Emily Brennan interviews Katherine Boo
September 4, 2012
Following three years of research in an Indian slum, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist discusses what language can’t express, her view that nobody is representative, and the ethical dilemmas of writing about the poor.
Photo courtesy Bettina Neuefeind
While covering poverty and social welfare for the Washington Post in 1993, Katherine Boo was commissioned to write a magazine profile of the new vice president, Al Gore. For most reporters, such an assignment would signal entry into the big leagues. Social issues are regarded as a beat journalists cover until they are deemed important enough to interview politicians, bureaucrats, people of power. “In journalism, if you get to be really hot stuff, that’s where you get to go—to the White House!” Boo told The Guardian in June. “And that’s too bad,” she added, “social issues are kind of worthy things that people graduate from.”
As soon as she handed in the assignment, Boo returned to the streets, precincts, churches, and shelters where she continued her reporting on low-income communities. She went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2000 for a Post series on government-run group homes for mentally retarded people. The investigation showed how much Boo, far from being uninterested in power, was a great student of it. She understood that the people who wield power often have the most simplistic grasp of its grip on society. She went on to write, for The New Yorker, stories on Hurricane Katrina evacuees looking for new homes and Oklahoma City women hoping that marriage-prep classes might help them out of the ghetto.
In her first book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Boo turns her attention to India and the residents of Annawadi, a Mumbai slum in the shadows of the city’s airport and luxury hotels. Of Annawadi’s three thousand residents, few have full-time employment. Most sleep in homes of nailed-together scrap metal, plywood, and plastic tarpaulin; some sleep outside. Many children are forced to work instead of attend school. The dwelling’s eastern edge borders a vast pool of sewage.
Amid Annawadi’s grinding poverty lives Abdul, a teenager who supports his family of eleven by selling scraps of trash. Boo chronicles the struggle of Abdul and other families to get out of poverty by whatever means available: corruption, education, work (NGOs, tellingly, never enter the picture). Their lives illustrate what poverty can wrought on the underclass of a developing country, but Boo never reduces them to case studies. She depicts the residents’ relationships, squabbles, opportunities, and misfortunes with eloquence and detail. In its specificity, Behind the Beautiful Forevers tells a larger story about India’s rapid growth in the global economy, and the people the country is leaving behind. Boo spoke with me over the phone from her mother’s house in Virginia.
—Emily Brennan for Guernica
Guernica: After reporting on issues of poverty in the United States for so long, what drew you to write about India?
Katherine Boo: I met my husband, who is from India, in 2001. When I first started going to India, I’d be at these dinner tables where people, claiming a posture of great authority, talked about what was going on in these historically poor communities. They always seemed to fall into two schools of thought: everything had changed with the country’s increasing prosperity, or nothing had changed in the lives of low-income people. I wasn’t a subscriber to either. In fact, I was familiar with these arguments from my experience of writing about the poor in the United States. Most of the people who do the talking about what it’s like for the very poor don’t spend much time with them. That circumstance transcends borders.
It was my husband, who had watched my reporting and fact-checking process, the way I use official documents and taped interviews to be quite precise, who first said to me, “Well, this might be something you can do in India.” And at first, I thought, “I can’t do it. I’m not Indian. If I did write anything, I would just be some stupid white woman writing a stupid thing.” But there were people around me who were saying, “If you do it well, then who you are becomes less important.” My husband and these others were interested in issues of social equality and fairness in India and thought it would be valuable to know what it was like for low-income people there, know it with a little more depth. There was plenty of reporting going on in India, but specifically what I do—follow people over long periods of time—there wasn’t much of that in India. (There are some people in the United States who do it, and do it very well, but there are not a lot of them here, either.) In my kind of work, you don’t parachute in after some big, terrible event, which is important and has to be covered, but offers only a glimpse. It’s the kind of work in which you ask, what is my understanding of how the world works, and where can I go to see these questions get worked out in individuals’ lives? That was really the question for me: whether I had anything to add to what had already been written.
A reporter will go to an NGO and say, “Tell me about the good work that you’re doing and introduce me to the poor people who represent the kind of help you give.” It serves to streamline the storytelling, but it gives you a lopsided cosmos.
Guernica: What did you decide you could add?
