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Zeitoun Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Dave Eggers's Zeitoun. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Dave Eggers
Dave Eggers grew up outside Chicago before attending the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. His father died in 1991 and his mother in 1992, both of cancer. Eggers subsequently took responsibility for his 8-year-old brother Toph, moving to Berkeley, California, where he supported himself doing freelance graphic design. After a number of years writing on a freelance basis, Eggers published the memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius in 2000, which became a bestseller. Eggers has written a number of novels since then, which have been increasingly focused on social issues in the United States. He is also the founder of the independent publishing house McSweeney’s, as well as the nonprofit tutoring and writing center 826 Valencia. He lives in California with his wife, Vendela Vida, and children.
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Historical Context of Zeitoun
Zeitoun takes place during and immediately after Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast of America on August 29, 2005 as a Category 3 storm. The hurricane itself led to a great amount of damage in Louisiana and Mississippi, but what happened after the storm was even more catastrophic. The average elevation of New Orleans, Louisiana is about six feet below sea level, and the levees that had been built decades before to hold back storm surges were breached by Katrina. This led to massive amounts of flooding, and hundreds of thousands of people in Louisiana (as well as in neighboring states) had to flee their homes. the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) received a great deal of criticism for its slow and (according to some) incompetent response to the disaster, which, because of the location of the levees, disproportionately impacted the city’s poorest and minority residents. Dave Eggers also fits Zeitoun into a broader historical context of changes taking place in the country after the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Anti-Muslim sentiment skyrocketed, and because of the Patriot Act, government officials had much more freedom to detain and question anyone suspected to be linked to terrorism—even if that suspicion had only to do with a person’s religion or ethnicity. It is this confluence of factors, Eggers suggests, that led to the perfect storm of Zeitoun’s predicament.
Other Books Related to Zeitoun
Dave Eggers is known for his self-reflexive, often experimental works. One of his books, What is the What, is the true story of one of the “Lost Boys” from South Sudan—though it was marketed as a novel. Zeitoun, on the other hand, was sold as nonfiction, because of the greater ability to fact-check witness accounts. In general, Zeitoun fits into a broader trend of creative or narrative nonfiction, which has its roots in an earlier generation of journalists who tried to create a compelling, engaging narrative rather than dry reporting: these included Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. More recently, writers have used creative nonfiction to draw attention to underreported social issues and make people care about them by highlighting individual stories. One example is Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which deals with the stories of residents of a slum in Mumbai, India.
Key Facts about Zeitoun
  • Full Title: Zeitoun
  • When Written: 2006-2009
  • Where Written: New Orleans and San Francisco
  • When Published: 2009
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Creative nonfiction
  • Setting: New Orleans, Louisiana; Phoenix, Arizona; Baton Rouge, Louisiana
  • Climax: Zeitoun and his wife Kathy are reunited at the Hunt prison after a month of Zeitoun’s wrongful imprisonment.
  • Antagonist: Many of Zeitoun’s and Kathy’s frustrations stem from the diffuse and complicated nature of their antagonists. The “system”—that is, the legal and judicial system as well as various levels of law enforcement, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency—has broken down as a result of Hurricane Katrina, so it is difficult to find one person to blame for Zeitoun’s wrongful arrest and imprisonment.
  • Point of View: Reported third-person narrative
Extra Credit for Zeitoun

Bearing Witness. Eggers met the Zeitouns through the McSweeney’s oral history human rights imprint, “Voices of Witness.” One of the interviewees for a Katrina book was Abdulrahman Zeitoun.

Aftermath. The book notes the emotional problems faced by Kathy and Zeitoun in the years after the storm, and their marriage fell apart by the beginning of 2012.