Poor People

by William T. Vollmann

Poor People

Paperback, 128 pages, Harpercollins, List Price: $16.95 | purchase

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Book Summary

The award-winning author of Europe Central and Rising Up and Rising Down meditates on the diversity of poverty in a series of vignettes through which he shares interviews with impoverished people from around the world who draw on a range of belief systems to account for their financial disadvantages. Reprint. 50,000 first printing.

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Excerpt: Poor People

Poor People

Poor People


HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2008 William Vollmann
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780060878849

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 mostly covered 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.

Continues...



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