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Abstract

On 18 March 2015 we had the rare opportunity to publicly interview the celebrated American author Dave Eggers and Mimi Lok, co-founder with Eggers of the socially engaged oral history non-profit Voice of Witness, in front of a student audience at the Vooruit cultural center in Ghent, Belgium. The occasion for their visit was Eggers’s being awarded the 2015 Amnesty International Chair at Ghent University in recognition of his human rights work. The interview aimed to give the audience an overall sense of the various creative and charitable projects in which Eggers and Lok are involved and which have earned them widespread acclaim. This published version of it is an edited and condensed transcript. The interview consists of two parts. The first part deals with Eggers’s literary work, homing in on The Circle in particular. The second part focuses on Voice of Witness and on how this project relates to Eggers’s work as a writer.
DAVE EGGERS
photo courtesy of McSweeney’sphoto courtesy of McSweeney’s
MIMI LOK
photo courtesy of McSweeney’sphoto courtesy of McSweeney’s
Contemporary Literature 56, 4 0010-7484; E-ISSN 1548-9949/15/0004-0545
2015 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System
an interview with
DAVE EGGERS AND MIMI LOK
Conducted by Sean Bex and Stef Craps
On March 18, 2015, we had the rare opportunityto inter-
view the celebrated American author Dave Eggers and
Mimi Lok, co-founder with Eggers of Voice ofWitness,
a socially engaged oral history nonprofit, in front of a
student audience at the Vooruit cultural center in Ghent, Belgium.
The occasion for their visit was Eggers’s being awarded the 2015
Amnesty International Chair at Ghent University in recognition of
his human rights work. The interview aimed to give the audience
an overall sense of the various creative and charitable projects in
which Eggers and Lok are involved and which have earned them
widespread acclaim. The published version of it that appears below
is an edited and condensed transcript.
Eggers burst upon the literary scene in 2000 with his memoir A
Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which recounts the tragic
loss of his parents to cancer and his subsequent struggle to find his
way in life with his younger brother Christopher. He followed up
this success with You Shall Know Our Velocity (2002), a novel in which
two young Americans seek to overcome personal tragedy by trav-
eling around the world and, along the way, distributing money to
those in need. The novel poignantly balances descriptions of abject
poverty with ludicrous schemes devised by the protagonists to
donate money to the poor.
In What Is the What (2006) and Zeitoun (2009), Eggers collaborated
with victims of human rights abuses in Sudan and the U.S., respec-
tively, in order to give a voice to their suffering. The former tells the
story of one of the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan, Valentino Achak
546 CONTEMPORARY LITERATURE
Deng, as he struggles to survive the second Sudanese civil war and
suffers from culture shock, indifference, and racism after being
resettled in the U.S. Zeitoun focuses on domestic issues in the U.S.
as it chronicles the experiences of a Syrian-born New Orleans resi-
dent and Hurricane Katrina hero who is arrested and detainedwith-
out charge on suspicion of terrorism.
Eggers’s other works include How We Are Hungry (2004), a col-
lection of short stories, and A Hologram for the King (2012), an alle-
gorical novel about the decline of America. The novel features a
down-on-his-luck American businessman who tries in vain to sell
a holographic communications system to the king of Saudi Arabia
in a last-ditch effort at turning his own life around. Eggers’s most
famous fictional work is arguably The Circle (2013), a cautionary tale
about the erosion of privacy in the digital age. It portrays apowerful
tech company whose ultimate goal is to make everything known
and transparent, at any cost. These are just a few of Eggers’s literary
works; there are many more, including several novels as well as
children’s books and screenplays.
Apart from being a writer, Eggers is also an editor, publisher,
graphic designer, activist, and philanthropist. In 1998 he founded
the independent publishing house McSweeney’s. Based in San Fran-
cisco, McSweeney’s publishes books, an influential literary journal
(Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern), a bimonthly magazine
(The Believer), and the Voice of Witness book series, which depicts
human rights crises around the world through the stories of the men
and women who experience them. Voice of Witness has produced
volumes on Sudan, Burma, Zimbabwe, Colombia, and the United
States, as well as, most recently, a volume on Palestinians living
under Israeli occupation. Eggers is also a passionate literacy advo-
cate. In 2002 he co-founded 826 Valencia, a nonprofit writing and
tutoring center for children and teenagers which has since opened
chapters in six other cities across the U.S. He tells the story about
826’s inspiration, early beginnings, and ensuing momentum in a
deservedly popular TED talk. Another, more recent charitable proj-
ect is ScholarMatch, a nonprofit organization that connects donors
with prospective college students who need help paying their high
tuition fees. Two further charities that should be mentioned are the
Valentino Achak Deng Foundation and the Zeitoun Foundation,
EGGERS AND LOK 547
which Eggers founded with the protagonists of What Is the What and
Zeitoun and to which he has donated all royalties from these best-
selling books. The Valentino Achak Deng Foundation built and
operates a school in Deng’s home village in South Sudan, while the
Zeitoun Foundation funded reconstruction projects in New Orleans
and promoted interfaith understanding.
The interview below consists of two parts. The first part deals
with Eggers’s literary work, homing in on The Circle in particular,
while the second part focuses on Voice of Witness. For this part of
the conversation we were joined by Lok, who has served as the book
series’ executive director and executive editor since 2008. Before
that, she worked as a freelance reporter for the Asia bureaus of The
Washington Post, the Chicago Sun-Times, and USA Today and taught
creative writing at San Francisco State University and in schools in
Hong Kong and China. What Eggers and Lok clearly share is a
passion for human rights storytelling. We kicked off the interview,
though, with a few questions about Eggers’s identity as a writer, his
writing process, and the evolution of his literary work.
