Katherine Boo, Short-Term Missions, and the Earned Fact
“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.”
--Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers
I just finished Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a National Book Award Book of the year for 2012, and I am left astonished. This book might be a game changer for me, and for all of us caught up in wondering what it all means to be a writer/photographer/artist in an age of continued economic disparity, of violence and suffering and disease and death. 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.
I would recommend the book to anyone, for 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 foreign 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 4 years listening to those who have things to tell.
Now hear me when I say this: I do not think our attempts at short-term missions/poverty reduction/raising awareness are bad. I don’t. But I am ready to call them what they are, which is primarily a method for changing our lives and perspectives. As a long-term missionary recently wrote, we need to stop telling people that they can sign up for a week or two in another country and change the world. This is false advertising. What we can do is tell people that if you go and see the realities of the world for yourself, if you have eyes to see and ears to hear, your life will be changed. Your world will never be small again; your choices never isolated to the benefits to you and yours alone. And hopefully, once you have seen and heard from the other side of the gap, you will never look back at a life spent pursuing anything less than seeing the kingdom of God come here on the earth.
Katherine Boo is not a missionary, nor does she impose any sort of moral or spiritual undertones into her book. But we still have so much to learn from her. 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. 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?"
The Church especially has latched onto a less-nuanced version of the last question, and all but ignored 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 (one of Boo’s biggest questions stems from the “profound and juxtaposed inequality—the signature fact of so many cities”)?
These are not easy questions, so it is no wonder we don’t like to look them long in the eye. But Behind the Beautiful Forevers was a gift to me, a chance to learn more about the world and a chance to look inside my own heart. I don’t say this lightly: this book changed me. It takes the concept of “giving a voice to the voiceless” and shakes all the pious do-gooderism out of it. It confronts the double lies that we view the poor as inferior (while Boo presents them as flexible, smart, adaptable, corrupt, hopeful, and human) and that most of us simply have no real relationship with those who live in extreme poverty. How can we write, donate, pray for or minister to those that we don’t even really know?
For more information on Behind the Beautiful Forevers and Katherine Boo, you can read her interview with the Millions here, or read about some of her influences (with tips for prospective immersion journalists) here.
On Thursday, we will continue in our War Photographer series with an amazing essay from another "immersion" author that borrows a bit from Boo as well.