How Dave Eggers made my life worthwhile

By Lally Gartel

There’s a lot of important stuff happening on campus right now. The Student Trustee election is rapidly approaching. The Chief just got retired, and few people are entirely happy about it. The sidewalks still haven’t been satisfactorily plowed. Midterms are coming up, followed shortly by Unofficial and then Spring Break and then more parties upon our return. College life is progressing as it does, and probably should.

Last week, alumnus and critically acclaimed author Dave Eggers came to this same campus to promote his new book “What is the What,” a hybrid novel-memoir of a Sudanese refugee from Darfur named Valentino Achak Deng.

Eggers went here about 20 years ago. He worked at the Daily Illini fulfilling various functions, including being a cartoonist and features editor. He was pretty much one of us; going to school, partying, writing and drawing things, probably flirting with girls. He experienced the unplowed snow, the dancing Chief, the people who did not support the dancing Chief, and everything else we know and love about our University. Then, after four years, like all of us, he left.

In my mind, I imagine he faced what we’re all sort of facing in one acute way or another. I imagine most of us are scared out of our minds: law school, graduate school, the real world, paying off loans and finding jobs. Eggers went off after college and worked various graphic design jobs, and then eventually started his own magazine. Then he wrote his first book called “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” which made him into an instant star. His publishing company, McSweeney’s, puts out several magazines, numerous books and maintains a hilarious and useful Web site (www.mcsweeneys.net). His non-profit organization is called 826, and it helps urban and poverty stricken children learn creative writing in six different cities.

Now, he’s written “What is the What” and shown me something I’ve been waiting to see. “What is the What” is a deeply profound novel, but it isn’t just art Eggers is selling. All the profits from the sale of the book go towards The Valentino Achak Deng Foundation which was established to help the victims of the genocide in Sudan. The McSweeney’s Web site maintains a list of things everyone can do to help the effort in Sudan. This same list was passed out at his recent book-signing and reading in the Illini Union Bookstore. This includes, just so we all know, things as simple (and effective) as writing a letter to your elected officials or donating to charitable organizations. It can be as simple as voting for a Student Trustee who supports divestment efforts to keep University funds from contributing to the genocide in Darfur.

As graduates of this University, we can do even more. Like many of us, Dave Eggers was a middle-class kid from the Chicago suburbs. He came to the University not knowing what to study, switching majors periodically and mostly just doing things he enjoyed. And today, he’s a realistic example of the power we really have with all that we’ve been given. There’s a whole world out there full of causes to support, people to help, novels to write, and organizations to found.

Of course, I loved and respected Dave Eggers long before I knew he attended the University of Illinois (and long before I did myself.) He’s a clever writer and an engaging personality. But today, as an employee of The Daily Illini, a future graduate of this University, and a white middle-class apologist, I see Dave Eggers as the hope that I can live, act, and work ethically even on the off chance that I make it big in life. I hope we can all take that big step back for long enough to see that we’re all living in a relatively cushioned middle-class microcosm, but that this never has to mean that we can’t turn away and see (and hopefully fix) the harsh realities of this vast world of ours.