Q. Do you consider yourself a writer first and foremost? Is that
the core of your professional identity, from which everything else
flows, or do you see writing as on a par with your work as an editor,
publisher, and activist?
A. When we started up McSweeney’s in San Francisco and 826
Valencia, I can honestly say that that year I probably did not write
a whole lot. Overall, though, it changes month to month. Sometimes
I have a project that I want to dedicate time to, and I have to set
aside writing for a while, but as I’ve gotten older, all of these foun-
dations that we have started have matured. They are all in good
hands, and so they do not need my help on a day-to-day manage-
ment basis. As a result, I’ve been able to return to more full-time
writing. When I enter a country and they ask me what my occu-
pation is, I write “writer.” However, this feels strange, because I
think it’s a ridiculous luxury to be able to write for a living. I feel
it’s always very pretentious to say that; I’ve never quite gotten used
to it. It’s something that I feel very grateful for every day. I don’t
take it for granted: I feel like I’m still earning it every day, largely
because my parents really worked for a living. My mother was a
548 CONTEMPORARY LITERATURE
teacher, and my father worked hard as a lawyer. They had regular
nine-to-five jobs that were hard, and I have the ability to choose my
hours and wake up late if I want to. But because I feel so grateful
or lucky, I tend to keep the same regular office hours these days. I
don’t always have a chance to write those eight hours, but at least
I’m in the writing position. I feel so lucky that I have to put in the
time, at least. Otherwise I have this crushing sense of shame that
comes from my Catholic upbringing, which says, “Hey, what are
you doing? You’ve been given this chance; other people really have
to work for a living, so get back to work!” So I do feel an obligation
to work as hard as the people, like my parents, who werenot always
doing something day to day that they loved. My mother loved
teaching, but my father did not always get to take on cases that he
loved. I think any of us who have the ability to do something we
love tend to work twice as hard, to compensate for the luck that we
have had.
Q. How do you usually begin a book? Do you start with a char-
acter, a plot, a setting, or an issue that you want to explore? Could
you perhaps walk us through your writing process?
A. I usually write one scene and one chapter first where I lock in
the tone, the style, and the characters. It has to be something that
you are interested in, that comes naturally, and that you feel pas-
sionate about. You can build the rest of the work around it once
you’ve solved that case on the micro-level.
For The Circle, I’d been thinking about this issue for around ten
years because I’ve been in Northern California for twenty-twoyears
and I saw the rise of the Internet. I remember the first collapse of
the dot-com bubble as well as its subsequent boom. Many of my
friends are now in positions of power in some of these companies,
while others have start-ups or develop apps, websites, and so on.
I’ve been immersed in it for so long. I had been trying to synthesize
ideas about it, about what exactly I find concerning about it. A lot
of times I will take notes for years and years on something that
might not come to fruition. But in this case I had two or three feet
of notes, just stacks of paper, and I didn’t know what to do with
them until I had the idea of Mae, the protagonist, starting on her
first day at one of the companies—the idea that somebody is given
EGGERS AND LOK 549
this great opportunity, leaving a terrible job to come to a utopia, a
dream job, and that this slowly devolves so that the more nefarious
aspects of this company would become clear as the novel went
along.
The first scene I wrote for The Circle was the one about the Por-
tugal lunch. I thought I’d write this scene, and then the rest of the
book would build out from that. Mae is fairly new at this company,
and she is in trouble because somebody sent her an e-mail informing
her that there was a lunch for people interested in Portugal and she
didn’t attend the lunch. The scene scared me because it was some-
thing that has happened in my life, too. You get thousands ofe-mail
notices, and you cannot respond to all of them. You getthis constant
feeling that people around you are offended by your silenceor your
indifference to their invitations or their asking you to like or dislike
something. There is an overwhelming deluge of stimuli that we are
supposed to respond to.
Q. Do you start at the beginning and write until you reach the
end, or do you skip around, writing scenes as you see fit and filling
in the gaps later?
A. I’m definitely an obsessive rewriter. I went to journalism
school, so I was taught by old Chicago newspaper men. It’s like
going through boot camp for journalism, where they beat you
down, tell you that you are terrible. You have to strip down your
style. Any adjective that you cannot absolutely justify gets thrown
away. It’s constant revising and revising, and then after tenrevisions
you’re lucky to get a C. That’s the best grade we could get in school.
It teaches humility, and it taught me, having worked with news-
papers and journals for so long, that the revision process is endless.
I learned that I could always learn something from an editor’s input,
and that I needed to vet my writing thoroughly myself and through
other readers. So I would say that on average I do twenty drafts of
anything I publish, even today. I also usually send it to at least
fifteen different readers to get their notes before I feel comfortable.
This is also how we teach students at 826 Valencia. Of course,
when I was in high school, I never revised anything. I would finish
the draft the morning it was due and then turn it in, cross my fin-
gers, and think that one draft was enough. The incredible hubris to
550 CONTEMPORARY LITERATURE
think that your first draft is your best draft! So when we work with
students who are reluctant writers, or who do not have a lot of one-
on-one help that they can get, we teach them to revise. On the walls
of 826 Valencia we have all these proofs and drafts. For example,
we have Amy Tan’s book The Bonesetter’s Daughter, which is really
popular in San Francisco.We have the twenty-eighth draft of that
book on the wall, to show students that even Amy Tan—a profes-
sional writer who has written a dozen novels—is still revising and
that she can still benefit from that. If you are humble about your
writing and do not presume that any type of sentence is perfection,
it actually opens up the process and makes it much more approach-
able and egalitarian. We can all reach a certain level of proficiency
if we work at it.
