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Uncovering connections across cultures, Peter Hessler engages communities at Duke

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By Renate Kwon

Momentous change can be instantaneous or incremental; focusing on the big narrative means that smaller stories can be overlooked. Yet it is often in individual tales that we find relatable moments and surprising connections. In a series of events at Duke University on Nov. 9 and 10, 2023, award-winning writer Peter Hessler demonstrated his prowess as a keen observer and chronicler of social change. In addition to his ongoing work as a journalist for The New Yorker, he was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2011. Hessler is the best-selling author of five books that have been translated into fourteen languages. The first three are the product of over a decade spent living in China: "River Town," which won the Kiriyama Prize; "Oracle Bones," a National Book Award finalist; and "Country Driving." "The Buried," his account of his time in Egypt, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

I was so pleased that Duke was hosting Peter Hessler in such a low-key, intimate setting. He is a wonderful writer and has a remarkable capacity to capture life/society/culture from an American perspective, first in China and then in Egypt."

Dr. Sarah Russell, Academic Dean, Trinity College; Director, Undergraduate Research Support Office, Duke University

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A man in a tan jacket standing at a podium with a background image projected on a screen
Peter Hessler delivers a public keynote at Duke University on Nov. 9, 2023 (image credit: Dalvin Nichols)

The aegis of this event is also a study in connections. The spark came from a graduate student in Cultural Anthropology simultaneously working on a graduate certificate in East Asian Studies who had studied with Peter Hessler in Chengdu; this grew into a larger conversation between the Asian/Pacific Studies Institute and the Duke University Middle East Studies Center about collaborating to bring Hessler to campus so that he could speak about his connections with both communities.

After successfully obtaining a grant from the Josiah Charles Trent Memorial Foundation Endowment Fund at Duke, Alex Nickley and Griffin Orlando, two members of the APSI and DUMESC staff, worked diligently to bring about Hessler’s two-day residency at Duke, including a public keynote, a journalism workshop for students from Duke and UNC Chapel Hill and a live, public taping of an episode of the renowned Sinica Podcast with Kaiser Kuo.

Day One—Reporting in China and Egypt: Finding Stories from the Nile to the Yangtze

At the public keynote, Hessler engaged a full house of almost 100 students, faculty and members of the local community, presenting anecdotes and insights from almost 25 years of experience reporting in China and Egypt.

During his talk, Hessler expertly wove a tale showcasing the lives of ordinary people interacting across superficially intractable cultural lines yet forging meaningful human connections. With pivot points ranging from Mallawi and Asyut in Egypt to Wenzhou in Zhejiang, China, he revealed human stories intertwining across place, culture, and language.

Hessler noted early on that context is the key to true understanding. When reporting locally, writers can comfortably assume that readers will be able to understand nuances. This equation shifts when the author is a foreign correspondent. From his early experience teaching English in rural China as a volunteer with the Peace Corps, Hessler became aware that facts without context could obfuscate as much as they reveal. After leaving the Corps and becoming a foreign correspondent in Beijing, he saw incomplete information often flowed both ways, causing confusion as often as clarity.

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People sitting in chairs while a map of Egypt is shown on a screen; one person stands at a podium
Duke faculty and students as well as community members from around the Triangle watch as Peter Hessler shows a map of upper Egypt, highlighting the town of Mallawi where he first encountered a Chinese merchant (image credit: Dalvin Nichols)

Over the course of Hessler’s first decade as a journalist, he realized that the ways foreign correspondents lived their daily lives in the places from which they were reporting affected both their choice of subjects and the ways in which they told the story. By the time he moved with his family to Egypt in 2011, his reporting was guided by three principles he developed during his time in China:

  1. Learn the language as well as you can
  2. Develop the abilities and tools necessary to research independently and alone
  3. Be open to spontaneous encounters; as you plan interviews and other research, don’t over-schedule
Stories follow serendipity

Hessler’s third principle was the foundation for a surprising series of events. In 2013, pursuing the ripples of the coup that overthrew the Egyptian government, Hessler arrived in a remote town called Mallawi, far from the typical locations visited by foreign journalists. While investigating the aftermath of a violent demonstration that included the looting of the local museum, a chance conversation led to a meeting with a Chinese merchant who was one of the only other foreigners in town. Gradually, he grew to know members of an extended network of Chinese clothing and lingerie merchants living and working along a 250-mile stretch of the Nile in small- and medium-size towns and cities.

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A woman and two men speaking with one another
Peter Hessler reconnects with Ralph Litzinger and Yidi Zheng (image credit: Renate Kwon)

One of the business owners Hessler described came to Asyut after the 1999 financial downturn armed with a fifth-grade education and an entrepreneurial spirit. Together with his wife, daughter and son-in-law, he established a successful shop tailored to a facet of Egyptian culture where brides would shop for a wedding trousseau, including intimate apparel, with their fiancés and other family members, such as a mother or future mother-in-law, along for the experience.

