Q&A with Katherine
A Q&A With Katherine Boo and her editor, Kate Medina
KATE MEDINA: For two decades, and currently at The New Yorker, you’ve written about the distribution of opportunity, and the means by which people might get out of poverty, in America. What inspired you to start asking the same kinds of questions in India?
KATHERINE BOO: My husband is an Indian citizen, and since we met in 2001, I’ve been watching the landscape of his country transform as its economy grows. Some of the change is staggeringly obvious, like the skyscraping luxury condominiums with stirring views of other skyscraping luxury condominiums. But I couldn’t quite make out what had and hadn’t changed in historically poor communities. I generally find issues of poverty, opportunity, and global development to be over-theorized and under- reported. And it seemed to me that in India, as in the U.S., some of the experts most ready to describe how lower-income people are faring weren’t spending much time with those people.
KM: What made you focus your reporting on Mumbai?
KB: It’s the city in which I’ve spent most time, for one. But I also found the Mumbai of film and book to be a slightly lopsided cosmos. For all the lush and brilliant depictions of wild festivals, meglomaniacal gangsters, and soulful prostitutes, I felt stinted of some everyday truths. I wanted to know more about the domestic lives of women and girls, about improvisational labor in a temp-job city, about the educational options available to the poor—stuff like that. Economic growth had brought unprecedented opportunities for the unprivileged, officially. But I longed for a fuller sense of how those on-the-books opportunities were being experienced on the ground. Over the years I’d find myself sighing as I read descriptions of the spicy Mumbai air—the cardamom and saffron that’s supposedly wafting everywhere. Sure, why not? But to me a signature smell of Mumbai is the same as that in many other developing cities. It’s the smell of sweat—of people hustling and maneuvering to find a niche in the global economy. Of course a writer’s senses will gravitate to the unusual, the aberrant. But a preoccupation with the exotic can also blind you to what is more universal.
KM: Speaking of aberrant: You stood out, working at Annawadi. How did you earn the trust of Annawadians, and get close enough to them to be able to portray them with such intimacy and precision?
KB: Never trust a person who tells you with certainty why other people came to trust her! I cringe to imagine how Annawadians sized me up behind my back. I was just relieved that we all managed to adjust to each other after a while. Many people were game to let me hang around if I didn’t get in the way of their ability to make a living, but in the beginning I was too much of a freak attraction to practice the unobtrusive, watch- and-listen style of reporting I prefer. As I walked through the airport slums, crowds of people would follow, some of them looking concerned and shouting, “Hyatt! Intercontinental!” They imagined I’d lost my way while going from the international airport to one of the luxury hotels.
KM: Was there a particular moment when you felt that you could do the kind of reporting you prefer to do? That people had become comfortable with your presence?
KB: I knew the novelty of my presence had worn off one night when Annawadi boys started mocking kids from another slum who got excited when they spied me sitting in Abdul’s storeroom. The Annawadi boys were so used to having a journalist taping and typing down what they said that they couldn’t imagine why other kids would find it interesting.
KM: What was it about the stories you tell in this book that appealed to you more than other stories you saw or heard in Annawadi? How did you choose the people you would write about?
KB: When I start a project, I follow as many people as I can–go where they go, do what they do, whether they’re teaching kindergarten or stealing metal scrap or running a household. The larger the pool of people I get to know, the better I can distinguish between anomalous experiences and shared ones. As a writer I’m not looking to tell the most flamboyant tales, nor to describe only the most virtuous and super-talented people. I’m looking for resonant stories—stories that might illuminate something about the structure of a society. And it’s difficult to predict in the beginning which individuals’ experiences, months or years later, will come to shed that light.
For instance, when I first began hanging out with Abdul, I had no idea that his story would have anything to do with questions of criminality or justice. I was simply intrigued that the excesses of the city and a surging global demand for recyclables had helped turn his stigmatized work profitable. It was something I didn’t know, hadn’t read about. I was also struck by his watchfulness, and his silence. I often find, in my reporting life and outside it, that the people most worth knowing are hard work to know.
KM: Did the Annawadians want to know about you, too?
KB: They were more curious about my Indian husband. In the months before they got to know him, they were whispering about how he must not love me, since he was permitting me to hang out alone in a slum in the middle of the night.
KM: Did your presence ever change the events you write about? Or the people you write about?
KB: A reporter’s presence is bound to change things. For one, my efforts to understand Annawadians’ views of the world probably made some of them more introspective. It’s not always easy to pinpoint how one’s presence alters events, though. There’s no control group.
KM: You used thousands of official documents to supplement your taped and written notes. What did those documents bring to the narrative?
KB: The documents helped me describe particular incidents, of course, but they also helped more generally. For instance, after finding false causes of death tagged to several poor people at Annawadi, I started investigating more broadly, comparing deaths that I could document in several slums with official records I secured through the landmark Indian Right to Information Act (which is not unlike the U.S. Freedom of Information Act). The reader won’t necessarily see that or my other research-obsessions in the book, but the document work allowed me to write certain passages of the book with a conviction I wouldn’t otherwise have had.