I think being humble about it is key. You need to know that every-
thing you do now is practice. You are not writing the best work that
you will ever write at age eighteen or twenty. I don’t think I wrote
anything that I was proud of until I was thirty—or maybe twenty-
eight. I think novelists get infinitely better into their thirties and
forties, so it’s a long game. You should not take yourself too seri-
ously, even though you are serious about the work you are doing,
of course. I was encouraged as a young writer to just submit to as
many magazines as possible. Anything that you get published gets
you to be part of a new community. You should not be precious
about it. New readers and editors mean you get help with your
work, causing it to advance. You get the benefit of reader response
as well as the feeling of having your work out there. It really is a
slow process of climbing a pyramid, where you are trying to get
better.
Q. As is the case with The Circle’s Mae Holland, your protagonists
tend to be hopeful and idealistic, bordering on naive at times. They
seem to be almost willfully blind to the evil that surrounds them.
Would you agree with this characterization of the “Eggersian hero,”
so to speak?
A. I would not necessarily agree that there is any overarching trait.
You will see connections in all of this that I will not necessarily see
or endorse, but I understand that I’m not always the best expert.
I’m not always the most knowledgeable at seeing connections
EGGERS AND LOK 551
between novels that I wrote fifteen years ago. You probably know
them better than I do at this point. I never go back and reread some
book I wrote thirteen years ago, because it’s horrifying. You see all
these mistakes, things you should have done differently. Eventually
you simply have to let it go. You have to learn to see each book as
a document of its time, a document of your mind, a place in your
life, or a point you wanted to make in 2002 that you wouldn’t nec-
essarily make at all or in the same way now.
But I’ll talk about the character Mae. I thought it was really impor-
tant that Mae come from a point of relative disadvantage. Shecomes
from what we call the Central Valley, which is ninety miles from
San Francisco—lower middle class, a lot of farming, pickup trucks,
not a whole lot of money. She feels like she has been given this
incredible gift to work at The Circle. As a result, she is inclined to
discount any hints that something is awry. So yes, I would say she
is willfully blind. That’s exactly what it is, and you find this again
and again. Until recently, when Obama passed his health care act,
anyone, any young person who could get a good health insurance
plan was so grateful to their company. That’s because it’s rare, and
if you don’t have insurance, you’re in trouble in the U.S. Mae has a
sick parent, she came from nowhere, and she feels like she’s been
given this gift. She has to be naive, willfully naive, because even
when there are little signs of trouble, she doesn’t feel like she has a
right to blow the whistle. She feels that no matter how bad it gets,
it’s never worse than where she came from, which makes it some-
thing of a perfect storm for turning or radicalizing someone.
Q. For a time, your books reflected a gradually broadening scope
as far as subject matter is concerned. While A Heartbreaking Work of
Staggering Genius dealt with personal family traumas, the books that
followed it were set all around the world or featurednon-American-
born protagonists and addressed global problems and concerns.
However, your two most recent novels, The Circle and Your Fathers,
Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? [2014], are
set entirely in the U.S., have American-born protagonists, and are
primarily concerned with the American context, even if the issues
they explore resonate beyond national boundaries. Was this re-
focusing on the U.S. prompted by anything in particular?
552 CONTEMPORARY LITERATURE
A. I think The Circle is—intends to be—a globally minded book,
in the sense that the concerns it addresses profoundly affect every-
one’s life, across the globe, even though these companies are gen-
erally based in California. Your Fathers is definitely an American
book, though. It takes place there, and it’s very locally rooted.
Ideally, though, there are universal things in all of my books, even
though some are about someone coming to the U.S. and adjusting
to life there, like Valentino, and some are about an American going
abroad. The American character in A Hologram for the King, for
example, goes to Saudi Arabia, and the entire book is set in Jeda.
What I resist, and what I’m really not good at, is writing a book that
takes place in one neighborhood or a single community. I wrote
about my upbringing in Chicago in A Heartbreaking Work of Stag-
gering Genius, and I felt like everything I could possibly say about
the suburbs was said in that book. Now, when I take on a book, I
want to be able to learn something. For example, You Shall Know
Our Velocity was set in Senegal, Morocco, Latvia, Estonia, et cetera,
giving me an opportunity to visit all these places, too. As a jour-
nalist, with that training, you always want an excuse to go some-
where and have a reason to see something new, or learn something
new, or interview people. All of my work has that in common. Other
than that, I can’t say that there is a master plan. The truth is I never
know what is going to strike me next. Take Your Fathers, for example:
the fact that this book is all dialogue came out of nowhere. I actually
wrote it before The Circle and put it aside because I thought it was
too strange. Once I finished The Circle, I came back and read it again
and found that it still resonated with me. I do have things that I’ve
been taking notes on for years and that I’m trying to shape, but I
have no idea what will emerge or crystallize next.
Q. Let’s dig down a little into The Circle, which has been highly
successful. Would it be fair to say that Mae Holland is not just a
specific character but also something of an Everyman figure?
