One of the things that I love about fiction, both reading it and what I hope to do writing it, is the way it forces you to enter deeply into the spirit of others. You break out of the shelter you’re in most of the time, you are forced to enter other ways of seeing, other ways of living, other ways of being, the particular realities that other people inhabit. One of the banes of this world is how easily we reduce others to Them. The minute you get one of Them up close, suddenly your ideas don’t hold up.
The quote above is from Tobias Wolff and embodies the reason behind why I read the two books that follow. Both books explore poverty in our world today and I read them to launch myself outside of the bubble I find myself in- to experience life from the perspective of someone else.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo is literary non-fiction that follows several families living in the slums of Mumbai, India. The slums are juxtaposed with the luxury hotels and airport on the other side of a wall and the book is difficult to read at times. Boo discusses suicides, rat infestations, and garbage heaps using vivid, graphic descriptions. Readers discover what really happens to the money donated by charities, learn what education looks like, and find out the jobs people will do to try to make money.
That said, the book is so much more than just gruesome descriptions of slum life; Boo focused on human perspectives on life in the slums and the efforts to escape. My favorite character was Manju, an aspiring teacher. Only 60% of teachers had a college degree and many secretly paid a great deal of money to a principal of a school in order to secure a job. Once a position was secured, they were absent as much as they worked and so many times going to school for children simply meant playing, eating lunch, and playing some more. Manju really loves teaching and she starts informally subbing for her mother’s class. Her mother views her as an overachiever and seems to think teachers only need to be in the classroom when their boss is observing. I enjoyed seeing Manju do the right thing for kids- even when no one was watching or requiring it of her.
It’s easy to read Behind the Beautiful Forevers and have your heart broken by the individuals living in poverty, but Matthew Desmond takes the issue of poverty, drops it on your doorstep, and demands to know what you are going to do about it in his ethnography, Evicted. Matthew follows eight families in Milwaukee as they navigate the unending cycle of evictions and homelessness. Landlords are also included in the mix; Matthew rented a trailer to be close to the people living in the trailer park and despite countless maintenance requests, never had hot water.
Matthew helped me better understand the transient nature of some individuals and why children often move without notice. I also saw the great strength of people who have to wake up every single day fighting for their basic needs and how hard it is for them to make progress towards their goals with compounded limitations and generational poverty intertwined into their every move.
We have a problem and we need to unite in order to fix it. How will you help our most vulnerable?