The annual One Book, One Community program, co-sponsored by the City of East Lansing and Michigan State University, encourages the city and university communities to read the same book and talk about it in a variety of settings. This fall’s selection is “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” by Katherine Boo.
Boo has previously written about poverty in the U. S., but for this book spent four years observing the people in a slum in Mumbai. WKAR’s Melissa Benmark spoke with Boo by phone in London, and asked her first what it’s like being in the U. S. after writing the book.
KATHERINE BOO: When I come back to the United States, I have more of a sense of how fixable poverty and injustice are in this country, because of the scale. In India, you’re talking about 1.2 billion people. You’re talking about an infrastructure after only so many decades of independence that is not as strong as the infrastructure in the United States—say, the criminal justice system, the public health system. And so, I come back to the United States with a real sense of urgency about how we can make our society a lot fairer.
MELISSA BENMARK: The book is different from really almost anything I’ve ever read about issues of poverty, in that it not only illustrates the awful conditions that people are living in, but it also looks at how smart and resourceful and hard-working people in this micro-society are able to be sometimes. And it’s not usually part of the poverty stories we read in the U. S. That there’s any kind of functionality to a slum is something that a lot of us would have a hard time getting our heads around. What kind of reaction have you gotten from readers about that particular issue?
BOO: One of the things that I was hoping to draw out as I reported was that there’s a great deal of commonality between workers in low-income communities in India and in the United States. So, maybe the physical settings are different. Poor Americans don’t live, most of them, in hand-built huts with no running water.
But more and more, in our low-income communities, people are self-employed. They’re working temp jobs. As capital is going all over the planet, the notion of permanent work becomes more and more of an anachronism. And so that means that you simply can’t sit around waiting for a stability that might not come. You have to use your imagination to figure out what it is that you can do and what you can take to a marketplace that’s changing all the time.
What I was trying to capture in India is the same kind of thing I’ve been trying to capture in my work in the United States, which is, we have this idea of poverty as such a still, static state. Even the words we use for poverty are still, like ‘mired’ in poverty or ‘stuck’ in poverty. But the actual experience of poverty is frantic, and it’s imaginative.
BENMARK: People who are involved in working with people who are in poverty—writing about them, trying to help provide services to them, that kind of thing—have written about ‘compassion fatigue.’ That you see so much suffering and tragedy that you just become detached from it. In writing this book, did you have that problem, and what were you hoping to do to keep it from settling in for the people who read your book?
BOO: Absolutely. If you’re writing about low-income people, there’s a great number of people who just are not going to be interested in that. They’re not going to want to read it. So you’re trying with the reporting and the writing to engage people in the situations of other people who might on the surface be very different from you. But maybe there’s a lot more in common than you think.
One of the problems we have as journalists is that we tend to default on that depiction of low-income people that is either sentimental or sensationalized. What I’m trying to do is introduce you to people who, maybe they’re buying garbage for a living, maybe they’re doing work that we don’t necessarily recognize in the United States, but there are an enormous number of similarities between the people I meet in Annawadi and the people I meet in the United States.
And I think that if the reader senses that and can get engaged, and starts to ask the question, “If this was my world, what would I do? If this was my encounter with a horrific public hospital or a corrupt police department, how would I act?” And to also address the larger questions that, is it possible to be good, is it possible to live an ethical life in a world that’s so corrupt? And I think that’s not an Indian problem, that’s a global problem.
BENMARK: Once an author has gotten through a book, they seem to have mixed reactions. Sometimes there’s this sense of elation, like they’ve ‘given birth’ to this book, and some people feel like it’s just the beginning of some kind of a second act they’re having to follow up on. What’s your sense of the book now that it’s out there?
BOO: Before I wrote a book, one of the things that intimidated me the most was to have to talk about it in public. Because I’m a writer, and one of the reasons I became a writer was that I wasn’t a good talker. I could communicate on paper the way I couldn’t when I was standing in front of a room. So, as a personal journey, this whole notion of standing in front of an audience is terrifying. But in a way I wish that I had been forced to do that when I was younger. So, it is difficult for me to do it. But I also remind myself every day that it’s amazing that there are people who want to engage with and read about people in a community like Annawadi. I mean, Annawadi is something like 8,000 miles away from East Lansing. But it’s amazing that college students will be reading it, and a community will be reading it. I mean, that’s a writer’s wildest dream, so how can I complain?
BENMARK: So, East Lansing will be reading this for the ‘One Book, One Community’ program, and East Lansing as communities in Michigan go is in pretty good shape—that’s not to say there’s no poverty but it’s in pretty good shape. But Michigan as a whole certainly is not in the best economic shape in the world. And yet, compared to the characters that you got to know and reported on, there’s no comparison. What do you hope that residents of East Lansing and students at MSU will gain from this?
BOO: One theme of the book is that in the global economy now, work is changing. Work is becoming more impermanent. That has an effect on communities and families that I don’t think that we as a country fully grasp. And I think that the rules are changing so fast.
But what I think really matters now, when I think of young people, it’s the ability to react and to reinvent yourself with imagination in a world that is so different than the world of your parents. And I think that’s something that the Annawadians know literally, and that young people in this country are going to need to understand more and more.