Last year, Katherine Boo, aPulitzer Prize-winning journalist and staff writer at The New Yorker, picked up the National Book Award for Nonfiction for her first book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. Boo was slated to visit [ALOUD] on October 9 to discuss her powerful work on global economic inequality, but unfortunately she had to cancel her speaking engagements due to a slower than anticipated recovery from surgery. We send her best wishes for a quick recovery and hope that the program might be rescheduled in the coming year. In the meantime, we wanted to share this interview we conducted with the author earlier this summer about how she humanized such a shocking story of poverty from a place that most of us could never imagine.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers is brimming with vivid narrative. As a storyteller, can you talk about what drew you to journalism as a form?
Boo: When I was in school I dabbled in poetry and fiction, and I still read boatloads of both genres, but I found I was much happier when listening to and learning from other people than when living inside my own head. That’s not to say I was a natural at nonfiction reporting. I was shy and really had to force myself to talk to strangers. But when I did talk to strangers—people whose experiences and opinions weren’t a point of mainstream journalistic reference—I often learned things that I felt deserved a place on the public record. And of course nonfiction also contained the tantalizing possibility that if a writer saw that something was unfair and sweated to lay out the unfairness in some fresh way, reasonable people might come to share the writer’s concern and try to do something. No matter how rarely that possibility is realized, the hope is always there.
What drew you to the specific subjects of Behind the Beautiful Forevers?
Boo: I first began studying urban India in 2001 after meeting my now-husband, who is Indian. At that time I’d been reporting for years on what it takes to get out of poverty if you’re born poor in the U.S., so naturally my interest spilled over into India. I wanted to know how life had changed in historically poor communities during a period of unprecedented economic growth, so in 2007, I decided to see what I might learn by homing in on a single slum, following dozens of families as they tried to better their lives.
Since we’re connected to the Los Angeles Public Library, we’re always fascinated by research. How did you approach documenting the families?
Boo: When I started the project in 2007, I thought I might spend a year with them. Four years later, I was still in the grip of the reporting! But that’s a given for us narrative nonfiction reporters. Circumstances never unfold as expected, or on the timeline we work out in advance. I also wanted to work with extra care to get the nuances right, so I used a battery of documentary tools, among them video cameras, audio recorders, a still camera, and written notes. Editors have complained over the years that I over-report, but I’d argue that readers these days are as sophisticated as they are impatient. My own sense as a journalist is that the sharper my command over the factual material, and the more conviction I have about what I’ve learned, the faster and more alive my prose will feel. And that increases the odds that a reader will become engaged in the stories of low-income people they’ve never heard of.
How did you supplement your own first-hand experiences in the slum with outside research?
Boo: While I read a great deal of economics and anthropology, perhaps the most important supplementary work was old-fashioned investigative reporting on government agencies and charities, using right-to-information laws to obtain thousands of public records. When the human stakes are so high, mere storytelling isn’t sufficient, I think. In Mumbai I was also documenting layers upon layers of official corruption, from diversions of government funds meant for education to malpractice at public hospitals to child homicides covered up as natural deaths. In India as in America, a lot of “aid” to the poor doesn’t actually reach the people who need it most, and that won’t change until more of the corruption gets brought to light.
How did you balance the delicate act of documenting personal stories without getting “in the way” of people living their lives?
Boo: I respect the fact that the people I write about need to make a living way more than they need to explain themselves to someone like me. So I adjust to their schedules, going where they go, doing what they do, and talking if they have the time. Take Abdul Husain—a teenager wrongly imprisoned in the course of my book. Abdul made his living buying and selling recyclable trash in a rat-filled garbage shed, so I typically interviewed him in the shed during lulls in his working day. Meanwhile I was learning the nuances of the trade in recyclable waste, which turned out to be a fascinating keyhole from which to watch global markets at work.
As an outsider reporting from India, how were you able to immerse yourself into the very complicated lives of the people you wrote about and gain an understanding of their perspective?
Boo: Gaining the trust of people in a new community so that I can start to understand them better begins for me with clarity and patience. It’s never felt right to me to try to launch charm offensives or cajole people into participating in one of my journalism projects. I think it’s cooler to respect the intelligences of the people I meet: telling them in detail about the sort of documentary journalism I practice, laying out the risks of exposure as best I can, and also discussing why I came to believe that documenting the lives of ordinary low-income people had social value. Then I give them lots of time to size me up, ask me questions, talk to each other, and decide whether or not to let me into their lives.
Many of the families in the slum were quick to understand the social purpose of this project, by the way. These days even illiterate Mumbai slumdwellers understand that most stories told by the media come from the implicit or explicit perspective of the powerful. And for families who have been victimized by powerful people or institutions, participating in documentary work that puts such injustices on the record can itself be an act of hope. That idea was brought to me forcefully many times in the course of my reporting in Annawadi. One night, for instance, a sensitive 13-year-old named Sunil, who’d been raising himself since early childhood, was beaten mercilessly in the police station of the Mumbai airport. During this violent attack, he memorized the officer’s nametag, which was in another language whose letters he barely knew. Why did he make that painstaking effort in an extreme situation? Because he knew what was happening was wrong, and he wanted me to put the name of the person who did it in my book.
That essential optimism about the potential impact of recording injustice makes me emotional even as I type this answer—a kid’s belief that if people he’d never met only knew what was happening to him and other vulnerable kids, they’d care and try to stop it from happening. Moments like that do so much to animate me as a reporter and writer. My belief, in the end, is to keep digging and find fresh ways to tell the stories well enough that a child’s faith in the power of journalism might be at least partially justified.