katherine boo

katherine boo.png

intro’d to Katherine via Sandy’s fb share:

“Even people who can’t speak have their own voices, and they have them whether or not we reporters pull near. The problem (then, now) was not a lack of voices but of listeners. But becoming more patient in my reporting helped me write more urgent, convincing sentences, in the hopes of drawing those reluctant listeners in.”


A collateral cost of being a felon – or of being obese, addicted, illiterate, undocumented, homeless, or on public assistance – is how easily your experiences will be discounted


It truly sucks when you have to overprove injustices against the powerless to secure an underwhelming degree of public interest. But the photos, recordings, land records, audits, court judgments, and coroners’ reports I sweated to accrue became a sort of insurance against the possibility that traumas and crimes would get blown off.


If the institutions inhabited by, or relied upon, by the unprivileged rated regular beat coverage by the media, deep-dive reporters like myself would find far less injustice to bring to light


“Giving voice to the voiceless” — that creepy phrase — was never one of them. Even people who can’t speak have their own voices, and they have them whether or not we reporters pull near.

The problem (then, now) was not a lack of voices but of listeners.

But becoming more patient in my reporting helped me write more urgent, convincing sentences, in the hopes of drawing those reluctant listeners in.

listen to all the voices

not voice less


a 2015 convo..

4 min – i don’t spend a lot of time finding names for what i do.. .. but .. experimenting with form.. i was thinking.. how do you make people awake to the things that matter most to you..

5 min – difficulty in fully engaging in tragedy that somehow becomes routinized.. as someone needs to remain engaged/attentive

11 min – in journalism.. if it’s already done 20 times.. just move on.. i only have a limited space.. how to give you things you can’t get elsewhere.. and not waste the sentences

13 min – use characters voice.. no attribution..  a new form to tell story.. even if i don’t attribute.. somebody’s gonna go check.. so let me try to give the reader an experience where they are pulling close to the world.. and not the.. in some other form.. evidence ness..   i knew when i did it it would be questioned.. and i thought.. fair enough

16 min –  not that much time to create narrative to make it neater than it is.. so the sooner you report.. problematic.. so much reporting .. of poor communities around the world.. is happening after the crisis.. asking them 1-2 months later what happened. you lose a lot.. people trying to give themselves control over events they didn’t actually have at the time..

18 min – take stories and write them and rich people pay her but not them.. any terrible names i could think of i’ve called myself.. but if writing about people who are not yourself is illegitimate.. then the only legitimate work is autobiography.. and as a reader and a citizen.. i don’t want to live in that world..

19 min – when i work with a community.. we do a lot of talking about .. what is this for..

20 min – a lot of what we talk about is that.. if more people knew their stories.. there would be less stigmatism..

21 min – i think a lot about what is this for.. is it poverty porn..  if i’m just telling stories and not investigating injustice to expose something that’s effecting many many people.. it is poverty porn.. for me.. that’s how i live with myself now.. to make sure there’s a very strong investigative component in the work..

23 min – one advantage i had.. i didn’t go into this with strong priors.. what i was going to find..

24 min – being an outsider helped me see it was an important question .. not just for india.. but how 20th cent global econ was working for its.. um.. people… and remember.. that the people in annawadi are not poor.. they’re part of..

from 1990 till now we’ve had this tremendous alleviation of global poverty.. but we had a very poor sense of what not poor meant..


and to me .. it was.. let’s look at what not poor is.. the huge obstacle.. was finding a translator with the same ear and patience.. that i typically had in my work in english

25 min – the stress it caused me.. was i getting it wrong.. what was i missing.. it was tough.. i worried constantly.. at the end of the project i was like.. never again..

26 min – hard finding high quality translator.. because 1\ conditions were so bad.. get sick.. in trash sheds with rats…  and 2\ they made the people feel bad..ie: didn’t want to sit down in their homes because didn’t want to get dirty.. 2 months of trying to find one.. so what i mainly did was video tape..on my own.. in a way that was an advantage.. i ended up developing close relationships with the families that weren’t mediated.. so what seemed at the time to be a real disadvantage.. was actually really helpful.. but you often find that in your reporting.. don’t you..

