© 2023
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Award Winning Author Hopes To Highlight Poor


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, a veteran tells us how he applied his military training to getting some discipline to his finances. We'll have that conversation in just a few minutes.

But first, the National Book Awards were announced last night at a New York ceremony and the winner for nonfiction is journalist Katherine Boo for her book "Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity."

Boo has spent a career writing about poverty, first in the United States and then in India in recent years. She's currently a staff writer for The New Yorker and she's with us now.

Welcome and congratulations to you. That hardly seems adequate, but congratulations.

KATHERINE BOO: Thanks, Michel. Yeah. It was pretty much a surprise.

MARTIN: Why? You've already won a Pulitzer, a MacArthur grant. Why?

BOO: It's my first book, and also, I mean, did you see who the finalists were? Robert Caro.


BOO: And Applebaum. I mean, the list was amazing, and what are those cliches about, oh, it's nice to be nominated - when the list is that good of the finalists, it really is nice to be nominated.

MARTIN: Well, you know, it's a very powerful piece of work and - well, why don't you just tell a little bit about it for the people who haven't heard about it or read about it yet. And there's also a story behind the title of your book, so maybe that's a good place to start.

BOO: Well, what I want to know, and what I wanted to know in a Mumbai community was basically the same thing, that I try to find out in American low income communities, which is in this given place, who gets out of poverty and who doesn't and why? Because it's not - I don't just want to write about - oh, here are these sad people in a sad place. That's not what it feels like when you're in those communities. You're thinking every day, like, how can I get out of this?

So I came to Mumbai and this particular slum that I wrote about in 2007 and so I just followed families for years as they tried to think their ways of out of poverty, because you can talk about the obstacles, all the obstacles that people face, but the real story is how people are thinking and acting to get around the obstacles.

MARTIN: In a previous interview with my colleague, Steve Inskeep, you talked about how difficult it can be to get people to care about the people that you're writing about, and I was wondering - as we said, you know, you've written some very powerful and important stories about poverty in the U.S. and I'm wondering whether you found it easier or harder to get people interested in a story about people, you know, halfway across the world.

BOO: That's such a great question and I don't know the answer because when you write a piece for The New Yorker or Washington Post, where I worked before, you never really know who's reading it or who's paging through it, so you don't have a - you know, I can't compare whether people are more interested in low income people in Mumbai and less interested in low income people in, say, Cameron County, Texas. I don't know. But I think that part of why it's hard to get people involved in questions of poverty is that sometimes the journalism about it and the writing about it can be quite two-dimensional and I think that if we do a better job in the media, that more people will be engaged.

MARTIN: What about your experience as a journalist in writing about poverty in a country that you knew and understood very well and in a country in which you were a newcomer yourself? Did you find it - yeah...

BOO: There was so much that I didn't understand - at first and, you know - and I understood as well that I would never have a full and complete (unintelligible) mastery of the subject, but it's the same in an American community. I'm not going to know everything if I am an outsider, but I can still work really, really hard to try to get it, to be informed.

I didn't feel cynical about poverty in the way that I think that some people do in India, so maybe that sense of coming fresh to the issue helped me to analyze it in a slightly different way.

MARTIN: That is one of the other things I was interested in, is how people - what you saw as different or similar in how people themselves viewed their situation, people who you've reported on in the U.S. and people who you've reported on in India, how they themselves view the situation and how they were viewed by others, you know, within their world. I was really - I'm interested in a word you used, that you're not cynical about it. Could you talk a little bit more about that?

BOO: One thing that strikes me as I moved from different communities all over the world is how much people are alike, and one thing that is so striking now wherever I go is the decline in permanent work. Only six people in 3,000 had permanent work when I was there, so almost everybody was doing a temp thing or doing two different jobs, and then you come back to the United States or in London(ph), it's the same thing. Fewer and fewer people have stable jobs with health insurance and benefits. More people are making it up as they go along.

And I think that that takes a real toll on family life and community life that we haven't fully reckoned. Part of what I tried to describe (unintelligible) was the way that people had to compete with each other and the way that that affected the way they viewed their neighbors.

MARTIN: Well, you've given us a lot to think about and I thank you for that. I know it was a very long and exciting evening, so thank you for speaking with us on this big day, on this big occasion.

Before we let you go, in your acceptance speech last night you paid tribute to Anthony Shadid, the late journalist who was also nominated in the nonfiction category. Why was it important to you to say something about him?

BOO: Because Anthony paid the blood tax for his reporting. He brought stories to the public attention that never would have been told without his bravery. He was a beautiful writer and he was a model for people reporting in other places, his sensitivity and intelligence, and every day I look at the paper and I miss (unintelligible) of his voice.

MARTIN: Well, we're glad we have yours. Katherine Boo is the author of "Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity." It is the winner of this year's National Book Award for nonfiction, and Katherine Boo was kind enough to join us from New York.

Katherine, thank you so much for joining us.

BOO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.