I finished reading Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers as the sky in Sinkor, Monrovia grayed and heavy flush of rain fell this morning. The church service downstairs is about to start: mics are being tested, the drummer is beginning to tap and the tinnie skin of the drum and the keyboardist is tracing the chords of a song. We will soon leave so we can hear our own thoughts.
But a brief not on the book before my apartment becomes awash with noise: Behind The Beautiful Forevers is an ambitious work that explores the complex lives of slum dwellers and rag pickers living in Annawadi, a slum near Mumbai airport. Set in the era of globalization and India’s economic boom, Boo’s book, published last year, is a brilliant blend of novelistic style and reportage. An excellent review of the book appears in The New York Times.
A friend sent it to me a few months ago, after a discussion we had about writing in Monrovia and my growing distaste for “news” and dominant forms of journalism. I have always had problem with conventional news or journalism and think is more often stifles rather than enriches our understanding of the complex world that abounds us. Know-all-ism is privileged over complexity and a good news story is too often conceived of as an assemblage of certain components – power, money, death, danger, oppression, a touch of scandal and sensation – elements that will appeal to the imagined audience or “consumer,” who probably doesn’t even exist. We as writers play into this and put together stories as though we are making products to be bought and sold, that will help us make a bit of money and perhaps even a name for ourselves.
Reading books like this restores my faith in reportage and its possibilities. Our biggest struggle as writers is to depict others as human, and present the people, places and issues as faithfully as possible so that other people across the world can imagine what it could be like to live somewhere else, to be someone else.
Boo delicately weaves the intimate stories of a group of people who live in Annawadi, with the workings of the India’s bureaucracy and political system and broader themes such as corruption, the impact of globalization and India’s rapid economic growth.
Here are some of her thoughts on writing:
“To me, becoming attached to a country involves pressing uncomfortable questions about justice and opportunity for its least powerful citizens. The better one knows these people, the greater the compulsion to press.”
“When I settle into a place, listening and watching, I don’t try to fool myself that the stories of individuals are themselves arguments. I just believe that better arguments, maybe even better policies, get formulated when we know more about ordinary lives.”
These are words and thoughts that I hope will inform my own writing in Liberia and beyond.