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    Poor People by William T. Vollmann

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    In poor People, Vollmann share’s personal interviews on poverty around the world and the different experiences, views people have on it. The author uses translators, sometimes even locals, to help him interview different individuals and ask them about poverty. More specifically, he asks one crucial question, “Why are you poor.” ‘Poor People’ is a collection of real stories about the people, families Vollmann interviewed. He tells these stories through his point of view. Vollmann recollects information about the individuals’ lives, the state they are in and the answers to his vital question.

    Usually, people would respond to this question varying from Allah choosing poverty for them to simply people are lazy. The author adds in ‘his’ thoughts about what everyone has to say about being poor, and whether they themselves believe that they are poor. Vollmann goes into detail about the everyday lives of people who live in poverty. He examines their lives and how much they differ from other countries, including the United States. Even when he receives the simple answer, it still doesn’t seem to explain well why they are poor. Sometimes the author goes into full detail about an individual’s life, other times it’s just a glimpse. Even with all this information, we as readers can’t fully understand the depth of poverty.

    Poverty cannot be understood by a definition of someone who lives in poverty, it goes beyond that point. “Poor People” is a novel that follows the author as he tries to unveil the truth to poverty. His question is simple “Why are you poor?” The author starts off by introducing Sunee, a drunken woman that begs that he comes to her house to stay. Sunee tells him that she’s been drinking for 20 years, she can’t stop. The only way she is happy is if she has her whiskey. She also informs him that they are not poor, or at least her mother isn’t, because of the appliances she owns. Sunee’s mother also owns the house. While Vollmann is getting to know the family of Sunee, her mother, and her daughter Vimonrat, he asks as to why they think they are poor. When asked this question, her mother is a firm believer that people are poor because of what they did in their previous lives. She even goes on to state that she wasn’t poor. It seemed like they were well off. Later Vollman asks Sunee if she considers herself poor, yes, she said. (Vollmann 6)

    We continue with the story as the author interviews more people and asking the simple yet impactful question. In other countries, the answer would mostly be destiny. When asked if destiny can be changed, the answer was “Impossible. Always poor” (Vollman 11) At last Vollmann asks Vimonrat, as to why she thinks that they are poor. She also believes that it depends on the life before. The author ends part one of his story meets a homeless woman. He asks her the question and her answer “I think I am rich” (Vollmann 27) When reading Sunee’s story, you come to realize how devastating it is for her and her family to be stuck in such poverty. When Sunee’s mother states that she doesn’t think that they are poor, she considers herself rich since she has all these appliances such as a small refrigerator, TV.

    We often don’t think of these things as riches. In America, we are almost expected to have these things, if not a TV at least a refrigerator. It’s important to note that what we think is cheap might not always be cheap to someone else. We take things for granted. As we learn more about Sunee, we see that she is in this circumstance because she had to stay home from school and help her mother. She is aware of this, that is why she wants her daughter to succeed in life. Sunee hopes that Vimonrat has a better future than her. Why is it that made Sunee poor? Is it because of her choices, her destiny or just her character?

    In my opinion, I think it’s a combination of both choices and the character you are. It may be unfair for me to think this way, but if Sunee would’ve stopped drinking and started saving money, she could have a better life. Her choice is to drink and the way she just is, she can’t stop drinking. She even states that many times, if she would’ve been given the opportunity to help her daughter, she would. Well, when Vollmann gives Vimonrat some money to help her out with a few things, Sunee would take that money and spend it on herself. I can’t judge her though, she has lived a hard life, and I can never imagine being put in that position. Would I do the same? What would you do? I know that in America, we are given many opportunities, we have the free education, and we have extra help from the government, and yet we still have people living in poverty. All in all, I think it’s the choices that lead us to where we are.

    The second chapter of Poor People immediately introduces us to a fisherman. When asked if he thinks if he’s rich or poor, he says that he’s neither, but he is happy. The fisherman does not define himself as poor, he has a job. If you have a job you are not poor, by his definition. Vollman then comes to meet Annah who also says that “Allah gives, and He takes.’ (Vollmann 30) To her it’s no problem that she is poor, she considers herself happy.

    The author questions the sincerity of the answers he receives. I think this is because he can’t reciprocate that poor people can be happy with the situation they are in. At one point the author states that poor people have accepted the situation they are in. Most of the groups believe that poverty comes down from generation to generation. The innocent suffers because the ancestors were guilty. Angelica does not consider herself poor because she can work. If you have a job you aren’t poor. So why when we look at someone and the way they lead their life we often assume they are poor? Now, they may be poor to us because they have less than us, but to them, they are just like everyone else that works.

