Category Archives: poverty

The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse

In a system of free trade and free markets poor countries – and poor people – are not poor because others are rich. Indeed, if others become less rich the poor would in all probability become still poorer. 

First we have the epigraphs: the first (quoted above) is by Margaret Thatcher; the second is by Bernold Brecht and refers to cities, disorder, hunger, uprising, and revolution, among other things.

‘It looks impossible to get out,’ he says. And also: ‘But we’ll get out.’

Then it’s the above opening sentences. And with that, we are ushered into this novel’s strange, allegorical world–an utterly haunting fairytale that I am unlikely to forget anytime soon. This is a short, intense, incredibly creepy read that deserves all of the attention and acclaim it can get and more.

What is this book about? Two brothers, named Big and Small, are trapped at the bottom of the well. They have a bag full of food for their Mother that they refuse to touch (dates, bread). They try to escape but fail. The older brother makes a plan. Days pass, as denoted by the numbers at the beginning of each chapter. They eat grubs, roots, and worms, and drink from puddles of rainwater. Big develops an exercise routine to develop his muscles and helps himself to more of the food, while Small wastes away (both mentally and physically). Sometimes they have to chase away wolves crowding around the edge of the well by throwing stones at them. At one point there is a drought. At another point they catch a bird. There is a peculiar balance between the straightforward language of everyday survival that reminded me of An Evil Cradling (the memoir about the Lebanon hostage crisis), and between hallucinatory, dream-like visions straight out of Can Xue.

But what is this book really about? Certain passages point towards certain readings:

In his dream the well is big like a city. Some say the citizens are all starving because the land exhausted itself. Small can’t recall life outside of the well, but Big is older than him and remembers.

‘They needed space up there,’ he answers whenever Small asks why they live in such a rotten place.

‘Are there many of them up there?’

‘No, very few of them.’

‘So above is small?’

‘No. It’s very big.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Up there is where they hold the power.’ (22)

Is this about terrorism? Revolution? Violence? War? Refugees? Poverty? The 99%? The fact that I can ask so many questions is a testament to this book’s power. What does it mean that the chapters are prime numbers, denoting the number of days spent by the boys in their prison? What about the fact that at one point the well is compared to ‘an empty pyramid with no tip’? And what on earth are we to make of the fable Small tells about the titular boy who stole Attilla’s horse, who made shoes out of the hooves and killed the grass wherever he set foot? And how when he took the shoes off his feet were ‘clean, unmarked; they even smelled good’? (53) Is the title a metaphor for those who live in comfort, destroying everything for their benefit and happiness? A ‘those’ in which we are all implicitly implicated, like it or not? To use a Titanic metaphor–it’s not that some of us are in lifeboats and we ought to help those who are struggling. It’s that we are all on the Titanic together, and for all of the desire of some of us located on the top deck to “help” those in the lower decks, the reality is that we need them to do the work they’re doing in order for us to maintain what we have. I’m reminded of George Orwell, writing about coal mining in The Road to Wigan Pier:

Watching coal-miners at work, you realise momentarily what different universes different people inhabit. Down there where coal is dug it is a sort of world apart which one can quite easily go through life without ever hearing about. Probably a majority of people would even prefer not to hear about it. Yet it is the absolutely necessary counterpoint of our world above. Practically everything we do, from eating an ice to crossing the Atlantic, and from baking a loaf to writing a novel, involves the use of coal, directly or indirectly. For all the arts of peace coal is needed; if war breaks out it is needed all the more… Whatever may be happening on the surface, the hacking and shoveling have got to continue without a pause.

…And even now, if coal could not be produced without pregnant women dragging it to and fro, I fancy we should let them do it rather than deprive ourselves of coal. But most of the time, of course, we should prefer to forget that they were doing it. It is so with all types of manual work; it keeps us alive, and we are oblivious of its existence. More than anyone else, perhaps, the miner can stand as the type of the manual worker, not only because his work is so exaggeratedly awful, but also because it is so vitally necessary and yet so remote from our experience, so invisible, as it were, that we are capable of forgetting it as we forget the blood in our veins. In a way it is even humiliating to watch coal-miners working. It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an “intellectual” and a superior person generally. For it is brought home to you, at least while you are watching, that it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior.”