A. Yes! There is not an incredible amount of background on Mae,
so you could say that I tried to make her—not to say an empty
vessel, but a pair of eyes that did not view things with too much
baggage or skepticism. I think she is fundamentally optimistic and
wants to believe in the advantages and ideals of The Circle as well
EGGERS AND LOK 553
as the campus at its center. There are two ways to see a campus like
that. The founders and the staff of so many of these companies do
so many things well; they take on a very active role in improving
every part of the system, meaning that they aim to provide the best
possible service to their employees in terms of food, exercise, relax-
ation, and accommodation. There are hundreds of campuses all
around California that provide these kinds of things. But what is
the trade-off? This is what I’m trying to get at in The Circle. What is
the trade-off when everything is filtered through or being decided
on by one central organization? The Circle would prefer that you
interact only with other Circlers and that you stay on campus as
much as possible. It can take a turn toward total control, and Mae
is subject to the fact that The Circle knows all of her movements all
of the time. I keep hearing from actual employees in these compa-
nies saying, “It’s like you were in the room with us; this is exactly
my life!” Not necessarily the evil side of it, but the day-to-day
things. And this was the nicest person you will ever meet, which
means that all of these companies are full of good, idealistic, bright
people. These people struggle with the things that they need to be
questioning or do not quite approve of. That’s why I keep believing
that everyone would welcome a conversation about ethics and
boundaries. All of the people who work in these companies some-
times do stuff that goes beyond what they would approve of.
Q. The Circle is a satire on social networking and surveillance cul-
ture. It’s a cautionary tale about threats to privacy, freedom, and
democracy. I wonder, though, if you personally have any sympathy
at all for the arguments of the company philosopher, Bailey, who
sings the praises of radical transparency and total knowledge. He
claims that we are at the dawn of a second Enlightenment, and that
absolute transparency will make human beings more moral. Does
he have a point? Or are you completely on the side of Mae’s ex-
boyfriend Mercer and her lover Kalden, the two voices of opposition
in the novel? They are convinced that The Circle is, or has become,
utterly sinister, and that we are headed straight for a totalitarian
nightmare. Where do you stand yourself?
A. I’m very clearly a skeptic about a lot of these things. I think this
has to do with the fact that I grew up before the Internet revolution.
554 CONTEMPORARY LITERATURE
I saw it rise, saw it come up all around me, and so saw it go from
a pure, utopian idea to what it is now. I’ve talked to so many people
who were there at the beginning of the Internet and have read The
Circle, and they say that they are horrified by some of the same
things that I wanted to create horror about in the novel. That is, the
conglomeration of power and wealth into a very few hands and the
temptation toward submitting to this central funnel of all informa-
tion where, in exchange for having all of your banking, your voting,
and your social life in one place, you give up access to some third
party, some capitalist company that uses it for means beyond your
control and knowledge. That is where we are at right now. In
exchange for “freedom,” in exchange for “free things,” we allow
ourselves to be spied on. As such, I think the rise of the Internet has
turned out radically different from how the idealists originally
thought it would; they imagined a much more egalitarian, demo-
cratic system, where the power was equally spread. No one pre-
dicted that it would end in an unprecedented concentration of
power and wealth.
Q. In your novel, the culprit is a private company, and the gov-
ernment is cast as a potential savior, in principle if clearly not in
practice. I wonder if you have reconsidered that position in light of
the recent leak of classified NSA documents by Edward Snowden,
which revealed the sweeping extent of the U.S. government’s sur-
veillance and espionage activities. I believe your novel was released
shortly after the first Snowden revelations. In a way, what these
revelations suggest is that the completion of the circle, the attain-
ment of absolute omniscience which is the company’s ultimate goal,
is already upon us, and that not only has it come even sooner than
you expected but it’s the government itself, rather than bigbusiness,
that has pulled it off.
A. The Snowden issue was unfolding when I was finishing the
book. The really weird twist was that I finished the book in Ecua-
dor—sometimes I go far away from everything to get work done—
and I landed in Guayaquil the same day that Edward Snowden was
meant to land there. This was before he went to Russia, when he
was granted asylum by the Ecuadorian government. I was at the
airport, and there were a great number of people looking for
EGGERS AND LOK 555
Edward Snowden. Then I went off to finish this book about some
of the issues that had prompted this situation. It was an extraordi-
narily strange confluence of events.
I’m a massive critic of the NSA; I’ve come out on record many
times to criticize their activities. I quite frankly think the NSA is
completely out of control. It answers to no one, it seems; there is no
transparency about what they do; it’s not being regulated. I believe
that all these Internet companies do need to be regulated by theU.S.
government in the U.S., and there should be some sort of global
response, too—some form of regulation by the UN that sets up a
global framework that all of these companies would be required to
operate under. We don’t have a set of standards; we don’t have a
set of ethical guidelines.
Q. A digital Bill of Rights, as proposed by the character Kalden in
The Circle?
A. Yes, a UN declaration of digital rights with legal consequences.
Think of Google, which is continually sued in European courts,
especially in Germany, for violations of privacy. I think those law-
suits put a check on the power. Again, though, there is no frame-
work that everyone operates under. I think that some of these com-
panies would be reluctant to be outliers or outlaws in such a
framework if it were created. They would try to operate within it
to some extent. Any other industry—law, biology, medicine, food—
has some form of global agreement about what is ethical, but there
is no such thing when it comes to the digital world, and therefore
that has to be the first step. We would hope that the NSA would be
subject to that agreement, but the gathering of intelligence in the
U.S. has always happened to a large extent outside of all law.
Q. The Circle is often compared to George Orwell’s classic dys-
topian novel Nineteen-Eighty-Four. There are some unmistakable
parallels between the two, not least the adaptation of Orwell’s slo-
gans “War Is Peace,” “Freedom Is Slavery,” and “Ignorance Is
Strength” to “Secrets Are Lies,” “Sharing Is Caring,” and “Privacy
Is Theft.” Could you talk about the nature and extent of Orwell’s
influence on you?
556 CONTEMPORARY LITERATURE
A. First of all, I think that any time you write a dystopian book,
it’s bound to be compared to Nineteen-Eighty-Four. People compare
The Hunger Games to Nineteen-Eighty-Four, for example. I think it’s
something of a go-to corollary. That said, Orwell has been one of
my favorite writers, his journalism as much as his fiction. When I
started this novel, I made a point of not reading Nineteen-Eighty-
Four again, of not reading Brave New World again. I deliberately
steered clear of anything that might unintentionally trickle into me.
