Every so often, a book about poor people captures the attention of large numbers of first-world readers. Journalist Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity just won the U.S’s National Book Award and is currently number 11 on the New York Times’ bestseller list for nonfiction. I recently picked up the book – though I didn’t really want to. The thought of reading a detailed narrative about the personal and work lives of poor people in an informal settlement in Mumbai, written by an American journalist, sparked some anxiety in me, as this subject is a difficult one for any writer to treat fairly. I was curious about Boo’s approach to representation and also worried about what I might find. What follows is not a critique of the facts or analysis in the book, as I’ve never been to Mumbai and have no special knowledge of the context. What I am interested in is how Boo’s particular research and writing style marries with the subject matter and what might have been gained and lost through her choice.
Boo practices what she calls “immersion journalism,” which meant following her subjects through their daily lives, and observing without participating. Boo also video-recorded events and leisurely analyzed them later. She says, “What my practice of journalism tries to do is to tell you with more force and immediacy what the obstacles people face really are. And also, to understand who these people are, whose dreams get realized in India’s new prosperity, whose dreams get thwarted, and also what a society loses when we squander the enormous potential of low-income children.”
Boo spent a considerable amount of time, about three and a half years, with the protagonists of her book. Her commitment to her profession, to factual accuracy, and to depth of observation is apparent in what we read about hunger, abuse, sickness, violence, and corruption. (Little is written on the intricacies of informal housing such as tenure, speculation, slumlordism, transportation, votes-for-amenities deals, and the process of construction.) The book contains a good deal of dialogue, though it’s unclear where it was invented and where it was recorded. Her writing style is rich and ornate compared to standard journalism, and the structure of the book is strong – but I found that still somehow a sense of place was lacking.
While I respect Boo’s skills as a journalist, I found myself wishing that she had written a historical novel, instead of novelizing journalism to such a degree. Sometimes the truth about human beings can only be achieved through the miracle of art. In fiction, the author’s presence is so much a part of the storytelling that he or she disappears, whereas in journalism the reader always hears the voice of the writer no matter how much she tries to stay in the background. Also, sometimes an idiosyncratic view of the world, crafted to emphasize certain aspects, rings truer than a so-called objective one. This quote by an American artist and woodcarver, David Esterly, describes this miracle perfectly.
“I thought I had carved my leaves…with a holographic accuracy…but you know something, they looked like wooden leaves, as opposed to Gibbons’ inaccurate leaves, which looked like real leaves. And it was the first lesson that he taught me – there always has to be a translation into this new medium, and that you could only make a wooden leaf look like a real leaf by certain selective exaggerations. So even this very realistic form of art actually is artificial in its way.” Perhaps the effort to describe the deepest truth about a human situation requires the same of the writer.