So yeah, a lot of thoughts and ideas and themes came up for me when reading this. Narrating the story like a fairy tale (ambiguous time and place) and keeping it short, simple and readable was a wise aesthetic choice by the author. The focus on the boys’ youth, and the grooming of Small by Big, reminded me a lot of The Buried Giant. The focus on physical suffering and mental deterioration made me think of A Little LifeBy the end of the book we’re not sure whether to feel empowered or doomed, and it’s the ambiguity of that situation that ends up resonating strongest.

Small asks unnecesarry questions:

‘Why are we here?’

‘Is this the real world?’

‘Are we really children?’

Big never answers. (50)

Again–I’m not going to forget this book anytime soon. It’s the kind of thing that lingers. Especially the scene where the brothers come to a decision about what to do with the dead bird. Or the part where the mother’s bag full of food reappears. Or when Small invents hole-appropriate forms of art and culture (what a hallucinatory scene!). Or the final words that Big speaks to Small–his last instructions.

This is Iván Repila’s second novel, and first to be translated into English (by Sophie Hughes, who does an excellent job–I’d love to read the original Spanish for the aphasia sequence). I can’t wait to see what either of them does next. You can read an excerpt from the opening here, in the forever excellent Quarterly Conversation. Thank god for literature like this in the world–concise, untraditional and uncompromising.

‘Once we are up there, we’ll throw a party.’

‘A party?’


‘The kind with balloons and lights and cakes?’

‘No. The kind with rocks, torches and gallows.’ (23)

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Filed under books, poverty, review, social justice

“All of my being is now in pining”: More Tolstoy

 I STILL haven’t finished “War and Peace”!! I have about 155 pages left to read and a long 4-hour layover in Bogota tomorrow, so hopefully I can triumphantly mark it as “read” on Goodreads by the end of the day.

War and Peace is a REALLY good (dare I say great?) book, so I don’t know why the last 300 pages have been such a slog for me. Maybe it’s a syndrome of “too much of a good thing”, as it’s the only book I’ve been reading for the past month (no, Judy Blume and Lois Duncan don’t count). As a way to “reward” myself in between chapters, I’ve been picking up Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia, a relic from my sister’s freshman year at Wesleyan (the title even refers to War & Peace! How perfect is that?). I remember e-mailing passages from this book about the brutality of drunk Russian men and the woe-is-me folk songs that their abused wives would sing to an ex-friend of mine who was really into Russian culture. Now after reading it in more depth, I’m pleased to say that it really is a most enjoyable, highly recommendable book. The map in the front page was also extraordinarily helpful, as it helped me make more sense of Tolstoy’s historically-based passages (“The French are heading back to Mozhaisk via Smolensk? OMG!”).

I still have a hundred-ish pages to go, but I don’t think I’m being presumptuous by stating that one of the major themes (if not THE major theme) of War and Peace is the Search For Truth. This Search is embodied by the main characters, the dashing Prince Andrei Volkonsky (apparently based on Tolstoy’s grandfather, whom he greatly admired and sought to emulate) and the dour, chubby Pierre (whose life is similar to Tolstoy’s to the point of eeriness). Pierre, in all his clumsiness and WTF-are-you-thinking moments (kind of like a female, Russian, 19th-century Sophie from The Wonder Spot), was definitely the one I related to the most. Pierre is very much a a character who is constantly on a quest throughout the book, in search of something to give his life meaning and purpose:

Whatever he started thinking about, he came back to the same questions, which he could not resolve and could not stop asking himself. It was as if the main screw in his head, which held his whole life together, had become stripped. The screw would not go in, would not come out, but turned in the same groove without catching hold, and it was impossible to stop turning it. (347)

What is bad? What is good? What should one love, what hate? Why live, and what am I? What is life, what is death? What power rules over everything?… And there was no answer to any of these questions except one, which was not logical and was not at all an answer to these questions. This answer was: ‘You will die—and everything will end. You will die and learn everything—or stop asking.’ But to die was also frightening. (348)

(Here’s another great passage involving Pierre that my sister e-mailed me waaaay back in senior year of college, when she first read it.)

