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Poor People
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Poor People

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by William T. Vollmann

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because i was bad in my last life.
because allah has willed it.
because the rich do nothing for the poor.
because the poor do nothing for themselves.
because it is my destiny.

These are just some of the answers to the simple yet groundbreaking question William T. Vollmann asks in cities and villages around the globe:


because i was bad in my last life.
because allah has willed it.
because the rich do nothing for the poor.
because the poor do nothing for themselves.
because it is my destiny.

These are just some of the answers to the simple yet groundbreaking question William T. Vollmann asks in cities and villages around the globe: "Why are you poor?" In the tradition of James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Vollmann's Poor People struggles to confront poverty in all its hopelessness and brutality, its pride and abject fear, its fierce misery and its quiet resignation. Poor People allows the poor to speak for themselves, explaining the causes and consequences of their impoverishment in their own cultural, social, and religious terms.

There is the alcoholic mother in Buddhist Thailand, sure that her poverty is punishment for transgressions in a former life, and her ten-year-old daughter, whose faith in her own innocence gives her hope that her sin in the last life was simply being rich. There is the Siberian-born beggar who pins her woes on a tick bite and a Gypsy curse more than a half century ago, and the homeless, widowed Afghan women who have been relegated to a "respected" but damning invisibility. There are Big and Little Mountain, two Japanese salarymen who lost their jobs suddenly and now live in a blue-tarp hut under a Kyoto bridge. And, most haunting of all, there is the faded, starving beggar-girl, staring empty-eyed on the back steps of Bangkok's Central Railroad Station, whose only response to Vollmann's query is simply, "I think I am rich."

The result of Vollmann's fearless journey is a look at poverty unlike any other. Complete with more than 100 powerfully affecting photographs—taken of the interviewees by the author himself—this series of vignettes and searing insights represents a tremendous step toward an understanding of this age-old social ill. With intense compassion and a scrupulously unpatronizing eye, Vollmann invites his readers to recognize in our fellow human beings their full dignity, fallibility, pride, and pain, and the power of their hard-fought resilience.

Editorial Reviews

In his travels around the globe, National Book Award winner William T. Vollmann has asked the impoverished a single question: "Why are you poor?" They responded in strikingly different ways. For Buddhist Thais, the answer was simple: They had misbehaved in a previous life. Mexicans attributed their ill fortune to the chicanery of the rich; Yemenites refused to acknowledge their poverty because to do so would show ingratitude to Allah, the source of life. Japanese, too, denied being poor, but for a different reason: personal shame. Profusely illustrated, this book-length series of vignettes casts a new light on a problem we will always have with us.
Janet Maslin
The best parts of Poor People, like a 1995 episode in the Philippines called “The Rider,” are the self-contained ones: anecdotal, sharply observant, playful, unpretentious and frankly ambivalent about Mr. Vollmann’s presence on the page. In a book that is written in the first person and purports to examine the intimacies of others’ lives, he succeeds in being the only person in Poor People who goes unobserved.
— The New York Times
Leon Dash
While the reader will come away with a broader understanding of the world's impoverished and how they were either born or got that way, the haunting message we're left with in Poor People is that they will always be with us -- something so many of us already know.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

The varied responses to the question "why are you poor?" fuels this meditation on the nature of poverty by journalist and National Book Award–winning novelist Vollmann (Europe Central, etc.). The book, structured as a series of vignettes that span the globe and decades, describes Vollmann's encounters with individuals and families who many would consider poor. A handful of these people, including three generations of women in Thailand and two men in Japan, drive the book, as Vollmann closely examines their circumstances. His alternately sentimental and erudite inquiry is based in large part on his and their personal experience, as an antidote to the official and scientific data about poverty. Indeed, his attempt to understand poverty is deeply entwined with a more poetic inquiry into happiness. Some of the anecdotes set aflight by Vollmann's novelistic attention to details are provocative;others, however, come off as more nostalgic than illustrative, and give the book a desultory feel. But the book's movement between details and thought, spiced with Vollmann's singular style, is intriguing. On the table is not just poverty, but questions of community, fate and perspective. The book's greatest accomplishment is that—unlike other works of this sort—it's neither guilt producing nor guilt absolving. At the end, there's no implied sigh or self-congratulation, for writer or reader. This is the book's greatest achievement.(Mar.)

