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Poor Peopleby William T. Vollmann
"As Vollmann struggles to make sense of their poverty, he writes with a reporter's frank detail and a novelist's grace....Vollmann obviously cares deeply about the problem of poverty; he offers a few solutions and asks some important questions. But in the end, you get the sense that the way he really thinks he can help poor people is by reminding us that they're alive." Ryan D'Agostino, Esquire (read the entire Esquire review)
Synopses & Reviews
because i was bad in my last life.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.
"I recently reconnected with a woman I met 23 years ago and interviewed for more than a year. In 1984, she was an 18-year-old single mother of a 3-year-old boy and lived in Washington Highlands, one of the District's poorest and most isolated communities. She and her son had been briefly homeless the year before. She married a couple of years after I wrote about her, had two additional... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) children, moved to suburban Maryland, then divorced and lost her home to foreclosure. Within weeks of losing her house, she quickly descended back into the poverty she thought she had forever left behind. A series of marginal, low-income jobs followed, and only her grit and determination kept her and her children out of a homeless shelter. Since our reconnection, she has insisted that I learn what her life has been like in the years since her fall. She has been evicted repeatedly because she couldn't pay the rent, and she has been unable to provide some basic amenities for her children. Her plight, her pain and her struggle are all too common, as National Book Award winner William T. Vollmann shows in 'Poor People.' Vollmann sought to increase our understanding of poverty by traveling the world and asking people, 'Why are you poor?' His book, based on interviews conducted between 1994 and 2005, is a prodigious global examination of how poor people live. Much like the woman with whom I've been in touch, the poor people whom Vollmann met live on the economic margins of societies, urban and rural, in Africa, Asia, Europe and North and South America. 'Needless to say, my own interpretation of how this book's heroes and heroines see themselves is damaged by the brevity of our acquaintance, which in most cases endured a week or less,' Vollmann writes. I wish he had stayed just a little longer in each case and conducted more interviews with the many intriguing individuals he had encountered. Had he done so, their narratives would have been richer and our perceptions deeper. Vollmann does not collect a full biographical narrative of his participants' lives and does not give them enough time to open up to him and reveal who they really are. But perhaps I expect too much. That might have required another decade or two — and Vollmann would still be interviewing. Vollmann's greatest contribution to our understanding of the poor may be his persuasive list of poverty's characteristics and dimensions. They are invisibility, deformity, unwantedness, dependence, accident-proneness, pain, numbness and estrangement. For each category, Vollmann provides instructive examples from his travels and interviews. 'One measure of poverty is susceptibility to accident,' Vollmann observes. 'The eight-year-old black schoolgirl in the Colombian shantytown of Nueva Esperanza who got chased home by two boys with knives would not have been vulnerable to precisely that sort of bad luck had her mother been able to afford a chauffeur.' The responses to Vollmann's query — 'Why are you poor?' — were as varied as the people he approached and, in some cases, were influenced by religion and culture. In Yemen and Afghanistan, the poor responded that their poverty was Allah's incontestable will. Angelica, a prostitute in Mexicali, Mexico, argued that there are no rich and poor people, just people who know how to take care of their money and people who don't. A female garbage hauler in Nanning, China, did not know why she was poor because she worked as hard as other people. Yet his subjects' goals are distressingly familiar. The garbage hauler's dream, for instance, was 'to do some business for her family, to change her life and her family's life, she wasn't sure how.' Nothing Vollmann discovered in his travels and interviews promises a change for the better. 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." Reviewed by Patrick Anderson, whose e-mail address is mondaythrillers(at symbol)aol.comAmy Alexander, whose reviews appear monthly in The Washington Post Style SectionZofia Smardz, an editor of the Washington Post's Outlook sectionCarolyn See, who can be reached at www.carolynsee.comLeon Dash, a former Post reporter and author of 'Rosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban America', Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"For all the sorrow Vollmann catalogs, his persistent and compassionate pursuit of the truth reminds us of all that we share as human beings and all that we can do for each other." Booklist (Starred Review)
"Snapshots of people no one wants to think about, written with great candor by someone unafraid to reveal his own fears and prejudices." Kirkus Reviews
"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." Janet Maslin, New York Times
A National Book Award-winning author travels the globe and meets with impoverished individuals where they live to document firsthand the causes and effects of poverty. Two 16-page photo inserts.
About the Author
William T. Vollmann is the author of seven novels, three collections of stories, and the seven-volume critique of violence, Rising Up and Rising Down. His most recent novel, Europe Central, won the National Book Award in 2005. He has also 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.
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