By getting to know the people involved, Hessler was able to witness profoundly ordinary moments and share them in a relatable way to an audience far removed from that place and time. Much like the Nile and the Yangtze rivers, Hessler’s narrative flowed steadily through time and space, touching on sensitive social issues related to religion, cultural identity, and environmental and labor challenges while centering the people directly affected.

Day Two—Student Workshop + Modern Revolutions in Ancient Civilizations: A Conversation with Peter Hessler and Kaiser Kuo

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A standing person gestures to an image projected on a screen while a room of people sit in chairs around white tables
Students from Duke and UNC Chapel Hill engage with Peter Hessler during a writing workshop (image credit: Dalvin Nichols)

The morning event was the only portion of Hessler’s visit that was not open to the public. Instead, the event organizers coordinated a rare opportunity for students to meaningfully engage a world-renowned author as he shared his methods of research and writing.

"This event gave me an incredible introduction to journalism. As a student, I am always trying to improve my writing, and Peter Hessler provided a wonderful analysis of one of his long-form articles. A great opportunity to learn from a seminal writer in the field!"
Kristin Zhu, Public Policy & Political Science (Duke University, Trinity ’24)
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A man (standing) speaks with two women (seated)
Peter Hessler with two Duke students (image credit: Dalvin Nichols)

Throughout the one-hour session at the Nasher Museum of Art, Hessler worked with a diverse group of undergraduate and graduate students representing multiple disciplines at Duke and UNC Chapel Hill. He divulged his singular approach to developing a long-form article for publication, revealing the many iterations of notes and revisions that he uses when preparing his work.

"Peter Hessler was one of the most thorough and helpful workshop instructors I've had at Duke - but he also seemed genuinely interested in the experiences and thoughts of students. It was truly a treat to be a part of the workshop."
Katelyn Cai, Program II: Social and Public Trust in the Digital Age; Robertson Scholar (Duke University, Trinity ’26)

Participants reported finding Hessler’s guidance about the use of set pieces to be particularly informative, along with a reminder that the final story does not necessarily follow the chronological order in which the journalist discovered the information. The students were enthusiastic about the workshop, commending Hessler’s adept writing skills as well as his teaching ability. They also appreciated the opportunity to interact with peers across institutions.

"I’m so glad I got to not only meet Peter Hessler, but I could meet Duke students in my field of study."
Hannah Adams, Media and Journalism, Political Science; NC Fellow (UNC Chapel Hill ’26)
Live from Duke University, it's the Sinica Podcast!
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Two men sitting in chairs on a stage
Kaiser Kuo introduces his podcast guest, Peter Hessler (image credit: Dalvin Nichols)

The final component of Hessler’s stay was his conversation with Sinica Podcast host Kaiser Kuo, introduced by Ralph Litzinger, a professor of cultural anthropology at Duke. The Sinica Podcast, founded in 2010, is “a weekly discussion of current affairs in China with journalists, writers, academics, policy makers, business people and anyone with something compelling to say about the country that’s reshaping the world,” known for providing thoughtful, balanced perspective on critical issues. This event marked Hessler’s second appearance as an interviewee on the Sinica Podcast and the first time any episode of this show was recorded at Duke.

During the taping, Kuo displayed why he is widely regarded as a master of his craft. His questions were evocative, enabling Hessler to delve deeper into details from the experiences he discussed during his keynote talk the evening before. Kuo also explored new territory, encouraging his guest to share more information about his experiences with the education systems in China, Egypt, and the United States. Hessler dove deeper into his multi-generational perspective as a language teacher and, later, a parent of students enrolled in public schools. He proved to be a very candid interviewee, displaying a lively wit and willingness to engage thoughtfully and thoroughly with Kuo as well as with members of the audience during the post-recording question period. The episode is expected to air in December 2023.

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People sitting in a theater looking at two men sitting in chairs on a stage while talking to one another
A live audience listens as Kaiser Kuo discusses reporting from Egypt and China with Peter Hessler (image credit: Dalvin Nichols)

It is a significant achievement to have such an internationally well-regarded author visit Duke’s campus for the first time as an invited guest. Hessler remarked that he was impressed by the caliber of the students he encountered during his stay and looks forward to returning at a future date. His residency is a model of Duke’s interdisciplinary and cross-regional collaboration that engages academic as well as public audiences. This particular series of events inspired participants to think globally and reexamine how seemingly mundane details can introduce new avenues of inquiry, broadening pathways that deepen understanding of human connections.

Peter Hessler’s "River Towns" was one of the first works I read as an undergraduate that inspired me to pursue a career related to China. Helping bring this series of engagements to the Duke community has been a tremendous honor. In many ways, it feels full circle.”

Alex Nickley, Institute Manager, APSI (M.A., East Asian Studies, Duke, 2015)