Now I haven’t finished the book yet, but so far it seems that one solution to this problem of meaning that Tolstoy proposes is Love and Compassion, which would definitely get the Pema Chodron stamp of approval. There’s a very moving scene in which one of the main characters (not Pierre!) is on his deathbed, and he forgives his very worst enemy, a person who has committed a horrible betrayal against him, and becomes capable of feeling love and compassion for him. After this realization of the importance Love as “life”, (984) the character experiences “an awakening from life” (985)and begins to drift into death. It’s almost as if by approaching this truth–of loving completely and totally, without reservations–the character can no longer be expected to remain in this world, and instead has to pass on to the next one. In this way Love is presented as the key to meaning, as the way of making sense of one’s life, but it’s as though it’s a meaning you cannot adopt without completely renouncing all earthly things, including the world itself.

(Renunciation is also an interesting theme in Tolstoy, if you consider “Tolstoyism” and his radical anarchist Christian socialism that he adopted later in life and yes, his Into the Wild fanboydom. But that’s a theme for another day.)

It’s interesting to me that Tolstoy uses the deathbed as the ideal moment (indeed, the only moment) in which Truth and Meaning can be revealed to the protagonist.  (Not just in War & Peace, but in Ivan Ilych, the only other work of his that I’ve read, way back in 10th-grade Spanish class.) These kind of death scenes are a far cry from the more “modern” kinds of death that take place in Onetti, or the inexplicable, horrifying ones caused by modern warfare in World War I, II or even the Civil War. It’s especially interesting if you keep in mind that according to Natasha’s Dance, apparently Tolstoy himself was both terrified and fascinated by death, in the best Woody Allen sense:

Tolstoy desperately tried to rationalize death as a part of life. ‘People who fear death, fear it because it appears to them as emptiness and blackness,’ he wrote in ‘One Life’ (1887), ‘but they see emptiness and blackness because they do not see life.’ Then, under Schopenhauer’s influence perhaps, he came to regard death as the dissolution of one’s personality in some abstract essence of the universe. But none of it was convincing to those who knew him well. As Chekhov put it in a letter…, Tolstoy was terrified of his own death, but did not want to admit it.” (345)

 Contrasting Chekhov’s attitude towards death with Tolstoy is also an interesting exercise, as apparently Chekhov had a much more relaxed, down-to-earth attitude. With the moment of his tuberculosis-induced deathbed rapidly encroaching, Chekhov dealt with it by checking into a hotel with his wife and drinking a glass of champagne before expiring. Talk about “a good death,” the proper way to approach your momento moris! We should all be so lucky (the soldiers getting blown to bits in Iraq and Afghanistan are definitely not afforded such a luxury). According to Natasha’s Dance, Chekhov’s understanding of death was closer to the peasant’s understanding: “Chekhov understood that people die in a very ordinary way—for the most part they die thinking about life. He saw that death is simply part of the natural process.” (348) Tolstoy himself  “long believed that the peasants died in a different way from the educated classes, a way that showed they knew the meaning of their lives. The peasants died accepting death.” (353) This reminds me of the people I met and worked with during my oh so brief foray into microfinance, who would definitely be considered peasants on the social-economic scale of things in 19th-century Russia. I’m reminded in the sense that they were accepting of their fates and always spoke of a higher power that guided them (I always wanted to tell them to give themselves more credit!). Death is a firmly established, indisputable ritual, and that’s why there’s no fear or uncertainty: they know how to die. Death is a moment when you need to get your affairs in order, so you don’t leave things in a big mess for your family to deal with after you go. It’s a very simple, practical attitude, as though you’re just walking through an open door to go on a trip somewhere.

