Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

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Adam Johnson’s North Korea Novel Takes the Pulitzer Prize

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A year after declining to present the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the jurors went ahead and named a winner this year. Perhaps nudged by the North Korea’s mad, headline-grabbing sabre-rattling, the award has gone to Adam Johnson’s novel of the hermit kingdom, The Orphan Master’s Son. Nathan Englander and Eowyn Ivey were the other fiction finalists.

Here are this year’s Pulitzer winners and finalists with bonus links:

Fiction:

Winner: The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson – (excerpt)
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander (Englander’s Year in Reading, excerpt)
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

General Nonfiction:

Winner: Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo (The Millions Interview)
The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature by David George Haskell (excerpt)

History:

Winner: Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam by Fredrik Logevall (excerpt)
The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675 by Bernard Bailyn (excerpt)
Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History by John Fabian Witt (excerpt)

Biography:

Winner: The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss (excerpt)
Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece by Michael Gorra (excerpt)
The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy by David Nasaw (excerpt)

Winners and finalists in other categories are available at the Pulitzer Web site.

2012 National Book Critics Circle Award Finalists Announced

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The finalists for the annual National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Award have been announced. The fiction list includes one of the biggest fiction releases of last year and a book in translation. To our eye, the five make up a well-rounded an interesting mix of titles. Here are the finalists for fiction and non-fiction with excerpts and other links where available. As a side note, the NBCC award is particularly interesting in that it is one of the few major awards that pits American books against overseas (usually British) books.

Fiction

Laurent Binet, HHhH (The missing pages of HHhH)
Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ben Fountain’s Year in Reading, The Millions interview)
Adam Johnson, The Orphan Master’s Son (excerpt)
Lydia Millet, Magnificence (Lydia Millet’s Year in Reading)
Zadie Smith, NW (Zadie Smith’s Year in Reading, our review, the first lines of NW)

Nonfiction

Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (The Millions Interview, National Book Award winner)
Steve Coll, Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power (excerpt)
Jim Holt, Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story (excerpt)
David Quammen, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (excerpt)
Andrew Solomon, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity (Staff Pick, excerpt [pdf])

For more on the NBCC Awards and the finalists in the other categories, visit the NBCC.

Sitting with the Longshots at the National Book Awards

A new addition this year: The red carpet that greeted celebrity guests.

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For my money, Domingo Martinez was the coolest person in the house. And that’s saying something because the house — a cavernous marble ballroom on Wall Street, site of Wednesday evening’s National Book Awards ceremony — was full of very cool people, including Elmore Leonard, Martin Amis, Terry Gross, Stephen King, Walter Mosley, and Dave Eggers.

But they’re household names to book lovers. They were supposed to be in the house. Domingo Martinez was not. This year, in an effort to blunt criticism that the awards were being watered down by a tendency to honor obscure authors of obscure books, the National Book Foundation told judges not to be shy about nominating popular books by well-known authors. The judges complied magnificently. The fiction finalists were four big names — Eggers, Junot Diaz, Louise Erdrich, and Ben Fountain — plus first-time novelist Kevin Powers.

Same for the non-fiction category. Four of the finalists — Robert Caro, Katherine Boo, Anthony Shadid, and Anne Applebaum — had won at least one Pulitzer Prize apiece, and each had worked for The New York Times, The Washington Post, or Newsday. The fifth finalist was unknown Domingo Martinez, a first-time author who wrote a blistering memoir about growing up in Brownsville, Tex., called The Boy Kings of Texas.

As the cocktail hour wound down on Wednesday evening and guests began taking their seats for the $1,000-a-plate dinner, I spotted a rotund, merry-looking guy in a corner of the ballroom, regaling a small crowd with a story. It was Domingo Martinez. His agent, Alice Martell, was standing nearby, and she told me that the manuscript to Boy Kings had come to her unsolicited and, against some seriously long odds, it jumped out of the slush pile and grabbed her by the throat and wouldn’t let her go. “This almost never happens,” said Martell, who represented Carlos Eire, whose memoir, Waiting for Snow in Havana, won the National Book Award for non-fiction in 2003. “I only work with authors I like,” Martell said, “and Domingo’s a doll.”

