MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:
It’s the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I’m Manoush Zomorodi. And before I introduce our special guest for the hour, I want to play a variation on a game that my kids love to play. It’s called two truths and a lie.
So I’m going to list three apps – smartphone apps – and I want you to guess which two really exist and which one is fiction. The first is an app that tells you the best moment to run out of a movie to go to the bathroom so you don’t miss anything important. The second app creates a puff of air from your iPhone speaker, blowing out birthday candles for you hygienically. The third one – it analyzes your friends’ facial expressions to determine just how trustworthy they are and then rate the quality of your friendship. So which are real, and which doesn’t exist?
Believe it or not, the first two are real. But the third, the one that rates your friendships, isn’t – not yet, anyway. That app comes from the mind of writer Dave Eggers, whose latest book, “The Every,” satires our relationship with technology.
It tells the story of a villainous fictional corporation called the Every, which is essentially Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google, all wrapped up into one big, controlling tech company. The heroine is Delaney Wells, a former park ranger who vows to sabotage it from the inside. In an early chapter, Delaney finally gets an interview for a job at the Every, but she’s nervous she won’t get it because someone has filmed her behaving poorly in public on her way to the interview, using another fictional app called Shammed.
Here’s Dave Eggers reading a passage from “The Every.”
DAVE EGGERS: (Reading) Delaney, rarely nervous, was rattled. She’d spent years assiduously building her profile, her digital self, with meticulous care. But there were many, so many things she couldn’t know if they knew. More pressingly, on the way to the campus, Delaney had been Shammed. On the subway platform, she’d dropped a wrapper, and before she could pick it up, an older woman with a phone had filmed the crime.
(Reading) Like a growing majority of tech innovations, the invention and proliferation of Samaritan, an app standard on Every phones, was driven by a mixture of benign utopianism and pseudo-fascist behavioral compliance. A million Shams, a bastard mash of Samaritan and shame, were posted each day, exposing swervy (ph) drivers, loud gym-grunters, Louvre line-cutters, single-use plastic users and blithe allowers of infants crying in public. Getting Shammed was not the problem. The problem was if you got ID’d and tagged and if the video got widely shared, commented on, and that tipped your shame aggregate to unacceptable levels, then it could follow you for life.
ZOMORODI: This dystopian, creepy world of “The Every” exists in the not-so-far-off and not-so-far-fetched future. The book is Dave Eggers’ follow-up to his 2013 bestseller, “The Circle,” and Eggers has been a mainstay of American fiction and nonfiction for both adults and kids ever since he published his breakout memoir, “A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius,” which was a finalist for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize. And I am delighted that we are going to spend the hour with Dave Eggers. We’ll talk about why he’s obsessed with tech’s effects on society, what’s happened since he won the million-dollar TED Prize in 2008, plus his latest project – publishing memoirs for kids by kids.
Hey, Dave, thanks for being here.
EGGERS: Hey. Thank you so much.
ZOMORODI: OK, so “The Every” – it’s funny. It’s dystopian. It’s a page-turner. But it’s also kind of frightening because it’s really an extreme version – it’s an extreme story about how technology changes us, changes our behavior.
EGGERS: I mean, I think we live largely in a world where any deviation from societal norms, like a mistake – jaywalking or whatever might be filmed – an attempt would be made to publicly shame the offender. And I think it leads to a kind of constant, low-level paranoia for so many people, especially living in urban settings, where there are so many cameras. And you think, any time I drool on the subway, any time I have a piece of toilet paper hanging from my shoe, any time I drop a wrapper, this could follow me for life. And in the book, it’s taken on – it’s gone further than it has right now, but the assumption is that if you do it, it will be captured and will never go away.
ZOMORODI: And that seems exactly right, Dave, because we checked out of our Airbnb – my family, the other day – and I noticed there was one of those Ring video doorbells.
ZOMORODI: And I was like, oh, wow, we’re checking out 20 minutes late. They know that.
ZOMORODI: It’s just a weird feeling. I don’t know that I’m being judged, but it’s weird.
EGGERS: Surveillance has become socially acceptable. It used to be the province of spies and FBI agents, and you would have to have a court order, and, you know, there would be – it was a very high bar. But now it’s a matter of course, and it’s considered absolutely fine to surveil your children, your loved ones, your Airbnb guests, your employees. It’s fodder for comedy, but it’s also makes me very sad. I wish we were a little bit more feisty about that and a little bit more outraged.
