Surreal photographs show towering abandoned ships in the middle of a desert. The ships had once been part of a thriving fishing industry in Uzbekistan, formerly part of the Soviet Union. The “desert” was once a seabed, until poorly planned irrigation practices, chemical dumping, and nuclear testing turned the area into a wasteland. The Aral Sea, once the size of Lake Michigan, is now one-third of its former size. This is the subject of Tom Bissell’s book, Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia. Bissell, a former Peace Corp volunteer, returns to Uzbekistan where he and his young, American-slang-talking Asian interpreter avoid arrest by bribing crooked cops, visit historic landmarks, bars, rural mountain dwellers, and bureaucratic government workers.
Bissell is known as a travel writer and his fictional God Lives in St. Petersburg and Other Stories, is a top-notch collection too. He’s like a fresh, modern Hemingway. One story from that book, Death Defier, was selected by Michael Chabon for Best American Short Stories 2005.
He also wrote The Father of All Things, in which Bissell accompanies his father, an ex-Marine, to retrace his father’s tour of duty through Vietnam.
Tom Bissell is currently doing research for a book about the tombs of the 12 Apostles. I caught up with Tom (by email) when he was in Turkey.
Tom: Hey, Bill–I’m traveling in Turkey right now with only intermittent email access, so it might take me a couple of days to answer these. Sorry! I’ll be in touch ASAP…
Bill: What are you doing in Turkey, searching for an Apostle’s tomb for your next book?
Tom: I am, indeed. The empty (his body disappeared sometime in the middle ages) tomb of Saint John is in Selcuk, Turkey. Lovely place, actually.
Bill: What advice would you give to anyone who was thinking of joining the Peace Corps?
Tom: A) If you’re in a serious relationship, seriously consider the possibility that joining may destroy it. And seriously ponder how much that would bother you. B) Prepare yourself for the possibility that the things you don’t think you’ll miss, you’ll miss, and the things you think you’ll miss, you won’t miss. C) If you’re looking for something extraordinary to happen to you, don’t count on it. The most extraordinary things most PCVs experience is other people–both their fellow volunteers and the host-country nationals they meet and befriend. Peace Corps does its best work, I believe, on a one-on-one basis. It may not change cultures or save nations, but it definitely changes individual lives.
Bill: When you stood on the former floor of the Aral Sea, were you concerned about radiation or chemical poisoning?
Tom: Not overly, but it’s funny you should ask. I now test positive on every tuberculosis test I’m given, because I now carry the bacilli of the disease in my blood. It’s never become symptomatic (and, thus, contagious) but it’s a little gift from having spent so much time in the Aral Sea basin, home to one of the world’s worst TB epidemics.
Bill: In Chasing the Sea you describe how Stalin artificially created countries by dividing Central Asia into Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajik, etc. Would it be accurate to say that the act of designating these territories as countries encouraged them to feel autonomous?
Tom: I try to address this a bit in the book. Historically speaking, these places never had national understandings of themselves, so when the Soviets came along and created these boundaries, I don’t think a national consciousness happened right away. That took at least a generation. There were some Uzbek intellectuals who thought of themselves as belonging to a new nationality, but most of them were committed Communists, so there was no lunge for autonomy. Even when the Soviet Union was falling to pieces, all of the Central Asian states resisted breaking away.
Bill: You seem familiar, and somewhat sympathetic, with the evangelical Christian type who goes out into the world and discovers that reality, people, and even themselves, are more complicated than what they learned in Sunday school. Any personal experience along those lines?
Tom: No, not at all. I haven’t had a religious bone in my body since I was at most 17. But I’m fascinated by religion and, yes, the religious, and I’d like to think my own (by now) pretty extensive reading into religious history and religious texts has given me some familiarity with the caves and crags of the deeply Christian brain. And I would say I’m empathetic to my Christian characters, but not at all sympathetic, as I’ve seen the missionary work they do in Central Asia tear too many families apart. But I do think the shock of first experiencing a place such as Uzbekistan translated, for me, into something like a religious crisis: the world you thought you knew and understood is torn away from you, and you’re stuck howling in this strange new void. So that sense of loss and confusion is definitely transferable.
Bill: Did you ever write that essay, “Some Notes on an Abandoned Novel” that you mentioned to Robert Birnbaum when he interviewed you?
Tom: I never did, actually, and wound up incorporating a lot of my abandoned novel notes into the book proposal I wrote for my new book about the apostles, since the novel I abandoned was about one of the twelve apostles (John, in fact). But I think I’ll be giving a lecture one of these years at Bennington (where I teach in the low-residency MFA program) about the necessity of giving up on projects at a certain point. I think people don’t abandon things often enough. The world could be saved a good deal of mediocre books if people just scrapped them and started over again. The counter argument is a book like Franzen’s The Corrections, which any sane person would have scrapped after the the five-year mark of struggling, but, as history now knows, he didn’t–and thank god for that.
Bill: To what extent is the internet available in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and neighboring countries?
Tom: I haven’t been to Central Asia since 2003, but back then there were plenty of Internet cafes that offered minimally censored web access, though in Uzbekistan at least I believe this access has been tightened considerably.
Bill: Reading Chasing the Sea reminded me that history seems to be one long, violent land-grab, right up to and including our present time. I was reading earlier today about Gene Roddenberry’s dream of world peace. Do you think it’s possible, or do countries simply pretend, for the sake of the media, that they want peace, when they really want to keep grabbing land?
Tom: Man, you’re asking the wrong guy on this one. I think land is really no longer a motivating force for a lot of conflict in the last decades. Much of that has characterized war since, say, the 1970s has been mainly ideological. Will there ever be world peace? I have my doubts, but I do think the world will probably be a lot more peaceable someday, probably after some horrible conflagration that makes us all — at least, those of us who are still alive — sickened by the prospect of pressing a button capable of erasing an entire culture. Mechanized war is probably over, by and large. Ideological, terrorist-driven war–that seems to be what we and our children will face, and if we can’t figure out a way to fight such wars without playing into the hands of the terrorists themselves, it will be a long, long century.