Katherine Boo: Going in, I didn’t think so much about what I could add, but what I didn’t know: how people get out of poverty. As a reporter, you know the tropes of how stories on poverty work in any country. A reporter will go to an NGO and say, “Tell me about the good work that you’re doing and introduce me to the poor people who represent the kind of help you give.” It serves to streamline the storytelling, but it gives you a lopsided cosmos in which almost every poor person you read about is involved with a NGO helping him. Our understanding of poverty and how people escape from poverty, in any country, is quite distorted.
Mumbai, especially, had so many contradictions. You have this manifest prosperity, but then more than half of its citizens lived in slums. The life expectancy in Mumbai is seven years shorter than the country as a whole. How can that be in one of India’s wealthiest cities? So many things didn’t make sense to me, and long before I started reporting on the book, I was trying to get answers to those questions for myself. When I did start reporting in 2007, I just followed people in the poor communities at first, looked at whether they prospered while India continued to soar. If I’d add anything, I figured it was the time I’d put in these historically poor communities.
Guernica: How did you balance telling individuals’ stories and using those stories to illuminate India’s economic inequality?
Katherine Boo: It’s a question of foreground and background. The reason I followed Abdul Husain, before he’s falsely accused of a crime and the story twists, is that there was this explosion of garbage. All of a sudden people who were gathering trash had more income than they had ever known. When I arrived to Annawadi in 2007, it was about seven months before the Beijing Olympics, and construction in China had pushed up the prices in scrap metal; people doing the recycling had indeed become part of the global economy. There was always this cliché about the abject garbage collector, but most of the people in Annawadi, according to official Indian standards, had risen above the poverty line. These people weren’t even poor anymore, according to India, but part this narrative of global capitalism in India.
[N]obody is representative. That’s just narrative nonsense. People may be part of a larger story or structure or institution, but they’re still people.
When I pick a story, I’m very much aware of the larger issues that it’s illuminating. But one of the things that I, as a writer, feel strongly about is that nobody is representative. That’s just narrative nonsense. People may be part of a larger story or structure or institution, but they’re still people. Making them representative loses sight of that. Which is why a lot of writing about low-income people makes them into saints, perfect in their suffering. But you take Abdul, for instance. He’s diffident, he’s selfish, he’s not very verbal. Even his own family considers him charmless. But when the reader meets him, they sense he’s a real person, that he’s not a construct. And even Manju—who’s good and generous in many ways—she’s good and generous as a way of getting back at her mother. The more righteous she can be, the better she can stick it to her mom. So you try to let the reader have a sense of this person and soul, as a recognizable human.
The hope is for the reader to engage with them as individuals and see how these people really do get around social obstacles, when there is a limited distribution of opportunities, when there are institutional problems, be it police corruption or poor public hospitals and schools. I don’t think readers will get invested in what potential is being squandered if they don’t engage with the people in the story as individuals. When you have a kid who is killed, I want the reader to feel what I felt and what the people of Annawadi felt, and because of that, get involved in the problems of criminal or social justice.
Guernica: In your author’s note, you write, “Although I was mindful of the risk of overinterpretation, it felt more distortive to devote my attention to the handful of Annawadians who possessed a verbal dexterity that might have provided more colorful quotes.” Does reporting’s reliance on interviews too often determine who is featured? What is lost as a result, and how do you try to recover it in your own work?
Katherine Boo: You try everything when you’re doing this work. You figure out what works and what doesn’t. With questions, you ask them, and sometimes the person’s wondering, “What is the right answer? What does she want? What does she think? Let me give her what she’s looking for.” Listening and observing often work much better [and] reveal much more about the complexity of someone than the answers that they give to questions about themselves. That’s certainly true in my life and the life of my friends and family.
Often the people who have the most verbal dexterity have had some amount of education in their lives, and you don’t want to limit your reporting to just those people. You take a kid like Sunil, the young scavenger, he’s been raising himself, so conducting long interviews and eliciting illustrative anecdotes was out of the question. When I started spending time with him, it became clear that Sunil had an extremely strong aesthetic sense that helped him through life. Moments of natural beauty were very important to him. For example, there were parrots on the other side of the sewage way, and some boys would climb up and capture the parrots and sell them at the market. Sunil felt so strongly that this was wrong. He thought the parrots should be left where they were so that everybody could hear and see them. Another time, he found six purple lotuses blooming on an airport wall and protected them, kept them a secret, so that no one could cut them down and sell them. These aspects of his character emerged over time from observation. I wasn’t going to get them through conversation. It’s one thing to have somebody talk about what they value in whatever language they have; it’s another thing to really see what they value. And with Sunil, after it became clear he had this sense, I could talk to him about it. I still asked questions, and a lot of them—endless questions if you ask some—but what works best for me is when I can observe something and then ask the person about that moment afterward.
