Pulitzer-prize winning writer Katherine Boo chose these seven words – “Afraid to speak, I learned to write” – to describe herself when she was being introduced at the NY Public Library on Wednesday night.
Several writer friends on different occasions mentioned Boo’s book, Beyond the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, which prompted me to finally read it. Frankly it was tough going at the beginning. There were so many characters and it was hard to keep them straight. But knowing I had a chance to hear Boo talk about writing this book was incentive enough to keep me at it. And by the end, it was a journey well worth traveled.
She has a brilliant mind. As does Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. LeBlanc, author of Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx interviewed Boo. (Random Family about survival in the South Bronx is a subject close to my heart having worked there for 9 years where I frequently encountered mothers and daughters that closely resemble Coco and other young women in LeBlanc’s book. ) The conversation between these two MacArthur “genius” Fellows was both rich and rambling. Though both women had been influenced by the other’s work, they’d never met in person before. So we as the audience got to eavesdrop on two new friends sharing stories and swapping trade secrets.
Several gems Boo gave us that night:
“What I do in the reporting comes out of my weaknesses. For example because I’m shy about talking to public figures, I’d spend my time filling out freedom of information requests. ” (In doing so, her data gathering and crossing checking of facts and stories became a strength.) “And because I have a terrible visual memory, I used a camera and videos.”
” ‘Their griefs are transient’ which is something Jefferson said about the slaves. People feel this about the poor (as if their losses and pain are somehow different or less traumatic than they are for others who don’t also struggle with the complexties of poverty….)
“[In my work], I hope to leave the community better off.”
Several gems of LeBlanc’s:
“Dead ends have been my best friends.”
“In the future, I’ll always use real names. In my book, it was less of an issue for them than I expected. Some of them got attention in the press and have gone on to do great things.’
If you have any interest in fresh perspectives which seek to understand the lives and challenges of those who survive on the fringes, pick up either of these provocative and sobering books.