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal

Paradoxically, perhaps, this book is highly recommended for all libraries. It is not objective. It does not establish new criteria for identifying poverty. It is not a cri de coeurfor the wretched of the earth, nor does it celebrate the stoicism of the needy. It is not likely to influence public policy or inspire new initiatives to help the poor. It is a challenging collection of essays describing this well-traveled author's encounters with poor people around the globe and their responses to the question "Why are you poor?" The 2005 National Book Award fiction winner for his Europe Central, Vollmann is decidedly unhampered by the strictures of academic sociology (or any other strictures, for that matter). He describes his subjects and their answers (e.g., it is Allah's will; or one was bad in a previous life), tosses aside standard measures of "poverty" and casually draws upon a wonderful array of fairly unconventional sources (the 1911 Britannica, Philippine Economics,and The Great Soviet Encyclopediamake appearances). Vollmann brings to bear his keen powers of observation on the world around him and, not incidentally, on himself; he is unabashed about allowing his emotional reactions to inform his thoughts about what it means to be poor. This remarkable book is sui generisand should be in all collections.
—Ellen D. Gilbert

Kirkus Reviews
National Book Award-winning novelist and journalist Vollmann (Europe Central, 2005, etc.) asks street people why they think they're poor. Most have no answer. The author doesn't either, though he certainly has temerity. On mean streets and blasted spots in New York, California, Japan, China, Thailand, Afghanistan, Russia, Kenya, the Philippines and elsewhere, Vollmann sought out the most wanting among us, heard their stories, asked his questions. He has no solutions to global poverty. He knows that only the well-to-do and educated will read his book; the best he can offer is a plea for a "culture of communalism." He is fully aware of the narrative's central irony: a rich, educated guy, jetting around the world visiting prostitutes, alcoholics, the homeless and the hopeless. Some were forthcoming; he was welcomed into a Thai home made of planks. Others were reticent, distrustful, even fearful: In Kazakhstan, no one would talk to him about the oil company that had ravaged the local environment; nor could he find anyone in Japan to arrange an interview with a "snakehead" who smuggled illegal Chinese immigrants, many of whom became prostitutes. Vollmann tackles head-on the problem of hope, seeing it in gambling, drug-taking and love. (Oddly, he alludes to religion only briefly, mostly in sections about the Taliban.) The most powerful chapter concerns the author's experiences with the homeless who camp in the parking lot adjacent to his house in Sacramento. Vollmann pinballs among emotions ranging from compassion to anger, frustration, rage and disgust when he has to scrub their feces from his building's outer wall. He tries to maintain a human connection with them, partly because he is "kindby nature" (he hopes), but also because their good will may minimize the damage they do to his property. Snapshots of people no one wants to think about, written with great candor by someone unafraid to reveal his own fears and prejudices.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.41(d)

Read an Excerpt

Poor People

Chapter One

I Think I Am Rich

(Thailand, 2001)

The first time I met Sunee, I was in Klong Toey seeking a poor person whom I could ask why poverty existed, and she rushed right up to me, drunkenly plucking at my sleeve, pleading with me to come home with her. In the opinion of my interpreter, she was surely a former prostitute since she could speak a few words of Japanese and since when she poured out water for us she cried laughingly in English, exactly as the bargirls did in Patpong: Dlink, dlink!

Against the interpreter's advice, I decided to accept Sunee's proposition [photographs 19–21]. We had been in Klong Toey less than five minutes. Turning into the nearest slum, which began fifty steps away, we found ourselves in the accustomed maze of dank, sloping sidewalks, with house-crates close enough to touch on either side. The inhabitants inspected me slyly from their window-holes: Would I buy heroin or little girls? Sunee staggered triumphantly ahead, clutching at her heart. In two minutes more we'd arrived home, which is to say Sunee's mother's shack, whose ceiling and walls were planks nailed together, with warped gaps here and there for the greater convenience of Thailand's mosquitoes. The four of us sat down cross-legged on a blue vinyl sheet which mostlycovered the concrete floor. What I noticed was firstly the scrawny, reddish cat licking and gnawing at itself, I assume because it had fleas, secondly the round mirror which unfailingly expressed the corrugated wall (jars on a shelf), and thirdly the smell of bad water all around. What my still resentful interpreter for her part noted were Sunee's mother's household goods, particularly the pair of fans, one of which, the good one on the ceiling, our hostess had plugged in for a welcome; I should also enumerate the water filter, television and midget refrigerator. The interpreter sullenly informed me that Sunee couldn't be the least bit poor, for Sunee, or at least Sunee's mother, owned more appliances than she did!—My interpreter was shrewd, experienced, and, except when bitterness of one kind or another misled her, never wrong. In this case, her appreciation proved as accurate as it had been rapid, for I soon learned that the old lady owned this house; she'd bought it with her own money. Fine; so they were rich. Meanwhile Sunee kept looking at me, half caressing her breasts through the shirt, with whose tails and collar she continuously wiped her face.

