I’m on the record adoring Dave Eggers. As well as being routinely disappointed by his fiction (see Heroes, Your Fathers, The Circle, & Hologram). So it turns out I just really love his non-fiction, or quasi-fiction. I wrote a graduate paper on What is the What (which I just horrified myself by reading. I was tempted to post parts of it here because it is so earnest and sincere, but there is a limit to my exhibitionist tendencies – I see your shocked faces and I’m moving on). And my first encounter with Eggers was in his much discussed memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Zeitoun was also great. Really the point of this first paragraph is to prove I’ve read a lot of his books. High five, me.
This latest work, The Monk of Mokha, joins Zeitoun and What is the What in the collaborative autobiography genre. The protagonist/subject of the book narrates their experiences to Eggers. Eggers conducts exhaustive (we assume) interviews and research and then writes the autobiography and in so doing brings his literary celebrity to bear on the topic, catapulting the highlighted issue to prominence and readership.
Here, we follow Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a Yemeni-American entrepreneur as he tries to establish a coffee company exporting coffee from Yemen to America/the world. The book is part adventure, part American dream saga, part history of contemporary Yemen, and part history of coffee. Where it is unmistakably consistent is in its insistence on a more racially inclusive America, on a recognition and rejection of racist immigration policies, on a reversal of complacency around Islamophobia. But not in a smack-you-over-the-head-repeatedly sort of way. Just in a woven-into-the-narrative-so-you-don’t-even-realize-it way.
And it’s a totally compelling narrative. From page one I was gripped and eagerly read hoping for the best for Mokhtar, but not entirely certain he’d make it out of any given situation without disaster striking (as the first chapter sets us up to fear). Plus I learned a lot about the economics of coffee and why I need to be paying more for what I drink.
We read novels because they invite us to empathize with positions distant from our own. This book may not be a novel in the strict sense of the term, but it reads like one. (And on giving it to S. to read with the assurance that it ‘wasn’t fiction,’ he immediately replied ‘but it has dialogue!’ I’m hoping the history of coffee part will persuade him to read it.) Eggers again gifts the world with the power of a story – true or fiction – to reveal and persuade. And I get it. Yemen and coffee doesn’t alone sound like the most exciting thing to read. But I promise this one is well worth it.