This year’s recipient of the National Book Award in Nonfiction is Katherine Boo, for Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. In September, Phoebe’s C0-Nonfiction Editor Erica Dolson got the opportunity to interview Boo. Their conversation covered everything from Boo’s reporting strategies to the ethical questions that arose while reporting on a slum in Mumbai.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and National Book Award Winner Katherine Boo has made her career reporting from impoverished, disadvantaged communities. Her most recent endeavor took her to Mumbai, India where, for three years she lived and worked, reporting from the city’s Annawadi slum and capturing the lives and worldviews of the people there.
The result is Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a story of life, death, and hope – as promised by the book’s title – but also a work of tireless, admirable reporting and stunning narrative nonfiction.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers follows the lives of several subjects – Abdul, Manju, Fatima, Asha, and Sunil – through a terrible tragedy and its aftermath. Through these people, Boo not only examines the criminal justice, education, and public health systems at work in the Mumbai slums; she also portrays each person as an individual whose life, choices, and aspirations contribute to the diversity of life in a slum.
During a recent visit to Fairfax, Virginia as part of George Mason University’s Fall for the Book literary festival, Boo, whose reporting has also earned her a MacArthur Genius Grant and a National Magazine Award for Feature Writing, spoke with Phoebe about her approach, her process, and her inspirations.
Phoebe: Can you tell us a little bit about the structure of this book? You hold the book together with the narrative of the trial, but the story as a whole still centers on your main subjects. At what point in the reporting or writing process did your idea of structure start to emerge?
Boo: I know as a writer that the subject of garbage sorters in Mumbai is not necessarily something that readers are dying to read about. So, you have to think, “How do I grip them?” I realized what I needed to get [readers] involved [was the story of] Abdul, this kid who doesn’t even know how old he is but is managing to support a family of eleven on garbage. Then this sudden, terrible, random thing happens, and he gets accused of this terrible crime. If I can make you care about Abdul and make you see the way he sees the world in the beginning, then maybe you’re going to keep reading.
Very present in my mind is this idea of the reluctant reader.
Phoebe: In your “Author’s Note,” you mentioned that the “people of Annawadi liked you fine,” and you “liked them more than fine.” Did you get attached, and how did that influence your writing or affect your reporting?
Boo: You get attached, but you also have to have journalistic objectivity. For instance, when Abdul and his family [were] accused of setting Fatima on fire, I didn’t automatically assume that they didn’t do it…You always have to have that distance.
Now that I’m done with the book – it’s done, it’s written, it can’t be changed – I go back to Annawadi, [and] my heart fills up with all sorts of feelings that I didn’t allow myself to have over the course of the reporting. My main job is not to be anybody’s friend. In fact, I’m always trying to make sure that people remember that I’m a reporter and keep that ethical boundary.
But now, the reporting’s done, and I feel real emotion.
Phoebe: What kind of ethical principles guided you when you were deciding to use people’s full names?
Boo: There’s a tradition in nonfiction where, at the end of the story it will read, “Names and details have been changed.” You rarely see that…on anything but reporting on people who are powerless. I feel that that often protects the reporter more than it protects the people. But if you use real names, you’re accountable [when people ask] “Is it true?”
Phoebe: Did you ever feel that there were instances where you needed to intervene or could have helped these people?
Boo: Well, yeah. In moments of violence. For instance, there’s this scene in Chapter 16, where, through Asha’s [a woman trying to gain enough power and influence to join the political ranks in Annawadi] dealings, there’s a very violent eviction of a mother of three from her tenant…Drunken men come, and they grab her by her hair and throw all her possessions in the sewage lake; it’s awful. And in a situation like that, you don’t watch that and say, “I’m going to see what happens.” You do whatever you can to stop the violence. So, in those kinds of situations, you absolutely intervene.
But you also are, in other situations, a journalist. You’re not a social worker. My job is to tell the stories of people so that there’s an awareness of the structural problems, so that more people will be helped….You document it as closely as you can so that people will feel it and understand that it’s a broad problem, not just a problem for one kid, or one mother.
Phoebe: Can you talk a little bit about your reporting process?
Boo: I use written notes. I use a still camera. I use audiotape, and I use a video camera. And I use documents that I obtain through the equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act.
You try to bring together as many of these diverse sources as possible. And it’s never that you get a perfect truth. But you can bring together all these elements and make a better approximation of truth.
Phoebe: You’ve mentioned in the past that “reporter’s humility” helped you approach this work. You take time to do in depth reporting before presuming to know the heart of a story. How does it help and how does it hurt?
Boo: If you decide before you go into a situation like this what the story is, it’s a really good way to miss what’s going on in people’s lives. So, you just have to not decide. It’s one of the things that I talk to my editors about a lot over the course of my work because everyone wants you to tell them the story in advance… I can’t tell you what the story is until I go do it.
How does it hurt? I write only a small number of stories. It takes me a long time, but the stories I write emerge organically from the time I spend, not from something that’s been imposed artificially because I had some ideological notion or some, “Wouldn’t it be cool to do a story that shows X” because I don’t work that way.
Phoebe: Did you, at any point during the reporting for Behind the Beautiful Forevers, start to feel like an insider?
Boo: Probably around the summer of 2008, I really started to understand, and people started to trust me more. Beginning in April of 2008, I [also] began working with an amazing woman translator [Unnati Tripathi], and that made all the difference.
Phoebe: You really got into the heads of your subjects. Can you tell me how you approach what you’ve called observation reporting? How do you balance observing with formal interviewing?
Boo: For people who work day and night, they’re not sitting around talking about their innermost feelings all the time.
A kid like Sunil – his mother died and his father’s an alcoholic – he didn’t have anyone to talk to about his life. And so if you try to interview him directly, you’re not going to get anything. But… when he and Sonu [a boy two years older than Sunil] were going about their garbage rounds, they would talk, and all of a sudden I’d see, oh, he thinks this way. And then I started observing things.
[Sunil] felt so strongly that the parrots in the trees should be left as they were because there was so little beauty in the world that he thought it should be shared. That’s a real conviction. But if you interviewed him, he wouldn’t say, “The parrots in the trees are important to me.” It has to happen in passing. And when [it does] start to happen, then you can ask him, “Tell me about the parrots.” And then he says every word: “When I walk I listen to the squawks because I want to know that they’re there because I’m so afraid somebody would have stolen them in the night.” You see this, and you understand the level of his emotion.
It just comes out over time. Then, you go over it, and you go over it, and say, “Am I understanding this? Tell me more.” And they just say, “Shut up, Kate.”
If you only talk to or spend time with people who are hyper-articulate, you’re going to lose the stories of many, many people whose stories are worth telling. I did a story in Denver a few years ago with a really reform-minded superintendent who was so verbal, and it was like, “Boy, this is easy.” You put your tape recorder on, and it all flows out and it’s inspiring, and it’s really fun, but it can’t just be those people.
Phoebe: Can you offer some reading recommendations of works that have really changed your view of the world or of writing?
Boo: There’s a [documentary] filmmaker named Frederick Wiseman. He’s been a huge influence on me because he really finds the poetry and the tragedy in the most ordinary lives.
And, he doesn’t narrate. He doesn’t say, “This is what you’re seeing.” He lets the people whose lives are in the balance tell the story. He insists on letting people articulate their reality as best they can. He’s really inspired me. I admire his ability not to take control, not to imprint his view on every frame, but to allow the reader a little bit of freedom to make up his own mind. And that’s what I try to do in my work: hold people up to different lights.
Erica Dolson is Co-Nonfiction Editor at Phoebe.