Non-fiction finalist Domingo Martinez, fueled by ginger ale, telling a story.

He finished telling his story, one hand chopping the air for emphasis, the other wrapped around a wine glass full of…

“What are you drinking?” I asked.

“Ginger ale,” Martinez replied.

“But there’s an open bar!”

“I know, but I don’t like to drink alcohol before I read.” He made a squinting face. “You know, it can make the words run together.”

This was astonishing, and beautiful. Martinez was not one of those dewy-eyed longshots you always see on the Oscars show, those first-time nominees who gush about what an honor it was just to get nominated and get a chance to wear an ugly dress and share Meryl Streep’s oxygen, blahblahblah. Screw that. Despite the long odds against him — a rough childhood in a border town, a manuscript that got plucked from the slush pile, some ridiculously stiff competition for a major literary award — Martinez had prepared an acceptance speech. And he wanted to be silver-tongued and alert when it came time to deliver it during the awards ceremony after dinner.

Domingo Martinez didn’t come to New York just wanting and hoping to win a National Book Award. He had come here prepared to win. Like I said, the coolest guy in the house.

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It didn’t happen, of course. The non-fiction prize went to Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, a former Washington Post reporter and editor, currently a staff writer at The New Yorker, winner of a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur “genius” grant. Not what you would call a dark horse.

The next day Martinez, the longest of the night’s longshots, wasn’t answering his telephone. Was he disappointed?

“Anybody would be disappointed,” Martell said. “Win or lose, in the aftermath of these things there’s a certain exhaustion. You suddenly hit a wall. Domingo hit a wall.”

It’s a safe bet that the people who run the National Book Foundation were not disappointed by Boo’s victory, or by the renowned Louise Erdrich’s in the fiction category. Overall, it was a good night for boldface names. Venerable, indefatigable Elmore Leonard was handed a medal by Brooklyn’s highest profile new resident, Martin Amis. Though teen-actress-turned-author Molly Ringwald failed to show, many other literary stars came out. The known trumped the unknown, which may be just what the doctor ordered for a foundation worried about becoming irrelevant in an industry that’s facing terrifying challenges.

Stephen King talks to a fan, the German filmmaker Marianne Schaefer.

I’ve never been a big fan of prizes for artistic achievement, but seeing the Domingo Martinez story unfold this year gave me a new appreciation for the argument that anything that sells books in these dire times is a good thing. Martinez’s career got a to-die-for jump start. What’s wrong with that?

“Books, obviously, are not the same as other commodities,” Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the National Book Foundation, acknowledged in a telephone interview before the awards ceremony. “Competition between artworks is not accepted universally, and you can’t judge artworks the same way you judge consumer goods. But the National Book Award gives people the opportunity to disagree. It opens the conversation, which is a good thing.  Literature should be discussed. In talking about books, we come to understand them better.”

Fine. But please, in your effort to become more mainstream, don’t get rid of all the longshots. They’re the real stars of any awards ceremony.

Also, check out The Millions’s recap and related coverage of this year’s National Book Award winners.

2012 National Book Award Winners Announced

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The National Book Award winners for 2012 have been announced. The big prize for fiction went to Louise Erdrich for The Round House, a novel one critic called “something of a departure for Erdrich” as she “hits the bedrock truth about a whole community.” (excerpt). She was a National Book Critics Circle winner for Love Medicine way back in 1984.

The non-fiction award went to Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo (Don’t miss our illuminating interview).

The Poetry award was won by David Ferry for Bewilderment. The winner in the Young People’s Literature category was Goblin Secrets by William Alexander.

