I have read nearly all of this text, and I do not know if I can continue reading it. It is just one relentlessly awful thing after another, being the antithesis of the shorthand rule of writing to be one good thing after another. The slums beside the airport in Mumbai, India, are full of characters that spend every waking moment thinking about money, out of desperate need. Everything and everyone around them tries to extricate that money from them. It is a terrible walk in mud and darkness, and exposure to an alien culture and civic structure for an American audience.
That the author is a member of the American journalistic class merits some discussion. Firstly, I don’t have a good answer to the question of cultural appropriation. Secondly, I think Katherine Boo did a marvelous job constructing a compelling and informative narrative that matters. Thirdly, there is the gloomy specter of appropriation, though, all over the text. Presumably, Katherine Boo did a lot of good for that community by telling their stories. Presumably, she is the one who is profiting from the sale of the books, the sale of the stories. Now, this is not an accusation: She has written a marvelous text that illuminates so many of the problems of trying to intervene in a foreign country’s poorest corner, where cultural barriers and expectations make any actual progress illusionary. It is probably a very good thing for anyone interested in foreign aid to investigate this text and see how poorly managed all those aid programs are, on the ground, where everyone at every step see the aid as an opportunity for profit. The writing is tremendous. The prose sweats and burns and the dialog carries close the heart and soul of the characters of the story. It is unsurprising, to me, that this is a New York Times Bestseller. I can recommend the book wholeheartedly even as I try to intellectually grapple with one of the great ethical dilemmas present in the text.
The book is also a packaged box of goods for Western consumption, and profits from the misery and ruin of real human lives, who are unable to tell their own story or profit from it.
I think of this frame after watching Waste Land, where a Brazilian artist tried to find a way to both tell the story of the garbage pickers in the dump, and a way to help them financially improve their lives from the very work that is being done about them. Vik Muniz hired the very subjects of the portraits to work in his studio, and made sure whomever was the subject of the portrait was paid the price at the auction of the piece. It is a fascinating way to think about activist art, like Katherine Boo’s brillian book. How do we tell these stories without appropriating them? Is it even possible? Muniz hacked a way into it, by involving the subjects in every process, and paying them for the sale of the energy he was utilizing on the canvas. Not every artform can find a way to do that. It would be very difficult to list all the voices as authors the way books are sold, as Katherine Boo’s name and track record as a journalist is the very personality driving the idea of the “author” that “sells the book” to readers, in name placement and marketing material and talent. There is no real, meaningful way to spread the bestseller wealth into the corrupt system, when the author is tremendously aware of what will happen to those families who experience a sudden windfall inside such a dangerous and deadly space.
What she does attempt is a sort of anti-globalization activism. This comes, actually, at the expense of the book, which is better when it is focusing on the real lived moments of the characters, not on the spectral boogeymen that must be responsible per the author’s tone and commentary. Globalization is bad, and corruption is bad, yes. But, the place was corrupt before and will be again. Globalization gives these characters, particularly the young ones who are not, yet beaten down by their hardscrabble struggle for subsistence, hope that tomorrow will be brighter for India and for everyone. The crushing caste system is crumbling, and even the divide between Hindi and Muslim is chipped away in the hope for a brighter, united India.
For the most part, it is a very successful book. But, always, whenever people in a place of privilege begin to tell the miserable real lives of the underprivileged, there is that specter hanging over everything, that an American woman wrote this for an American audience, and it’s not really a book for the Annawadians so much as it is a book designed to make us Americans feel terrible about the Annawadians. I don’t know if I’ll finish reading it.