However, once I had finished The Circle, I went back to Orwell’s
novel to make sure that I had not inadvertently borrowed from it.
The only thing I did consciously was that nod to those three slogans:
that was very much on purpose. Orwell’s work reads just as freshly
today as when it was written. One of the things I noticed was that
on page 1 of Nineteen-Eighty-Four, life is miserable. The apocalypse
has already happened; everyone is subject to an all-powerful total-
itarian regime; they have no rights or opportunities. The narrative
is a matter of Winston Smith struggling within the narrow confines
of that world, trying to break out, maybe having a chance at love,
and then failing at that. I really wanted to have a much slower burn,
where you slowly get to participate in the descent. I think that there
are not a tremendous number of similarities in practice, outside of
both being dystopian books. The other thing is that in Nineteen-
Eighty-Four you have submission to a totalitarian regime that you
cannot resist or they will torture or kill you. I wanted The Circle to
be pointedly such that everyone is participating, doing it willingly.
Think of the younger engineers and developers who are pitching
ideas to the powers that be at The Circle. All of their ideas take
things so much further and make it so much worse than it already
is. That’s where it’s going, and it’s so hard to roll it back at this
stage.
Q. The Circle reminded me in some ways of Gary Shteyngart’s
novel Super Sad True Love Story. Like you, Shteyngart conjured a
dystopian vision of a near-future America characterized by perva-
sive surveillance and constant social networking. He has expressed
his shock at the fact that many of the parodic, extreme predictions
he made in Super Sad True Love Story back in 2010 have already come
true. I wonder if that is also your experience with The Circle,in
EGGERS AND LOK 557
which you describe numerous new services and technologies that
are being invented at this company. Weren’tyou at all worried about
inadvertently giving the Mark Zuckerbergs of this world ideas?
A. No, I think they’ve thought of everything. Honestly, nothing
that came up had not already been thought up by someone in
research and development. Some of it has even already happened.
It’s moving so fast, and there is so much money in it. These com-
panies have so many billions of dollars for research and develop-
ment that any notion that they have is looked into and potentially
turned into reality. Google and Apple are both developing driver-
less cars. The U.S. automobile industry is scared to death. They are
not just developing the technology to drive the car, but the car itself.
Apple has more cash than any company has ever had in the history
of the world and can buy any company in any sector and make
things. So again, I cannot imagine that something I thought of has
not yet been thought of by some of these companies. You know,
Google has this internal Project X, where all the new ideasare devel-
oped; all the campuses have secret research and development sites
where they come up with whatever is going to happen next.
Q. Let’s move on to talk about Voice of Witness. Ms. Lok, thanks
for joining us. Could you start us off by explaining briefly the gen-
eral idea behind Voice of Witness?
A. [Lok] Voice of Witness is a nonprofit book series as well as an
education program. The main idea is that we want to change the
way people think about human rights crises. By that we mean that
we want to engender a more nuanced, a more layered, a moreempa-
thy-based understanding and engagement with these issues, so that
people become better informed and empathetic global citizens and
more effective advocates for human rights and human dignity. The
book series has covered a wide range of issues. We have interviewed
wrongfully convicted Americans, people affected by Hurricane
Katrina, undocumented workers in the U.S., and people in women’s
prisons. Internationally, we have interviewed people who escaped
repressive regimes in places like Burma, Sudan, Zimbabwe, and
Colombia. In addition to these collections of oral histories, we have
558 CONTEMPORARY LITERATURE
produced a methodology book that comes out of our education pro-
gram, The Power of the Story: The Voice of Witness Teachers Guide to
Oral History [2015]. It sets out how teachers can use the stories in
the classroom but also describes a methodology for anyone who
wants to do an oral history project.
Q. Could you tell us about the process of making a Voice of Wit-
ness book? How does it start, and how does it all come together?
A. [Lok] It’s quite an involved process. It normally starts with a
conversation, someone with an idea for a collection. The criteria are
straightforward: it has to be a contemporary human rights crisis,
and it has to be underreported. We also want to know that the per-
son who is proposing this project is not only qualified to undertake
it—has a good track record in the field and experience with the
communities where the interviews will take place—but also is not
just interested in proving a specific hypothesis. They need to want
to learn something and be genuinely curious. Once this has been
established, we ask them to develop a proposal of around five
pages, containing a budget, a timeline, and—most importantly—
what their vision is for the project. I am usually the person who will
help to refine the proposal by anticipating the questions the rest of
the Voice of Witness team will have as we look at it and decide on
whether or not to accept it. Generally, we want to stick to projects
that we think will add something of value to the series. We want to
keep the topics as fresh and diverse as possible. But there arecertain
things that we return to, like the justice system in the U.S., in Sur-
viving Justice [2005], Inside This Place, Not of It [2011], and one other
potential volume looking at solitary confinement. Someday we hope
to do a book on the juvenile justice system. We have an extremely
long list of topics we would like to address, but it’s really about
getting the right proposals from the right people at the right time.
Q. A question for Mr. Eggers in particular, as it follows on from
something you mention in your introduction to The Voice of Witness
Reader [2015]. You write about a Sudanese woman who had lost faith
in media reporters coming to interview her, to cover her story,
because she never heard from them again afterward. Is that some-
EGGERS AND LOK 559
thing you often find, that fear that there won’t be any follow-
through and a reluctance, therefore, to share one’s story?
