On April 6 and 7, Georgetown University hosted the annual Lannan Literary Symposium titled “Literacy, Literature and Democracy,” which brought numerous distinguished guests to campus, including writer and activist Dave Eggers.
“This year’s symposium was imagined to face the future rather than the past, which is why we veered away from commemorative themes like those of the last two symposia, and instead embraced a future-oriented relationship between the literary and creative imagination, and forms of social justice activism involving teaching literacy,” Ricardo Ortiz, director of the symposium, said.
Ortiz said that these topics were discussed within various contexts, including post-Katrina New Orleans and literacy education to displaced and threatened children in Central Africa.
Events over the two-day symposium included readings, performances and discussions.
“I think that any Georgetown student who attended the symposium – whatever his or her major – should have been inspired by the devotion, mental toughness and commitment to social justice of the year’s guest speakers,” said symposium participant Maureen Corrigan, professor in the English department.
College Dean Chester Gillis introduced Eggers in Gaston Hall in the symposium opening event on Tuesday evening.
“One of the most significant assets of the university is its power to convene,” Gillis said in the introductory address.
Eggers opened with a speech about his writing and the launch of 826DC, a free tutoring program developed by Eggers that focuses on giving individual attention to children seeking to improve their writing skills. Following his speech, Georgetown professors Corrigan and Deborah Tannen interviewed Eggers about his experiences as a writer and an activist.
Eggers strongly encouraged those present to volunteer to help with his 826DC programs, indicating that Georgetown students are precisely the type of volunteers that allow the tutoring program to thrive and to really make a difference in the lives of children who would otherwise not be encouraged to write.
“We have to shake off the malaise a little bit and try,” he said.
He added that his journey from writing his own memoir, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” to writing books with a more activist approach, like his books “Zeitoun” about Hurricane Katrina and “What is the What” about the Lost Boys of Sudan, was primarily an effort to find the sense of connectedness he lost while writing only about himself.
On Wednesday morning, Eggers, Georgetown alumnus Happy Johnson (COL ’07) and author and Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson spoke at an event titled “Writing Beyond Catastrophe: Literatures and Cultures of National Revival in Post-Katrina America” in Riggs Library.
Later in the day, at the event “Writing (and Working) Beyond Genocide: Literary, Cultural and Social Activisms in a Changing Africa,” authors Fr. Uwem Akpan, S.J. and Adam Hochschild read from their own writings. The second session was a roundtable discussion featuring social justice activist Mekonnodji Nadingam, alumnus Allison Correll (GRD ’09), writer Chris Abani, Akpan and Hochschild.
The symposium concluded with a tribute to recently deceased American poet, writer and educator Lucille Clifton, where former Maryland Poet Laureate Michael Glaser and Forché spoke. The event also included poetry readings by Thomas Sayers Ellis and Abani.
“We were really excited about everyone who joined us this year, but we were also saddened by the death of poet [Clifton], who was to give a reading for us on April 7. She died on Feb. 13, so we paid tribute to her life and work on the final night,” professor Carolyn Forché, director of the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice, said.
According to Ortiz, the annual event is sponsored by the English department and allows the university to showcase literature, humanities and the arts within political, social and cultural contexts.
“It is, for us, the most important thing we do all year,” Forché said. “This year we planned our conference around the wide-ranging commitments of writer and literary activist [Eggers], and as a result, found ourselves in the company of quite an eclectic group, drawing from the Georgetown faculty and from recent Georgetown alumni, as well as internationally prominent writers, novelists, poets and scholars.”