr. Zeitoun in the neck with a kick forcing him off her mother. Mr. Zeitoun then fled the residence.” Zeitoun, 54, pleaded guilty to negligent harming.

My students were conflicted: How should one feel about the book after Zeitoun’s arrest? How should one feel about Zeitoun himself? How might author Dave Eggers feel about the incident? (Eggers owns McSweeney’s, and the book is no longer available from McSweeney’s in hardcover, only in paper from Vintage.) If Kathy suffered from post-traumatic stress issues, might Zeitoun have as well? How did the book’s success impact Zeitoun?

Similarly, I love Truman Capote’s ground-breaking work In Cold Blood, but the book has also led me to ask many questions about nonfiction: How much faith should I have in the author of a nonfiction work? Capote funded some of the killers’ legal expenses, essentially keeping them alive long enough to get the interviews needed to write his book. What does that say about the author?

And, finally, whose story are these? In the end, isn’t Zeitoun’s story really Eggers’s view of the man, his actions, and the events he lived through? And aren’t the events of November 15, 1959, in Holcolm, Kansas, really Truman Capote’s interpretation of them?

In the end, isn’t every story fiction?


academia-research review said...
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Charlotte Hinger said...

Having collected family histories in real life (not just in my mystery series)I'm amazed at how differently various family members view an event.

Even the questions Capote asked,--or anyone else--skews the response.