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Boo Reflects On Life As An Investigative Journalist

Heights Staff

Published: Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01

boo

Eun Hee Kwon / Heights Staff


“The stuff that I care about most is stuff that most people don’t want to read,” Katherine Boo said to a full audience in Gasson 100. As a part of the Lowell Humanities Lecture Series and the Winston Center for Leadership and Ethics, Boo came to Boston College Wednesday evening to speak about her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, and her life’s work as an investigative journalist.

As a journalist, Boo explained that what she wanted to focus on was the lives of the poor and marginalized in society. She felt like her early work with these people was inadequate and wanted to work with people over longer periods of time.

“What people say about their lives is so much less revealing of their character than the choices that they make over the course of their lives,” Boo said. “I wanted to be there to watch people make those choices.”

 After her marriage to an Indian man, Boo found herself spending more and more of her time working in India. This led her to working in the Annawadi slum near the international airport in Mumbai beginning in November 2007. She was bothered by the discrepancies between the official statistics that said extreme poverty had almost been eliminated and the reality of the existence of and life in the slums.

“I had fears about the legitimacy of my work,” Boo said. “Was this something legitimate for a white Western woman to do? I had one deep conviction—that was that issues of global poverty and inequality are some of the most over-theorized and under-reported issues of our time.”

When she started her work in Annawadi, she emphasized how important it was to spend the first few months just listening and observing all of the lives that were unfolding around her. In her experience, the first few months as an outsider in a community were completely useless, since she was learning more about her own inadequacies than about the people of the slum.

“In the beginning, I was a freak attraction in Annawadi,” Boo said. “They had not seen many white women before. They thought that I had gotten lost between the airport and the high-end hotels that surround it. Eventually, they got used to my presence, and then I spent the next years following the residents wherever they went, whether that was stealing metal from the airport or teaching kindergarten.”

Looking at the people that she followed, she said that she wasn’t looking for the most exciting or outrageous stories, but that she just wanted to observe ordinary people. Distilling the meaning behind documenting what she did, she said that she was looking for “stories that illuminate the nature of a changing society.” While she described most people she met as “more affluent than they had ever been,” there was still less social mobility than she expected.

One of the people that she followed was a garbage collector named Abdul. She was amazed that, as a garbage sorter, he was able to lift a family of 11 above subsistence living. When he was accused of a crime, she had the opportunity to delve into the corruption of the criminal justice system in the slums.

Another aspect of her experience that stood out to her was the role of women and children in the communities. She noted that, while most journalists there were men, women and children were having great impacts on their communities.

“Many of the men had given up hope, but many of the women and children had not,” Boo said. “To the children, caste did not matter. They didn’t really know the caste of their friends.”

In taking the time to understand people’s lives, Boo found that the actions they took reflected the values they held in ways that she did not expect.  She described the people as “not just subjects to be written about, but co-investigators.” Turning to the philosopher John Rawls, she posed to the audience the question that she asked herself many times during her stay there: “How would I design a society if I didn’t know where I would be placed in it?” nBy Andrew Skaras

Heights Staff

“The stuff that I care about most is stuff that most people don’t want to read,” Katherine Boo said to a full audience in Gasson 100. As a part of the Lowell Humanities Lecture Series and the Winston Center for Leadership and Ethics, Boo came to Boston College Wednesday evening to speak about her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, and her life’s work as an investigative journalist.

As a journalist, Boo explained that what she wanted to focus on was the lives of the poor and marginalized in society. She felt like her early work with these people was inadequate and wanted to work with people over longer periods of time.

“What people say about their lives is so much less revealing of their character than the choices that they make over the course of their lives,” Boo said. “I wanted to be there to watch people make those choices.”

 After her marriage to an Indian man, Boo found herself spending more and more of her time working in India. This led her to working in the Annawadi slum near the international airport in Mumbai beginning in November 2007. She was bothered by the discrepancies between the official statistics that said extreme poverty had almost been eliminated and the reality of the existence of and life in the slums.

“I had fears about the legitimacy of my work,” Boo said. “Was this something legitimate for a white Western woman to do? I had one deep conviction—that was that issues of global poverty and inequality are some of the most over-theorized and under-reported issues of our time.”

When she started her work in Annawadi, she emphasized how important it was to spend the first few months just listening and observing all of the lives that were unfolding around her. In her experience, the first few months as an outsider in a community were completely useless, since she was learning more about her own inadequacies than about the people of the slum.

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