The Red Couch: Behind the Beautiful Forevers Discussion

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By D. L. Mayfield | Twitter: @d_l_mayfield

M_RedCouch-3When I was 17, I went to India for two months. I was there to serve and to save, perform dramas in villages lit by generators, preach through translators, see the world on the other side of the sun. I saw flowers draped everywhere, the rainbow splashed on silk, ate the fragrant food with my fingers, drank it all in. I came home typically changed. I’d expanded my stereotypes just a bit: I was shocked that people could be poor, and happy. The thousands of other emotions, lives, situations were inaccessible to me, beyond my comprehension. I came home and told my stories, polished to an exotic redemptive sheen.

I am older now, it has been over a decade since I was in Mumbai. But when I read Behind the Beautiful Forevers, the National Book Award Book of the Year for 2012, I was brought back in a few sentences, but the landscape had changed.

I thought: this is a game changer here.
I thought: it will change what it means to be a writer/photographer/artist in an age of continued economic disparity, violence, suffering, disease and death.
I thought: really, this might be the best book I have read on suffering, and on how to tell these stories true.

It is a story about a singular slum in India, but it is also a story about the world. It isn’t pleasant, or easily understood, nor can one reduce it to stereotypes. In the best sense, it is truth.

The writing is beautiful and the stories eye-opening. But what interests me even more is the author herself, the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Katherine Boo. Boo practices what she describes as “immersion” journalism, spending months and years living among those whom she writes about. And for as long as she can remember, she has wanted to write about the poor. She has won awards for her depictions of the poor in America for various newspapers and magazines, and in 2007 she began her residency in Annawadi, the Indian slum where she would spend the majority of her next four years.

Her book reads as a novel—Boo as a character is completely absent. In her afterword, she explains how she came to be so intimately familiar with her subjects as to know their thoughts: basically, she followed them around and asked them, over and over (to their eventual annoyance) just what exactly they were thinking. And she writes how her Annawadi friends were aware that she was writing about them, and that she was going to write it all down: the good and the bad, their virtues and flaws. But they helped her, and it was for themselves that they spoke and let a foreigner follow them around, year after year.

This in of itself is something we can take away from the book: the chance to let people talk for themselves. But it is rigorous work, and the time commitment is steep. Katherine Boo talks about the importance of the “earned fact”, of seeing and experiencing something enough times to report it accurately. This takes on special importance for those of us interested in writing about the marginalized. Do we have what it takes to be these kinds of writers? I can only hope so. In a culture that is increasingly hurtling towards instant results (End Poverty Now!, short-term mission trips, poverty bloggers) there is startling beauty and impact to be found in a single soul spending four years listening to those who have things to tell.

Katherine Boo does not impose any sort of moral or spiritual undertones into her book, but she is a missionary all the same. Her radical relocation and time commitment, her desire for truth at all costs, her love for her subjects, and her distaste with traditional narratives surrounding poverty are her good news for us—people trying to find the gifts of God everywhere in the world. And she is asking us to reject anything less than the utmost dignity for the people we least identify with.

She writes: “I quickly grew impatient with poignant snapshots of Indian squalor: the ribby children with flies in their eyes and other emblems of abjectness that one can’t help but see within five minutes of walking into a slum. For me—and, I would argue, for the parents of most impoverished children—the more important line of inquiry is one that takes longer to discern. What is the infrastructure of opportunity in this society? Whose capabilities are squandered? By what means might the ribby child grow up to be less poor?” (p. 247)

Time and time again, we latch onto a less-nuanced version of the last question, and all but ignore the other two. We prefer to talk about poverty when it is manageable, when it can be solved by us—conveniently with a certain project that we can donate to and thus help “cure” the problem. But really, the other questions are where it is at. What is it about the world at large that causes these problems? How does the way we live as average Westerners contribute to the problem? How are we tied, directly and indirectly, spiritually and physically, to the people living in the slums of India? Boo, in her book, seems to be arguing that we are tied by the simple, stunning inequality of it all—what she calls the “signature fact of so many cities.”

I am learning to sit with this fact, this profound sorrow, to let the laments pile up inside of me. And I am learning to choose books, like this one, written with skill and precision and compassion and a dogged determination to humanize. It confronts our traditional understanding of the poor as inferior (while Boo presents them as flexible, smart, adaptable, corrupt, hopeful, and human.) And it makes us acutely aware that most of us simply have no real relationship with those who live in extreme poverty.

