Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Guernica - September awesomeness

The latest issue of Guernica Mag landed in my in-box yesterday and below are the links I enjoyed:

1) Women in Power and Politics - Sonia Gandhi and Aung San Suu Kyi have overcome tragic and arduous pasts to emerge as leaders of India and Burma. What’s next for these two historic icons?

2) Making Faces - Two potters keep an unusual art alive in South Carolina.

3) Reporting Poverty - Following three years of research in an Indian slum, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Katherine Boo discusses what language can’t express, her view that nobody is representative, and the ethical dilemmas of writing about the poor.

In her first book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Boo turns her attention to India and the residents of Annawadi, a Mumbai slum in the shadows of the city’s airport and luxury hotels. Of Annawadi’s three thousand residents, few have full-time employment. Most sleep in homes of nailed-together scrap metal, plywood, and plastic tarpaulin; some sleep outside. Many children are forced to work instead of attend school. The dwelling’s eastern edge borders a vast pool of sewage.
Amid Annawadi’s grinding poverty lives Abdul, a teenager who supports his family of eleven by selling scraps of trash. Boo chronicles the struggle of Abdul and other families to get out of poverty by whatever means available: corruption, education, work (NGOs, tellingly, never enter the picture). Their lives illustrate what poverty can wrought on the underclass of a developing country, but Boo never reduces them to case studies. She depicts the residents’ relationships, squabbles, opportunities, and misfortunes with eloquence and detail. In its specificity, Behind the Beautiful Forevers tells a larger story about India’s rapid growth in the global economy, and the people the country is leaving behind. Boo spoke with me over the phone from her mother’s house in Virginia.
—Emily Brennan for Guernica
Guernica: After reporting on issues of poverty in the United States for so long, what drew you to write about India?
Katherine Boo: I met my husband, who is from India, in 2001. When I first started going to India, I’d be at these dinner tables where people, claiming a posture of great authority, talked about what was going on in these historically poor communities. They always seemed to fall into two schools of thought: everything had changed with the country’s increasing prosperity, or nothing had changed in the lives of low-income people. I wasn’t a subscriber to either. In fact, I was familiar with these arguments from my experience of writing about the poor in the United States. Most of the people who do the talking about what it’s like for the very poor don’t spend much time with them. That circumstance transcends borders.

It was my husband, who had watched my reporting and fact-checking process, the way I use official documents and taped interviews to be quite precise, who first said to me, “Well, this might be something you can do in India.” And at first, I thought, “I can’t do it. I’m not Indian. If I did write anything, I would just be some stupid white woman writing a stupid thing.” But there were people around me who were saying, “If you do it well, then who you are becomes less important.” My husband and these others were interested in issues of social equality and fairness in India and thought it would be valuable to know what it was like for low-income people there, know it with a little more depth. There was plenty of reporting going on in India, but specifically what I do—follow people over long periods of time—there wasn’t much of that in India. (There are some people in the United States who do it, and do it very well, but there are not a lot of them here, either.) In my kind of work, you don’t parachute in after some big, terrible event, which is important and has to be covered, but offers only a glimpse. It’s the kind of work in which you ask, what is my understanding of how the world works, and where can I go to see these questions get worked out in individuals’ lives? That was really the question for me: whether I had anything to add to what had already been written.
A reporter will go to an NGO and say, “Tell me about the good work that you’re doing and introduce me to the poor people who represent the kind of help you give.” It serves to streamline the storytelling, but it gives you a lopsided cosmos.
And the best quote:
There’s a moment I describe in the book when Abdul starts talking about what a life is, says something like, “Even a dog has a life. Even if my mother keeps beating me, even if that moment was my entire life, that’s a life.”

4) Robert Reich: It’s Inequality, Stupid - Income inequality is a pressing issue, but you wouldn't know it from watching the RNC in Tampa.

The most troubling economic trend facing America this Labor Day weekend is the increasing concentration of income, wealth, and political power at the very top–among a handful of extraordinarily wealthy people–and the steady decline of the great American middle class. 

Inequality in America is at record levels. The 400 richest Americans now have more wealth than the bottom 150 million of us put together.

Republicans claim the rich are job creators. Nothing could be further from the truth. In order to create jobs, businesses need customers. But the rich spend only a small fraction of what they earn. They park most of it wherever around the world they can get the highest return. 

The real job creators are the vast middle class, whose spending drives the economy and creates jobs.

5) Brandon Lingle: Queen’s Creek - Back from Iraq, a veteran meditates on the past, present, and future of American warfare, and the small creek in Virginia where they all flow together.

The hazy sky, commingled with swamp stench and car exhaust, yanks my mind back to Baghdad. On a certain level I savor the smell of the primordial mud riding the November breeze as our discussion slides toward Mesopotamia. He completed his second Iraq tour a few weeks before I returned from my first, during the death throes of the nine-year odyssey.
“This tour was a joke compared to the first,” he says. “Last time we could shoot back.”
I nod in the dark.
In the past, American forces would fire back on the spots where insurgents launched rockets or mortars toward our bases. More often than not, the bad guys didn’t stick around to watch. Cobbled launchers of scrap iron, batteries, and washing machine timers lobbed their weapons automatically. The U.S. barrage that followed could sometimes kill innocents and destroy their neighborhoods. As Operation Iraqi Freedom shifted toward New Dawn, and Americans left Iraqi cities, the policy shifted too, and we stopped shooting back.
“It doesn’t add up,” he says. “What good is an artillery unit that can’t fire back?”
I begin to think that it’s a good thing his unit wasn’t pummeling neighboring Iraqis, and then I’m ambushed by the reality: it’s much easier to think that way when you’re safe at home on a brisk autumn night.
“Makes about as much sense as carrying unloaded weapons in a warzone,” I say. “Some soldiers didn’t even have their own ammo. The bosses were more afraid of our own guys. Accidental discharge.”
The prospect of endless days of mental, physical, and emotional trials excites him. He hopes to eventually deploy to Afghanistan, or maybe Iraq again.
“We talked, drank tea, and got lots of people hurt and killed.” Some worked to keep the war going, riding around the country on helicopters and selling weapons to Iraqis.
“Can we keep 50,000 troops in Iraq, please? 25,000? 10,000? 5,000? How about 150?.” A pause. “I killed a sixteen-year-old boy,” he says. “Our battalion’s only kill this deployment.”
I stare at his shadow on the dock, and I feel a stab of fall air through my damp t-shirt.
“Outside Kirkuk. Got pinned down by someone taking pot shots,” he says. “We figured out where the shooter was, and the lieutenant colonel froze. He was nearly crying. Lying on the ground. Ordered me to take the shooter out. So, I did. Just a barefoot kid with a rusty AK. He fell in a drainage ditch. I remember the muddy water flowing over his feet.”
Like the vast majority of service members, I’ve never fired a weapon in combat let alone killed anyone. I think about how I’d have reacted.
“Damn dude,” I say. “I’m not sure what to say.”
“It’s okay,” he says. “Maybe I accomplished something while I was over there.”

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