A. [Eggers] I think a lot of people who’ve had their human rights
compromised and then have had experience with the media are
skeptical. They may feel as if somebody sticks a microphone in their
face and gets a few quotes and leaves. Afterward, they’re leftworse
off than they were before. It’s a form of retraumatization. For exam-
ple, you have the wrongfully convicted in America: they’ve had
their names plastered all over headlines saying that they’re con-
victed murderers. They sometimes have to wait eighteen to twenty
years in prison to clear their names. Those people have had their
narratives taken from them, their identities reshaped or misshaped.
They are very skeptical, so we have to let them know from day one
that we will give them control over the process. We explain that
nothing will be published without their approval and that we want
to get it right. Then we record their stories over the course of hours,
days, and sometimes months or even years. Afterward, we order
their story into a chronology, and we check with them, as well as
conducting fact-checks at our end, in order to make sure that it is
beyond debate whether it is the truth—the truth, that is, about the
lives that they have lived. This process allows them to reclaim their
narrative, in a way. I think that knowing that they’re going to have
control, that they can pull the plug at any time, gives them a sense
of security. It means that they don’t have to risk having another
mistruth printed about them.
We do not interview people who we feel are at risk of retrau-
matization. Generally, with the books, we work with agencies that
know people they have worked with who are comfortable talking.
We don’t necessarily go somewhere and find somebody who has
no record of speaking at all. Usually, it’s a very gentle, careful pro-
cess of vetting before we even begin an interview.
Q. How do the interviewers experience the process of collecting
oral histories? How are they affected by listening to these
testimonies?
A. [Eggers] It varies. When you train as a journalist, you get used
to having a defensive shield about these things. You need to put on
560 CONTEMPORARY LITERATURE
a brave face and keep the tape recorder running while you keep
asking questions. What was interesting when Valentino and I were
in South Sudan, interviewing a woman who had been enslaved for
sixteen years, was that she was very straightforward and could just
tell her story. She was angry, and she wanted the world to hear.
Valentino had to stop the tape a few times, however, because her
story was overwhelming him. You never know how it will affect
you. But we do allow our interviewers to be empathetic. They can
stop the tape, touch somebody’s arm; they can be human. People
are both listening as humans and have a tape recorder running.
These two things happen concurrently. I’m not going to deny one
or the other. It can be incredibly overwhelming for the interviewers;
we hear that a lot. For example, when an interviewer in the U.S.
cannot believe that something is happening on our own soil.
A. [Lok] We also realized the need to support our interviewers
from the very start. There is a tendency for interviewers to think
that even if they have a hard time dealing with what they are hear-
ing, it doesn’t compare to what the other person has been through,
and it therefore doesn’t matter. It does, though, because if you do
not practice self-care, you cannot continue doing this job. We have
guidelines that prioritize the needs of the person being interviewed
but also acknowledge the interviewer’s needs. We build the inter-
view, in the sense that we do not go directly to the trauma. We will
start off gently, talk about how your day is, what you are up to, how
you are feeling, then talk about the trauma. This allows us to avoid
unearthing the trauma and then just walking away, which would
be jarring for the narrator and for the interviewer. Recently I’vebeen
having conversations with a clinical psychologist who has experi-
ence with vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue, which is some-
thing that human rights activists are often vulnerable to, even if it
gets played down. You really do have to be strong and take care of
yourself.
Q. You’ve mentioned that telling you their stories is a therapeutic
and empowering experience for many narrators. Of course, Voice
of Witness also seeks to create change in the wider society. Do you
have any sense of the impact the series has made in that regard?
EGGERS AND LOK 561
A. [Lok] I think the impact shows up in the young. We try to make
human rights activism accessible through the use of personal nar-
ratives, regardless of what your engagement with this issue is or is
not. Our readers range from middle-school-aged readers to policy-
makers and activists. One of the major places we see an impact is
among students. They are probably the leading examples of the type
of reader who does not have prior knowledge of or a prior interest
in what is happening in Burma, Sudan, or Colombia, or in public
housing in Chicago. The series helps to bring these issues alive and
helps students feel that they have a participatory relationship with
contemporary history. The testimonies we get from young people
who have read these stories are incredible.
In a wider sense, the stories have been used in case law in many
instances. Additionally, testimonies that have been featured in our
books have been used in advocacy campaigns. For example, Ashley
Jacobs, whose narrative is in the book Inside This Place, Not of It, was
six months pregnant when she was imprisoned, and in prison,
women are shackled to the bed during childbirth— something that
she did not talk about, even to her family, because she felt ashamed
about it. The process of telling the story with one of our education
team members over the course of a year and a half was healing,
empowering, and restorative. It eventually made her want to share
her story with the wider public. She ended up working with her
local branch of the ACLU to end the practice of shackling in
women’s prisons. We have seen some changes being made now in
several states in the U.S., but there is still a long way to go.
A. [Eggers] I don’t know what policies there are here in Belgium,
but in the U.S., if a woman in prison goes to see the doctor, she has
to be in chains or chained to the bed. This results in pregnant
women giving birth with their legs chained to a steel bed—a bar-
baric and unconscionable practice, but nobody knew about it. By
being told, this story became part of the public debate. Sometimes
these first-person narratives can bring an issue to life in a way that
a statistical approach could not.
Q. By focusing on the stories of individuals, though, don’t you
risk losing sight of the systemic nature of the injustices these people
have suffered? How do you avoid individualizing and thereby
562 CONTEMPORARY LITERATURE
depoliticizing social, collective suffering? How do you ensure that
the bigger picture is not being missed?