Written through Tears: The Millions Interviews Katherine Boo

In 1929, George Orwell had a nightmarish stay in a Paris hospital. He described the experience in his essay, “How the Poor Die.” “This business of people just dying like animals, for instance, with nobody standing by, nobody interested, the death not even noticed till the morning — this happened more than once. You certainly would not see that in England, and still less would you see a corpse left exposed to the view of other patients.” Yet, as he pointed out, it had not been so long ago that such horrors existed in his native England. The inhumanity of that hospital pointed to the primitive conditions by which the English had treated their sick throughout the 19th century. By 1929, such memories existed only in England’s subconscious. And so he had to travel abroad to find a place where the subconscious was still conscious.

Katherine Boo has made a career chronicling poverty among Americans of different phenotypes, the victims of society’s misplaced priorities. But she is a humanist not a polemicist. For the last decade, her profiles of America’s underclass in The New Yorker have described the intimate lives of refugees from Hurricane Katrina, a Washington, D.C., mother whose life is changed by welfare reform and single black women in Oklahoma who are encouraged by the government to participate in the “marriage cure.” But in her first book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which has just been nominated for a National Book Award, Boo tells the story of Annawadi, a slum in Mumbai populated by figures brutalized by the worst forms of urban poverty. Like Orwell, she describes an environment with a gruesome character that can only be found abroad. The aura of that character, however, still permeates the world of America’s underclass.

Annawadi is a slum beset by its own hierarchies and politics. Boo, who employed the assistance of three translators — Mrinmayee Ranade, Kavita Mishra, and Unnati Tripathi — chronicles the story of one of its inhabitants, Abdul Husain, a young scavenger who gets entangled with his family in a terrifying legal ordeal. Boo’s book is written with a fine melancholic prose. A friend of mine underlined one particular paragraph as the subject of his awe:

At the orphanage, when rich white women visited, Sunil had refused to beg for rupees. Instead he’d harbored the idea that one of the women might single him out, reward his dignified restraint. For years, he had waited for this discriminating visitor to meet his eye; he planned to introduce himself as ‘Sunny,’ a name a foreigner might like. Eventually, he’d come to realize the improbability of his hope, and his general indistinction in the mass of need. But by then, the habit of not asking anyone for anything had become a part of who he was.

I spoke with Boo by phone in February shortly after the book was launched. There were a few technical glitches with the iPhone application I used to record us and so the following is a slightly pared-down version of a 45-minute conversation.

The Millions: You don’t really allow us to exit the worldview of the citizens of Annawadi, except for — every now and then — a paragraph or two that describes the greater forces of the world economic system.

Katherine Boo: Right. When the book begins in January 2008, one of the kids has broken the invisible barrier between the slum world and the rich world. And he is describing the luxury around the slum. The slum is right by luxury hotels. That’s just an example of something I’m trying to do. I didn’t want to break away and say, “Here are the hotels. This is what it looks like.” It was a moment where this 15-year-old kid was explaining to the other kids what it’s like to be in that world. And one of the things he said that was really striking was, “You stepped on a carpet and you sunk right down.” And that made such an impression on him. And if I were in a hotel that would never have occurred to me, but now every time I’m in a place with a plush carpet I think about it.

So it was important to me to keep the perspective as much as possible [of] what the people in the slum saw and understood or were impressed and moved or weirded out by in this wealthier part of the city. Or the things that Rahul was talking about, how weird rich people get when they get drunk. And you notice when he’s talking he’s talking about the fine cloth on his suit, the stripe on his suit. To me it’s much more interesting what he sees than what I would have gone in and written about.

TM: There’s one detail that struck me early on…Abdul [is] scavenging in the garbage and you describe that when he sees a Barbie doll, he turns it around so that [its frontal nudity] faces away from him.

KB: From the beginning, I’m watching him work and I’m watching the way that he works. The first description Sunil, the young scavenger, had of Abdul was “he keeps his head down day and night.” So he’s physically hunched, sorting this garbage, supporting a family of 11. And what’s so striking is he’s not just giving them a subsistence living; by sorting garbage, he has given them one of the most hopeful prospects of anyone sorting in the slum.