KM: Are there audiotapes or videotapes you found yourself returning to again and again as you wrote?
One set of recordings I go back to are from a night, not long after the Mumbai terror attacks, when Abdul suddenly starts talking about what sort of lives count. The boy to whom he makes this passionate speech isn’t the least bit interested, and all around him is the usual late-night music of Annawadi–fights between stoned thieves, the weeping of a woman who has just tried to hang herself, the organ music of a Tamil soap opera, and many agonized negotiations over garbage, the price of which had plummeted. The easy thing to say is that Abdul’s insight was unexpected in context. But I think the context creates such insights, and gives them their force.
KM: In the book there is such a remarkable juxtaposition of moments of hope and insight, and moments of desperation. Were some moments particularly painful to witness?
KB: Many moments—some of the losses of life and promise that are in this book, and other losses, too. When I talk to friends about Annawadi experiences that haunt me, they’ll sometimes ask, Why didn’t you write about that? But I was intent that this book not be some dolorous registry of the most terrible things that had ever happened at Annawadi. A book like that wouldn’t have done justice to what Annawadi felt like, day to day. Annawadi life was also about flagpole ring-toss and tell-all sessions among teenaged girls at the public toilet and parents comforting and delighting in their children. It was Sunil and Sonu the Blinky Boy applying their rich imaginations to gathering trash and figuring out their place in the world.
Sunil and Sonu have tough, tough lives but if a reader comes away from this book thinking of them only as pathetic socioeconomic specimens I’ll have failed as a writer. They’re cool, interesting kids, and I want the reader to sense that, too. Because we can talk all we want about how corruption or indifference robs people of opportunity–of the promise our societies squander–but if we don’t really grasp the intelligences of those who are being denied, we’re not going to grasp the potential that’s being lost.
KM: Were there moments in your reporting when you felt a little too alone, or threatened?
KB: Sure. During a brutal eviction that I describe in Chapter 16, for one. But I was never as scared in Annawadi as I was in the Sahar Police Station. Though my experiences in the station were ferris-wheel rides relative to the experiences of some Annawadians, I did come to understand in a deeper way what it feels like to be silenced and at the mercy of officials whose private agendas are very different from their public ones. Educational experiences, but ones I would have gladly foregone.
KM: You’ve left such “educational experiences” out of the book. Why?
KB: As a reader, I sometimes find that the “I” character becomes the character—that the writer can’t quite resist trying to make the reader like him just a little better than anyone else in the book. And I think that impedes the reader’s ability to connect with people who might be more interesting than the writer, and whose stories are less familiar. Which is not to say that the narrative without an “I” is a paragon of omniscience and objectivity. Does it still need saying that journalism is not a perfect mirror of reality, that narrative nonfiction is a selective art, and that I didn’t write this book while balanced on an Archimedean ethical point? My choices are reflected on every page, and I look forward to discussing with readers whether those choices were justifiable ones. But I long ago decided I didn’t want to be one of those nonfiction writers who go on about themselves. When you get to the last pages of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, I don’t want you to think about me sitting beside Abdul in that little garbage truck. I want you to be thinking about Abdul.
KM: Do you see him, Manju, Sunil, Asha, and the other people you’re writing about as representative of other Indians, or other low-income people in the world?
KB: I’ve been waiting years to run into a representative person. Sadly, all I ever meet are individuals. But every day I find myself tripping over connections among those individuals–qualities that transcend specificities of geography, culture, religion, caste, or class. I mean, I see so much of myself in the people I write about, whether it’s Fatima’s fury at being defined by a physical difference or Asha’s self-rationalizing or Abdul’s fear of losing what he has, which is so much stronger as an impulse than his fear of not getting what he wants. My hope, at the keyboard, is to portray these individuals in their complexity—allow them not to be Representative Poor Persons—so that readers might find some other point of emotional purchase, a connection more blooded than pity. Maybe somewhere in the book they might even start asking, What would I do, under these circumstances, if I were Asha or Sunil or Meena? That’s what I’m always asking myself.
KM: Is that sense of connection and compassion what you hope readers will take away from this book?
KB: I’m always thrilled when readers sense the connections and get drawn into the dilemmas faced by the people I write about, because in this age of high walls and security gates it’s pretty easy not to see and think about those people at all. But I’m interested in structures as well as stories, and as I report, I’m sometimes asking myself a set of questions inspired by the philosopher John Rawls: How would I design a society if I didn’t know where in its hierarchy I would be placed–if I didn’t know whether I would be a person of wealth and power, or a poor and vulnerable person? What system would I create that would be fair? I would be elated if a few readers of Behind the Beautiful Forevers were inclined to ask themselves similar questions.
In the end, though, I suppose I’m not a utopian. Most of the people I write about don’t have the leisure in which to think about how they might design an ideal society. They’re trying to survive and get ahead in manifestly unfair societies. I take that context very seriously. If we don’t have all the time in the world to make things perfect, we can still make incremental, and meaningful, improvements. And seeing what’s wrong– seeing it clearly–seems to me a crucial part of beginning to set it right.