Arts & Entertainment Editor
Katherine Boo, this year’s Keker First Year Common Read presenter, came to UNCG to share her reporting work in Mumbai, India on Oct. 24. Boo was invited to speak about her first published book, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” at a luncheon and evening discussion on campus.
The Keker First Year Common Read is a program for incoming students to read a book prior to their freshman year, which is selected by the UNCG faculty. The reading is then used as a catalyst for discussion in all majors across the university.
Katherine Boo is a world-renowned journalist, who has received numerous awards including the Pulitzer Prize. Prior to being a staff writer at “The New Yorker,” Boo worked as a reporter and editor at The Washington Post.
Boo came to UNCG to expand on her work by sharing stories about the many she followed during her experience, and to answer questions by first-year students.
“Behind the Beautiful Forevers” tells the story of her three years in India, reporting on the slum villages in Mumbai. Her work, though mostly featuring melancholy tales of the lives of people, also represents the unyielding corruption taking place in not only India, but across the globe.
Forty-five percent of people living in the slums of India are not considered impoverished, they are just considered poor. Suicide, corruption and fatal disease are constants within the slums.
The author explained how her work has always been to shed light on the wrongdoing of others, and not those who are victimized – essentially, Boo wants justice to be served. She said her work is not easy by saying, “ethics for all of us is a constant revaluation.” She said one of the only ways she can be ethical in her reporting is by taking the time to follow the story.
Boo explained horrors that a room of freshmen could not comprehend. She told stories such as a mother who was unable to touch her children because she had tuberculosis, while her husband left her because of the disease.
She went into detail about Fatima, one woman whose story she followed. Fatima had a disability, making her perfect material for constant bullying. For many individuals in Fatima’s town, they believed her disability made her worthless, and unable to be married.
“She was not good or bad – she was angry,” Boo said. Fatima could not take the constant harassment, making her feel she had no choice but to take her life by lighting herself on fire.
However, Boo stated at the luncheon that her goal was not to share stories only about death, because there were many alive, just barely surviving.
One story Boo expanded on during her night discussion was about a boy who picked up trash near the airport as his job.
“I feel like an insult doing this work,” he said to Boo.
Since he was six-years-old, he was forced to raise his family because his mother died of tuberculosis and his dad suffered from alcoholism.
Retelling the story, Boo explained that the boy cared more about his entire village than himself. The boy had to coerce his friends to not sell a parrot that was in a nearby tree for food because the community rarely see beautiful things, and this bird gave everyone the chance to see a little.
“Not all stories are created equal,” Boo said, making it known that as a storyteller and a reporter there are hard lines to draw when it comes to choosing which story should be retold.
She also noted her personal mantra when reporting becomes an overwhelming task. “Kate, empathy is a muscle,” she tells herself. “The more we use it – the more we can do.”
Boo also answered many students’ crucial question: What did she do with the money she received from writing the book?
She mentioned that she received no profit for the book; instead, the money went directly to villages in Mumbai, India. Yet, she made clear that she did not spend her money without consulting villagers first.
“It was interesting to see how she actually asked the people what they needed instead of just assuming something that they needed,” said Ireland Lynch, a first-year student that read “Behind the Beautiful Forevers.” “She actually took into account their opinions.”
Though the dual reporter and author had a soft-spoken voice, and her mic was never corrected by a UNCG staff member, the event accomplished what it had intended – it celebrated what UNCG stands for, including sustainability, globalization, ethics and more. Boo demanded students to see that indigent people are not “just sitting on their hands,” but that they are living in the face of corruption through invention and strength.
As many students filed out of the auditorium before the question and answer session was complete, it made it clear that those who stayed to hear Boo speak truly were inspired by her knowledge and grace.