Pulitzer Prize winner Katherine Boo, author of “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity,” visited UC Berkeley this week. She spoke with The Daily Californian about her work’s worldwide recognition and her efforts to increase awareness regarding the hardships people in poverty face on a day-to-day basis.
The Daily Californian: Much of your life’s work has focused on the cycles of poverty in both India and the United States. What inspires your work? What specifically compelled you to write “Behind the Beautiful Forevers”?
Katherine Boo: I think what inspired my work originally was a very strong sense in the early age that there were important stories that weren’t being told in the local communities or were being told in very sentimental ways or sometimes sensational ways that didn’t really do justice to the dilemmas of the people who were trying to make their way. I have been writing from within poor communities for so many years when I met my husband, who is an Indian writer in academics, and then I would be doing this intense work in poor American communities, and then I would be going to places like Mumbai, where the juxtaposition of inequality was so profound. I thought that this is really important on a global level and is a great success story of modern local capitalism. I didn’t think, “Oh, this is going to be some big thing.” I just thought, “This is a worthy thing to do because it hasn’t been done before.”
DC: What made you want to start working at Annawadi?
KB: I started my project in November of 2007, and I worked in six different slums, and Annawadi stood out because it was smack in the middle of this thriving airport community with the luxury hotels, restaurants and advertising agencies. The people in Annawadi, unlike many of the people in the other places that I was working for, really felt that they had a chance to get good jobs and move into the middle class. There was a tremendous amount of optimism when I first started working there. And what happened was that 11 months after I first started, the global recession really rocked people’s worlds.
DC: On your website, you mention that there are times when you feel alone or threatened during your reporting. How are you able to overcome that fear?
KB: I am always aware that when I am reporting on sensitive issues, like police corruption, that the people I am reporting in the community are braver than I am to be continuing to participate. In a particular instance, after a bad experience at the police station, I almost stopped because I felt not just that I was at risk but (that) my desire to do a book on this subject was putting other people at risk, and I didn’t know whether they were putting their lives at risk at the time. It was a huge dilemma, but the people in the community were willing to go forward with it. My translator was willing to go forward with it, and she is a brave woman, so we kept on. When the book came out, I was just so afraid that people would be retaliated against, but that didn’t happen. I didn’t know what was going to happen. It was really scary, and I am shivering now just thinking about it.
DC: How are you able to carry the burden of the painful moments you have witnessed in Annawadi and other places? What gives you hope about the stories you tell?
KB: Doing this work, you can’t fall apart, because otherwise, you don’t do the work. This is my choice to be in these communities, and I make it because I feel that I do understand that if nobody ever writes about it, it will continue on within the community. It is not that I feel that if I write something — for instance, if I write about a child’s murder — and if I expose that, it is never going to happen again. But I do understand that if nobody ever writes about it, it’s just going to continue on within the communities. I am not someone who is going to tell you how hard it is for me, because it is so much harder for the people about whom I am writing, and I just never forget that. What mainly gives me hope is the ways in which people go on and adjust. There is this enormous barrier that people face every day, but they are also using their imaginations to get around them, and that is inspiring. It shouldn’t have to be so hard for them. Most people aren’t crying into their shoes — they’re getting on with it. It is almost like I take that strength automatically. How can I whine about my little troubles as a reporter when I see the way they choose to live?
There is this enormous barrier that people face every day, but they are also using their imaginations to get around them, and that is inspiring. It shouldn’t have to be so hard for them. Most people aren’t crying into their shoes — they’re getting on with it.
DC: How do you establish trust with the individuals you write about?
KB: I don’t think it is magic. When I first go to a local community, it’s important to me that I don’t go in through the offices of a government official. I think what I do is, I talk to people and tell them, “This is the kind of work I do” and why I do it, and one of the things I say to people is that the general public doesn’t understand … a community like this. They have a lot of assumptions, and they have a lot of stereotypes. The thing that I’d like to do is to document this community so that maybe what seems simple becomes more complex. People in those communities understand how they are viewed from the outside.
DC: How do you think UC Berkeley students can contribute to the fight against poverty throughout the institution, nationally and globally?
KB: There is any number of ways that you can contribute and plenty that you can do in your own community. If you’ve got $10 to give, you can give it to an organization. I am not ever prescriptive to people about, “Oh, you should do this with your time and money.” I want everybody to do something, but you have to choose what animates you. You guys are all smart and don’t need somebody lecturing about what you should care about. I think you guys are going to figure out things that we haven’t, and it is important to stay creative about what is possible. Berkeley has such a vibrant tradition of challenging inequality, and that is why I am so excited to talk.
DC: What do you hope your readers will take away after reading “Behind the Beautiful Forevers”?
KB: What I hope that they’ll take away is the immense intellectual capacity that exists in the course of the world, with no assets to decent educations, and have a visual sense of the cost not just to those individuals but the society as a whole if we don’t respect what’s possible for people living in conditions that we have an enormous number of assumptions about.