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The Queen of Katwe

How a new star of the chess world rose from the slums of Kampala.

(Page 2 of 2)

Reporting poverty is a tricky, albeit urgent, act, and challenges escalate when you’re an outsider in both culture and language. Katherine Boo is author of “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” another book about young people in slums (she focuses on India’s Annawadi). In her afterword, Boo discusses the need to compensate for her shortcomings by working “slowly and patiently” – she spent about three years reporting – with the classic tools of journalism: “time spent, attention paid, documentation secured, accounts cross-checked.”

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This was not the recipe for “Queen of Katwe.

Crothers, as a sportswriter, knows that the action is better than the post-game interview. So it’s surprising that so much of the book hinges on after-the-fact explanation, rather than real-time observation. While he recreates scenes, they’re leadened by quotes that feel “told,” unlike living language, and by the curse of “first-this, then-that” chronology. It conveys the tenor of a dispatch, rather than a fully realized book.

More dangerously the portrayal of poverty in "Queen of Katwe" lacks nuance. Crothers generalizes about “desperate slum children,” and sometimes extends what he sees in Katwe to encompass the whole 54-country continent. He writes of “a uniquely African peace of mind” that is “more serene than the average American.” Why? It “has to do with access. Many people in Katwe do not know there is anything better for which to strive, which leads to an odd kind of tranquility, which some might call ‘lethargy.’” The use of such sweeping language to describe the “average African” is questionable, to say the least.

The text also contradicts itself. Because of its proximity to the equator, “Katwe has no seasons, which adds to the repetitive, almost listless, nature of daily life. Every day is just like the next.” On the very same page: “In Katwe, life is so transient that it is often hard to identify which children belong to which adults. It is a population of single mothers and their kids tossed randomly from one shack to the next. Everybody is on the move….”

Which is it? Is life constantly the same, or constantly changing? This book’s answer seems to be “everything bad.” This is not to say that Phiona and her family don't face serious challenges. But Crothers makes the mistake of thinking that the more terribly Katwe is portrayed, the more heroic Phiona becomes. Playing into the extremes of cliché diminishes the more fascinating and harrowing dimensions of this truly astonishing story.

Anna Clark is a freelance writer in Detroit.


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