Chekhov's calm, appropriately doctorly, all-accepting countenance inspires reassurance

I have to go to bed soon (7AM flight…woooo!) so I’ll keep this brief, but let me just say that if I had to write a college paper about Tolstoy (Ha Ha Ha!) or War and Peace, I’d probably want to write about his attitude towards the peasants. There’s several interesting scenes in War & Peace that could be used for this purpose. The best one is when Pierre meets a peasant who seems to be the embodiment of the simple living and acceptance of meaning that he’s been desperately searching for throughout these 900+ pages:

Karataev had no attachments, friendships or love, as Pierre understood them, but he loved and lived affectionately with everything that life brought him in contact with, particularly man—not any particular man, but those with whom he happened to be… To Pierre he always remained… an unfathomable, rounded, eternal personification of the spirit of simplicity and truth.” (lost page number, sorry!)

Karataev appears to Pierre as the embodiment of simplicity and truth because he seems to be very certain of his place in his life, of his membership to a particular community. So in addition to LOVE being one of the key solutions to the Search for Truth, Tolstoy also seems to be saying that COMMUNITY is equally important. As Natasha’s Dance puts it:

“Tolstoy thought of God in terms of love and unity. He wanted to belong, to feel himself a part of a community. This was the ideal he sought in marriage and in his communion with the peasantry… All Tolstoy’s characters are searching for a form of Christian love, a sense of relatedness to other human beings that alone can give a meaning and a purpose to their lives.” (341)

(I would just substitute the word “truth” for “God” here… aren’t they basically the same thing? IDK)

 I guess I’d like to end this entry with a question about the Eternal, Ever-Present Search for Meaning (LOL) inspired by Chekhov:

Modern culture is but the beginning of a work for a great future, a work which will go on, perhaps, for ten thousand years, in order that mankind may, even in the remote future, come to know the truth of a real God—that is, not by guessing, not by seeking in Dostoevsky, but by perceiving clearly, as one perceives that twice two is four. (Chekhov)

Are we getting closer to that moment, in which we’ll be able to find the Truth by “perceiving clearly,” as clearly as we perceive 2+2 = 4? Is living the simple life, toiling in the soil like a farmer key to this (Tolstoy seemed to think so, with his live-like-a-peasant-and-renounce-everything-Into-the-Wild-style at the end of his life) Or are we still stuck in the guessing and searching stage? Take a wild guess…

(The title for this entry comes from the PJ Harvey song “The Devil,” apparently based on the Tolstoy novella by the same name, which I haven’t read but will have to as Natasha’s Dance refers to it constantly. Polly seems to be quite the Tolstoy fan; the lyrics to “Before Departure” also appear to be based on a kind of Ivan Ilych deathbed realization.)

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Filed under books, colombia, death, poverty, truth

"poor" people

Poor People is not a pleasant read. Indeed, it is a very difficult and challenging read, and I don’t doubt that its author intended it that way. There is nothing I can say in critique (or in praise) of this book that hasn’t already been said by writers more articulate and with more experience and clout than me. For me, it’s enough to read the title and listen to myself as I say it aloud and hear everything implicit and subtly lurking behind that phrase: “poor people. Poor, poor people. Poor! People!” In those words I hear pity, fear and inevitable relief, that the speaker by default cannot be considered as one of the “poor,” since she/he can speak of them as something seperate and apart, something radically other and different from themselves. Disconnected. If you can view others as poor and thus by default radically separate from yourself, are you automatically saying that you by definition must be considered rich?

I read this book in between all the microfinance-related reading I’ve been doing over the past two weeks or so in preparation for my rapidly impending internship with Kiva (I’m getting on a bus to head to San Francisco for training tomorrow). I’ve read some pretty interesting stuff (especially the discussions about the commercialization of microfinance and the tension in MF about being focused on economic development or the marketplace, poverty vs. profit). Depressingly enough, I don’t think microfinance would offer much in the way of a solution to the “poor people” profiled in this book. To be given a loan to start a business or purchase supplies or improve your house, it’s already implied that you have already have started with something, as opposed to absolutely nothing. The people in these book really have nothing: they’re the the sickly old beggar women, the smelly drunk and indigent, the crippled, the beggars in subway stations holding out palms or rattling plastic cups full of coins, the refugees, the fevered mothers holding their babies and staring down at the ground before them. God, this book is depressing.

