Reporting Poverty


Emily Brennan interviews Katherine Boo in Guernica:

Guernica: After reporting on issues of poverty in the United States for so long, what drew you to write about India?

Katherine Boo: I met my husband, who is from India, in 2001. When I first started going to India, I’d be at these dinner tables where people, claiming a posture of great authority, talked about what was going on in these historically poor communities. They always seemed to fall into two schools of thought: everything had changed with the country’s increasing prosperity, or nothing had changed in the lives of low-income people. I wasn’t a subscriber to either. In fact, I was familiar with these arguments from my experience of writing about the poor in the United States. Most of the people who do the talking about what it’s like for the very poor don’t spend much time with them. That circumstance transcends borders.

It was my husband, who had watched my reporting and fact-checking process, the way I use official documents and taped interviews to be quite precise, who first said to me, “Well, this might be something you can do in India.” And at first, I thought, “I can’t do it. I’m not Indian. If I did write anything, I would just be some stupid white woman writing a stupid thing.” But there were people around me who were saying, “If you do it well, then who you are becomes less important.” My husband and these others were interested in issues of social equality and fairness in India and thought it would be valuable to know what it was like for low-income people there, know it with a little more depth. There was plenty of reporting going on in India, but specifically what I do—follow people over long periods of time—there wasn’t much of that in India. (There are some people in the United States who do it, and do it very well, but there are not a lot of them here, either.) In my kind of work, you don’t parachute in after some big, terrible event, which is important and has to be covered, but offers only a glimpse. It’s the kind of work in which you ask, what is my understanding of how the world works, and where can I go to see these questions get worked out in individuals’ lives?