Notes on the have-nots

William T. Vollmann discusses the plight of the poor

SN&R Illustration By Jason Crosby

More comments from William T. Vollmann, including why he wrote his award-winning novel, Europe Central, and what he would like to see happen to President George W. Bush.

SN&R caught up with local writer William T. Vollmann at, of all places, a bookstore in Washington, D.C. Vollmann, author of the 2005 National Book Award prize-winner for fiction, Europe Central, was there to promote his new work of nonfiction. Poor People takes a worldwide look at the disenfranchised and dispossessed. What follows are edited excerpts from Vollmann’s responses to questions from the audience.

On poverty and helping others:

You can’t simply measure poverty by the amount of money and possessions that people have. Different societies are poor in different things. It really seems to me that one of our biggest lacks as Americans, one of the reasons that so many of us are lonely, is because we spend a lot of time in cars. Public parks are not always pleasant and safe. We kind of lose the proximity to each other that we might otherwise have. In an African village—I’ve seen this often in Asia—people have to be together, whether they want to or not. In some ways it’s really horrible, but in other ways they do have something that we don’t.

As far as the giving of things is concerned, I guess I would say that it continues to amaze me how difficult it is to help people. You can think you’re doing the right thing, and you’re doing the wrong thing. All you can do is continue to do your best. I remember when I went to the Saddam Hussein Pediatric Hospital in Baghdad. This was for Saddam’s birthday, which is actually the same time as my father’s, but Saddam’s lasted for three days. I brought all the medicine and so forth that I could fit in a big duffle bag, and it was gone in 10 seconds, and everybody was angry and disappointed. But, still, it’s better than doing nothing.

On the reasons people believe they are poor:

The most shocking answer to me that I got was in Thailand. I interviewed some Thai cleaning ladies who lived in very bad conditions. They told me, “I’m poor because I was a bad person in a previous life, and that was my karma.”

In Mexico or Colombia, they talk about how they’re poor because the rich people have stolen from them. In Japan: “I’m not poor. Please don’t call me poor because that humiliates me.” In Yemen: “No, I’m not poor because God gives me everything.” Some beggar sleeping in the street will always say that. So, it does seem to vary by region and by culture.

On his experience with poor people in Sacramento:

I own a building in Sacramento, which is a former restaurant. It has about 10,000 square feet of parking lot. It’s right next to the homeless shelter. So, I always tell everybody, “Come and sleep in my parking lot and stay as long as you want.” So, you know, lots of flames from the crack pipes at night, lots of prostitution. I have my little girl go and give ’em bottles of beer sometimes in the day time.

It’s interesting because we like each other. I like them. They like me. And of course they would break into my studio if they could and take everything. And my job is to keep them out. So I want to be a good person. I want to give them a little bit of a place to stay, but I can’t. I can’t do more than I’m doing.

On the mark of Cain:

One of the things about people who live on the street and poor people, often street prostitutes in this country, certainly, they all bear the mark of Cain. People look at them as if they are horrible. In this book, I list some of the phenomena that I see in poverty. One of them is deformity. Another one is unwantedness.

I guess I’d say if we see people who seem to have the mark of Cain, we should really think about what that means. Think about first of all whether that mark ought to be there, and second of all if it is there, who put it there, and what, if anything, do we feel like doing about it.