I did not particularly enjoy reading this book, which makes it hard for me to recommend it to people. I first stumbled upon it several years ago, in my stacks-shelving job at the college library. I flipped through the black and white portraits at the end and was intrigued by the number of photos that were of people from Colombia, and it’s never really left my mind since. The images of beggar women in burqas in Afghanistan during Taliban rule are definitely remain the most affecting (Vollmann’s discussion of poverty-as-invisibility ties in nicely to these images). The strongest bits of this book involve Vollmann-as-reporter, during which he simply profiles the folks he’s interviewing. I liked the portrayal of the Russian family in which the husband was too sick from Chernobyl to work, and his foray into an off-limits oil refinery in Kazakhstan has the elements of a really angry documentary. He veers away from this simple reporting in the middle part of the book, instead going off on long tangents from his personal list of what defines poverty, such as “accident prone-ness” and “unwantedness.”

At one point in one of my flights and bus rides (it’s hard to keep track of them lately!), I started doodling in my journal a list of WHY SHOULD WE FIGHT AGAINST POVERTY? The main reasons I came up with weren’t so much academic as they were from my emotional gut. reason #1: Empathy: we’re all born in this crazy ass world without really asking for it, and being that we’re all in this sick mess together, we might as well help each other out… be a giver rather than a taker. Reason #2: Karma (in its most simplified definition): by helping others, you’re helping yourself, and more importantly you’re putting out a little positive energy out there into the black toilet hole of a universe for future use. Not exactly award-winning reasons, but for what it’s worth that’s what I succeeded in skimming off the top of my curdled-by-Greyhound brain.

I’m sure I’ll have a lot more interesting things to say about poverty after I start Kiva internship, which I plan to blog about in more detail than I have so far in this space. In the meantime, one thing that really stood out for me in the wiki biography of Vollmann’s life is how he dropped out of a Comparative Literature program at Berkeley “after one year with the intention of engaging life instead of just studying.” What an interesting phrase, “engaging life.” How does one go about doing that, pray? Is life something you just walk around and eventually find if you keep your mind open enough, or do you have to adopt a more proactive, aggressively-seeking approach?

For me at least, life as I’ve engaged it in the past week has been pretty pleasant, visiting my various girlfriends in Los Angeles and staying with my grandma in San Luis Obispo county. This evening my grandma and I looked at old photographs and I learned about Cosmo and Al, the guys my grandma “went with” before she met my grandfather. Poor Cosmo (a Navy fellow) was rejected on the account of insulting my great-grandfather’s lawn, and Al (whom she “went with” for three years—long-term relationship, grandma!) went so far as to get her a ring, a fur coat and some kind of fancy box thing, all of which she rejected because “I didn’t have feelings for him that way.” Poor Al.

(You can check out the non-profit(s) I’ll be interning for until Christmas here and here.)

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Filed under experience, Kiva, non-fiction, poverty, social justice


Back from the Plunge. This completely fails to sum it up properly, but it was a really great experience. Needless to say, I learned a lot and made a lot of great new friends. I especially bonded with Sarah (the Plunge coordinator) and Clare (another one of the day leaders), both of whom were closest to me in age. I really enjoyed hanging out with all the kids too: they were all really positive and enthusiastic, especially in my group. We did all kinds of different placements during the week, like cooking and serving lunch in the Clark Center (men’s shelter), weeding in the community gardens at the Oregon Food Bank (we did a lot of weeding this week, it feels like), and working at Sisters of the Road, the downtown cafe on 6th and Burnside that I had heard about but had never visited. I highly recommend it: there’s a really great community atmosphere and the food is good and cheap ($1.25 for a meal and a drink). They have an interesting system where people can get barter points for meals by working at the cafe, so it’s a much different atmosphere but the traditional paternalistic church-charity handout.