There is hope for us, too. As Boo writes: “To me, becoming attached to a country involves pressing uncomfortable questions about justice and opportunity for the least powerful citizens. The better one knows those people, the greater compulsion to press.” (p. 249) We know that we serve a God of reconciliation, a savior broken and resurrected for the sick and sad and dying, the suburbs and slums alike.

And this God is asking us to press in.

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Questions to Consider:

  • What, if any, assumptions did you have about slums before reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers? Did the book challenge or change those assumptions?
  • We meet many people throughout this book. Did any storylines especially captivate you?
  • What did you make of the corruption we witness?
  • What is behind the “Beautiful Forevers” in your own town?
  • What parts challenged you? What are your takeaways?

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Reminder:

Our April book is Daring Greatly by Brené Brown. Come back Wednesday, April 2 for the introduction to the book. This month we’re also featuring our first reflection post, which will give us the chance to respond in practical or hands-on ways to the ideas and themes we’re reading about. Cara Meredith will be our creative guide on Wednesday, April 16. The discussion, led by Sarah Caldwell, will be Wednesday, April 23.

For on-going discussion each month, join The Red Couch Facebook group.

* Disclosure : Amazon Affiliate links included in this post.  If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site.

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About D.L. Mayfield:

danielle_almostDoneD.L. Mayfield lives in the exotic Midwest with her husband and daughter. Recently they joined a Christian order among the poor, where they are currently seeking life in the upside-down kingdom. Mayfield has written for McSweeneys, Geez, Curator, and Conspire! among others. You can find her on Twitter at @d_l_mayfield or on her blog: http://dlmayfield.wordpress.com

 

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  • Oddly enough, I assumed this book was fiction. As you mentioned, the absence of Boo as a character in Annawadi (even though it was her-temporary-home too) made me wholly believe in what I thought was her created universe. It was, then, a huge relief to read Boo’s closing notes: I believed in Annawadi so fully that it HAD to be real.

    Because though I haven’t been to Mumbai, I have been to India. I have seen poverty, sure, but-like Boo-I have also seen so much more. Ingenuity, strength, joy and humanity… just as I hope more than affluence can be seen in my Canadian home.

    Excellent book selection, and an excellent discusion post!

    • When I started reading it, I was so sure it was fiction, even though I knew it wasn’t. So masterfully written. I would love to hear more about your time in India, Christie. I’m glad you had a more nuanced experience there.

      • My husband and two friends traveled to India for a few weeks in September 2012 because of one friend’s connection with a non-profit in Andhra Pradesh. Since then, we’ve started a non-profit organization that works to alleviate poverty in one village at a time.

        To be honest, I hadn’t ever thought too much about India until a few years ago. But when I discovered that something crazy like 1/3 or 1/4 of the world’s poor live in India, there was no reason not to learn more.

        Unlike Boo’s book, we visited rural India, so my experience was a bit different. Thankfully, even in our short time there, we were able to hang out with people in their homes, attend widows’ support groups, and really immerse ourselves in the small communities. It is also a huge help for our non-profit because we fundraise for one specific community, and now we know those people’s stories.

        I’ve also written a bit about India on my blog if you’re still curious: http://christiethinks.wordpress.com/tag/india/page/2/.

        Thanks for the comment, AND for starting up the Red Couch book club. I’m loving the diverse book selections!

  • Anne-Marie

    The book was a wonder. I listened on audio. The interview with Boo was the best for me. Instead of a composite of general experience, to hear that these were real, named individuals. So powerful. Boo reminds me of a film-maker here in Seattle, in ‘Great Speeches from a Dying World’ he hung out with a range of street people for a year. Had them speak great words from people like Gandhi and Sojourner Truth. we met two of the people at the screening. It seemed that just being visible to the filmmaker in relationship and in the film had done mighty things in several of the lives witnessed. Giving voice and dignity and recognizing humanity was in itself an act of great worth. I can only imagine the worth to those in her book of both her attention and honest and careful rendering.

    • Interesting that the audiobook included an interview with Boo. Great Speeches from a Dying World sounds well worth watching. I’ll have to see if I can find a copy.

      • Anne-Marie

        I mentioned it because of the effect the filmmaker had by listening. Boo seems the same. And I don’t have the book. Perhaps it’s the same interview transcribed?

