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God Lives in St. Petersburg : and Other Stories (2005)

He suffers from a fear of flying and has issues with loneliness when travelling, but considers that to be very minor compared to the distress and poverty one sees in certain parts of the world. At first glance, Tom Bissell is really not your ordinary everyday intrepid traveller and that, along with his sensitivity to the world, is probably what contributes most to the specificity of his writing,
Tom Bissell was born in 1974 in Escanaba, Michigan. He almost seemed pre-programmed to become a writer, what with his father, a veteran of the Vietnam war alongside author and journalist Philip Caputo, and who would hunt pheasants with Jim Harrison. He attended Michigan State University – the alma mater of the likes of Thomas Mc Guane, Dan Gerber and… Jim Harrison. And to top it all off, he directed the university literary review created by Thomas Mc Guane, The Red Cedar Review.

All the same, Tom Bissell’s involvement with literature did not come about so easily. When, at age seven, he saw Philip Caputo arriving at his house at the wheel of a sports car, he would think that writing was not such a bad way of earning a living. And Tom Bissell very early on felt the desire to tell stories that he alone would be able to write or that no one else before him would have thought of writing. But he had yet to find a subject. The kid from Michigan did not have enough experience.
So, at age twenty-two, he enrolled in the Peace Corps, an American institution created by President Kennedy shortly after his famous “…Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country. ” speech. The Peace Corps sends volunteers on humanitarian or cultural missions throughout the world.
Tom Bissell travelled to Uzbekistan. He returned eight months later ; he was tired, weak and depressed and had lost a lot of weight. But he had brought back enough material to write stories for ten years, as well as a totally new perspective on things. As Tom Bissell puts it : “In Uzbek there is no word for “fun” as we understand it. In Uzbek it’s “khazil kilada,” which means to make jokes. So whenever we said, “We had fun,” it always came out, “Biz khazil kilamiz.” And I’m always like, “That’s not quite the same thing.” But the fact that “We made a lot of jokes” is the closest approximation that they have has led me to think that this notion of fun and leisure is really peculiarly Western.”
This anecdote may make you smile, but it remains nonetheless quite revealing.

Tom Bissell drew from his experience in Central Asia to write his fist novel, Chasing the Sea (2003, not yet published in France) in which he describes the ecological catastrophe of the Aral Sea. This experience has also led him to intuit that his writing was on the cusp between documentary and fiction. He has stated : “Too few travel books, in my view, chose to get down and dirty with history, and too few read with the fluidness of, say, good fiction. You need that quasi-fictional propulsive storytelling in travel writing, both for texture and for pacing. This is not to say that one should write fiction, only that much can be learned and gained, I believe, from interbreeding genres.”

God Lives in St. Petersburg : And Other Stories is Tom Bissel’s second book. It is a collection of short stories that paint the pictures of Westerners stranded in alien circumstances. they struggle to comprehend. These six tales bring culture clashes and complexities to new levels as characters strive to survive in and make sense of seemingly senseless situations. Two journalists in Afghanistan fend off the inevitability of death while in the company of a notorious warlord. A missionary in St. Petersburg attempts to reconcile his homosexuality and infidelity with his faith. A young married couple is ill-equipped to deal with a marital crisis during a dangerous hike in Kazakhstan. The irresponsible son of an American ambassador on a collision course with fate risks his own life and costs his father his job. An environmental biologist is forced to rethink her theory on the diminishment of the Aral Sea. A returning Peace Corps volunteer finds he cannot pick up the pieces with his former girlfriend. Bound by common thematic elements of pathos and confusion, these stories shimmer with rare insight into an ever-mysterious foreign landscape.

His writing has been compared to Hemingway or Graham Greene. And Tom Bissell feels it is important to add that he wrote most of his short stories before George Bush was elected President of the USA.

Bibliography :

  • The Father of All Things : A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam (2007)
  • God Lives in St. Petersburg : and Other Stories (2005)
  • Chasing the Sea : Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia (2003)
  • Speak, Commentary (2003) (with Jeff Alexander)