Author Visit

September 28, 2012

Katherine Boo

Author Katherine Boo, whose book Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity was the First-Year Experience program’s summer reading assignment for the Class of 2016, will speak Monday, Oct. 1, at Skidmore.

She will discuss her book and answer questions from the audience starting at 8 p.m. in the Arthur Zankel Music Center. Admission is free and open to the public.

Boo is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a former reporter and editor for The Washington Post. She learned to report at the alternative weekly Washington City Paper, after which she worked as a writer and co-editor at Washington Monthly magazine. Over the years, her reporting from disadvantaged communities has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, and a National Magazine Award for Feature Writing.

For the last decade, she has divided her time between the United States and India, the birthplace of her husband, Sunil Khilnani. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is her first book.

In a precursor to the author’s visit, a group of faculty members shared perspectives during a Sept. 24 panel discussion, “Speaking from the Disciplines,” moderated by psychology Professor Sheldon Solomon. Sponsored by the First Year Experience, the event offered students a chance to hear from faculty about the book and how it is informing their teaching.

In general, the panelists cautioned students to avoid making grand assumptions based on their reading of one book. Social work professor Pat Oles noted that the data used was not comprehensive enough to draw major conclusions. English professor Linda Simon asserted, “Every book of nonfiction has an argument,” and “authors make choices to define their arguments.” Zankel Professor Pushkala Prasad said the book “belongs to a literary genre that I call ‘sensationalism of poverty.’” She agreed with Simon that “Skidmore will have failed you if this is the only book you read about India, poverty, or poverty in India.”

Nurcan Atalan-Helicke, an environmental studies professor, addressed some of the environmental challenges portrayed in the book, such as the availability of clean water, sanitation, and sustainable practices, and said, “These are not problems that are unique to India.” Solutions to such problems are very “place-specific,” she said.

Gordon Thompson, professor of music, spent time in India as a student and still to this day thinks of India as “optimistic and forward-looking,” a contrast to Boo’s book. Her book revived memories of the slum around Mumbai airport and reminded him of “the value of fresh water, and the nature of what we use and what we throw away.”

He also wondered, “What happened to these people, after the book ends? Boo has revealed so much about them. Once she walks away from the slum, what is their fate?”

That question and others are likely to be answered on Monday, when Boo speaks at Zankel. To learn more about the book, including reviews, please visit the very informative Web site created and maintained by Jenna Postler '13 for members of the Class of 2016 and any others interested in this year’s summer reading selection. The Office of the First Year Experience is grateful to James and Susan Towne, whose generous gift has supported the Summer Reading and related author visit.