Guernica: Does that explain why you report in a place for so long? To collect all of these observations?
Katherine Boo: And to be there when something happens, as it happens, when something gets said, as it’s said. There’s a moment I describe in the book when Abdul starts talking about what a life is, says something like, “Even a dog has a life. Even if my mother keeps beating me, even if that moment was my entire life, that’s a life.” It was a moment that came out of nowhere. When I listened to the tape of it, we’re talking about so many things—a woman had just tried to kill herself, and all of this stuff was going on in Annawadi—and that comes out of nowhere. Every once in a while, that happens, but it doesn’t ever happen in response to a question. Part of the reason that I spend a long time there, day after day, which to others seems tedious and pointless, is so I can be there at those moments when things get articulated, and I can put them on page.
Guernica: Where did you live when you did your reporting on Annawadi?
Katherine Boo: I ended up staying the most time in an apartment on the same street as Arthur Road Central Jail, some kilometers away from Annawadi.
Guernica: Was it important to you to stay in the vicinity of the community?
Katherine Boo: Quite the contrary. It was important to me, in the course of my reporting in Annawadi, day after day, night after night, to leave and get a sense of the city as a whole. It is a city that until eleven years ago was unknown to me, and is changing all of time, so I really had to explore it, learn about it. I certainly did a lot reporting around the five-star hotels as well as Annawadi. I did my whole anthropology of five-star bathrooms, each one more lavish than the next. (Laughs.)
Even if I were to stay in Annawadi or something like it, it wouldn’t be the same. After Hurricane Katrina, for instance, I did stay in the shelter [when] I did reporting for The New Yorker. But me staying in a shelter is not the same as someone who’s been evacuated to that shelter. This whole thing of, “I’m walking a mile in their shoes by living this certain way.” Well, I’m not living that way. I can turn around and leave. We can do the best we can to get to the core of people’s circumstances, but it’s ludicrous to think that my being in Annawadi all of that time is walking in their shoes. It’s not.
We take stories and purvey them to people with money … I lie awake at night, and I think, “Am I exploiting them? Am I a vulture?” All of the terrible names anyone could call me, I’ve called myself worse.
Guernica: At a lecture at American Academy, you recounted that during your reporting on that evacuation shelter for The New Yorker a woman told you, “Wait, so you take our stories and put them in a magazine that rich people read, and you get paid and we don’t? That’s some backward-ass bluffiness, if you ask me.” She seemed to sum up the moral dilemma that reporting on poverty raises. Can you speak to some of these ethical questions?
Katherine Boo: She said it better than I did. We take stories and purvey them to people with money. And in the conventions of my profession, which I try to adhere to, we can’t pay people for stories. Anyone with a conscience who does this work grapples with that reality, and if they don’t, I’d worry. I lie awake at night, and I think, “Am I exploiting them? Am I a vulture?” All of the terrible names anyone could call me, I’ve called myself worse.
Sunil knows people who’ve been killed and filed away, and he can’t bring that to life. But he can tell me and I can get the documents and do the work and bring it to life.
But if writing about people who are not yourself is illegitimate, then the only legitimate work is autobiography; and as a reader and a citizen, I don’t want to live in that world. Because if you take a kid like Sunil, who’s been denied the possibility of an education that allows him to write his own story, and all of the people who lack the means and access to do so, they go down the memory hole. They’re lost. What it comes down to is, the only thing worse than being a poverty reporter is if no one ever wrote about it at all. My work, I hope, helps people understand how much gets lost between the intellection of how to get people out of poverty and how it’s actually experienced.
One of the reasons I pore over official documents and reportage is because I’m fascinated by the chasm between the lives that people have and the way they’re officially recorded. In Annawadi, when people were killed, they were categorized as sickness deaths because the officials were corrupt, were extorting money from other people, didn’t care to investigate the deaths of no-account people, and so on. The tragedy is that the other children in Annawadi knew that these people were murdered, that their lives had no meaning, that they’d be classified and filed away. The corrosive effect of that knowledge is staggering. When you know that anything can happen to you, that there is no possibility of redress because of who you are, because you’re an embarrassment in this prosperous city, that’s tragic. Sunil knows people who’ve been killed and filed away, and he can’t bring that to life. But he can tell me and I can get the documents and do the work and bring it to life. And that’s a trade-off to make.