ZOMORODI: I will say that, you know, now, here we are, 2022, and there is an – a better understanding, at least, if not resistance – an understanding of the power that these tech companies have. But you came to that, I mean, more than a decade ago, when you wrote the predecessor to “The Every,” “The Circle.” Talk to me. You were early on this one. Tell me how you formed the skepticism and maybe even fear about technology.
EGGERS: Well, you know, I was an early adopter. And I saw it go from a really egalitarian and really fun and sort of, you know, Apple as the scrappy, tiny company with like less than 5% market share to the rise of all of these incredibly voracious monopolies that had, you know, surveillance capitalism embedded into their DNA. And I was struck early on because we had our little magazine called Might. And we were in South Park. We shared office space with Wired and Boing Boing. And so these were our friends too and still are my friends.
And so I got to see really the human side and the really lovely side of so many people that were just regular people. But they did think first – and this has been the case for the next 30 too – that the best solution to anything is going to involve a screen. And it’s going to involve the internet. And you can’t even begin to think of solving spread of malaria or hunger or anything. It’s going to start on your phone and then work its way from there. And I think that that sort of digital solutionism was something that really rankled me early on. And I just thought like, well, let’s – it doesn’t have to be everything.
ZOMORODI: Let’s go back to your protagonist in “The Every,” Delaney. She wants to implode this giant tech company from the inside. And it was interesting to me. You created this character well before Frances Haugen, the product-manager-turned-whistleblower at Facebook, became probably the best-known tech critic of 2021 when she leaked all this inside documentation about how Facebook execs knew they were potentially hurting young people’s mental health, among other things. I just want to play a clip of her testifying in front of Congress right now.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
FRANCES HAUGEN: The choices being made inside of Facebook are disastrous for our children, our public safety, our privacy and for our democracy. And that is why we must demand Facebook make changes. I saw Facebook repeatedly encounter conflicts between its own profits and our safety. Facebook consistently resolves these conflicts in favor of its own profits. The result has been more division, more harm, more lies, more threats, more combat.
The company intentionally hides vital information from the public, from the U.S. government and from governments around the world. The documents I have provided to Congress prove that Facebook has repeatedly misled the public about what its own research reveals about the safety of children, the efficacy of its artificial intelligence systems and its role in spreading divisive and extreme messages.
ZOMORODI: When you listen to that, after having written about a young woman who works at a similar company, what do you think?
EGGERS: I love her. I think she’s a hero. I think that they should have a statue in Palo Alto or somewhere down there to Frances Haugen. And the data dump that came out of it was crucial.
It was very much like, you know, I covered the tobacco industry in the ’90s, when things turned and some insiders leaked documents, first implicating Brown & Williamson and then other tobacco companies about what they knew and what they did to hide it. And then suddenly, they had to make a, you know, a settlement with all the attorneys general because they had nowhere to hide. It was – the cat was out of the bag. And so when you are marketing products to young people who are more than any time in history assaulted with information at all times, it has never been – no young people have ever had to deal with so much of an onslaught.
ZOMORODI: We’re going to talk later about all the work that you do with kids and teenagers and writing, but this makes me wonder, how do you bring up this topic with young people? Because I feel like anytime you start to criticize tech or social media, they’re like, yeah, goodbye. Bye, old man.
EGGERS: You know, when I went on tour for “The Circle,” I spoke at colleges for about a year, maybe two years. And we would always have really open discussions. So when I went on these colleges, I said, well, how many of you – I’d speak to like a room of 200 – raise your hand if you feel comfortable with your relationship with technology. Not one hand goes up. Raise your hand if you trust the motives and practices of the big five tech companies. Not one hand goes up. Raise your hand if you wish you had a more balanced and daily use of technology. All the hands go up.
So you have a product and a whole digital world that young people who are just finding their way, getting their feet, trying to figure out what they want to do, their brains are still forming and will form for another 10 years or so, at that moment when they really need contemplative time and interpersonal time and time to laugh and time to, you know, be outside and walk around – I don’t know – all of these things, we have these monopolies, these giant companies that are doing everything they can to say nothing that in your life can or should be done outside of a screen. So how do we fix that?
ZOMORODI: In a minute, more with Dave Eggers about getting kids to love, to read and write offline. It’s the TED Radio Hour from NPR. We’ll be right back.
