Peace Corps Writers
Talking with Tom Bissell (page 5)
Talking with Tom Bissell
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Quote a line or two or a couple paragraphs of what you think is your best prose from the book?
I think the passage I’m proudest of concerns the lead up to my leaving the Peace Corps (a few words of which I gently swiped from that classic of male adolescence, A Separate Peace):
    The entrails of the cows butchered on the sides of Gulistan’s towpaths glistened with unknowably sinister portent. My students’ smiles seemed conspiratorial. The bubble-wrap of kindness in which my family swaddled me felt somehow accusatory and insulting. I was reading Kafka not with admiration and astonishment but shock at the wicked congruence between his fiction and what I thought I was living. My story was not about a penal colony or a man transmuted into vermin but a boy who grew up in Michigan and then, for some reason, went to Uzbekistan. There he began to feel that there was some overwhelmingly hostile thing in the world with him, and the simplicity and unity of his character broke, and he was not the same again. [FYI This is the Separate Peace part]
         What broke him? What broke me? It was not that bad. I know that now. The tree laid across my shoulders was a featherload compared to what most are given. “I think it is God’s will that you are here,” my closest Uzbek friend, Odil, said to me once. Odil had, long before I knew him, converted to Christianity and was disowned by his family. It was Odil’s twenty-second birthday, and we sat in his apartment, drinking tea and picking at a bowl of raisins. Soon I started talking about L---- and my family and before I could stop broke down sobbing. Odil said nothing for a while, then told me about the first time he left home to pick cotton, as every able-bodied young person in Uzbekistan is forced to do every year. At night it was cold, and his hands bled, and he missed his mother and father so much he longed to cry. But men in Uzbekistan did not cry. Every night he held back his womanly urges. But now, he told me, he had seen far worse, more private Gethsemanes.
         “It feels good to cry,” he admitted. “Maybe we don’t cry here because we are afraid. Maybe this is a bad thing. And maybe all those times I was far away from home I should have cried because then it all wouldn’t have hurt me so much.” He regarded me with a calm, sacerdotal face. “Being away from home is very hard. But you will do good work here.”
         A few days later I took the bus to Tashkent for my monthly meeting with the medical officer. This was one of the conditions I had agreed to in order to stay. In full command of my emotions, I told the medical officer that I had begun to think about killing myself. She looked at me, expressionless. I had given her no choice. I went back to Gulistan, packed my things, and said goodbye. Odil was there to see me off. Tears again. Again they felt good. Nothing had ever felt so good. I was not strong enough, and I knew that now. I was weak, and I could go home.
  Did you learn any great “life lessons” from the experience of going back, both in terms of yourself as well as a new understanding of the country?
I learned . . . well, Jesus, I learned an awful lot. Experiencing Central Asia both immediately pre-9/11 and immediately post-9/11 gave me an enviably wide lens to approach the region, the world, my own country. It’s very hard to enumerate what, exactly, I learned. It’s all very brain-deep, almost non-verbal. The best thing I learned, perhaps, is that I love that part of the world with all my heart.
So a would be writer question. How did you obtain an agent to represent you?
Well, I probably had an extremely unfair advantage in that I was a book editor for three years, and an assistant to an editor for two years before that. Thus I had any number of friends and contacts within the industry. Even so, I had a hell of a time finding an agent. It’s brutal out there, and with the current economy it’s getting worse. Luxury items like books are always the canaries in the cultural coal mine. But I really have no call to complain. My first book is out, my second is on the way, and I’m working on a third. Neither contacts nor my agent allowed me my career as a writer, though. My Peace Corps experience did that. It gave me something to write about, and it shattered and rebuilt my mind in such a way that it also gave me, I hope, something to say.
What do you do today? Your job?
   I used to be a book editor, but I quit to write full-time. I’m making a living right now, but I also know that writing for one’s livelihood is pretty difficult to sustain over the long haul. I keep waiting for someone to turn out the lights. I have a short story collection — not the short story collection mentioned above — coming out next September, and those stories, too, are about Central Asia. Then I’m going to write a travel book about Vietnam. My dad is a vet, saw a lot of action, and he and I are going there together in November. This, too, will be a magazine piece first, for GQ, then I’ll expand it. It’ll be an interesting thing to write about a country with which I’m much less familiar than I was with Uzbekistan.
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