:: Rich Writing For the Poor: On Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers

“Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There’s no better rule.”

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations 

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Mumbai is Janus-faced. It is a city that Aravind Adiga describes in The White Tiger (a novel that I read not too long ago) as “two Indias”—a place that is structurally and socially antipodal, to which most of Adiga’s impecunious characters emerge from “the Darkness.” Likewise, in Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which won the National Book Award three weeks ago, the players—her sources of information—live in the dark side, in an undercity, “a sodden, snake-filled bit of brushland” called the Annawadi, a word whose etymology is shaped by its relationships, ambition, and fortitude; connotations that are implied in the tagline on an advertisement for Italian tiles that reads “Behind the Beautiful Forevers.” The wall on which the ad appears creates an ironic bifurcation between Annawadi and the glamorous, towering gaudy hotels of the other Mumbai—the overcity. Contradictions like this are littered across the landscape and throughout the book. Indeed, even Boo, who is at once a reporter and storyteller, recognizes the paradoxical divide as something that doesn’t require her own creative and authorial influence; that she doesn’t have to augment the reality when it comes to writing about the impoverished. For Boo is an ardent believer that “statistics about the poor sometimes have a tenuous relationship to lived experience,” as she writes at the end of the book, adding, “I just believe that better arguments, maybe even better policies, get formulated when we know more about ordinary lives.”

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:: Writing Judgmentally and Without Judgment: On Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia

  • Title: Travels in Siberia
  • By: Ian Frazier
  • Date: 09.27.2011 (first published on October 2010)
  • Page #: 560

“There is nothing in the world more difficult than candor, and nothing easier than flattery.”

― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment

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The first sentence in Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia begins thusly:

“Officially, there is no such place as Siberia.”

It is a confident sentence, but the adverb “officially” ascribes the assertion (i.e. the existence of Siberia) to someone or to some power besides the writer himself. It also implies a geographical limitation, something that metaphysically exist in one’s mind and heart but hasn’t yet virtually realized or achieved massive recognition (i.e. officially, there is no such place as Palestine or the Midwest.) This admission of authority, however, should not be mistaken as an intimation of defeat, but rather as a humble acceptance of challenge. Because this is what Mr. Frazier ultimately goes to do in a span of 500-plus pages: He’s equally trying to conjure Siberia’s existence in the map as well as demystifying his seemingly irrational adoration for the region. Evidently, It’s an arduous task both on his body and intellects, but as a chronicler of America’s The Great Plains (see: On The Rez), Frazier has all the credentials (and certainly the bragging rights) to pull if off. And he does pull it off. Exceedingly.

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:: Who’s Afraid of Joan Didion?

“Whether we call it life or spirit, truth or reality, this, the essential thing, has moved off, or on, and refuses to be contained any longer in such ill-fitting vestments as we provide.”

Virginia Woolf — “Modern Novels”

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It’s universally acknowledged that the art of essay writing began with Michel de Montaigne in 1571. A short, thickset Gascon nobleman, Montaigne, after he had retired from public life at the age of 38, incarcerated himself in his château on the last day of February of the same year, at the third floor of a cylindrical tower—“the most useless place in the house”—where he kept a library of more than one thousand books. He was planning to write (or rather attempt to write) about the myriad thoughts, philosophies, and events that had occupied his mind up to that point—the morbid intent of which was “to teach us not to be afraid to die”.

Several centuries later, it’s remarkable how the essay itself, as a literary genre, has remained steadfast in its calling with barely minor modifications. No matter what the topic is, good essays are still distinguished by the writer’s constructive skepticism and intellectual reflection—of asserting her existence in the world—which may often seem to the innocent reader, and rightfully so, self-indulgent and myopic, as much as they are, inevitably, boldly illuminating, unafraid to declare, “I am myself the matter of what I write.”

We can discern this self-referentialist echo from the many essay and nonfiction volumes penned by Joan Didion, a modernist “reporter” and essayist whose first collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, bestowed her at post-publication with critical praise and literary notoriety for her lack of “empathy” and “human curiosity.”

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:: Old New Traditions—The New Journalism of Tom Wolfe

  • Title: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
  • By: Tom Wolfe
  • Date: 10.5.1968
  • Page #: 416


Its virtue was precisely in showing me the possibility of there being something “new” in journalism. What interested me was not simply the discovery that it was possible to write accurate non-fiction with techniques usually associated with novels and short stories. It was that—plus. It was the discovery that it was possible in non-fiction, in journalism, to use any literary device, from the traditional dialogisms of the essay to stream-of-consciousness, and to use many different kinds simultaneously, or within a relatively short space . . . to excite the reader both intellectually and emotionally.