It’s the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I’m Manoush Zomorodi.
Our guest this hour is author Dave Eggers. And we were just talking about the effects of tech on our behavior and society, especially kids. It’s something that Dave thinks about a lot.
He’s been involved with education for the last couple of decades. And his nonprofit 826 Valencia tutors kids in reading and writing and develops their skills as authors by connecting them to grown-up writers in their own communities. Dave’s won numerous awards for his nonprofit, including the million-dollar TED Prize in 2008. The organization is now called 826 National, and they just celebrated their 20th anniversary.
EGGERS: Yeah, 826 Valencia started as a neighborhood drop-in tutoring center in the Mission District of San Francisco. And it was also the offices of McSweeney’s, our little publishing company. We were in the back. And we thought – you know, I – lot of teachers in my family. A lot of my best friends became teachers and were teaching in San Francisco. And everybody said, you know, teachers need more after-school help with a lot of their students – one-on-one attention, especially English language-learning students. And I thought, well, why don’t we combine our little publishing company with a drop-in tutoring center? And then, you know, we rented this building at 826 Valencia, and it – you know, this is a story I’ve told too many times, but…
ZOMORODI: Oh, tell it. It’s really good (laughter).
EGGERS: Yeah, I mean, the space was zoned for retail. So we had to at the last minute think of something to sell in the front of the store. And so I just thought – as a gag, really – I just thought it would be funny to sell pirate supplies to working buccaneers.
EGGERS: And so we actually, like – you know, we got in touch with wholesalers. There’s a lot of them down in Tampa Bay, Fla., for some reason that sell peg legs and sell eye patches and hooks. And a lot of the stuff we made ourselves.
And so we made it really, like, a working place. Like, you really – it’s not, like, stuff about pirates, but stuff that real pirates would use. And so that’s the front of the store. And then there’s, you know – dozen or so tables and desks where the kids can come and get one-on-one attention from humans. So it’s still that way now, 20 years later.
But we’ve gone into – you know, we publish books. And we do readings. We had a reading yesterday afternoon in Golden Gate Park with student poets. And we do evening workshops. And we do college access writing. And we do – I mean, you name it. It’s grown in a thousand directions. And then it spawned similar centers all over the country and all over the world.
ZOMORODI: And each one has its own theme, right? Like, they don’t all sell pirate supplies. The one near me in Brooklyn sells superhero supplies.
EGGERS: Yeah. It looks kind of like a Costco for crime fighters.
EGGERS: And then, you know, in LA, they opened the Echo Park Time Travel Mart, which really looks like a 7-Eleven but for people that might be going from the Middle Ages into the near future. And so you get everything you need. You know, if you want – if you’re going back to caveman times and you need some woolly mammoth jerky or something like that to go, it’s got all this stuff. And the detail is incredible because it gives you a way to engage.
So if you’re walking by, you walk in. You maybe buy some mammoth chunks, and that goes to support the – you know, the center – helps pay the rent. The kids see people coming in. You can buy student poetry, student books written by these kids that are working right behind the storefront.
So it’s a way to sort of – A, it destigmatizes getting help after school. It’s not like going into some clinical place that says place for, you know, tutoring help for kids that aren’t doing, you know, well. It’s nothing like that. This is inherently fun, inherently weird – ’cause weird is, like, a very key thing – and inherently creative. So it’s caught on in so many other cities and countries because I think it attracts people that say, oh, that would be fun, and, that would have been fun if I was a kid. You know, it’s a magical sort of environment.
And now we’re getting – the kids that came up through the program are now, you know, writing books left and right. I just got two sent to me in the last few weeks from two students that came up through the pirate store. Not all of the kids become published authors in that way. A lot of them are lawyers or real estate developers or software engineers. But they’re all – had that one-on-one support, human-to-human contact to help them to get through and get – stay at grade level and to feel heard.
ZOMORODI: So I want to play – I mean, it’s been a while, but I want to play for you a clip from your talk in 2008 in which you describe essentially how moved you were by how the center affected the students.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
EGGERS: Kids will work harder than they’ve ever worked in their life if they know it’s going to be permanent, know it’s going to be on a shelf, know that nobody can diminish what they’ve thought and said, that we’ve honored their words, honored their thoughts with hundreds of hours of, you know, five drafts, six drafts – all this attention that we give to their thoughts. And once they achieve that level, once they’ve written at that level, they can never go back. It’s absolutely transformative.
