Investigative Journalism and Life Story Interviews



By Rachel Revelle

When I settle into a place, listening and watching, I don’t try to fool myself that the stories of individuals are themselves arguments.  I just believe that better arguments, maybe even better policies, get formulated when we know more about ordinary lives.

I’ve just finished reading investigative journalist Katherine Boo’s first book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, about life in a Mumbai airport slum in a quickly expanding global India. She writes beautifully about this desperate, ignored, yet still wanting to be hopeful, undercity. Her work before this project has focused on poverty in the United States, so there are interesting parallels. One award-winning New Yorker piece is called The Marriage Cure, in which she documents the painstaking everyday lives of two women from an Oklahoma public-housing project. In both, you come to know the characters as neighbors, understand their motivations, and ride the ebb and flow of their optimism and despair.

The quotation above is from the Author’s Note to Behind the Beautiful Forevers, describing her process and intent. It reflects what I see as the strength of these stories, namely that they are just that – captivating stories. We all shape our lives around stories, mostly our own and those in our immediate web of connections. The more we extend that web to those we might otherwise overlook, the better we are able to comprehend what constitutes this life and what might make it better.

I believe our DukeImmerse students are engaged in that process when they conduct life story interviews with Bhutanese and Iraqi refugees. DukeImmerse is an intensive, semester-long research-based course of study. The causes and implications of forced migration are addressed from a variety of methodological, theoretical, disciplinary and political perspectives, all of which contribute to understanding of an incredibly complex global phenomenon. Certainly a palpable and irreplaceable perspective is that of the refugees themselves, sharing stories of their everyday lives.

The life story interviews have been translated to a larger audience through the production of the DukeImmerse: Uprooted/Rerouted Monologues. As an audience member at the performance, or a viewer of the videos online, we also are able to extend our story webs. We may then be motivated to formulate arguments and policy ideas. At the very least, though, we are more conscious of how our stories connect and overlap – the things we value and celebrate; the things we struggle with and despise; the changes we might like to see in the future; the ways in which we find meaning even in a very imperfect present.