Hanging with the Have-Nots

Empathetic author William T. Vollmann talks about his new book, Poor People

| Utne Reader May / June 2007

Author William T. Vollmann has traveled to unforgiving and turbulent places in search of insights into the human condition, conducted exhaustive research, and written epic works that commingle genres, deepen our perception of history, intensify our sense of empathy, and complicate our moral equations. Vollmann's new book is a concise (for him) work of socially conscious nonfiction titled simply and provocatively Poor People (Ecco, 2007). A mix of nervy oral history, candid philosophical inquiry, and self-critical personal reflection, Poor People draws on Vollmann's sojourns in Thailand, Yemen, Colombia, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Bosnia, India, Russia, Mexico, and Japan. In each place, he asks people why they are poor, what the best way is to help them, and what their greatest hopes are.

You examined violence in great detail in Rising Up and Rising Down [McSweeney's, 2003]. In Poor People, you focus on poverty.

Yes, but more modestly. In Rising Up and Rising Down, I wanted to develop a moral calculus. Although it's flawed, I do think I achieved something. With Poor People, I thought, I don't have the right or the capability to figure out how to eradicate poverty. I think most other people don't, either. But if I can describe what the experience has been for some people, maybe we can learn something from that. If not, at least we can open ourselves up to people who suffer. We can think about them, and that's probably good for them and good for us.

You make the point that poverty isn't strictly about material deprivation; it also involves the impoverishment of people's inner lives.

That's one of the really sad things. In speaking with people for Rising Up and Rising Down, I would often hear eloquence. When you talk to poor people, you often meet people whose minds and spirits have been starved like their bodies, and so they're not capable of eloquence.

You specialize in ambiguity and empathy. You embrace complexity. You're a walk-a-mile-in-his-shoes writer on an epic scale.

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