So the basis of it was one-on-one attention. And, you know, we find ourselves full every day with kids. If you’re on Valencia Street within those few blocks at around 2, 2:30, you will get run over often by the kids in their big backpacks or whatever, like, actually running to this space, which is very strange because it’s school, in a way.
But there was something psychological happening there. It was just a little bit different. And the other thing was there was no stigma. They’re all working next to each other. It’s all a creative endeavor. They’re seeing adults. They’re modeling the behavior of these adults that are working in the field. They can lean over, ask a question in front of these adults. And it all sort of, you know, feeds on each other. There’s a lot of cross-pollination.
ZOMORODI: Ooh, you sound incredibly excited there. I’m guessing you haven’t heard that in a while.
EGGERS: So I was just talking a mile a minute. But also, I was feeding off of – the audience was so warm. And it really – maybe my most favorite time talking in front of an audience was that day with – because they were just feeding off of it. And, you know, they laughed at all the right places and helped me keep going. And so it was a blast. But – and, you know, we – I made a lot of friends and a lot of connections there that – and they helped a lot of the centers.
ZOMORODI: And you also say in that talk that as much as these centers are about helping kids with their homework and writing, it’s also about supporting their curiosity and living what you call an enlightened life.
ZOMORODI: What did you mean by that?
EGGERS: To have these young people that can reflect on their lives and to be – and to listen to others’ stories, you know, their peers’ stories. Every writing class I taught, I guarantee that it was the first time that they were asked to tell their own story. I don’t know of anybody who’s had the assignment to say, write about your life. Tell me who you are. It’s exceedingly rare because, you know, there’s so many other things that teachers have to do.
But we have that opportunity at a very slow pace two or three hours every day after school or in the evening or on weekends, even. We can slow down and write on paper very often. And one person’s going to look, you know, over your shoulder when you’re ready and, you know, shine a light on what you do. And then we’re going to polish it, polish it, work hard at it and then publish it.
So they are published authors at age 8, published authors at 12. There are kids that are 14 that say, oh, I have been published – well, let me see – it’s 20, 23 times now. And, you know, like, they’ve – they own it. And they feel like their words are worthy of preservation and to be put in a bound book that will last forever.
And I think that there’s a reason why so many of these kids are coming back now at 28, 29, 32 with novels and, you know, memoirs and nonfiction books because they’re – something got into their bones way back when. And they got a very supportive community that said, what you have to say should be heard. And that’s not always something – it’s not always a message that everybody gets and especially kids that are in sometimes chaotic situations in their lives. They need to hear it.
ZOMORODI: I want to hear about what has happened since you gave your talk because at the end, you – on the stage, you made a call to action. You challenged the people in the audience.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
EGGERS: We hope that the attendees of this conference will usher in a new era of participation in our public schools. We hope that you will take the lead in partnering your innovative spirit and expertise with that of innovative educators in your community. Always let the teachers lead the way. They will tell you how to be useful. I hope that you will step in and be – and help out. There’s a million ways you can walk up to your local school and consult with the teachers. They’ll always tell you how to help. You can do and use the skills that you have.
The schools need you. The teachers need you. Students and parents need you. They need your actual person, your physical personhood and your open minds and open ears and boundless compassion sitting next to them, listening and nodding and asking questions for hours at a time.
Some of these kids just don’t plain know how good they are, how smart and how much they have to say. You can tell them. You can shine that light on them one human interaction at a time. So we hope you’ll join us. Thank you so much.
ZOMORODI: So, Dave, what happened? Did your talk usher in a new era? Did they join you? Where are you now?
EGGERS: I think the latest count is 68 centers around the world that are based on our model. And most of those folks learned about it and saw it through TED because, you know, in the early days, like – the writer Roddy Doyle came over from Ireland, sat and studied our model for a week and then went back and opened a center in Dublin. And Nick Hornby did the same thing in London.
But there was something about the TED Talk and the – you know, the ease that people could watch the talk and sort of look up stuff and – you know, and go from there that they could just start a center in Stockholm based on what they saw online and what they heard. But it just kept going. Like, five, six years later, there would be some young person, maybe 28-year-old in Milan that would say, you know what? I saw that TED Talk, and we’re going to start a center like that here. And what do you think of this? And, you know, everyone interprets the idea in a different way, and they serve their communities in a different way.