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      I also love that she named the people with their real names, no hiding, no obscuring, and they knew it. Susan Sontag also writes about why it is important to name people, seems the most common people to lose their names are the poor or oppressed. We never don’t write Brad Pitt.

  • Helen

    This is an incredible book. I loved the fact that Boo told these stories so honestly and with such respect for all those she met. These are the stories the world needs to hear. The stories of the hope and despair, the joy and the heartbreak, the battles and communities that lie behind the images and soundbites that flash up on our TV screens. As the book shows, there are no easy answers, there are no “good guys” or “bad guys” there are simply people, wonderfully human, broken and flawed people who are searching for their chance, their opportunity, their hope.
    Not an easy read – but one I will be recommending. It is being developed into a stage play at the UK’s National Theatre in the autumn. I will be interested to see how they capture the spirit of Annawadi.

    • A stage play! oh my goodness that is so exciting.

    • My thoughts exactly, Helen. Glad you found it to be a worthwhile read. So interesting to hear it’s coming to the stage!

  • sandyhay

    This is not a book I would have picked up off the shelf to read. I had it all planned out how I would read so many pages a week because I was certain i wouldn’t /couldn’t relate to it at all. NOT!!! I could hardly put it down. I have not been to India but have been to the townships of Capetown. South Africa is predominately a Christian country so the spiritual atmosphere is very different. Education also seemed to have a stronger emphasis. The poor had more of a unity. Where as on page 237 ,”Poor people didn’t unite; they competed ferociously amongst themselves for gains as slender as they were provisional.” “over time the lack of a link between effort and result could become debilitating.” Abdul fascinated me. “He wanted to be better than what he was made of.” Even after all his family had been through because of Fatima’s death, one of the ideals Abdul most wanted to have was a” belief in the possibility of justice.” Asha, on the other hand, was “a respectable woman in the land of make-believe.” I suppose these scenarios are no different than ones we have in America. This culture is not as obvious since our “Annawadi’s” may only be a very small portion of a city that can almost be hidden from the eyes of the average American. Overall they are still people with no voice and little hope.

    • “a respectable woman in the land of make-believe”–now THAT is a quote. I think you are right that there are comparable places of poverty all through-out America–but we like to keep it hidden, and segregated.

  • I agree: I appreciate the time she took to know her subject. The people were portrayed as humans, not characters. I like how you linked this thoughtful, long-term journalism to short-term missions trips and poverty blogging – things I have grappled with. I wonder how aide and missions would look if this same sit, wait, and listen attitude was taken.

    • like I said, the cost of taking the time like Boo did to “earn her facts” is HUGE–and I believe the benefits would be amazing. as someone for whom sitting and waiting is really, really, hard, I am so encouraged by this book.

  • This book is sitting on my nightstand. I too thought it was fiction. Part of me is terrified to dive into it, to relive the smells and sights that were once familiar to me. I spent 8 months in India, and sometimes the hurt is so raw, it creeps in to the bruised spots in my heart. But knowing that Boo immersed herself in the slum, and wrote for a reason, well, that gives me hope. This post has pushed me into picking up the book. I will start it today! Thanks D.L Mayfield.

    • raw is good. bruised hearts (and reeds) are where it’s at. i was scared too, and i left with a sense of beauty.

  • Heather Caliri

    Once my husband, when we were dating, was poking and tickling me until I was breathless. “Help!” I said, laughing.
    “I can help you!” he said.
    “You’re the problem,” I answered back, joking.
    That reminds me of what you write here. I feel so ham-fisted when I’m in relationship with people who are more marginalized than me. I think, “I can help!” and then I think, “Wait, no–I’m the problem.” My fixing, my control, my power.
    I’m trying to just listen and hear. It’s hard to not ‘fix’. It’s hard to remind myself over and over that I am–could be–the problem.

  • Heather

    Like others, this was not a book I was anticipating reading and while I didn’t finish it loving it, it has been part of my recent reflections. I’ve recently moved into an intentional community in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, one of Canada’s ‘slums.’ This place and this book have had me wondering where beauty is in the midst of creation and humanity’s brokenness.

    I still don’t have the answers, but this week was reminded of the story Jesus told about the pearl of great price. The pearl was hidden, unseen, undiscovered, but of such great value that it was worth all the man had to buy it. Sometimes we have to search deeply for beauty and spend more than a passing glance ‘mining’ something, someone, that is hidden. But if we ask for God’s eyes to see and are willing to be ‘surprised by joy,’ we will be amazed at what is revealed!