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

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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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

We can’t.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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12 thoughts on “Katherine Boo, Short-Term Missions, and the Earned Fact

  1. EDW says:

    Great review. Can’t wait to read this book!

  2. Marilyn says:

    I have thoughts swirling through my brain like the snow that swirled around for over 24 hours. As one who grew up in Pakistan and then lived first in Pakistan and then Egypt as an adult I’ve long felt frustrated with the attitude of short term missions as well as blogging trips (though not the trips themselves) and I’ve had my share of struggling to figure out what it means to care for the poor, not in a colonialist way, but in a way that walks beside.This book sounds like a must read, although I may ultimately question her methods as well. I’ve known others who have similarily lived with families and in a community in Afghanistan, and ultimately the people they wrote about felt exploited and wronged. How does a writer keep a continued attitude of deep humility toward their ‘subjects’? Because without it, surely it’s a self-serving exploitation. Many more thoughts but they will ramble. Thank you for this post!

    • I think Katherine Boo actually talks about humility in one of her interviews . . . but that is why I also like the idea of the “earned” fact. You have to write what is true. So many of us who write about the places we have been take little to no account of what would happen if our actual subjects read what we wrote, and I think it is so important.

      I don’t have the answers either (i personally would WANT to take a more involved approach than Boo), but this book sure got the questions going.

      • Marilyn says:

        Yes. Yes! I thought about that recently even with pictures – I was in Pakistan to work in flood relief and have some fabulous pictures – as I was sorting through them I realized that I was ready to post some pictures of my Muslim friends without their veils on – it was so troubling to me that I was merrily going on my way thinking of how great these pictures were and how much I wanted to share them — these friendships would have dissolved and for what? An author called Unni Wikun has written this great book called Life Among the Poor in Cairo. It’s no longer in print but it’s one of my favorite books – it’s an ethnography of her years living in the poorest area of Cairo. When the book was published and she took it to the neighborhood and showed the family that she had lived with and grown to know and love, one of the daughters screamed at her “You called us poor?We’re not poor!” She said it was this face slapping realization that words matter so much. The daughter calmed down only when the family shushed her.

  3. the book sounds incredible. great post – hard questions. a lot of what fuels short-term work is a desire to see our lives count, to feel like we are participating in something good and valuable. and some of it is that there are actual, very life-threatening needs in front of us, needs that we can meet. i found this when working in mother-child healthcare in India – the gov’t hospital we worked at (for about 9 months myself) had massive issues: extreme poverty, over-crowding, corruption among staff, caste based injustice, abuse and violence towards labouring moms. our presence couldn’t even scratch the systemic surface. but for that one baby whose vitals weren’t otherwise being monitored, or that first time mom who didn’t have to labour alone, or the mom who was able to hold her stillborn child rather than have him taken immediately at the birth, or the woman who wasn’t slapped by the doctor because one of my colleagues stepped in between them – it was something meaningful and profound. I know we want to turn the stones into bread most of the time but that’s a real temptation, not just because we want to be the hero but also because people we care about are hungry. God’s way is different in the world, it’s a slow way that values true freedom and love above change and results. and that’s hard. i know it’s the truest way, but our hearts will be broken in the process. maybe we can find a dynamic tension, actively engaging in ways that increasingly honour the depths and complexities of people around us, and the mix of light and darkness in our own hearts. ? maybe? anyway, loved the post. -b

  4. I’ve had lots of ‘thoughts’ about some of the things I read on popular blogs about short term projects or giving money and have really struggled to verbalize or make sense of them. Partly because it isn’t a clear good/bad or right/wrong thing. But I think you have really nailed it by saying “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.”

    I love short projects and I love giving, and people who give! We need both. So I am uncomfortable with talk that would turn those things into all bad. But the way to talk about them should change – not changing the world. Helping one person. Changing your own perspective. Being obedient. Or creative. Or serving…things like that.

    This is SUCH a good post. Love hearing your thoughts. The book has been a ‘game changer’ for me too. Best book I’ve read, for a variety of reasons, in a long time.

  5. Oh my goodness, I want to read this book! I constantly struggle with how to use my words and my writing to bring dignity and grace into a hurting world. How can we be a voice-for-the-voiceless without shouting over them or speaking for them when they can speak for themselves?

    I love the idea of the “earned fact,” of spending enough time with a person or a place to write with dignity and accuracy. I think in order to speak kindly and wisely and compassionately, in order to do no harm with our words and our advocacy, we must first listen. And I’d love to listen to what Katherine Boo has to say.

  6. [...] Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo. I first learned of this book through this blog post and wish I was going on vacation so I could curl up and read this 24 hours straight. More on this [...]

  7. [...] 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 [...]

  8. Si says:

    I’m going to come out and say that short-term missions ARE bad. There are a lot of good blogs you can read about bad aid – goodintents.org and lessonsilearned.org are both good places to start – and short-term missions are resource-wasting at best, psychologically and economically destructive at worst.

  9. […] though I’ve read several blog posts that challenge short-term missions, I’ve read only one essay that brings up blogging […]

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