ZOMORODI: We’re in a very different place when it comes to education since you gave your talk. Technology is baked into the classroom. What have you observed about how they learn or don’t learn now? I mean, writing is certainly different. We have spell check. We have grammar check. Like, I got flagged being – like, this sentence is not constructed very well. I was like…
ZOMORODI: …Well, thanks, maybe not.
EGGERS: That’s horrifying. I find that software horrifying. I think spell check is useful. Grammar check – so far, it doesn’t work very well. And I’m a grammarian. I love teaching grammar, teaching diagramming sentences. The software right now is very crude, and it’s very often wrong.
So what happens if you’re 14 and the machine tells you you’re wrong? Well, then you correct it, but you’re still wrong. You’re just wrong a different way. And so it really should be – again, the humanities need to be left alone. They really must be left alone.
And the most horrifying place of all is the grading. So a lot of states, you know, at the end of the year, a student might take a standardized test and a lot of it multiple choice stuff – fine. You can grade that with any machine. But when you’re grading essays, a lot of those are graded by algorithms now. And the machines are very careful and the companies that sell them are very careful to say that our software cannot read. What we’re doing is scanning for keywords. So if it’s an essay about Harriet Tubman, they’ll want to see if you got their dates right or whatever. But again, they’re not reading in context.
ZOMORODI: So do you say to kids, like, don’t think about the machines when you’re writing here or ignore them? You craft a sentence the way you want to.
EGGERS: They don’t know. They don’t know when they’re being graded by machines.
ZOMORODI: It sounds so crazy when you say that.
EGGERS: Yeah. But I do have to say it, and I do think that every year, we’re creeping into more and more of this, partly for the reasons of efficiency and just sort of – and sometimes, it’s just state officials giving sweetheart deals to these companies instead of hiring actual humans to do it. And some of it is the well-intentioned thinking, like, well, this will be more consistent.
ZOMORODI: What are you hearing from teachers these days? I mean, my kid goes to public school. There are 35 kids in all of his classes. These teachers teach six of those.
I mean, the last few years have put an incredible strain and burden on them. A lot of teachers are thinking, you know, I can’t do this anymore, and that maybe they need to rethink their job choice. And it’s not just low pay, which it has always been for teachers, but the environment in which they are working.
EGGERS: Yeah. Teachers will always say it’s the environment first because they didn’t get in it for the money – although Ninive Calegari, my co-founder at 826 Valencia, she was a teacher. And my mom was a teacher. My sister was a teacher.
We did a book with Daniel Moulthrop, a public school teacher who we knew. And it was about just this – how do we start – I mean, the pay scale has to be rational. It has to start much higher and have a possibility of a much higher endpoint so that a teacher can plan a life and plan a dignified life, have enough money to live on their own, not have three roommates at age 36, you know?
So if you – when you do find districts that teach that – or schools that treat their teachers well and they’re able to stay not just five years but 30 years, 35 years, then you have master teachers. And the students benefit. And the scores are high. And those students are – go on to great things because they have the benefit of that.
ZOMORODI: That’s so interesting.
ZOMORODI: My kid’s teachers are so young and wonderful.
ZOMORODI: But I’m worried they’re going to burn out.
EGGERS: Well, at 826 Valencia, every month, we give an award – teacher of the month. And Ninive and I came up with this to just say, we’re going to give you 1,500 bucks, and don’t spend it on your classroom. Just spend it on anything. But, like, please – you already give so much. Just do something else with it. Take yourself on a vacation – whatever.
These are the most extraordinary educators. They were nominated by parents, students, peers. And month after month, we got to hear from the students about them – these beautiful letters the students would write about their favorite teacher. And then we look back at about 10 years on, and all but a few of the teachers that we gave the awards to were gone. They’d all moved on to other careers…
ZOMORODI: Oh, gosh.
EGGERS: …Because San Francisco’s a really expensive place, and there are, you know, innumerable pressures put on teachers. And they couldn’t do it. And so they went into other careers.
And we made a documentary about this called “American Teacher” and – with all of these teachers that loved the job more than anything. And they were all, like, unbelievably gifted teachers, and they were all on the bubble, all struggling to stay in and support their families or see a life in the profession.
