Narrative non-fiction in itself is much more than an antidote to the problems facing the media. We often hear that the world is full of stories, and indeed it is, but not all are worth telling. Among some of the many challenges narrative non-fiction writers face, is deciding whose story is worth taking a deep dive into, and how. Indeed some tales are quite simply far harder to tell than others. They may be drowned out by the clamour of other more popular voices or crowded out in the belief that what people want is some sort of escape from the grimmer details.
For me, the best narrative non-fiction accurately illuminates the lives of those who don’t have the luxury of publicists, advisors and other gate-keepers; those whose lives aren’t accessible because of red-tape and policies that silence. It raises questions about the nature of that silence and those policies, which, through their constant repetition, can make the status quo seem so acceptable. Because of this, narrative non-fiction can be an antidote to the problems brought about by hearing the same kind of noise from the same kind of people all the time.
Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” (2012) is a striking book-length work of narrative nonfiction that does just that.
It’s about the lives of a handful of characters in Annawadi, the largest slum district in bustling Mumbai in India. Its themes are corruption, poverty, inequality, and its focus is whether its characters can rise above all that, as they strive to improve their situation.
Let it keep, the moment when Officer Fish Lips met Abdul in the police station. Rewind, see Abdul running backward, away from the station and the airport, shirt buttons opening as he flies back toward his home. See the flames engulfing a disabled woman in a pink- flowered tunic shrink to nothing but a matchbook on the floor. See Fatima minutes earlier, dancing on crutches to a raucous love song, her delicate features unscathed. Keep rewinding, back seven more months, and stop at an ordinary day in January 2008. It was about as hopeful a season as there had ever been in the years since a bitty slum popped up in the biggest city of a country that holds one-third of the planet’s poor. A country dizzy now with development and circulating money.
Dawn came gusty, as it often did in January, the month of treed kites and head colds. Because his family lacked the floor space for all of its members to lie down, Abdul was asleep on the gritty maidan, which for years had passed as his bed. His mother stepped carefully over one of his younger brothers, and then another, bending low to Abdul’s ear. “Wake up, fool!” she said exuberantly. “You think your work is dreaming?”
Boo spent three years immersing herself in the lives of her characters in Annawadi.
It takes massive reserves of unswerving concentration to be that involved in the lives of others – every sense switched on to capture everything at every moment. It often means mental and physical depletion at the end of each day, and this immersion part is just the beginning of a process that involves, among other things, tough ethical decisions, being overwhelmed with information and countless drafts all in the service of delivering a story that honours its subjects in its depth and how it is told.
“Behind the Beautiful Forevers” is perhaps one of the very best books I have ever read and Boo’s skill is something I hope to achieve in my own non-fiction.