America's Best Literary Journalist

The Times profiles the intrepid Katherine Boo:

Ms. Boo graduated from Barnard in the late '80s, still typing -- for The Columbia Daily Spectator, for which she wrote editorials -- and was hired by Jack Shafer, then the editor of the Washington City Paper. Mr. Shafer, now a columnist for Reuters, said recently that he was impressed less by her writing then by her voluminous reading and her ability to think on her feet, and was amazed by how accomplished her first article was. "She had the soul of a poet but the arm strength of an investigative reporter," he recalled.

What stands out for me is Boo's work, now almost 20 years ago, on the impact of welfare reform. It's always interesting to think back on how the literature of your youth shapes your path. At the time policy wonkery about the potential effects of welfare reform was all the rage. But Boo's work treated the wonkery as an excuse to write about what ultimately mattered to me as a reader--the people.

The mandate, at the time in my life, appeared simple--"Tell stories." The point here isn't that narrative is superior to stats but that narrative has a different power, and one--in our current age--which is hard to capture. Stats fit into six minute debate segment in a way that stories do not.

At any rate, I've always been impressed that Boo has taken her gifts and applied them to the impoverished corners of the world, given that there is always a lucrative market for talented writers interested, solely, in rich people.

If you're unfamiliar with her work, this piece on the aftershocks of Katrina is an excellent start. Here's a taste:

The recreation center looked out on the bayou, which most of the evacuees avoided--there were alligators there. So it was considered daring when Carolyn and Gus began taking their toddlers to the water's edge each afternoon, when the light made everything around them glimmer gold and red. "I want their eyes to be steady full of something beautiful," Carolyn said, "enough beautiful to push the ugly things they've seen out of their brains." 

One afternoon, Jasmine went to the bayou, too. It was the most beautiful place she'd ever been. Like many neglected children, she'd grown used to her lot in life, and barely paid attention when her mother asked the volunteers, "You got kids? I been trying to get rid of mine for some time." Jasmine had an eleven-year-old brother, and neither of them expected their mother to do "regular stuff," like helping with homework. Their mother said, "My kids don't even ask me anymore--my nerves is bad, so they gets beat up after one problem. Other thing they know is when I put that forty dollars' worth of food on the counter every month and they eat it too fast, they be going hungry until next month comes around." 

One kind of poverty is that of the imagination--the inability to envision a future truly different from the present. Jasmine had long judged people based on whether or not they gave her food and clothing, but, as she watched Carolyn and Gus and other families, she found herself mulling different gauges of worth. She'd been working lately on a definition of love. "Maybe it's that, like, you honor somebody and they honor you back," she said carefully. "If you do for them without being all, like, See, I did this for you, now you best do something for me--like, you just do it for the kind of your heart." 

Jasmine had seen her father only once since she was five. She knew that he had been in prison for selling drugs and attempted murder, and that he now put siding on houses. He was six feet two, had a place in suburban Minneapolis, and had sponsored the three best days of her life: "It was February and he was in a car, and he came by his cousin's house. I was playing in the parking lot then, so I caught a look of him. I knew right away--I said, 'That my daddy,' but because I'd grown big he didn't know me. But then he did know, and he took me eating at Manhattan's in New Orleans and bowling and to a movie, then he took me by my other cousin's, then we ate doughnuts, then he brought me to Avondale, too." Jasmine's furious dialling now had direction: she would ask her father to take her in. 

This is how you write when you take people seriously. Boo's new book Behind The Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity is now in your area.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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