April 2014

Pulitzer-prize winning writer Katherine Boo chose these 7 words to describe herself when she was being introduced at the NY Public Library on Wednesday night.

Several writer friends on different occasions mentioned Boo’s book, Beyond the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, which prompted me to finally read it. Frankly it was tough going at the beginning. There were so many characters and it was hard to keep them straight. But knowing I had a chance to hear Boo talk about writing this book was incentive enough to keep me  at it. And by the end, it was a journey well worth traveled.

She has a brilliant mind. As does Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. LeBlanc, author of Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx interviewed Boo. (Random Family about survival in the South Bronx is a subject close to my heart having worked there for 9 years where I frequently encountered mothers and daughters that closely resemble Coco and other young women in LeBlanc’s book. ) The conversation between these two MacArthur “genius” Fellows was both rich and rambling. Though both women had been influenced by the other’s work, they’d never met in person before. So we as the audience got to eavesdrop on two new friends sharing stories and swapping trade secrets.

Several gems Boo gave us that night:

“What I do in the reporting comes out of my weaknesses. For example because I’m shy about talking to public figures, I’d spend my time filling out freedom of information requests. ” (In doing so, her data gathering and crossing checking of  facts and stories became a strength.) “And because I have a terrible visual memory, I used a camera and videos.”

” ‘Their griefs are transient’ which is something Jefferson said about the slaves. People feel this about the poor (as if their losses and pain are somehow different or less traumatic than they are for others who don’t also struggle with the complexties of poverty….)

“[In my work], I hope to leave the community better off.”

Several gems of LeBlanc’s:

“Dead ends have been my best friends.”

“In the future, I’ll always use real names. In my book, it was less of an issue for them than I expected. Some of them got attention in the press and have gone on to do great things.’

If you have any interest in fresh perspectives which seek to understand the lives and challenges of those who survive on the fringes, pick up either of these provocative and sobering books.





Monday April 7 was the 20th anniversary of the start of the genocide in Rwanda in which 800,000 were killed over a period of just 3 months. I was living in NYC then, and I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t recall the start of this terrible event. It was only in retrospect, when it was all over, and a nation’s psyche had been shattered that I began to take on board the size and scope and depth of this tragedy by watching films and reading books about what had taken place.

Recently I’ve been re-reading Emmanuel Katangole’s biting expose about that time, Mirror to the Church, with colleagues in a book club at the office.  In Mirror, Katangole reminds us that “the nightly news in every American homes displayed images of the bodies that were being destroyed in Rwanda. But most Americans were more interested in the O.J. Simpson trial in the spring of 1994” (p. 38). Nicole Brown Simpson was murdered on June 12, so this statement isn’t 100% accurate. We weren’t watching the trial – that came the following year – but by the time the genocide was fully underway, we were easily distracted by the details of Brown Simpson’s death and the accusations swirling around her celebrity husband as her killer.

I had a deja vu moment of a similar scenario when on Monday I went online to try to find a story I’d heard several days before about a Senegalese peacekeeper who’d saved literally hundreds of lives during the genocide. On the BBC, when I clicked on news about Africa, I was immediately met with a large photo of Oscar Pistorius with his face buried in his hands:  another celebrity athlete on trial for murdering his blonde beautiful girlfriend. And we are mesmerized. This too is a tragic, terrible situation but why should it beg for more attention than recalling the deaths of hundreds of thousands ordinary Rwandans?

Fortunately, I was able to eventually find the story of the Mbaye Diagne and it was even more impressive, heart-rending, and redemptive than I’d recalled.

Read it here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/special/2014/newsspec_6954/index.html  and be encouraged that in the midst of that terrible madness, courage and sacrifice reigned alongside the mayhem.

And yes, let’s remember differently this time. Let’s not be seduced by the razzle dazzle of celebrity.