In the long, frank author’s note, Boo reveals some things about her methods of reporting, the instances in which her presence changed the situation, and the long conversations she had with young people like Abdul about what they felt and thought. “Abdul and Sunil, for instance, had previously spoken little about their lives and feelings, even to their own families. I came to my understanding of their thoughts by pressing them in repeated (they would say endless) conversations and fact-checking interviews,” Boo writes in her author’s note. Some may doubt the authenticity of such a narrative when Boo is not Indian and had to rely on translators to do this kind of work. As for me, I hate the word authenticity. True, translations are rarely perfect. But even a story paraphrased or retold in the same language changes. Why do we pretend that languages are pure? That stories can or even should stay the same every time they’re told? Yes, things do get lost in translation, but, as Boo observes, had she only spoken to those who knew English, she would have distorted the story in another way. And to argue that this story belongs to an Indian reporter would be fundamentally small-hearted: It would suggest that we should observe rather than exceed our limits in our attempts to connect with other people.

It should be obvious that anyone—rich or poor—is more than the sum of his or her circumstances, that any life could be worth writing about. But apparently it’s not. This seems to me the sign of an even larger (if related) problem: an enormous collective failure of reading and imagination. As we march forward into the world of instant connection and somewhat out of the world of quiet reflection, books retain a certain crucial advantage: the opportunity to enter someone else’s mind in a way that feels intimate and real. I have long thought of this as the special province of fictional narrative, but with Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Boo shows that the right reporter can open that most human door. 


V.V. Ganeshananthan , a journalist and fiction writer, teaches creative writing at the University of Michigan. She is a former vice president of the South Asian Journalists Association and a founding member of Lanka Solidarity. Her debut novel, Love Marriage (Random House, 2008), is set in Sri Lanka and its diaspora, and was named one of Washington Post Book World's Best of 2008.