Q&A: Chad Broughton

Article by ben

Living in a city like Houston—a global metropolis that currently enjoys an economic boom—it’s sometimes easy to forget that the reality of globalization for many, many people looks closer to what happened in 2004 to the town of Galesburg, Illinois: the relocation of a Maytag refrigerator plant—long the backbone of that community—to Reynosa, Mexico. Although these two cities had nothing in common before, this corporate decision intertwined their destinies, and as Galesburg fell into decline, Reynosa started to develop into a thriving urban area. But what of the families in these two cities? What of the workers? What does globalization look like when you sit down across from other human beings and stare into their eyes? These are the questions of Chad Broughton’s BOOM, BUST, EXODUS.

Broughton, who teaches at the University of Chicago, covers this subject with an academic’s skill, but his book reaches beyond that too, delving into the lives of people in Galesburg and Reynosa with the precision and sweep of a social novelist. BOOM, BUST, EXODUS tells the story of globalization through the voices of the people struck most deeply by it, and in so doing, Broughton creates a portrait of two countries—the United States and Mexico—in the throes of great change.

Broughton will visit Brazos on Monday, January 19, at 7pm. In anticipation of that visit, I spoke to him about audience, responsibility, and the virtues of grimness.


BRAZOS BOOKSTORE: Given your academic background, readers might find this book a little intimidating. How would you describe it to somebody who claims not to like books about economics?

CHAD BROUGHTON: I would describe it as a book about ordinary people caught up in a time of extraordinary economic change—the dilemmas they face, how they adapt, where they fall down, how they pick themselves up. I tried to write an engaging book about people and the places they live, with brief explorations of the historical, sociological, and economic contexts in which they find themselves.

BB: So are you writing for an academic audience or a more “general” audience—however you define that?

CB: I have been driven for the past decade or so by the desire to craft a book that would not only be well-received by my colleagues in sociology, but also a book that my family and friends would enjoy. It’s a fine balance, and one runs the risk of pleasing neither audience. I hope the final product works on both levels, but I’m especially hoping book lovers of all sorts will like it. I think a general audience—all of us who are curious and love to read, really—relates to storytelling about people and places, and that’s what I’ve tried to do.

BB: Well, certainly storytelling is the backbone of this book. How did you decide which personal stories to include or exclude?

CB: That’s a great question. You’re right; I didn’t include everyone I interviewed. Instead I focused deeply on stories that I found to be suggestive of common experiences in both Galesburg and Reynosa—and, more generally, of the Rust Belt and the U.S.-Mexico border.

BB: Do you feel responsible for these people after you write about them?

CB: I’ve known many of the subjects of the book for over twelve years now, and they’ve been incredibly generous to me. So it’s essential to represent faithfully the facts and lives of the people with whom I spoke, and to do so with empathy and compassion. When people invite you into their lives for that long and agree to share their life stories—especially in this case, in times of hardship and turmoil for many—one has to get it right, down to every detail.

BB: What surprised you most in writing this book?

CB: That everyone has an interesting story if you’re willing to listen. Whether it was in Galesburg, Reynosa, or Veracruz, I found people who not only had something to say, but something they wanted to say—and these are people who are not typically listened to by journalists, politicians, or corporate leaders. I love to listen and to try to draw out insights, to have conversations with people from all types of backgrounds. That has been surprisingly easy and incredibly rewarding, given the openness of the people I’ve met. At the same time, I was surprised by how long and challenging the task of interweaving all those stories in the book ultimately was. That was the hard part, but rewarding in its own ways.

BB: Did you have literary models for that task of interweaving?

CB: THERE ARE NO CHILDREN HERE, FAST FOOD NATION, and FACTORY GIRLS are journalistic accounts of important economic, social, and policy questions, but beautifully and poignantly embedded in the lives of ordinary people. We sociologists sometimes write leaden, dull, and jargon-filled prose. If we are to be relevant, we ought to aspire to Kotlowitz, Schlosser, Chang, and other investigative journalists who tackle important and timely topics in an engaging way. UNBROKEN, THE PERFECT STORM, and THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS were also inspirations.

BB: BOOM, BUST, EXODUS covers a grim subject, but do you consider it a grim book?

CB: Honestly, I am drawn to grim topics. I think it’s important we face up to the causes and consequences of growing inequality and the erosion of the middle class in America, what is driving the immigration crisis, and so on. That said, the experience for me has been anything but grim. I was absolutely inspired by some of the people with whom I spoke—people who are carving big lives out of diminished offerings in Galesburg. I was inspired by the sacrifices that parents made for their children in Reynosa. Even when the circumstances are grim, there is grit, resilience, and growth—especially when the circumstances are grim, perhaps.


BOOM, BUST, EXODUS is in stock now.

Boom, Bust, Exodus: The Rust Belt, the Maquilas, and a Tale of Two Cities Cover Image
$29.95
ISBN: 9780199765614
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Oxford University Press, USA - January 2nd, 2015

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