The Omniscient Narrator

I’ve spent a lot of time in India, but only briefly visited Mumbai. However, even though I was only there for a few days, I did manage to see enough to get a sense of the different worlds that people inhabit there: from the home of a wealthy patron of the arts near Victoria Terminus, to that of a struggling actor at the other end of the city, whose flat only had running water for ten minutes a day. Getting from one end to the other was an epic journey, and it (along with rides on over-crowded commuter trains, pollution, etc.) left me with a feeling that life in this city was  impossible. Perhaps this sense of impossibility is why so many talented writers have chose to write about Mumbai, and why I keep reading them. Among the more memorable books I’ve read are A Fine Balance, Maximum City, Beautiful Thing, and Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which I just finished last night. There is a lot that could be (and has been) said about these books — about the relationship of writing to geography, about the relationship between journalism and fiction, about the relationship of these authors to the city, etc. — but in this blog post I want to focus on something that struck me in Boo’s writing: the omniscience of the narrator.

Rachel’s recent post on fiction and anthropology and Ryan’s post on ethnographic writing were in my mind while I read this book because, even though it is journalistic non-fiction, Boo takes a lot of liberties that most ethnographers would be reluctant to take. Boo reconstructs past events and narrates them in a novelistic fashion, describing the thoughts and reactions of people present at scenes she never witnessed first hand. Doing so makes the reading engaging, but the careful reader will wonder how a work of journalism could claim such omniscience.

Boo justifies herself in an author’s note at the end of the book. Her justification is twofold. First, she makes the case that she did her homework. Between 2007 and 2011 she carefully documented the life of the Annawadi slum outside the Mumbai airport. She interviewed 168 people (via translators), collected 3,000 documents from the public record, shot video footage and had local kids record video as well, etc. And it shows. She deploys this immense trove of material masterfully and yet sparingly. For instance, she shows how death certificates were changed to make cases (and extra work for the police) simply disappear. It also allows her to tie together the urban bureaucracy with the lives of ordinary people: something that many ethnographies fail to do as well as has been done in this book.

The second justification is what got my attention. She says:

When I describe the thoughts of individuals in the preceding pages, these thoughts have been related to me and my translators, or ot others in our presence. When I sought to grasp, retrospectively, a person’s thinking at a given moment, or when I had to do repeated interviews in order to understand the complexity of someone’s views—very often the case—I used paraphrase. Abul and Sunil, for instance, had previously spoken little about their lives and feelings, even to their own families. I came to my understanding of their thoughts by pressing them in repeated (they would say endless) conversations and fact-checking interviews, often while they worked. Although I was mindful of the risk of overinterpretation, it felt more distortive to devote my attention to the handful of Annawadians who possessed a verbal dexterity that might have provided more colorful quotes. Among overworked people, many of whom spent the bulk of their days working silently with waste, everyday language tended to be transactional. It did not immediately convey the deep, idiosyncratic intelligences that emerged forcefully over the course of nearly four years.

Let me repeat the section in bold: “it felt more distortive to devote my attention to the handful of Annawadians who possessed a verbal dexterity that might have provided more colorful quotes.” This is an issue I’ve written about repeatedly on this blog. From the tendency of newspaper reporters to go to the person who can give them the soundbite they need, to the risk of only working with people who are the most capable of being collaborators.* I worry a lot about this issue, and I think that Boo makes a good case for the role of the writer (or ethnographer) to go out of her way to give voice to those who are less skilled at doing so for themselves. At the same time, there are risks in doing so. The very fact that she feels obligated to talk about this in an author’s note suggests some defensiveness.

Where does this defensiveness come from? Why are anthropologists so frequently unwilling to take such liberties? Well, for one thing, it is often done badly. A long tradition of putting words in other people’s mouths without their permission has rightfully made anthropologists wary. (I think of the voice-over narration in the film ‘Dead Birds.’ It is poetic, but has been criticized as being more the thought of Robert Gardner than that of the Dani subjects for whom he speaks. ) But I think Boo asks an interesting question: in our need to even the playing field and give local actors a voice, do we tend to privilege some local voices over others?

  • Being unable to search our archive, I can’t find this post right now. I’ll keep looking and add the link if I find it…

4 thoughts on “The Omniscient Narrator

  1. Ooh, that looks good. I’ll have to grab a copy.

    In any case, I don’t think you’re compromising your integrity by reporting something second-hand according to the details provided by an informant, whether you happen to be a journalist or an anthropologist. And it seems like a perfectly reasonable device for giving a diversity of views. I’d be interested to see the comments on this.

  2. Good post. I’ve thought of using that book in class as yet another journalistic work that is beautifully written and evokes a social milieu in anthropological ways. It’s interesting that she chooses to bring out the most reticent characters’ thoughts rather than focusing on those who are more forthcoming with information. Another element missing from that text is the author herself – an anthropologist would have spent more time establishing her relationship with the characters and how she got her information throughout the text, rather than in an afterword. That had me wondering, too, how she was perceived in that community. But that’s also another big difference between ethnographies and journalism – since Writing Culture, we put ourselves in the texts more (how we got there, what people thought of us, our potential biases, etc), a literary strategy that average readers (non-anthropologists) may not like.

  3. Maybe Boo is justifying herself to a group with a certain set of expectations about what you are looking for from an interview? Ethnographers tend to be on the lookout for individuals who are particularly knowledgeable (what Russ Bernard calls the shaman effect), whereas journalists tend to be on the lookout for individuals who can provide colorful quotes.

  4. Allow me to play the devil’s advocate. Perhaps the agonizing moral issues that arise when the anthropologist presents him or herself as the only public voice of a small group whose members are unable to speak up for themselves are irrelevant when writing about a place as big and complex as Mumbai. Why? Only a fool would read Boo as the Truth with a capital T. As Kerim himself points out there are many other authors who have written about Mumbai or fiction set in Mumbai. There is ample opportunity for those concerned with the validity of what Boo has written against other sources. And even if she is the only source on some particular aspect of Mumbai life, there is plenty of other material with which to contextualize and question what she says. Given that all accounts will, of necessity, be only partial accounts, why not accept that fact and advise anyone who distrusts what Boo says to consult other sources?

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