This is Tom Wolfe, in 1972, writing for New York magazine, hollering to his coterie of American writers that there is, after all, a seemingly new path that would save American journalism, and the American fiction as well, from sterility and irrelevance. His essay, “The Birth of ‘The New Journalism,’” isn’t just an invitation brimmed with moxie and hopeful rebellion against the bureaucracy of the newsroom, which encourages unhealthy competition between reporters and between the reporters and their establishments. It’s not, as one may prematurely conclude from the essay’s title, a new interpretation of journalism, but rather a celebration of its powers against the old artifice called the novel. Or, to put it more categorically, the kind of novel that revels in modern self-referentialism and dirty minimalism, that seems to reduce the pressure at the level of form and sentence and detail. What Wolfe essentially argues is that journalism needs to allocate the qualities of social realist writing (Balzac, Zola, Dickens, James, Sinclair Lewis; you name it) while making the characters in the piece come alive, and have their dialogue come through the text without the labor of “telling”—a labor that fundamentally saps the vitality of both the reporter and her reportage.

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:: Toward a Larger Truth: In Cold Blood and the Nonfiction Novel


All credibility, all good conscience, all evidence of truth come only from the senses.”

Friedrich Nietzsche — Beyond Good and Evil


When Annette Grant of the Paris Review finally coaxed John Cheever for a one last interview session during a suburban afternoon at his house in Ossining, New York, after he had spent most of the morning keenly dodging the occasion by sawing wood and swimming in his outdoor pool, the first question she asked concerned the nature of fiction and its immutable relationship to lying—that lying, not truth telling, is the only utility in which a novelist can uncork the fermented bottle of reality. “Rubbish,” said Cheever, a rather abrupt answer in which—we can imagine—the fired neurons had instantly morphed his face into livid disbelief, before he had to collect himself for a better delineation:

For one thing the words “truth” and “reality” have no meaning at all unless they are fixed in a comprehensible frame of reference. There are no stubborn truths. As for lying, it seems to me that falsehood is a critical element in fiction. Part of the thrill of being told a story is the chance of being hoodwinked or taken . . . The telling of lies is a sort of sleight of hand that displays our deepest feelings about life.

The last sentence is important. It underscores the singularity when the act of “telling of lies” becomes a redemptive boon—when a writer’s words cease to safely observe life from the margins but set out to explain it from every possible angle, to bring it anxiously closer to reality. Fundamentally, this is what most great novels strive to accomplish, and, broadly, this may be the exclusive route that connects all literary canons of every civilization, from East to West, together.

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:: On John Hersey’s Heroshima

The cover of The New Yorker in which John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” took over the entire issue.

They have things like the atom bomb
So I think I’ll stay where I “ahm”
Civilization, I’ll stay right here

 The Andrews Sisters (with Danny Kaye) — “Civilization

  • Title: Hiroshima
  • By: John Hersey
  • Date: 8.31.1946
  • Page #: 189


The front cover of the New Yorker on the 31st of August, on the year 1946, must have been editorially commissioned, and illustrated, with a sense of wry discontent (which is not totally uncharacteristic of the magazine.) The full-paged artwork, which depicts a crowd of people (presumably New Yorkers) in a state of elated frolicking in a nameless public park, doesn’t spiritually coalesce with the exclusive content of the issue—an article called “Hiroshima” penned by John Hersey; an astonishingly objective account of the titular Japanese city and its populace during the immediate fallout of the atomic bomb. The cartoon is presumably intended to stultify the essence of American stoicism among its post-war generation, or, perhaps less cynically, to capture the zeitgeist of complacency in its zenith before the dreadful truth of the nuclear bomb, and its transmogrifying effect on Hiroshima, plunges the entire country into a morass of abyssal concern.

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:: The Two Voices of Isaac Clarke


In George Bernard Shaw’s satirical play Pygmalion, flower girl Eliza Doolittle is coercively instructed by Mr. Henry Higgins to pose as a genteel duchess not only in manners and dress, but in lingo as well—a role which espouses far refined a speech for Eliza to emulate. Conversely, in Tom Hooper’s biopic The King Speech, Prince Albert (later known as King George VI), while possessing all the posh to converse in a cultivated discourse, mercilessly lacks the ennobled tongue to speak it, thus compelling him to receive the necessary phonetic lessons to mellow out his stammers. Eliza and Prince Albert then are antipodal—indeed, each one has what the other one severely lacks. Therefore, both characters are distinguished by their voices, and both have a different story to tell and a personal adversity to surmount. The same is precisely true for the voiceless character that could come from a silent film or from a modern videogame; he or she still has an anecdote to share regardless of their verbal shortcomings.

So when Visceral Games decided to give the mechanical engineer Isaac Clarke a voice in Dead Space 2, who has remained practically mute in the original Dead Space, they also had to give him a new personality to go along with it. Because, as it turns out, it is inevitably difficult to tell a story like the one in Dead Space 2—a story that refocuses its tension on the monsters occupying the human psyche rather than those on the outside—without having its leading character utters a grievance or a closer examination on what is truly going on. In other words (and pun is desperately intended here) what has resulted from this voice transplant is two Isaac Clarkes: one whose psychology is the same as the player, and one who is diagnostically different.

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