What She Knows: 5 Great Investigative Narratives Written by Women

In The New Republic yesterday, journalist Suki Kim wrote a powerful essay about the reception of her last book, Without You, There Is No Us. Just before the book was to be published, Kim discovered that her editor had decided to label it as a memoir, since calling it a work of journalism “would limit its potential readership.” Kim objected to the label, to say the least:

suki kim

Suki Kim, courtesy of the author’s website

I did not wish that my book were Eat, Pray, Love. As the only journalist to live undercover in North Korea, I had risked imprisonment to tell a story of international importance by the only means possible. By casting my book as personal rather than professional—by marketing me as a woman on a journey of self-discovery, rather than a reporter on a groundbreaking assignment—I was effectively being stripped of my expertise on the subject I knew best. It was a subtle shift, but one familiar to professional women from all walks of life. I was being moved from a position of authority—What do you know?—to the realm of emotion: How did you feel?

After the book came out, Kim faced more invalidation—this time from other journalists angered by her decision to go undercover, “the very element that typically wins acclaim for narrative accounts of investigative journalism,” as well as from (male) readers who had traveled to North Korea. In the end, Kim concludes that she faced a backlash because of her position “as a woman of color entrenched in a profession still dominated by white men.”

For proof of this prevalence, check out any list of notable, book-length works of narrative investigative journalism, like this one from the editors of the Columbia Journalism Review. Inevitably, it will feature far more titles written by men—after all, they represent the vast majority of what’s published. Still, an ever-increasing number of women journalists are writing compelling, impeccably researched narratives about important, complicated, and daunting subjects. Here are some essential titles whose authors have done just that:

Investigative Potpourri

Beyond the Beautiful Forevers
by Katherine Boo

This National Book Award-winning title introduced the world to a community living in a Mumbai slum.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
by Rebecca Skloot

Science journalist Skloot tells a rangy story of racism and poverty, science and conscience, spirituality and family.

Random Family
by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

LeBlanc spent a decade of her life with her subjects in order to write about the plight of the U.S. urban poor.

Teenage Wasteland
by Donna Gaines

While a PhD candidate in sociology, Gaines hung out with a group of New Jersey teens to find out why their friends were committing suicide. (I love this book so much.)





About the Author:

Eugenia Williamson is the Associate Editor of Digital Products at Booklist. She worked in bookstores for twelve years, reviews books for The Boston Globe, and writes about books, culture, and politics for several other publications. Follow her on Twitter at @Booklist_Genie.

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