Sonia Faleiro is an award-winning journalist and writer. She’s the author of a novel, The Girl, and a contributor to 6 anthologies. Her most recent work is Beautiful Thing, a book about the world of bar dancers in Mumbai. The book has been making waves for its content as well as the style in which it has been written (and so we had to get it for our collection!). Ms. Faleiro happened to be in town for a discussion on the book, and we caught up with her to talk a bit about the book and to get a Must-Read list from her on her chosen topic.
Q. Your first book was a novel, while this is an investigative, non-fiction work. Were you always interested in moving in this direction?
Actually, no. I always wanted to be a novelist. But While I was working as a reporter, my work involved talking to marginalized , poor sections of society whose story doesn’t get told. For example, at one time, farmers in Vidharbha were committing suicide at the rate of one every 8 hours, because of the drought!
Around the same time, the Maharashtra government banned dance bars. I wanted to get an insider’s perspective on how it affected the dancers themselves. Through my sources in the bar and brothel businesses, I found my way to a bar dancer named Leela, in order to interview her.
Now Leela was such an extraordinarily intelligent and alive person that I was fascinated with her. I decided to learn more about her, follow her around and get her story. I spent about 9 months doing that, and then worked for about 5 years turning the experience into book form.
Beautiful Thing is mainly Leela’s story. I wrote it in the format of narrative non-fiction because it tells the story best.
Q. Did you find that the regional language press and literature reports on marginalized people differently from the English-language media?
Honestly, I did not do much reading in Marathi or other languages on this topic, so I can’t comment on that.
Q. While you were writing this book, did you feel compelled to try to make more of a difference in Leela’s life? Say by offering her money or setting up an NGO?
At the end of the day, I’m a reporter doing my job: reporting. My job is to take these stories that don’t get the coverage they deserve and bring them out to the public. In this case, I did try offering money to Leela when she was in trouble, but she refused it. But in general, when I set up interviews with people, I make it clear that I;m not offering them money for it – I’m not buying the interviews.
There’s no clear distinction between helping and not helping someone. If all of us – reporters, politicians, police – do our jobs to the best of our abilities, it does more for marginalized communities than anything else.
Q. What were your influences while writing? Which books in a similar format would you recommend? [Which was just a sneaky way of asking for her must-reads in this category]
Well, there haven’t been many books like this in India – Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City is perhaps the only one I can think of. But there are several other books that I found very good.
1. Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble And Coming Of Age In The Bronx, by Adrian Nicole Leblanc [One of the best works of investigative journalism in years, ‘Random Family’ tells the story of growing up in the Latino ghettos of the Bronx, a story of drug-dealers, young mothers, poverty and violence, a family saga like no other. – From the book description]
2. We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, by Philip Gourevitch [First published in 1999, this is an account of a people’s response to genocide and what it tells us about humanity. Chronicling what has happened since 1994 and through intimate portraits of Rwandans in all walks of life Gourevitch focuses on the psychological challenges of survival and the stubborness of the human spirit in a world of extremity. – From the book description]
3. The Looming Tower, by Lawrence Wright [Wright’s brilliantly constructed narrative is head and shoulders above the rest. He knows important parts of the Muslim world (including Saudi Arabia ) at first hand, he understands the motors of Islamist militancy – From the book description]
4. Among Schoolchildren, by Tracy Kidder [Brimming with the exuberance and innocence of childhood, Among School Children is the intense and affecting chronicle of a Holyoke, Massachusetts, fifth-grade teacher’s passionate dedication to the children in her classroom. – From the book description]
5. The Warmth Of Other Suns: The Epic Story Of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson [Isabel Wilkerson chronicles one of the great untold stories of American history: the decades-long migration of black citizens who fled the South for northern and western cities, in search of a better life. – From the book description]
6. In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote [With the publication of this book, Capote permanently ripped through the barrier separating crime reportage from serious literature. As he reconstructs the 1959 murder of a Kansas farm family and the investigation that led to the capture, trial, and execution of the killers, Capote generates suspense and empathy. – From the book description]