Infrastructures of Opportunity: Poverty, Writing, Boo, Hamid

First read this awesome rant at Melville House. Then read the editorial that spawned the awesome rant about shoddy writing about American poverty. 

Here’s are my favorite parts.

First, the safety net works too well:

This is painful for a liberal to admit, but conservatives have a point when they suggest that America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in a soul-crushing dependency. Our poverty programs do rescue many people, but other times they backfire.

Just let that percolate for a minute.

Then there’s some condescension:

I’d bet on her — and on Landon.

As if the young lady in question is sitting around waiting for this guy’s support. 

And there’s this paragraph that’s going to be flayed, and rightfully so, all over the place:

Of American families living in poverty today, 8 out of 10 have air-conditioning, and a majority have a washing machine and dryer. Nearly all have microwave ovens. What they don’t have is hope. You see it here in the town of Jackson, in the teenage girls hanging out by the bridge over the north fork of the Kentucky River, seeking to trade their bodies for prescription painkillers or methamphetamines.

Poor people! They have basic conveniences! How many of those appliances actually work? How many of those families can afford to run the air conditioning? How many of those homes with microwave ovens have food to actually cook in them?  
But wait! Marriage will save us all:
A growing body of careful research suggests that the most effective strategy is to work early on children and education, and to try to encourage and sustain marriage

Also, there is the strange, intense focus on women for all the slice of poor life vignettes.  There is just SO MUCH to think about here. 

Poverty is hard to write about (really, everything about socio-economic issues is challenging) and I think this is because most of us in a position to write about poverty cannot understand the complexity of poverty unless we’ve experienced it. American poverty is a particularly curious beast because we often consider poverty in terms of the absolute—the dominant, incomplete narratives that rise out of the Third World. Even then we don’t really know what we’re talking about. I can’t tell you how often people are surprised to learn modern conveniences are available in Haiti. Yes, there are shanty towns and tent cities and rampant, absolute poverty but there are also nightclubs and Dominos Pizza and boutiques and beach clubs and car dealerships. For people with money, life is quite similar to how we live here in the US and in Canada or France.

One of the things I’ve noticed in such commentary about poverty is this strange idea that the poor shouldn’t have anything, that to truly be poor, one must be destitute, homeless, and without possessions otherwise said people are like, not poor enough for us. It’s the same kind of mindset where people freak out if they lend someone money and then see that person doing something outrageous like buying a cup of coffee. The nerve of them!  If the poor have appliances, why are our tax dollars funding welfare programs? It’s an absurd, embarrassing mindset. 

I try to tread carefully when writing about poverty because I don’t know enough about it and I have made missteps in the past by conflating being broke, which I was, and very much so, during my twenties, with being poor, which I was not, because I had a safety net. I was making shit money doing shit work and eating Ramen but I had a roof over my head and if I ever got truly desperate, I could call home.

At the same time, I’ve been to Haiti. I have seen poverty. I live in rural America and see the lines on the few days when the food bank is open. But. Seeing is not knowing or necessarily understanding. Bearing witness is a start but there needs to be more. I know it’s important for qualified people to say something, anything, about poverty, to bring attention to what it truly means to be poor both in this country and elsewhere. 

This all got me thinking about Behind the Beautiful Forevers. I was wary as I read the book because all too often, we see the stories of people of color mediated through white writers. We see the stories of the poor mediated through the lens of privilege. This wariness is why, when I wrote my novel, which is partially about Haiti, I wrote it about a woman from a wealthy family. I knew anything I tried to write from any other perspective would be probably ridiculous. I know that what I wrote only gets at one small part of the Haitian story and I don’t claim to have gotten everything right but I didn’t dare get into something I had no business writing about.
Anyway, I really liked Behind the Beautiful Forevers. There was, overall, a real sensitivity and intelligence to the book. The narrative was completely engrossing and I forgot entirely about the writer. I was able to focus solely on the people in the Annawadi slum, how they lived within their circumstances and tried to overcome those circumstances. It’s an overwhelming read. The narrative was also lacking in judgment or unnecessary sentimentality but it revealed so much about what poverty means in India, a country that seems to be rising and falling at the same time. 
In the book, Boo asks a critical question that applies to any conversation about poverty: “What is the infrastructure of opportunity in this society?”

This is what is, ultimately, so damning about poverty—that rarely is there an infrastructure of opportunity. People who succeed build an infrastructure, of sorts, for themselves, but such infrastructure is never available on a wide scale, not in India, not in Haiti, not even here in the U.S. And even when people create these infrastructures, they are often built on shaky ground. 

Before I read Behind the Beautiful Forevers, I read a galley of Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (March, Riverhead).

(As an aside, is there a more diverse Big Six fiction catalog than Riverhead’s? I do not think so. Mad props.)

When I first read this book I liked it but was also very frustrated by the narrative frame which drives me crazy to this day. I just don’t care for it because it didn’t feel necessary. BUT. After reading Beautiful Forevers, I went back and re-read Hamid’s book because there were some really interesting echoes. In How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Hamid chronicles a man’s entire life, from modest rural beginnings to becoming a wealthy man in a big city. The novel shows how he had to create his own infrastructure of opportunity and how when he least expected it, that infrastructure would fail him when he needed it most.

The protagonist’s steady rise out of impoverished circumstances is one of the strongest elements of the novel, because it is detailed so credibly. Every opportunity the protagonist is able to exploit makes sense without seeming overly convenient. We see the ills of  corruption and how inescapable corruption is. And, of course, there is a love story, one that lasts an entire lifetime, but not in an easy or trite way because the trajectory of this love story is intrinsically tied to how poverty shapes the choices people make. 

What interested me most about How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia was part of what also frustrated me most—the narrative tone. The book is presented as a self-help book, each chapter chronicling a new stage in the protagonist’s life. The tone of this self-help narrative frame is kind of pithy and detached and it’s an odd counterbalance to the rest of the novel which is grittier and more tangible.
Another element of the narrative tone, one that works brilliantly, is that nothing is explicitly named—not cities, not people, not even the protagonist. The girl the protagonist loves is referred to as “the pretty girl.” The organization he joins in college, one that is recognizable from the details, is only “the organization.” This namelessness is intriguing because the protagonist’s experience is still rendered very specifically. There is an authenticity to the experiences that elucidates as much as it entertains, that makes a statement as much as it tells a story. 
In a novel where nothing is named and yet the experiences detailed are still very specific, we can start to see the ways in which poverty and the attempts to rise out of poverty are largely universal. I was glad I re-read this book and was able to see that.