We have got to be able to say, listen, you’re going to start at 65. You’re going to get up to 220. And so you can plan a life. You can buy a house. You can – you know, you’re worth at least as much as the podiatrist, you know? So why wouldn’t you make the same pay scale – you know, so many other positions in society that are – that we put a certain value on monetarily? Teachers – you couldn’t name a more valuable job. So why do we pay so poorly? Why don’t we reflect that with our school budgets?
ZOMORODI: In a moment, more from writer Dave Eggers, and we’ll hear about his latest project – publishing a new series of books written by kids who have experienced incredible, often devastating events around the world. I’m Manoush Zomorodi, and you’re listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. We’ll be right back.
It’s the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I’m Manoush Zomorodi. And we are spending our time with author and Pulitzer Prize finalist Dave Eggers.
So far, we have talked about his latest book, “The Every,” and the work that he’s done to build a network of youth writing centers across the globe since he won the million-dollar TED prize nearly 14 years ago. His latest project is publishing a new series of books written by young activists called “I, Witness.”
EGGERS: “I, Witness” – it’s I comma witness – uses first-person narratives to sort of illuminate recent history through the eyes of one person.
ZOMORODI: Eggers has published first-person accounts of current events for years as part of his other non-profit Voice of Witness. But this is the first series written by kids for kids, especially middle school readers.
EGGERS: Yeah, we have a non-profit called Voice of Witness that I started with Dr. Lola Vollen, who worked with exonerated men and women who were wrongfully convicted. And we started with a book of their stories about how they were wrongfully convicted, railroaded, and then we went from there.
While we were finishing that book, Hurricane Katrina hit, and we did a book called “Voices From The Storm” – oral histories from survivors of Katrina. And so the series is still going strong. It covered everywhere from Myanmar to – one of the latest books was Native American voices, called “How We Go Home.”
ZOMORODI: And so now you have taken that concept and you have turned it into your first series for kids. And so far, three books have come out. The first is called “Accused,” and it’s by a young woman named Adama Bah who moved from Guinea to New York City as a child. But then, after 9/11, she was picked up by the police for allegedly being a terrorist.
ZOMORODI: Tell me more about her.
EGGERS: She’s a Muslim young woman who was accused of terrorism for wearing a hijab to school. So she and her father and friend were all picked up and spirited off in the middle of the night and detained for months on end. And she had to wear an ankle bracelet on and on with no charges whatsoever with any evidence. It was just during the heat of the Patriot Act and post-9/11 Islamophobia.
ZOMORODI: Yeah, I was pretty shaken by her story. You know, and I’m thinking of my 11-year-old and my 14-year-old. This book is aimed at them. Do you think this would be up their alley?
EGGERS: Yeah, perfect. So I got a 12-year-old and a 16-year-old, so I made my 12-year-old read two of them the other day, which he did with great joy and – you know how a 12-year-old boy. But he read them because they go down – you know, you can read them in a sitting.
And that was the idea, is it doesn’t have to be a month-long project. You’re not going to read a 400-page book here. This is going to be – you’re going to really learn something in a short-ish amount of time. But you’ll never forget Adama Bah’s story.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ADAMA BAH: I didn’t know I wasn’t an American until I was 16 and I was in handcuffs. I was born in Conakry, the capital city of Guinea, in 1988. In Africa and in many developing countries, people hear about the riches to be had in America. It’s the land of opportunity.
I was 13 years old on September 11, 2001. That day, all of the teachers came in late and had the students sit in a huge circle. My teacher said, I have to talk to you guys. I want you to brace yourselves. I have some bad news. Sometimes things happen in life that we don’t understand. Then she said the twin towers were hit today.
They went through papers, threw our stuff around. They were like a destructive storm in our apartment. I heard them yelling at my mother, who didn’t speak much English. They pulled her into the kitchen screaming, we’re going to deport you all, your whole family.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ZOMORODI: Tell me more about the process. Because it’s hard, you know? Like, if you’ve lived through trauma, reliving it is sometimes not what you want to do.
EGGERS: Well, you know, we always choose narrators based on their visibility already. So we find people who have already spoken up and usually working with a partner agency. You know, like, if it were survivors of slavery in South Sudan, which one of our books covered, I met, you know, a number of women in South Sudan who had been enslaved and recently freed. And you work with the agency who is repatriating those young women to say, you know, is there anybody here who’s – you’ve identified as feeling comfortable, you know, speaking?
