December 6, 2003 - New York Times: RPCVs Tom Bissell and Sarah Erdman write about Uzbekistan and Ivory Coast

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Uzbekistan: Special Report: Uzbekistan RPCV and Author Tom Bissell: Tom Bissell: Archived Stories: December 6, 2003 - New York Times: RPCVs Tom Bissell and Sarah Erdman write about Uzbekistan and Ivory Coast

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RPCVs Tom Bissell and Sarah Erdman write about Uzbekistan and Ivory Coast

RPCVs Tom Bissell and Sarah Erdman write about Uzbekistan and Ivory Coast

Insubstantial, at least, compared with another new book that has its roots in the same ambitious-young-writer-looking-for-a-subject impulse. Tom Bissell spent seven months in the mid-1990's as a Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan before suffering a minor nervous breakdown and bolting. But Uzbekistan had gotten under his skin, and when he came to write CHASING THE SEA (Pantheon, $24.95), he steeped himself in scholarship about Central Asia. His Peace Corps training had even left him with serviceable Uzbek, though on most of his return trip, in 2001, he traveled with a translator, who becomes a major character in his story. Bissell's book, like Tewdwr Moss's, is the record of a trip that lasted only a few weeks, yet it's written with such panache and laden with so much information that it rises to real seriousness.

The book is packed with asides on Uzbek history (Genghis Khan, Tamerlane) and politics (the loathsome authoritarian rule of Islam Karimov) -- if anything, it's a bit too packed. The place where Bissell's reach most exceeds his grasp is in evaluating his readers' patience: though the writing never flags, my attention did. And while the book moves along as deftly as a novel, it ends with a long, bleak coda on the Aral Sea ecological catastrophe that leaves the major characters behind. This material is gripping and upsetting, but I suspect it could have been shaped to better effect -- not that I have any notion how. And I have to be careful, since Bissell's combination of crack-up wit, wild ambition and preposterous youth -- he isn't 30 yet -- makes it tempting to chip away at his achievement. But his book easily withstands nitpicking. If ''Chasing the Sea'' isn't quite brilliant, it's obvious that something he writes is going to be.

Bissell notes that ''the Peace Corps attracts more larval writers than any postbaccalaureate option save for our infinite master of fine arts programs.''

Sarah Erdman, the author of NINE HILLS TO NAMBONKAHA: Two Years in the Heart of an African Village (Holt, $23), was another Peace Corps volunteer, but, unlike Tewdwr Moss and Bissell, she spent a sustained chunk of time in the place she's writing about. If her book is more earnest, less coruscating, less eager to K.O. the reader than theirs, it's wonderful in a way that theirs can't touch.

The chronicle of a young woman determined to bring better health education and care to an Ivory Coast village that doesn't even have electricity is potentially deadly, but Erdman's irrepressibility lofts you along. She had her work cut out for her in a town where lingering animism (layered atop Islam) presented her with a continuing hurdle: if you believe that disease is the work of malignant spirits, you might not pay much attention to exhortations about improving your household sanitation. But Erdman was working with people who truly wanted to lift themselves up, and the basis of her rapport with them is evident: she liked them, and they liked her.

Nambonkaha isn't my idea of a vacation spot, but when Erdman asks herself, at the end, ''Why am I leaving? Why do you trade in happiness for uncertainty? What makes you give up a good thing?'' it never occurred to me that she might be pursuing a literary effect with those questions. I envied her happiness.

Craig Seligman's ''Sontag and Kael'' will be published in May.

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Story Source: New York Times

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Uzbekistan; Writing - Uzbekistan



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