27 min – when you have it on tape.. you have a diff level of confidence toward your material

31 min – on having access to the records to follow the money.. to delhi.. using rti.. it fires me up to have that level of documentation.. ie: come in with 35% burns and they changed records to 95%

34 min – intervention.. we could talk about this for the next several years.. when to intervene.. ie: when i sensed a woman was going to be raped i intervened.. and it worked out.. de escalated it.. but other side.. fatima with her burns.. i thought she needed to be at a better hospital.. but her husband thought that at this hospital.. he would be respected.. he didn’t feel comfortable visiting his wife in a better hospital so he made that decision.. he loved her… and.. cooper hospital treated very man burn victims.. because burning is the suicide of choice among poor people.. they have access to cooking fuel.. so that hospital was more experienced.. so.. was my instinct right.. it’s not that i know what’s best.. people have deep/abiding intelligences and know their world… you have to listen/trust.. them..

37 min – on themes… 1\ why don’t more in our unequal society implode.. i think what happens.. people are competing so frantically against each other..for too little work.. the amount of work they expend may be same everyday.. but the outcome is completely different.. (ie: i just went back to annawadi.. and in (trash) low time again because of crisis in china)…..  so.. when they’re thinking.. why don’t i have a job.. they’re blaming their neighbor who has a job.. they’re not blaming the choices of people in power.. and that’s a situation that suits the rich very nicely.. needless to say.. translates to our society

39 miin – i think we’re at a moment where we have a class called the transglobal poor.. so much of what people are experiencing.. so much is the same..

40 min – one of the things i think about a lot.. is i think about david simon… the way he schooled some section of the american public was leaving his traditional forms to create the wire.. to tell the story of the grave structural problem in american life… thru televised fiction.. and that’s what i mean about form.. you’ve got to find a diff way to tell it....you know.. this compassion fatigue or whatever…


41 min – you can complain about it.. you can say.. what’s wrong with the hearts of the people.. that they don’t see the urgency of this problem.. you can do the complaining.. or you can find a diff way to cut thru that fatigue.. and make people see a new.. something that they discount as a very old problem…

a nother way

42 min – on some saying vr the death of print.. but i think if it can activate the readers’ generosity.. that’s a good thing

43 min – it’s all about reporting.. when people ask me about writing .. i don’t know what to say.. it’s about asking.. how do i do justice to what i’ve seen .. rather than how do i make it readable.. i’m not interested in pretty writing.. what it’s trying to do is crunch in a max amount of info in a diff way.. each thing you do .. is a diff form.. every story we tell has a way it wants to be told.. in its own way.. i urge you not to be obsessed with model…. listen to your own ear as you tell these stories..

47 min – q: on not being native to the language.. and that barrier  a: i always feel about this work.. no matter where i’m working.. where i’m always other.. somebody should do it.. and if no one else can.. at least i can do it.. then someone can come along and do it better.. me doing it is still better than nobody doing it..

48 min – q: have things improved/changed in annawadi since you wrote the book  a: yes because the book was successful and i put money back in the community.. but that’s random.. i think the essential question is.. have things changed in other places that didn’t have their story told..

specifics.. police station changed.. heads rolled because of book.. and i’ve been told.. extremely corrupt ed system for poor has changed.. the officials who were pocketing all that money .. meant more schools for girls and disabled..

49 min – but i think… when people talk about influence.. i think .. when you write about very poor people… just because you write about them.. doesn’t change the dissymmetries (?) of power.. it’s very very difficult to bring about long term change.. in poor communities..

50 min – but like previous question.. there’s still some small chance.. and if you don’t write about kids getting murdered and having their deaths filed away.. if nobody writes the stories.. then that’s going to go on with impunity..

