Peace Corps Writers
Talking with Tom Bissell (page 4)
Talking with Tom Bissell
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What do you want the reader to come away with from the book?
I have no answer to this question. In fact, the question makes me exceedingly nervous. What do I want? I’ll go with Nabokov: aesthetic bliss. Enjoyment. An experience so vivid it feels like you, the reader, have gone through it personally. The truth is, I’m not really much of a journalist. I’m not interested in matters of state and policy (as some reviewers have already disdainfully noted). I’m more interested in people. I love people, and I love to write about unfamiliar people in a sympathetic way.
     One great thing that happened: My mother is always terrified whenever I go off on some trip, since she basically imagines the world as being filled with murderers and villains. After she read the book, though, she told me: “I will never again say a word when you go to Central Asia. I really understand, now, why you love the place.” That meant more to me than anything the New York Times might say about the book. So maybe that’s what I want: Understanding.
  Rustam, your translator, is conspicuously absent from the end of the book. You split up with him at one point and plan to meet again, but don’t. What happened to him?
He’s still there, of course, and currently pondering coming to the U.S. for college. Very astute of you to notice our plans to meet up again. The truth is, there is a lost chapter to Chasing the Sea, which recounts my renunion with Rustam, but it was cut since ending the book out there at the boats seemed like a much more organic ending. I hope that everyone who reads the book senses that lacuna, and wonders. I love books that leave you with “What happens next?”-type questions. It’s like life. What happens now? Sometimes you don’t know, and don’t need to know.
In the last scene in the book, the visit to Moynaq — what did you learn from that trip?
There is actually a line that pretty well sums it up: “All eventually comes to rust.”
If there one thing you’d like to impress on Americans regarding the people in Uzbekistan, or Central Asia, what would that one thing be?
   One thing that I believe to believe to be very important concerns Islam. I personally find great hope in much of Central Asia when it comes to Islam, in that the people of Central Asia are, culturally speaking, indisputably Muslim, but also, for the most part, very secular-minded. It is easy — depressingly easy — these days, to watch the news and imagine the Muslim world as one in which everyone’s prayer mat is turned the same way, but the Islam of Central Asia remains admirably independent. Wahhabism and extremism, for instance, are loathed and despised by the vast majority of Central Asia’s people. Of course I need to acknowledge that Central Asian Islam was crippled and hamstrung by 70 years of Soviet atheism, but, all the same, the people of Central Asia offer one potential model for an Islam that is heartfelt and searching yet not overly shadowed by the monoliths of ideology.
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