She'd taken her first husband at seventeen, in those lost days before her father died. The result: four children. He was a construction laborer. In Sunee's words, he didn't love me true, since he left her for another woman. A decade later, she married again and got rewarded with the next baby. If I understood properly, this man also abandoned her, although Sunee, swaying and drunkenly weeping, passed over his memory in a confusing manner which might actually have been the reticence in which one clothes a private grief; nor was the bored, disgusted interpreter as helpful as on prior occasions. At any rate, the two husbands seemed less important as protagonists of the tale than as impersonal impregnation agents who'd passed through her like illnesses. Sunee woke up and found herself the mother of five; that was that. She'd worked hard to take care of them all, she sobbed, blowing her nose in her shirt, leaning against her mother's shoulder. Three were at university now; they never came to visit. The fourth worked in a bank. The youngest still lived with her.

The mother's fine, well-kept silver bangs trembled in the breeze from the ceiling fan as she traced S-shaped patterns in that blue vinyl floor covering whose edges had been repaired with brown packing tape. She herself had given birth to eight children, three of whom were already dead. She was sixty-seven, and Sunee was in her forties.

Now, my life is only with my mother, Sunee insisted to the world. My only power is my mom. She's always told me, Sunee, you try to be strong because I am here and I'll never throw you away.

And her mother, with a broad, gentle, broken-toothed grimace, gazed steadily at the drunken woman.

Every few moments, Sunee made a wai, the clasp-handed Thai bow of greeting, gratitude or respect, and then she said kap kum kah, thank you, sometimes to me, sometimes to her mother.

She worked for an illegal Chinese cleaning company which never allowed her any holiday; her boss had a very bad heart, and the memory of his existence shrilled her voice quite out of fervent mother-worship; for a long, long time she clawed at the air as she denounced him, until, exhausted by her own anger, she blew her nose in her shirt again.

The mother gently controlled her extremest gestures. Sometimes she told her not to speak impolitely.

Since you're unhappy, do you want to be a nun? the interpreter inquired.

No, I don't want to. Give me your telephone number, she said to me. The mother mournfully touched her knee; but Sunee, ignoring this warning, all the sudden began to plead and demand, leaning forward, gesturing, smoothing back her hair. My interpreter, who liked and helped almost everybody, including terrorists, could not squeeze out any respect whatsoever for Sunee, who kept saying: My daughter is good; my mother is good. I'm a drunk.

What do you like to drink? Mekong?

Local whiskey.

If you could have any one thing, what would you hope for?

She clutched her fists to her breasts and said in a tearful voice: Money! About ten thousand baht for the youngest's education. My daughter is good. My own life doesn't matter now.

A mosquito was biting my arm.

Sunee supposed that I must be a Christian missionary. Why else would I, Caucasian and a man, have agreed to enter this house? After all, she was too old to be sexy, right? If not, why wouldn't I give her my telephone number? Staring at me roguishly or perhaps defiantly, she cried out: Jesus said, I can die for humans. Me, too, I can die—for my daughter.


Excerpted from Poor People by William Vollmann Copyright © 2007 by William Vollmann. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

William T. Vollmann is the author of seven novels, three collections of stories, and a seven-volume critique of violence, Rising Up and Rising Down. He is also the author of Poor People, a worldwide examination of poverty through the eyes of the impoverished themselves; Riding Toward Everywhere, an examination of the train-hopping hobo lifestyle; and Imperial, a panoramic look at one of the poorest areas in America. He has won the PEN Center USA West Award for Fiction, a Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize and a Whiting Writers' Award. His journalism and fiction have been published in The New Yorker, Esquire, Spin and Granta. Vollmann lives in Sacramento, California.

Brief Biography

Sacramento, California
Date of Birth:
July 28, 1959
Place of Birth:
Santa Monica, California
Attended Deep Springs College and Cornell University

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Poor People 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Vollman never seems afraid to jump into situations and experience them and so far this is my favorite book of his. No one asks the poor what they think about their situation- we talk about them like they're not there. Vollman meets people on their own turf and talks with them. Really eye-opening
Anonymous More than 1 year ago