Magazine article Newsweek

National Book Award Winner: Katherine Boo

Magazine article Newsweek

National Book Award Winner: Katherine Boo

Article excerpt

Byline: Lucas Wittmann

A descent into the Mumbai slums climbs to literary heights.

The whole story is improbable: a blonde American woman heads off to one of India's direst slums. Sure, she's a staff writer for The New Yorker, and she's spent years writing brilliantly about poverty in the United States, but once she arrives in India she embeds in the community of Annawadi, a slum exactly as you picture it (hovels made of plastic, a sewage lake, missing limbs) in the shadow of the Mumbai international airport's glistening hotels. Many of the residents live off the trash tossed out by tourists and the multinational companies who cater to them. In short, these people are the bottom dwellers, the scavengers, the scrappers. But a funny thing happens when you spend nearly four years at the bottom. You see them as people. You see how their stories, despite the details of filth and stink and crime, are really not so different from ours. And then, if you're Katherine Boo, you write one of the most gut-wrenching, perfectly measured accounts of the human struggle that most people will ever read. Then the story gets even more improbable: the book is released to euphoric reviews, sells more than 200,000 copies (and counting), and wins the National Book Award for Nonfiction.

But what first drew her into these slums? Reached by email after her prize, Boo explained, "I'd been reporting for 15 years in low-income U.S. communities before I met my husband, Sunil Khilnani, who is Indian. …

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