    Vollman asks the withered Japanese as to why some people are poor and some rich. His answer, just like the others, “because some have jobs, and some don’t.” (Vollmann 48) From the beginning, the author begins to question the sincerity of the answers he receives. I wondered why he couldn’t understand that people find other ways to find happiness. Being rich doesn’t grant you that. From their perspective, they’re living good because they have jobs. They think that people without jobs are poor. If what they know all their lives is poor, they don’t consider themselves less than that.

    It’s what they have known, and here’s a stranger questioning their happiness and their way of life. What would you define as poor? We have our definitions of that word. When someone has less than what I have, are they poor? How we compare to others, isn’t always how you would see yourself. You may consider yourself rich, but someone else who has more than you would not think the same. In my opinion, that’s what self-definitions are they are just our thoughts and opinions. They won’t always be the same. “If someone owns less than I, and is unhappy about it, I’ll call him poor.” (Vollman 44)

    In part three of the authors’ journey, we meet Natalia, born in the east of Siberia at the wrong time. She was bitten by a tick, which led to her having epilepsy. When Vollmann asks her why she’s poor, her response, epilepsy. She thinks that it’s her destiny to be in this situation. From the beginning, the author notices a few flaws in the stories she tells. At first, he notices that the years of her husband don’t match. Then she says that her two children committed suicide at age one and three. Vollmann tries to ask her again questions about her husband and her children, each time he would receive a slightly different answer.

    He isn’t certain that she is doing this on purpose because of her condition. Maybe these stories are all partially true, just aren’t put in chronological order. We then meet Oksana, “the spry babushka,” who also considers herself to be poor. Her reasoning for her life in poverty is destiny. While Oksana goes begging, her daughter Nina and her husband Nikolay stay home. Nikolay was affected by radiation, from Chernobyl, and couldn’t work anymore. He couldn’t receive any help either because the dates on his passport were incorrect, which then he couldn’t prove that he was in Chernobyl that time. Nikolay believed the government did that on purpose and wanted all the cleanup personnel to die. Vollmann asked the whole family on why some people are poor and some are rich. “Some people are faster thinkers and some are slower thinkers. The fastest make the most money.” (Vollmann 77)

    Hope dies last, most of them would say. Sunee, Oksana and Natalia didn’t express this optimism, they didn’t really believe it could. It was just something to say. The author concludes that in poverty it’s learned to “surrender to defeat.” (Vollman 79) In the next part of his journey, he travels to China, Nan Ning. This part of the country everything is being rebuilt, the government wants to build more apartments and make the streets bigger. While it may seem that the government is helping, people are losing their homes. Michelle, the interpreter, tells him that many people lose their home titles because they don’t have the money to renew it when the time comes. So, people must give up their land. On that land, the new white apartments are built, with the streets becoming wider. Michelle says that they aren’t poor where they live, they are becoming better. People have no choice, “the little party must obey the great party.” (Vollmann 90)

    In the last little chapter of Self-Definitions, Vollmann visits Japan. There he meets Little Mountain and Big Mountain. They met when they used to have jobs as salarymen after Little Mountain was fired and Big Mountain quit. Big Mountain didn’t think he was poor, he could find a place to stay and a job to do. Little Mountain just wanted to go back to work again. Vollmann met Little Mountain a year later, he had changed. The author notes that it seemed as if Little Mountain had grown numb to the situation he was in. He didn’t care to see Vollman again, he was rich and Little Mountain was poor.

    Based on all the details that the author provided us about poverty, I conclude that poverty is subjective. How we might perceive the poor isn’t the same for everyone else. Individuals living in such conditions don’t think about how poor they are, they think about how they will survive the day. From the interviews, I noticed that people can’t answer right away. A person living in poverty often surrenders to defeat. Again, and again we see that leaving such a place is challenging. There are many factors and challenges facing the community. Vollmann shows the readers the truth about this topic. It shows a different view of the people living in such circumstances. The author shows that each person going through these struggles has a different story, that they are full of pride, pain and their hopefulness that things aren’t as bad as they seem. With moments of brutal honesty, we better understand the true definition of poverty.

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    Poor People by William T. Vollmann. (2021, May 19). Retrieved from

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