So you’re watching this happen. And you’re seeing him doing this [with the Barbie doll]. And you see him do this once. And then you see him do this a second time. This is maybe three weeks later. And you’re like “This is what he’s doing.” My friend Anne Hull who is a brilliant investigative journalist — she did the work on Walter Reed for The Washington Post — talks about the earned fact. So when you’ve seen [something] enough times, you know you’re not imposing, you’re not writing it for literary effect. This is the way [Abdul] reacts to the world. And there are other examples of that which [I] don’t put into the book. When you find that one example in the course of your reporting, then you can write about a person with more conviction…I think the reader might sense that.

TM: So did you directly ask him why he [turns the Barbie doll] away from him?

KB: Yes. Once I saw him doing it. I never would have thought it. And then you say, “Why did you do that? I just saw you do that the other day.” And then you get to talking about it.

Abdul talks about how “a good life is the train that hasn’t hit you and the malaria you haven’t caught.” And where he’s sorting his garbage is across the street [from] the guy who the train hit. And two huts down is the guy with malaria or dengue. And he talked about alertness, that he wasn’t smart but he was alert. That began the conversation in which he could explain what he was feeling. And then I could put it in of my own words. But I think it absolutely captures what his worldview is.

TM: Were there any moments where people felt you were crossing the line in asking them a question like that. He may not have felt you were crossing the line with a question like that. But there may have been some other questions.

KB: Well no, not on that particular issue. But [it did happen] in the course of fact-checking, and in the course of re-interviewing people to go over and over, to understand what happened in certain pivotal moments in the book, for instance the self-immolation of Fatima. When I was interviewing people two years after that happened, many people thought it was inauspicious to revisit such painful memories. They just didn’t find it useful in their ability to go on everyday. And there was a part of the book where I talk about Zehrunisa, how she’s an expert curser and she cursed me straight across the maidan, “I can’t relive this again.” And we tried and tried. But she said, “I can’t go through this again.”

TM: How do you deal with grieving Fatima’s death or Meena’s death? Did you feel you needed to take a step back to grieve privately?

KB: Yes. And the deaths that you read about in this book are not the only deaths that upset me immensely. This book is not the chronicle of every awful thing that ever happened there. Many other things happened there that affected me immensely, but I’ll just give you an example after Fatima’s death. I have this amazing friend who is an investigative journalist and is now a novelist, Lorraine Adams. And one day she just materialized on my doorstep and made me talk about [the death]. She came down from New York. She made me talk about why I felt I could never make anyone care about these people the way I cared about them. She made me realize I just had to keep on doing my reporting. I couldn’t just sit there on my couch. Obviously, it was late for those children, but if I could investigate and document a little better, maybe some attention would be paid.

TM How long was this period for?

KB: At some point it was just one tragedy after another and I had to, as you say, grieve privately. Three chapters were written in two years. When you write about the death of this little girl…The first draft is written through tears. And you try to come back and get your composure. But obviously, there were moments in this book that were devastating to me.

TM: You note you’re not quite as interested about the differences between American and Indian poverty. But you are fascinated by the similarities. How would you define those similarities exactly?

KB: There are obviously differences. In lower-income communities in Mumbai, fewer people have guns, for instance. So there’s less violent crime. By contrast, police stations in Mumbai are more dangerous than the ones in American inner cities — and let me underline at times that American inner-city police stations are not beautiful places to be. But there are poor people [in India] who are victimized by violent crime [who] would never dream of going to the police station because it would just be another round of victimization. And I describe the day that people are saying there is a death in the road. And no one wants to go to the police station and tell them the guy is there. [The guy’s] a scavenger. He’s stigmatized anyway. But no one wants to risk their own liberty and their own well-being to tell the police, which is why everyone walks away while this man is dying in the road. And I think in the American inner city that just wouldn’t happen. It doesn’t mean that everyone wouldn’t immediately call the police. People do call 911. People who are victimized feel in the main that there is some authority that they can turn to.

