Pulitzer Prize-winning Investigative Journalist: Katherine Boo

Meet the face of our newest alum pin, Katherine Boo ’88. To pick up a pin, stop by the Barnard Library!

Katherine_Boo

Katherine “Kate J.” Boo is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist recognized for documenting the lives of people in poverty.

Early Life

Boo grew up in and around Washington with her two Minnesotan parents who originally moved to Washington when her father became an aid to Representative Eugene McCarthy. Her family name is actually Swedish and pronounced, “Bö,” by use the American version, hence her last name, “Boo.” Growing up, Boo was a late bloomer and prodigy. Unlike her peers, she never received the elite education they did. After high school, she became a clerk typist for the General Services Administration upon taking the civil service exam on her own account. She also worked as a secretary for two years and attended three different colleges prior to attending Barnard.

Unfortunately, a degenerative illness left her spending more of her time reading at home and taking night classes instead. Throughout her years at Barnard, Boo typed for The Columbia Daily Spectator and graduated in 1988.

Post-Barnard

From writing editorials for The Columbia Daily Spectator, Boo was hired by Jack Shafer, former editor of the Washington City Paper, now a columnist for Reuters. He described her to have the “soul of a poet but the arm strength of an investigative reporter.” Boo soon began editing the work of others, and moved up the ladder to The Washington Monthly from there. Moreover, she became recognized for combining her “investigative digging, on-the-street reporting and brilliant writing” while working at The Post. Yet for some reason, Boo could never settle, so she returned to her vocation: “writing about the lives of the poorest people in America.” For months, spanning to even years, she followed people and documented, mostly, “how this or that social policy played out in the lives of ordinary people, most often women.” She wrote “The Marriage Cure”, for the New Yorker in 2003, detailing “the humiliating difficulties faced by two African-American women taking part in a government-sponsored marriage programme.”

In 2004, marrying Sunnil Khilnani, former employee in Washington and director of the India Institute at King’s College London provided her with the opportunity and privilege of traveling to India and learning about the lives of the poor. That’s not to say it was an easy task. At times, it almost felt pointless because of the many stakes against her. Nevertheless, like the fighter she is, Boo didn’t let anything bring her down or hold her back. She explained :

 If you don’t write about it, then there’s no chance [of changing anything]. If you write about it, there’s a small chance. I try to be optimistic that if you present some of these conundrums, then policy-makers will take notice. I do think there are smart people thinking about these things, and I don’t think I’m the only person who cares.

Boo also described her visits as:

I wasn’t trying to gather people around a table and talk to them,” Boo tells Fresh Air‘s Dave Davies. “I was just going where they went. I was doing what they did, whether it was teaching kindergarten or stealing scrap metal at the airport or sorting garbage. And I would sit and listen and talk to them intermittently as they did their work.

Her book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, focuses on Mumbai as she cleverly brings the residents of Annawadi to life. She strongly believes that:

readers will [not] get invested in what potential is being squandered if they don’t engage with the people in the story as individuals. When you have a kid who is killed, I want the reader to feel what I felt and what the people of Annawadi felt, and because of that, get involved in the problems of criminal or social justice.

This is the heart and soul of her book. She wants other people to share and understand her vision and perspective.

Honors and Awards

Boo’s “reporting from disadvantaged communities in the United States and abroad has earned her a Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur Genius Grant, and a National Magazine Award for Feature Writing.” Behind the Beautiful Forevers was also a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize and adapted for the stage by the National Theatre. Furthermore, it was one of the 10 books President Obama recommended for future world leaders.

Future Work

Boo is currently in the process of writing her next book, “an exploration of social mobility in low-income families that draws on years of intimate reporting in African-American neighborhoods in Washington, DC.”

Resources

Read and listen in on an NPR interview with Boo, a Q&A with her editor, Kate Medina, and another interview with Guernica magazine.

Aziza Rahman ’20

Sources

Behind the Beautiful Forevers. ” Q&A with Katherine.” Interview by Kate Medina. Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Summary article, http://www.behindthebeautifulforevers.com/qa-with-katherine/.

Brennan, Emily. “Reporting Poverty.” Guernica, Guernica, Sep. 4 2012, accessed June 22, 2018, https://www.guernicamag.com/reporting-poverty/.

McGrath, Charles. “An Outsider Gives Voice to Slumdogs: Katherine Boo on Her Book ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’.” The New York Times, The New York Times Company, Feb. 8, 2012, accessed June 22, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/09/books/katherine-boo-on-her-book-behind-the-beautiful-forevers.html.

NPR books. “Finding ‘Life, Death And Hope’ In A Mumbai Slum.” Interview by Fresh Air. NPR, Feb. 8, 2012. Audio and summary article (Nov. 16, 2012),  https://www.npr.org/2012/11/16/165272652/finding-life-death-and-hope-in-a-mumbai-slum.

Rustin, Susanna. “Katherine Boo: Slum dweller.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies, June 8, 2012, accessed June 22, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2012/jun/09/katherine-boo-behind-beautiful-forevers.

“Katherine Boo.” Lyceum Agency, Lyceum Agency, 2018, accessed June 22, 2018, http://www.lyceumagency.com/speakers/katherine-boo/.

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