52 min – q: people not wanting to run slum stories  a: ..where i found rti so helpful.. people care about corruption.. what i found over and over.. some people will not care about terrible things being done to vulnerable people.. but they will care about their taxpayer dollars..being pocketed by somebody corrupt…. philanthropy is even worse.. i could write a whole book on corruption there..don’t blame them if they’re not interested.. write with great interest to get them interested..

55 min – q: self care  a: i didn’t do well.. ie: came back to states for wedding after 3 deaths.. almost had to get ambulance to take me out of cheese section of whole foods.. it was so f-ing much..

56 min – how do i handle emotionally..? i’ve still got anger.. but one of the things i do other things.. ie: teach disadvantaged children.. doing other stuff that salves my soul in some way.. it’s a problem for me.. because i can’t turn it off.. but i also think that.. what keeps you going.. when it gets hard.. ie: i had a lot of conflicts with the police..  is the emotional attachment that you have to the people you’re reporting on… so..

..if it hurts your heart.. that’s also part of what keeps you in it

1:00 – q: on the marriage cure  a: bush admin supporting teaching on marriage amongst poor was a way to get them out of poverty..  separate ness that we impose on poor people

1:02 – q: why do you think police try to exploit these societies  a: because everybody is trying to get ahead.. there’s no mystery.. able to see..  the advantages the wealthy have.. and they want that for their children.. if you ask people in slum communities about levels of corruption over time.. people felt corruption had increased exponentially.. harder to exploit middle class and rich.. but poor easier to victimize..  ie: in slums.. used to be that somebody would come once a week for money.. and now they would come 3-4 times a week.. and that’s because.. they also want that private school.. that two wheeler.. that car..

divide ness

1:04 – q: on saying you had to be ruthless on cutting out people from book.. how do you grapple with guilt of spending so much time with them and then not using their story..  a: it’s funny.. what i feel guilty about is not individuals.. i feel guilty about subjects that i had an incredible amount of material on.. like public health subjects..  that i couldn’t find a way to put it in the narrative.. so i ended up giving it to other reporters.. that’s the stuff i worry about..

1:05 – on being transparent.. not letting people feel used.. ie: let them know before book comes out..  sometimes people relieved when not in book

1:12 – when you go into a community and people have hand up.. i’ve got a story.. i almost never write about those people.. sometimes .. it’s like abdul.. he had so much to lose and nothing to gain..  he had no f ing time to think about a reporter or what that meant in his life.. he was under such stress.. with photographers and they say.. that story.. easy to get.. well… the easiest stories to get are not always the best stories to tell..

oy pbs

1:14 – the horses made the news and the people didn’t.. the children watching.. the hype on the horses.. and not your life.. they got it..

1:18 – the risk you have to take.. even if at end of 3 yrs.. showing video.. and making sure the subject is good with it.. still want to be in it

1:19 – children don’t have prior hatred.. so often better at sharing insight

1:23 – i use questions as little as possible.. spend time with them… you’re going to see him make choices that are reflective of his values.. then start the convo that way… 24 min – on him saying.. there’s so little beauty in annawadi what we do have should be shared (on kids selling the parrots).. i’d never have gotten that asking questions.. i’d have to wait for him to tell me….. quote: the very poor were incapable of philosophy.. they didn’t have it..  katherine: but what i hope you might see in the book.. what strong philosophy.. intellectual philosophies that people have in these kinds of situations.. like when abdul is describing the value of the worst possible life.. you’re never going to get those understandings.. by asking questions… you’re going to have to wait for them.. and i think it’s worth the wait

listen deep er

find/follow Katherine:

wikipedia small

Katherine “Kate” J. Boo (born August 12, 1964) is an American investigative journalist who has documented the lives of people in poverty. She has won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service (2000), the MacArthur “genius” award (2002), and the National Book Award for Nonfiction (2012). She has been a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine since 2003. Her book Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity won nonfiction prizes from PEN, the Los Angeles Times Book Awards, the New York Public Library, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, in addition to the National Book Award for Nonfiction.