Hanging with the Have-Nots

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.

There’s a Turkish proverb: ‘Whoever says the truth will be chased out of nine villages.’ I think that’s accurate. To truly consider the other point of view is an extremely dangerous, frightening thing to do. We all think, in the abstract, Oh, yeah, there’s always another point of view. But what does that mean? Are we really willing to consider al-Qaida’s point of view? Or a child molester’s point of view? That doesn’t mean we have to say those people are right, but it means we have to ask why they do what they do. But when we try to get that close, we find that we have alienated people close to us. When I wrote The Royal Family [Viking, 2000], I put in a character who was a child molester. Some of my friends said, ‘You know, Bill, this time you’ve really gone too far. This guy is just too despicable and too disgusting. He makes me very, very uncomfortable.’ Well, in that case, I’ve probably succeeded.

In Poor People, you write about being surrounded by people who can’t read your work. You’re a writer and also a publisher [Vollmann’s CoTangent Press publishes limited-edition artists’ books]. What place do you think the book holds in our society?

Readers and writers are now simply an interest group. A relatively powerful interest group, but their influence is waning year by year. The good side of that is that it becomes increasingly likely that people will read and write only for the love of it. And that’s a good thing. It’s likely that throughout history, most people have never been particularly well educated, and the world has gotten by somehow. Independent thinking is a category that almost by definition applies to a small number of people, because the majority of people tend to think alike. So I can’t say I even find it that alarming that more and more of the people I know don’t read. It’s a little sad for me personally, but that’s only because that’s what I like to do. As I travel all over the world, and I meet people, let’s say in Yemen, for whom the only book that is at all important is the Quran, I think, well, they have very rich and interesting lives. Who am I to tell them that they should be any different? The average person is as smart as he or she needs to be. And if we get in some terrible mess, then people are going to wake up and try to figure out what needs
to be done.

I love the novel World Light by Halldor Laxness [Vintage, 2002]. He is a great writer, and in that book he writes about a guy who is a true poet. He’s got this incredibly gifted sensibility; he really appreciates all the beauty around him. The only flaw happens to be that he writes terrible poems. So nobody can appreciate any of the stuff that goes on in his head. Maybe we’re all that way.

Excerpted from Bookforum (Feb./March 2007), the book review for art, fiction, and culture. Subscriptions: $16/yr. (5 issues) from Dept. BK, Box 3000, Denville, NJ 07834; www.bookforum.com.

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