Introductions: Katherine Boo
February 2, 2019
By Ruth Dickey, SAL Executive Director
When Bryan Stevenson was at SAL two years ago, he shared that one of the most important things that any of us can do to address inequality in our world is to get proximate, to get closer to poverty, to suffering, to injustice. Katherine Boo has spent her entire career getting proximate to people living in poverty and brilliantly bringing their stories to us all.
A staff writer for The New Yorker, Boo began her career as a reporter for the Washington City Paper. She won a Pulitzer for a series of articles for the Washington Post that exposed the horrific conditions in group homes in DC. A MacArthur Genius award winner, her book Behind the Beautiful Forevers won the National Book Award as well as prizes from PEN, the LA Times, and the New York Times. It’s brilliant and nuanced nonfiction reporting that reads like a novel I was breathless to finish, filled with lives that compel and haunt.
Katherine Boo tells stories that so often go untold, stories of people living in and struggling against poverty, stories we desperately need to hear. She tells them with great open-hearted humanity and profound respect, and with luminous prose that draws us into worlds—from the bayous of Louisiana and small Texas towns on the Mexican border. to the poorest neighborhoods in Washington DC and slums outside Mumbai.
Katherine Boo brings us questions—what does welfare reform mean for mothers and their children? what does it mean when the last factory in a town closes? how do families in India survive in extreme poverty? and beyond that, her underlying question—whose lives get to matter? Her writing belies easy answers, as she elevates the complex stories of men and women and children who struggle and hope and rage and rise and grieve while navigating corruption, cruelty, and crushing economic and political forces.
In a New Yorker profile on a Texas border town reeling after the Fruit of the Loom factory closed, Boo writes:
Lupita longed to have at her command, in any language, “those big round words that explain better what goes on in your mind, and which help people know who you are. I mean, those proper words that come from the deeps of a person, and that burn a little when they’re spoken.”
The great gift of Katherine Boo’s work is to bring us big round worlds, to help us know people who are so often unseen, to help us understand poverty and struggle and the often searing injustices and cruelty of our systems. Her great gift is these stories that burn a little, or a lot. Stories that surface words and worlds.
The journalist Katherine Boo gave a lecture at Benaroya Hall on January 28, 2019 as part of our Literary Arts Series; SAL Executive Director Ruth Dickey gave this introduction.