Insight Text Guide author Anica Boulanger-Mashberg discusses Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers.
As a reader, I often struggle with nonfiction and, as a student, I used to find it difficult to apply the kinds of analyses I’d learned working with novels – discussions of character, themes, even structure – to nonfiction texts. Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers presents students and teachers with an unusual approach to working with nonfiction. The real-life story of a malicious neighbour’s accusations against a Mumbai slum-dwelling family, and their subsequent struggles, was researched intensely by journalist and writer Boo, in an immersive process where she spent years living very near the slum with her subjects. The result, framed in her curiously novelistic style, is a nonfiction text that reads like fiction. It is ‘creative nonfiction’ (also called literary or narrative nonfiction) – a subgenre some people can be suspicious of, but which has been described by one of its leading proponents, Lee Gutkind, simply as ‘true stories well told’. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is exactly this. I found it so engaging and readable, and a quite intimate way to discover a new sociocultural world: the teeming Indian undercity.
The value of studying a text in a slightly unfamiliar form is that students will be challenged to really think about how and why authors use language to create meaning. In this case, they should reflect on why Boo has chosen to represent certain characters in particular ways (given the vast quantity of raw material she had available to draw upon); how she uses imagery to shape our interpretation of events; and, particularly, how she uses narrative voice to influence our understanding of such texts. While Boo avoids the use of first person, keeping herself almost entirely outside the narrative, her use of a limited third-person perspective that shifts between various characters ensures readers are not held at a distance. Discussions about the effect of an author’s choice of narrative perspective will be well supported as students explore, for example, both sides of the conflict between the accused Husain family and their adversarial neighbour Fatima. By using direct dialogue and events to present her characters, Boo also avoids making value judgements about her subjects’ behaviour. She leaves plenty of room for debate about motivation, values and morality, and how circumstances and contexts can influence understandings of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.
The text also provides some fertile material for the study and analysis of context. The cultural and social setting of the text directly addresses one of the aims of the VCE English Study Design – teaching students to understand ‘how culture, values and context underpin the construction of texts and how this can affect meaning and interpretation’ – while also addressing one of the broader purposes of studying texts: offering students insight into the global society to which they belong. Boo portrays how the pervasive political and domestic corruption in India shapes and drives characters’ own value systems and beliefs – whether they submit to the hierarchies of corruption (like Asha, the aspirant slumlord), or fight against it (like the main protagonist Abdul, who wants to be better than the environment in which he was born).
Boo’s text offers juxtapositions of wealth and poverty, contrasts between hope and desperation, and challenges to ideas of agency and luck. Its themes range from alliance and obligation to self-determination and education, but the text always returns to the deep influence of poverty on both the individual and society. Structurally it reminds students to analyse aspects such as pace, positioning and arrangement of information and events within the plot, and authorial decisions about what to include and what to omit.
The fact that (spoiler!) we never find out the final outcome of Abdul’s case doesn’t really matter, as the book, despite its pacing and intrigue, is not a mystery thriller. Rather, it is a character study of a place and its people. The lack of conclusion will challenge students to think about narrative in a more complex way than just beginning/middle/end: it’s not possible to analyse Abdul’s character, for example, in terms of where his decisions ultimately lead. This gap in the text also provides some excellent stimulus material for students’ creative responses, in terms of writing possible futures or missing scenes for the characters, and justifying these in relation to the text.
While offering a fairly straightforward narrative and structure, the form of this text is one students are unlikely to have encountered, and will benefit from studying. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a reminder of the variety of ways in which language can be used to construct meaning: not just fiction, poetry, film and plays but any hybrid or other form of storytelling and communication can be studied.
- How does the narrative perspective influence your interpretation of events in Behind the Beautiful Forevers?
- Do you think Boo’s text suggests that poverty breeds hopelessness, or that it inspires optimism?
- ‘In Annawadi, it is better to compete with than to join forces with your neighbours.’ Discuss.
- What roles do imagery and symbolism play in this text?
- How do minor characters in Behind the Beautiful Forevers help to convey the text’s themes and ideas?
Need help getting to grips with Behind the Beautiful Forevers? Purchase our Insight Text Guide for Behind the Beautiful Forevers, written by Anica Boulanger-Mashberg. With chapter-by-chapter analysis, discussion of characters and relationships, practice essay topics, in-depth analysis of themes, ideas and values, and much more, the Insight Text Guide for Behind the Beautiful Forevers provides a clear, comprehensive and accessible analysis of the whole text.
Insight Text Guides are produced by Insight Publications, an independent Australian educational publisher.