And so almost always, it’s people who have already found their voice and feel comfortable, you know, being somewhat public about it. But very often, we’re changing names in the Voice of Witness series at their request. But we find that the act of telling one’s story – and this goes back to 826 Valencia – makes so many people feel whole and feel heard, and a fragmented narrative or fragmented personal narrative is suddenly made coherent and linear. Somebody that has been taught by society to stay in the shadows, like undocumented Americans here in the – you know, in the U.S. – suddenly, they can feel like, oh, I’m valued. I have a story to tell. I have education to provide.
So we’ve had so many people start out as unnamed or pseudonyms narrators who come out, and the next edition of the book, it’s their name. And they’re the ones that want to be on stage and talking and educating. And the transformation is unbelievable. It shows you that it’s not just edifying for the reader, but it is empowering for the narrator.
And so it’s a whole process. It’s not just sort of like, we’re going to publish your story. See you later. It’s an ongoing relationship to say, you know, you’re a voice for so many others like you. We are going to stay in touch. And we have an ongoing – you know, we’re partners in this.
ZOMORODI: So how do you go about working with these young people to help them tell their stories? – because, you know, it’s heavy stuff.
EGGERS: Yeah. Sometimes we will help. Like, Adama might help – you know, start with an interview or start with a conversation. What do you want this to be about and – badadada (ph). And then it goes back and forth. And then in some – so there’s an oral history element in some of them.
And then in the case of some of the books, like Francie’s (ph) one that’s coming out soon – he just wrote it and – because he’s a writer first. And so they have different methodologies to how they come about. But the voice is always theirs, and it’s first-person. And it’s bell-clear and visceral.
ZOMORODI: You know, it really is. They take global events and make them relatable. I especially think these stories will be relatable if a teen actually remembers when an event happened.
I’m thinking of the second book in the series, which is called “Hurricane: My Story Of Resilience” by a young man named Salvador Gomez-Colon. He writes about Hurricane Maria, which hit his home in 2017 in Puerto Rico, and it’s just gripping to get his perspective.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SALVADOR GOMEZ-COLON: (Reading) Eighteen days before Hurricane Maria, I turned 15 years old. The morning of my birthday, I woke up to blue balloons all over the apartment and a happy birthday sign on the dining table. Every year, my mom decorated the apartment, and I looked forward to it more than any other present.
(Reading) The first thing to know about hurricanes is that they are all destructive and that all the categories are powerful. Hurricanes have already passed through thresholds – tropical depression and tropical storm categories. One to three hurricanes are manageable, but they always cause flooding, damage to buildings and injuries. A Category 4 hurricane is a beast within itself, but there is no cap to a Category 5 hurricane. The Category 5 takes everything and devours it. It is a storm without mercy.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GOMEZ-COLON: (Reading) The living room, my room and my mom’s room were flooded. The air conditioning unit was on the floor. It had just popped out because of the change in air pressure when the hurricane hit. We threw clothes onto the living room vents as water poured inside. As we tried to stop more water from coming into the bedrooms, the building started to sway. We need to get out of here, my mom said. We felt the entire building shake. We knew if we got stuck up there, it would be terrible. It’s time to go downstairs, she said.
EGGERS: Salvador Gomez-Colon was a teenager that we knew from a program that we did called the International Congress of Youth Voices. And he, you know, lived through Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and then helped his community – you know, started a nonprofit and raised money to buy and distribute lights for, you know, his community and people all over the island.
And the next book is – takes place in Afghanistan. And then there’s a new book coming out from the Bronx. And so these are all books that are sort of – you know, if you’re sixth grade, seventh grade, eighth grade, they’re very readable. And they give real voice and agency to the authors.
ZOMORODI: I’m rereading the book that made you famous, “A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius,” which was published 22 years ago. And what you’re describing about kids without agency, feeling like the world is out of control and using writing to reclaim that agency – rereading your book makes me think that that’s what writing a memoir in your 20s did for you at a time when your life was a bit out of control. Is it?
EGGERS: Yeah, yeah. I mean, when I talk to kids about writing their story, I have a place – I have some expertise in this. My parents died when I was, you know, 21 and within six weeks of each other. And I spent – gosh – eight, nine years after that trying to make sense of it.