A. [Lok] I think you get at the universal through the particular.
We make it so that each voice in a collection—there are usually
around thirteen or fifteen voices per collection—highlights some-
thing different, a different side of the situation. Some stories can be
taken as emblematic for a crisis, some are surprising in that this
could have happened to this kind of person. Additionally, when
someone mentions any kind of abuse or a specific situation, we’ll
contextualize that in a footnote. For example, if someone says that
they were displaced from their farm in Colombia, we will show how
tens of thousands of people experienced the same thing during that
period. We also have appendices at the back of each book—a time-
line, a glossary, mini-essays from reports—which provide back-
ground on the issues that are being discussed. Oftentimes, theseare
condensed reports from sources like Amnesty International or
Human Rights Watch. We try to draw on a variety of sources to
keep a somewhat objective and balanced overview of the situation.
A. [Eggers] I would just add that you almost always have a better
understanding of a situation through a first-person narrative—see-
ing what one person says and then seeing a broader view of it. I’d
been reading about the conflict in Colombia for twenty years; it’s
very hard to unpack because it’s so complicated and there are so
many different players. But I remember reading the very first nar-
rative in the Colombia book, and instantly all of it made much more
sense. I saw it through one person’s eyes, saw the devolution of the
country happen piece by piece, year by year. Rather than causing
you to lose sight of the political dimension, I would suggest, testi-
monies are actually the best method to illuminate the political
context.
Q. I’ve looked at quite a few Voice of Witness books, and two of
the things that struck me are that they are heavily edited—they’re
not simply collections of transcribed oral history interviews—and
there is no fixed format: the structure and organization of each vol-
ume is unique. Could you talk about why it is that you go beyond
EGGERS AND LOK 563
simply collecting and transcribing interviews? And what deter-
mines the choice of a particular format for a particular book?
A. [Eggers] There is a long tradition of oral history, and it’s prac-
ticed in different ways by different people. There is a very strong
academic tradition of collecting oral histories, and some that I’ve
read were quite dry and hard to follow. Sometimes they are a series
of questions and answers rather than a linear narrative. We decided
that the Voice of Witness books would edit everyone’s story—no
matter how it was originally told over the course of days, weeks, or
years— into a linear narrative, without changing words.That would
be what the reader could rely on—that we would tell a compelling
linear narrative with the narrator’s original words and phrasings
and idiosyncrasies of speech, which takes some editing. Once we
have the tapes, we transcribe them and put them into a linear order
for clarity. We then take the transcript back to the person who told
us the story, the narrator, to make sure we got it right. More often
than not they will say, “You got it exactly right: that’s how I told it
to you”—even though it took us one hundred hours to get it into
that shape, where it’s clear and linear.
A. [Lok] I don’t know if you’ve ever seen an oral transcript before,
but it is like a big bowl of spaghetti thrown on the floor. Unless
someone is a born storyteller, you calmly have to edit it all. Most
people, myself included, jump around in time, misremember some-
thing, go back to correct something.
A. [Eggers] We do a disservice to them if, after their bravery in
telling their story, we do not put it into a form that readers can read.
Readers will not read a seventy-page transcript, so it does need to
be edited. We serve the narrators well only when the book itself is
compelling and can be read by a broad audience. That is how we
honor their stories and their courage.
Q. The slogan on the Voice of Witness website reads, “Illuminating
Human Rights Crises through Oral History.” Given that there are,
sadly, so many human rights crises that deserve attention, how do
you decide which crisis to tackle next? Are you at all concerned
about balance or comprehensive coverage, especially now that the
564 CONTEMPORARY LITERATURE
series has grown to such an extent that people might wonder why
certain crises are not represented?
A. [Eggers] There are still only six people who work at Voice of
Witness, which means that if there are a hundred topics that could
be approached tomorrow, and deserve to be, we’re still limited by
the tiny staff and tiny funding that we have. That’s one key part.
Thirteen books in ten years is something we’re very proud of, but
it’s a struggle to make them and to continue to exist in terms of
funding.
A. [Lok] Another factor is the time it takes to create a book that
we can be proud of and that does justice to the stories. Each book
takes anywhere from one to four years to put together.
A. [Eggers] What we also get are proposals from editors whohave
an idea, but when we ask whether they are in it for the long haul—
up to four years—they back out. So it’s a very intricate process,
which needs commitment from the editors and the constituents they
are serving, and, most of all, time.
Q. You do not shy away from controversial topics. A particularly
good example is your recent volume on life under Israeli occupation
in the Palestinian territories, but I’m also thinking of the volumes
on undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and on the plight of Mus-
lim Americans in the wake of 9/11. What has the response been to
these more politically sensitive collections? Do you deliberately try
to redress the imbalances that you see in the dominant media and
government narratives?
A. [Lok] It’s our ambition to amplify unheard voices—people
whose experiences and expertise don’t get into the mainstream nar-
rative on an issue. It’s not our explicit mission statement to think
about how we can be controversial. It’s more about whether there
is something in a proposal that’s going to help us learn something
new, shed new light on something.
Q. Do you take any flak over covering controversial issues?
A. [Eggers] Something that continues to amaze me is that nobody
can argue with somebody’s story. You simply cannot. They are not
EGGERS AND LOK 565
opinions or polemics. We make a point of that: even if the narrators
want to offer hours and hours of their opinions, we still turn it into
a narrative that answers the question, “What happened?” When
Palestine Speaks [2015] came out, we did think we would get a lot of
flak. The editors were nervous when they went out on tour that it
was going to be controversial. It turns out that those fears were
unfounded; it has not been very controversial at all, simply because
you cannot argue with someone’s story. The book does not take a
political position. It does not have a prescriptive solution to the
relationship between Palestine and Israel. The stories themselves are
the stories of people who live in the West Bank and Gaza. This is
what they see, what they have been through. You can form your
opinions from there. Because of that, and because we stay neutral
on those sorts of issues, I think everyone is willing to come into it
with an open mind. We hope that is the case, at least.
