What I’m reading now…

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“Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” Katherine Boo. Cover detail.

I finally found a few free moments to finish reading Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, this year’s winner of the National Book Award for non-fiction. Boo spent four years interviewing and observing the people who lived in a slum behind the international airport in Mumbai, India.

When I began reading the book I was a bit confused. Wait. This is non-fiction? Boo writes as if she’s in the heads of the “characters” in her book. Here’s a passage from the second page, when Abdul, a teen boy, is hiding from the police:

He didn’t like the moon, though: full and stupid bright, illuminating a dusty open lot in front of his home. Across the lot were the shacks of two dozen other families, and Abdul feared he wasn’t the only person peering out from behind the cover of a plywood door.”

After I let go of my this-isn’t-non-fiction bias, the book flew by, as if—I know this sounds ridiculous—it was a novel. The reader gets to know several of the inhabitants of the Annawadi slum and hope and dream with them as their lives go up and down. During the time Boo wrote this book the economic slump severely affected these people who lived on the edge of society. Suicide was the way out for a few and others were murdered by drug gangs or hauled off to prison on trumped up charges.

One of the problems I sometimes have with biographical non-fiction is the distance the author takes, the omniscient narrator in charge of the direction of the narrative. In Behind the Beautiful Forevers Boo completely gets rid of that distance. I was living in Annawadi, in a hut where rats often bit my face and the sewage lake in front of my hut lapped up to my doorstep during the rainy season. I was appalled by the corruption of the police and politicians but almost came to accept it as an inevitable fact of life, as the inhabitants of Annawadi knew it was.

Of course it took a huge amount of research and brilliant writing to get me out of my comfortable middle-class American armchair and walking through the mud with the garbage pickers of Annawadi. I highly recommend this book as a way to “become” one of the dispossessed of India. Here’s Boo in her Author’s Note, explaining why she put “words in the mouth” of some of people in this book:

“Although I was mindful of the risk of overinterpretation, it felt more distortive to devote my attention to the handful of Annawadians who possessed a verbal dexterity that might have provided more colorful quotes. Among overworked people, many of whom spent the bulk of their days working silently with waste, everyday language tended to be transactional. It did not immediately convey the deep, idiosyncratic intelligences that emerged forcefully over the course of nearly four years.”

Boo does a brilliant job of presenting through the lens of one small slum, the problems of inequity in booming India. Boo has also received awards for her work in poor communities in the USA. I may look up those articles. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is Boo’s first book. I’m glad I discovered her voice, and thankful to the SLU library’s browsing section, and to book reviews, of which I read many!