The Craft of Writing: Katherine Boo

Katherine Boo

Katherine Boo New America Foundation hide caption

itoggle caption New America Foundation
'Best American Magazine Writing 2004'

Katherine Boo's intimate and powerful reporting has garnered multiple awards, among them, a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Genius Grant. Most recently, the American Society of Magazine Editors selected her 2003 New Yorker story "The Marriage Cure" as this year's winner for "Best Feature Magazine Writing." A chronicle of life in an Oklahoma housing project, "The Marriage Cure" follows two women enrolled in a federally funded initiative to promote marriage among the poor.

Quiet with a slight figure, Boo says her reporting method is to become invisible — to fade into the background and let life happen as she writes it down. Boo speaks with NPR's Jennifer Ludden in the first of a series of interviews with some of this year's National Magazine Award Winners.

'The Marriage Cure' Excerpt:

One July morning last year in Oklahoma City, in a public-housing project named Sooner Haven, twenty-two-year-old Kim Henderson pulled a pair of low-rider jeans over a high-rising gold lame thong and declared herself ready for church. Her best friend in the project, Corean Brothers, was already in the parking lot, fanning away her hot flashes behind the wheel of a smoke-belching Dodge Shadow. "Car's raggedy, but it'll get us from pillar to post," Corean said when Kim climbed in. At Holy Temple Baptist Church, two miles down the road, the state of Oklahoma was offering the residents of Sooner Haven three days of instruction on how to get and stay married.

Kim marveled that Corean, who is forty-nine, seemed to know what to wear on such occasions. The older woman’s lacquered fingernails were the same shade as her lipstick, pants suit, nylons, and pumps, which also happened to be the color of the red clay dust that settled on Sooner Haven every summer. The dust stained the sidewalks and gathered in the interstices of a high iron security perimeter that enclosed the project’s hundred and fifty modest houses.

This forbidding fence, and the fact that most of the adults inside it were female, sometimes prompted unkind comparisons with the old maximum-security women’s prison five minutes up the road. But Kim and Corean believed that they could escape Sooner Haven, and so were only mildly irked by what one of their neighbors called "our cage." Besides, other low-income areas had fierce borderlines, too. The distance between Sooner Haven and Holy Temple Baptist Church edged the territories of the street gangs Hoover Crip, Grape Street Crip, and Rolling Twenties. Kim’s brother had been murdered by a gang, but she couldn’t keep track of their ever-mutating names, boundaries, and affiliations. And Corean had refused to learn, even when Hoover Crip members started shooting at one of her five children. It was Corean’s contention that you could be in the ghetto and not of it. Ignoring the stunts of heavily armed neighbors kept your mind free for more enriching pursuits, such as the marriage class for which Corean had roused her young friend from bed this morning.

Oklahoma has rarely found itself in the vanguard of antipoverty thinking, but the class to which the two women were heading embodies a vigorous new idea – something known locally as "the marriage cure." Traditionally, singleness has been viewed as a symptom of poverty. Today, however, a politically heterodox cadre of academics is arguing that singleness—and particularly, single parenthood—is one of poverty's primary causes, for which matrimony might be a plausible tonic. For the past few years, the state of Oklahoma has been converting this premise into policy. In an initiative praised by the Bush Administration, which aims to seed marriage-promotion programs nationwide, the state has deputized public-relations firms, community leaders, and preachers (among them the pastor at Holy Temple Baptist Church) to take matrimony's benefits to the people. Last summer, that marriage drive reached Sooner Haven. "Come learn about relationships!" said the recruiter who knocked on the housing project’s beat-up doors.

Kim happened to be available for edification, having recently quit a job that she had found depressing: selling home-security systems over the phone. The script she’d had to memorize still banged around her brain. "What? You can’t afford twenty-nine ninety-nine a month but can afford to run the risk of being robbed and losing everything you’ve worked hard for in life? Or, even worse, a family member? You say God will protect you, but maybe my call to you today is God’s way of telling you that the world he created does possess an element of danger, and he wants you to be as safe as you can be. It is quite possible that God has a reason for my call to you today."

"Most of the people I called were old and scared already," Kim said, sighing. "I wasn't putting enough effort into my rebuttals."

Many of Kim's contemporaries are single mothers and thus eligible for welfare between jobs. But for Kim, who is unmarried, childless, and on a strict regime of Depo-Provera contraceptive injections, the decision to quit a job before lining up the next one had harsh repercussions. She was hungry, and hoped that marriage class would come with free lunch. In any event, it would give her respite from her unit at Sooner Haven, which, despite her liberal use of paper doilies, ceramic angels, and lavender-scented candles, was no longer a pleasant place to spend a day. The roof leaked, and an overnight storm had flooded her living room and kitchen. Still, food and sanctuary were not the extent of Kim’s interest in marriage class. She had recently fallen, as she put it, "heart over heels" in love.

Excerpted from The New Yorker, August 18, 2003. Used by permission of Katherine Boo.

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