TM: But you say that the similarities between poor people in the two countries are that there is a desire for one’s children to be less poor [and] that there is a desire for some form of social mobility. And there’s an amazing desire among the wealthy to blame the poor for their own condition and for the poor to blame themselves. For you those seem to be constants.

KB: Yes. One of the things you have in low-income communities, whether it’s in South Texas or in the slums of Louisiana or South Boston or Washington and in Mumbai and London, where I’m basically spending a lot of time because my husband just got a job there, is that fewer and fewer people have permanent work. More people are improvising. Capital is going all over the planet. And it’s restless. And so there’s more of a sense of volatility, of economic volatility. There was this kid Norberto, a high school student I profiled for The New Yorker awhile ago, who worked in itinerant construction. And he said, “I hate this phrase ‘I can’t get ahead.’ My family gets ahead all the time and then the carburetor breaks and we slip back down.” That’s the similarity that I see among people wherever I go.

TM I do know that there are journalists who believe that when you are writing about people who are significantly disadvantaged…you are required to supply some form of compensation. I don’t know what your take on that is.

KB: It’s something that I wrestle with enormously but, as I explained to the people of Annawadi, I will explain to you. In the work that I do, the general belief is that you don’t pay people to tell their stories. And I adhere to that. It’s not without ambivalence. But I also know that if I paid people in Annawadi for their stories it would have distorted the stories that I got. The one thing that I try to be very careful about wherever I’m working is that I don’t pull people aside and do interviews. I go with them when they work. I try not to get in people’s way to make a living, so at least [the interview] doesn’t financially deplete them. Anyway, I think it’s a better style of reporting because you get to see people in action. It’s a very troubling thing. When you read The New Yorker you should be confident that the writer hasn’t paid people to say what you want them to say.

People grieved to me in this book. People felt that if we let people know what it’s like then maybe it will get better. So it’s important to me as well that they don’t expect to get rich on this…They know that their names are in the book. They know that the story is going to convey them in good and bad [ways]. They’re not going to like everything that I’m writing. They still think it’s important that people have a better understanding of their lives. And their decision to be part of this book is courageous. And I don’t use that word lightly.

TM: Have you felt that way about subjects before? That their decision to be part of a story is courageous?

KB: Yes. Many many times.

2012 National Book Award Finalists Announced (With Excerpts and Bonus Links)

Award season is in full swing, and this year’s National Book Award finalists have just been announced on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”. After two years in a row of the fiction finalists numbering four women versus one male author, the gender count is reversed this time. The list also includes some very well-known names (Junot Dí­az, fresh off his Genius Grant, is a previous Pulitzer winner; Dave Eggers is a former Pulitzer finalist; and Louse Erdrich is a former NBCC Award winner). This is something of a departure from the more obscure focus of recent years.

In nonfiction, Anthony Shadid got a posthumous nod after he dies while reporting from Syria.

Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available:

Fiction:

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Dí­az (The Millions review, Dí­az’s Year in Reading, a Top Ten book)
A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers (excerpt [pdf], a former Top Ten book)
The Round House by Louise Erdrich (excerpt)
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain (The Millions interview, excerpt)
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (excerpt)

Nonfiction:

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945-1956 by Anne Applebaum
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo (excerpt)
The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 4 by Robert Caro (The Millions review, excerpt)
The Boy Kings of Texas by Domingo Martinez

Tuesday New Release Day: Englander, Chaon, Boo, Ausubel, Gaddis, Burroughs

Two hotly anticipated collections of stories are out this week: Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank and Dan Chaon’s Stay Awake. Also new this week are Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Ramona Ausubel’s No One is Here Except All of Us, which she wrote about here recently, Dalkey’s new edition of The Recognitions by William Gaddis, and a new volume of William S. Burroughs’ letters.

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