And I was trained as a painter and as a journalist. I didn’t know what form telling that story would be, but I knew that I really couldn’t do much else until I got through it, got past it. So I was a temp most of my 20s. You know, we ran this little magazine. But I did – I had a million different jobs. And I didn’t know I would ever live as a writer primarily, but I knew that I had to make something of that. I had to make sense of it before I could do whatever I was going to do next.
And once you do that – I do recommend it to everyone. I don’t think everybody’s story needs to be published. Some things – sometimes it’s just for you, or sometimes it’s just for your family or your best friend or your spouse. But the act of writing it is an act of drawing a fence around, you know, something wild and untamable. Suddenly, it’s linear and coherent. You can put everything in order. You can set things right. You can learn a lot about yourself. You can give something or honor the people that you love or lost.
And I find that the people that write their stories or tell their stories are some of the calmest people you’ll ever meet because there it is. And I always tell students, like, it might be chaos in your mind, but it’s going to be orderly on the page. And suddenly, all that sort of – all those things banging around in your skull are going to make sense when you can put it in order. It’s going to have a beginning, middle and end, and it’ll be right. And that creates a real sense of calm.
And when I see our former students now who are in their 20s or 30s, they’re all so calm and so, like, composed and eloquent. And they’ve – you know, so many have become tutors themselves, so they help others write their stories. And it keeps going and going.
And this sense of, like, listening and honoring people’s stories, it creates, like, a really wonderful breed of human. I think there’s something to be said for it. I don’t think you ever come out of the back end of that feeling worse. I think you’re always going to feel – everything that was in me, all that – all those storms, all that, you know, chaos, I’ve tamed it. And now I can do whatever’s next.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ZOMORODI: What do you think about ending our conversation with giving our listeners a writing prompt?
EGGERS: You know what I – this is the first thing I – I always, with my writing class – I used to teach a class. They’d come in to 826 Valencia, and they’re from all over the city and some suburbs, too. And I would immediately send them out in pairs, and I would say, interview the most interesting person you see. Go into the bookstore, cafe, shoe store, wherever you go. Find somebody, an interest, and interview them, somebody that you might even have a preconception about by the way that they look or dress. And I guarantee you everything about them that you think you know or perceive will be upended.
And they would come back an hour later breathless with, like, oh, yeah, we interviewed that, like, punk-rock busker. He’s always in that vestibule, you know, down the street, that empty storefront. Well, it turns out, like, he’s a Republican, and he lives with his mom. And, you know, and he trains guide dogs for the blind and, you know, like, all these complexities to somebody that they had pegged.
Or they’d say – or they’d be – have new respect for, you know, the place that their fellow humans play in history. Like, I – you know, they would go down – I remember they went down the street and came back, and they had interviewed woman that said she was the first test tube baby.
ZOMORODI: Oh, no way.
EGGERS: And – yeah, and she was just shopping at the bookstore.
EGGERS: And – because why not, right?
EGGERS: She’s got to be somewhere, that person. So the opportunity to actually ask questions and meet somebody and let them tell their story, that’s another thing. Nobody ever wants to stop. Once you start listening, everybody says, you know, an hour will go by. They’ll say, oh, really? You have to go? You know, like the kids would have to pry themselves away because we are so seldom heard, I think.
And so I always think that’s a great prompt. Like, if you want to be a good writer, start listening to people. Interview somebody that’s not yourself.
ZOMORODI: I love that. Dave Eggers, thank you so much.
EGGERS: It’s been a blast, Manoush. Thank you so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
EGGERS: You didn’t hear a cat, did you? There’s been a cat trying to get into this closet.
ZOMORODI: That’s writer Dave Eggers recording our conversation from his teenage daughter’s closet in San Francisco with his cat just outside the door.
Thank you so much for listening to the show this week. If you want to watch Dave Eggers’ full talk, go to ted.npr.org. As always, to see hundreds of TED Talks, check out ted.com or the TED app.
This episode was produced by James Delahoussaye and Fiona Geiran. It was edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour. Our TED Radio production staff also includes Jeff Rogers, Rachel Faulkner, Katie Monteleone, Diba Mohtasham, Matthew Cloutier and Harrison Vijay Tsui. Our audio engineer is Brian Jarboe, and our intern is Margaret Cirino. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan, Michelle Quint and Daniella Balarezo.
I’m Manoush Zomorodi, and you’ve been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.