“You’re Not Just a Reporter, You’re a Citizen”: Katherine Boo and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc Talk Ethics, Social Justice, and Their Next Books at the NYPL

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Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx are two masterpieces of narrative nonfiction that everyone must read to understand the consequences of globalization and how women and children are yoked into poverty. Both books, the debuts of their respective authors, are the result of years of rigorous reporting, and both books look on these lives with neutral, compassionate eyes. They’re brilliant, infuriating works that have won slews of awards, and they should encourage the reader to do something.

Last night, April 9, Boo and LeBlanc met, properly, for the first time and had a conversation for the Live From the New York Public Library series. Boo had read Random Family in the midst of seven years of reporting on life in “the broken infrastructure of opportunity in the inner city,” and when she read LeBlanc’s book, she realized, “my book didn’t need to be written.” It changed the course of her career.

While both professed shyness, they still managed to cover a wide array of topics regarding their books and the process of narrative nonfiction journalism, a field that’s rife with potential ethical fallacies and important, transcendent stories. “My greatest ethical violation that I committed was to be surprised,” said LeBlanc, describing a “hot shame,” because, “why was I surprised, again and again, at the failures of a system?”

Boo mentioned a story that “haunted” her: a disabled mother of two set herself on fire, “an act of impulse and revenge.” The mother was taken to a hospital where her husband felt comfortable, but whose quality of care was horrifying. It was a case in which the author wanted to step in, to recommend a better hospital, but she was in a difficult position; the mother ended up “dying of an infection,” she said. “[It was] so fast. Some moments it’s obvious what you do. You’re not just a reporter, you’re a citizen.”

LeBlanc said, “Sometimes I wonder whether I’m an unwitting dupe by writing about poverty where it hits the ground,” as opposed to writing about the people in positions of power who create and maintain social inequality. She felt “alienated from the admiration of people liking [her] writing about social justice.”

They discussed their relationships with their subjects, even though LeBlanc noted that “George Packard doesn’t get asked about that, and I feel like female journalists are asked about it more.” As Boo said, “It’s the people that keep you going back, who you have these deep engagements with, and such respect and love for, these people. How do you honor their spirit and complexity, and push people towards thinking about what’s more important?” But she had no joy for the first six months of the book’s release, as she was terrified that there would be “retaliation” towards her subjects.

LeBlanc still sees “Ceasar” from Random Family, who’s had a public life as a person who went to college while he was in prison and did well for himself afterwards. Sometimes he tells her that she needs to write a follow-up piece, and she said, “It might be the greatest honor to do my job and write something.”

As a reporter, Boo mentioned that much of what she does comes out of “compensating for my weaknesses.” She’s shy, with a bad visual memory, so she takes a camera and video around. LeBlanc followed that up by observing that “dead ends have been my best friends.” Both writers fought over writing their books in the third person, and LeBlanc disliked the “American media fixation on the personification of the story, as if it’s harder for adults to connect empathetically with strife and suffering.”

As to what the authors are doing next, Boo was silent, although she did mention charities that people could support like Deworm the World and a startup called GiveWell, which has “rigorous questioning and accountability in the nonprofit sector.” LeBlanc, on the other had, had a lot of asides about her years-in-the-making follow-up on stand-up comedy. We’ve gotten bits and pieces here and there, including a New York magazine feature on the late Patrice O’Neal. For LeBlanc, the comedians have been like her therapy.

“We’re in this national paralysis that makes us think that we’re good,” she said. She’s interested in “what it is to earn our freedom. Stand-ups have to earn it minute by minute… I have things that I want to say and they’re not pretty and I want people to listen to me. I want to be able to say what I think and I need some courage, and [stand-ups] have that courage.”