Tom Bissell

  • 7 August 2006

This article is from 2006.

Tom Bissell first journeyed to Uzbekistan as part of the peace corps. Doug Johnstone discovers that the guy just can’t stop writing about that region.

As far as the Western news media is concerned, Central Asia is something of a black hole, no more so when it comes to fiction set in the region. Most people probably haven’t even heard of the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, let alone would they be able to place them on a map. But Tom Bissell can. The American author has written two books set in the region, a travel memoir, Chasing the Sea, about the ongoing environmental catastrophe of the Aral Sea, and most recently God Lives in St Petersburg, a breathtaking collection of short stories.

Bissell first encountered Central Asia when he spent time in Uzbekistan with the peace corps, and the impact of the place was clearly huge. ‘This is a part of the world that has the ability to completely affect what’s going on everywhere else, despite the fact that everywhere else barely pays any attention to it,’ he says. ‘Historically, it’s been the centre of two empires that ran the world at different times: Genghis Khan’s and Tamerlane’s. These days it’s a fascinating place, with the whole Soviet experience and the Muslim influence. I found it an amazing place to think about on the page, and I feel like I was given a great gift having been there.’

Bissell’s stories are pitch-perfect, poignant tales set in modern Central Asia which blend the extraordinary social and geographic backdrop of the place with the intimate tales of a number of outsider characters. A writer of both fiction and non-fiction, Bissell sees little to differentiate between the two. ‘Some people claim they’re different disciplines, but I see them both as just telling a story in what is hopefully beautiful prose, writing with the same texture in both.’

Bissell is not one for resting on his laurels. A former book editor, he knows enough to keep busy, contributing regularly to various magazines and fanzines, including Dave Eggers’ infamous McSweeney’s, and Harper’s magazine who recently sent him to report on Iraq. As well as all that, he’s about to publish a book about a visit to Vietnam with his father, a veteran of the war there, and he’s currently writing two more books, a novel and another travel work about the tombs of the 12 apostles. People might not know much about Central Asia, but they’ll surely soon know a whole lot more about Tom Bissell.

15 Aug (with Peter Hobbs), 10.15am, £7 (£5).

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