When 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.
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?
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.
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About D.L. Mayfield:
D.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