Last Thursday night, Feb. 4, at 8:00 p.m., Central Presbyterian Church in downtown St. Paul was packed with readers, writers and ardent fans, all of whom had come to hear acclaimed authors Dave Eggers and Marlon James speak.
James, a Macalester English professor currently on sabbatical, recently won the Man Booker Prize for his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings. Eggers, founder of the nonprofit literary press McSweeney’s and author of such notable books as A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius and A Hologram for the King, is also the co-founder of the literary tutoring project 826 Valencia. The talk was a fundraiser for the Minneapolis chapter of 826, the Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute (MOI).
Twenty Macalester English majors and minors were able to attend the event for free, rather than paying for $25 tickets.
“Chad Kampe, Executive Director of Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute, sent an email asking the English department to help promote it and to offer 20 free tickets to students. I sent the information via email to the English majors and minors list and the first 20 to respond got tickets,” said English Department Coordinator Jan Beebe in an email, adding that the gesture was very “gracious” on MOI’s part. “[The tickets] were all claimed within a couple of hours.”
The evening itself consisted of a casual discussion between Eggers and James interspersed with readings by three students currently taking part in the tutoring program at MOI.
Eggers started off by introducing James as the first Jamaican to ever win the Man Booker Prize. “And, I think, more importantly, the first Minnesotan,” he added, to laughter from the audience.
James answered questions from Eggers ranging from the first book that inspired him to the political makeup of Jamaica. When he was five years old, he said, he read Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
“‘You know, there aren’t any pictures, but it’s still pretty good,’” James said, recounting the thoughts of his five-year-old self. “‘Maybe I should read more books without pictures.’”
James will be returning to Jamaica soon, the first time that he will have been in the country since publishing A Brief History of Seven Killings, which Eggers described as being “not an easy book,” perhaps especially for a Jamaican audience. Eggers asked James how much the careers of his mother and father, who were a detective and a police officer respectively, informed his writing in A Brief History, which is told from the point of view of over 70 characters, some of whom are members of the law enforcement and CIA.
“My parents were very good at sheltering us from that [life],” James said, adding that their doing so was no easy feat for anyone involved in law enforcement in 1970s Jamaica.
Eggers also brought up a recent op ed written by James for the New York Times Magazine, subtitled “I knew I had to leave my home country — whether in a coffin or on a plane,” in which James detailed his life in Jamaica as a gay man.
“It complicates the narrative for Jamaica,” James said of his book. “A lot of our past we don’t talk about, because we’ve been raised in a culture of not talking about it.”
James was not only at the talk as the winner of the Man Booker Prize, but has personal ties to MOI as a board member for the organization, and as an author-in-residence helping some of MOI’s students publish their own book, a project which will be completed at some point in March.
Eggers, too, discussed some of his work and his history as an artist. Much of his artistic inspiration in his younger years came from art. “I wanted to be a cartoonist,” he said. He also touched on some of the topics of the digital age that he examines in his most recent novel, The Circle, particularly the issue of privacy in a digital world: “It’s massively eroded on all sides,” he said.
The large part of Eggers’s time was dedicated to discussing the benefits that 826 provides to aspiring writers, and encouraged the audience to donate to support the organization so that it and its tutors can continue to inspire the writings of young students.
“Dave Eggers was able to seamlessly transition their discussion of his book, The Circle, privacy in the 21st century and the ethics of revenge porn to a reading by one of the mid continent oceanographic institutes 5th grade tutees,” said Daniel Bell-Moran ’16. “It was both bizarre and impressive.”
“It doesn’t matter how weird, it’s going to be validated,” Eggers said of the students’ stories, adding that 826 and MOI have become a “nexus of community” for students across the country.
“It was a very interesting talk. I was particularly pleased that they used the event to promote creative writing among youth,” said Jacob Phillips ’16, who attended the event with other members of the Macalester English Department. “As a Jamaican student desirous of celebrating both Marlon and his literary success, I craved a more balanced representation of the island. It felt at times as if Jamaica was a land of crime, violence and educational backwardness without anything good to balance the scale.”