Q. The Voice of Witness book series is victim-centered, in thesense
that the narrators whose stories we get to read are all victims of
human rights violations. It could be argued that in order to fully
understand what happened and why it happened, we also need to
know the stories of the perpetrators. Have you ever considered also
interviewing the perpetrators, as Jean Hatzfeld, for example, did in
his extraordinary trilogy about the genocide in Rwanda?
A. [Lok] Yes, and we have in fact done that in some of our books.
We’ve interviewed people who have been involved in committing
crimes and become victims themselves, such as former child sol-
diers in Burma. The idea of working with a strict distinction
between perpetrator and victim is reductive. There are different lev-
els of perpetration. There is “dictator,” and then there are child sol-
diers recruited to serve in an armed group for several years of their
lives. So I think it’s a lot more complex than victim versus perpe-
trator. But our mission is quite concise,quite focused: it is to amplify
the voices of those most closely affected by human rights crises, and
so we have to prioritize those.
A. [Eggers] Our specific aim is to provide a platform for the pow-
erless. Those in power have their platform, which they have used
in various ways. We feel that if we’re going to talk about women in
566 CONTEMPORARY LITERATURE
U.S. prisons, those women have to be heard first, because we’ve
already heard the other side. We’ve heard that they are criminals,
that they deserve this, that rape is a normal and natural part of
going to prison, that they deserve that—in the U.S. it’s considered
part of your punishment. We’re trying to counteract that dominant
narrative. As such, we’re not aiming to compile comprehensive text-
books. Think of Throwing Stones at the Moon: Colombians Displaced by
Violence [2012]. It’s not everything you need to know about Colom-
bia in one book. It is specifically a book about voices from everyday
Colombians and how they’ve been affected by the drug wars and
the chaos of the past twenty years.
Q. The focus in all of the volumes to date is on contemporary
issues—ongoing human rights crises or very recent ones. Have you
considered covering human rights violations that happened in the
past yet might be instructive for the present?
A. [Lok] There is incredible work being done in that field by count-
less other organizations. But our focus on the contemporary is also
a result of the fact that our medium is oral history: we focus on the
stories of those who are living. Witnesses have a particular power
and relevance. Let’s not forget either that victims of, for example,
the prison system in the U.S. are living now but that the systemic
abuses to which they testify have been going on for decades.
Q. As a human rights activist, you see a lot of misery in the world
that enrages you, but which you can often do very little about
because of powerful interests stacked against you. How do you cope
with that predicament?
A. [Lok] We’ve had this conversation recently. It’s so easy to feel
overwhelmed and discouraged, to be thrown into a state of paral-
ysis, because the problems are so huge. But I think it’s about figuring
out where you can be useful, where you can fit in. You can’t do
everything, but each person has unique strengths and passions that
can help to move the needle along. It’s also important to find other
people who think the same thing and want to do the same thing.
A. [Eggers] Also, if you focus on the micro-level and whatyou can
actually change, then it’s very rare to be discouraged. Think of 826
EGGERS AND LOK 567
Valencia, for example. We could have said, “Let’s try to change all
American educational policy and make equal opportunities for all!”
By now, we would have been very frustrated, because we can’t do
that at a national level. Instead, we started up this one center, in this
one community. We focus on what we can do. We have two thou-
sand volunteers in San Francisco who feel like they are changing
something every day. They feel that electric charge when there is
learning going on, and they focus on the difference they can make.
That’s always going to happen when you’re engaged with real,
hands-on work rather than engaging with something at the macro-
level and thinking that just because you write an op-ed, it’s all going
to change. You have to focus on the day-to-day work as opposed to
the theoretical and more frustrating work, where you know what
needs to change but cannot effect that change.
A. [Lok] I should mention that even though we’ve been saying
that we are just six people, every book involves at least twenty to
thirty people who help us—fact-checkers, translators, and so on—
as well as dozens of volunteers. For them, it’s the time they put into
the one small piece of that picture that is meaningful.
A. [Eggers] Whatever you do, though, don’t accept any cynicism.
Don’t allow yourself to become cynical, especially before you’ve
tried. The cynicism that I felt in my twenties, that nothing would
have an impact—that was a terrible mistake. It’s just a matter of
finding something where you can make a difference. The cynics
usually are not directly engaged in anything. They’re floatingabove,
saying, “I sent an email, it didn’t have any effect, so I quit.” I did
that in my twenties: I wrote an article, and it didn’t have any effect.
Never let yourself descend into that. You can have a profound
impact, but it’s about where and how and when. It’s about being
serious and putting in the time, staying, and being courageous and
fierce and true about it.
... In exchange for having all of your banking, your voting, and your social life in one place, you give up access to some third party, some capitalist company that uses it for means beyond your control and knowledge. 19 In his portrayal of a fictional firm that has subsumed -and closely resembles -Facebook, Twitter, Google and several other technology companies, with a service that integrates all of an individual's online activity and permits no anonymity, Eggers attempts to convey the 'horror' of 'the conglomeration of power and wealth in very few hands'. 20 The Circle is run by three 'Wise Men': elusive prodigy Ty Gospodinov, the creator of the tool that has generated the Circle's success; friendly 'Uncle Eamon' Bailey, a modest family man obsessed with preserving and disseminating all knowledge and information; and 'flashy CEO' Tom Stenton, an anachronism at the Circle who, with his unabashed wealth and egotism, creates 'conflicting feelings' for the 'utopian' employees. ...
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