I think I did a pretty good job as a leader. Our group name was “The Sensational Six Power Plungers Exclamationpoint!” (in our cheer, I got to say to “Exclamationpoint!”, in a style reminiscent of Kool-Aid Man). I got us lost basically every day (thank you trimet for telling me to “walk southwest” when I have no idea what that means). We also burned everything we cooked for dinner the one night it was our turn to prepare it: the pancakes were black, the hashbrowns were gray (apparently a result if the potatos are wet; my fault for washing them beforehand), and the sausages were raw in the middle. The only thing we didn’t ruin was the soy yoghurt and granola for the vegan girl. We had a great time together, though. There was one afternoon where we all panhandled down by Powell’s and Whole Foods, and this girl from my creative writing class gave us all the change in her pocket. When she saw me holding my little “LEARN TO LOVE BEFORE IT’S MADE ILLEGAL” sign slumped against the wall, she was like “JULIE” and I was like “hey, I graduated from Reed!” because it all seemed a little too complicated to explain right then and there. I’m sure I must have seemed like an excellent epitome of the post-grad lifestyle.

Apart from the small group placements there were some activities that we all did together (25 kids–I mean, students, in total), like a tour around Old Town to see where all the differents services, or our last placement, a visit to the Volunteers of America men’s rehab shelter, where they send men who just got out of prison or rehab and need to learn how to be members of society after spending thirty-forty years being addicted to drugs or a life of crime and so forth. I was pretty nervous about going there because I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of guys there had been sent for prison for certain acts of violence; namely, rape. But it turned out to be the best experience we had all week: we participated in a neighborhood clean-up with the guys, picking up dozens and dozens of cigarette butts off the little side streets stemming off of MLK, and then had a giant BBQ together. It was really fun. I got asked for my number twice so that was a little uhhno. But it was really interesting, getting to spend a day talking to people whom society has basically told us to completely give up on. Everyone I met was really sweet and polite and I enjoyed talking about football and basketball with them. I even got offered a job by the VOA program director, who told me “if you’re thinking about a career in social work, give me a call if or when you get back.” That felt pretty good.

More than anything else, what I really enjoyed during the week was walking and taking the bus around all the Portland neighbors I am so unfamiliar with: all of NE and N Portland, basically. We were staying in St. Francis, the church with the big park on 12th and Oak. I remember hanging out there summer freshman year at the VOZ office but I completely failed to make the connection that it was the same place until I got there. Basically, this was the first time I felt like a Portlander rather than a Reedie, and it was really nice. Also, I know I told everyone beforehand that the point of the Plunge was to “live like a homeless person” but I really need to correct that and apologize for it right now. Basically that was a really offensive statement on my part: it wasn’t a week about trying to “understand” or “know what it’s like” to be homeless or poor or recovering from addiction or mentally ill in Portland, it was more about getting a clearer picture about certain issues that have to do with urban poverty and getting to hear some stories that could be pretty intense at times and meet some people, most who were nice and some who were mean but all who were worthwhile. There are a lot of really lonely people out there…

So it was a very interesting week with a lot of intense conversations but I feel bit deep contemplative-out right now. It was really nice to sleep in a bed last night, and it was great seeing Corey again. We have a lot of packing to do: basically, everything. And so much laundry. And I have to return all those overdue library books. Plus this computer. And e-mail people who aren’t here and see people who are in order to say goodbye. I don’t like goodbyes, I like see-you-laters.

I feel it’s fitting to end with the closing words from Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, which I used in the group discussion/reflection I had to lead on Thursday, with the theme of social justice:

“My story ends here. It is a fairly trivial story, and I can only hope that it has been interesting in the same way as a travel diary is interesting. I can at least say, Here is the world that awaits you if you are ever penniless. Some days I want to explore that world more thoroughly. I should like to know people like Mario and Paddy and Bill the moocher, not from casual encounters, but intimately; I should like to understand what really goes on in the souls of plongeurs and tramps and Embankment sleepers. At present I do not feel that I have seen more than the fringe of poverty.
Still I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning.”

I like beginnings!

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Filed under Portland Plunge, poverty