‘Yooper’ Leaves Michigan To Write About Central Asia

Bissell writes about small town characters lost in big, exotic locations

When I first met Tom Bissell, a writer who The New York Times has described as “not only a subtle craftsman but also a mordant observer of a new generation lost in a complex and dangerous world,” I was amazed that he, like me, was a Yooper.

Bissell lacked the clothing and accent that I typically look for in a Yooper—that is, someone from the Upper Peninsula (U.P.) of Michigan.

He was wearing a tan coat, rather than the Carhartt jacket that is de rigueur for many male Yoopers, and I could not hear a Canadian-esque “eh” tacked to the end of his sentences.

Furthermore, the Upper Peninsula, is geographically isolated in a way that many Yoopers would find Chicago or Detroit: as much of “a complex and dangerous world” as the Central Asia that Bissell writes about.

Even after a semester in Cambridge, I still find myself issuing a silent plea to a higher power whenever I try to cross Mass. Ave.

I grew up in Bark River, a town of 1,000 people, about twenty minutes away from Bissell’s Escanaba, a city with about 15,000 residents.

I studied for calculus exams in the same library where he voraciously read the writers that would later inspire his own work.

Over 800 miles from this library, I find myself with Bissell in Loker Commons, where we talk about his new book, “God Lives in St. Petersburg.” (read the review)

Even though I did not necessarily recognize much of the Upper Peninsula in Bissell’s appearance, I could sense, without being able to explain, its affect on many of the characters in the collection of short stories.

Bissell agrees that his Upper Peninsula roots have an influence on his writing.

“Most of my characters are people who have a background in a place that’s small and they’re in a situation now that is often much more than they can handle,” he says.

“That’s the big theme of most of the stories in this collection: people realizing how out of their depth they are, and . . . for people who come from small towns, I think that’s a feeling you get hit an awful lot with when you’re in your twenties and late teens,” Bissell says.

Bissell himself says he had such an experience when he joined the Peace Corps after graduating from Michigan State University.

“One of the reasons I joined the Peace Corps was sort of to get myself ‘experiences’ so I could be a writer. But I didn’t count on joining the Peace Corps and having a complete nervous breakdown,” he says.

He wrote about his experience as Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan in his critically-acclaimed first book, “Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia.”

In his newest book, American characters in six short stories encounter crises, both internal and external, while traveling in Central Asia.

“It’s a part of the world that I would never claim to understand, but it’s a part of the world that I feel comfortable thinking about and having my imagination wander around in,” says Bissell, who, in total, has spent over a year traveling the region.

However, Bissell does not subscribe to the conventional wisdom that a writer should be constrained by his own personal experience.

“I don’t believe that men can’t write about women or black people can’t write about white people or Asian people can’t write about Hispanic people or gay people can’t write about straight people,” Bissell says.

He adds, “I just try to write characters that are believable within the context of themselves, who seem alive in and of themselves, regardless of any other thing about them, whether they’re white or Asian or black or man or woman.”

Though the stories in “God Lives” take place in Afghanistan and other countries in the region, Bissell says that they should not be read as commentary on America’s influence in Central Asia.

“[My stories are] not analogies for American misadventures—these are stories about what I hope are believable and felt characters that move a person,” he says. “Central Asia is just a way to explore the idea of Americans adrift.”

Bissell, who worked as a book editor in New York before becoming a full-time writer in 2001, is now editing a book he wrote about traveling to Vietnam with his dad, a Vietnam War veteran.

After that, he plans to write a book set in the Upper Peninsula.

“The U.P. is a weird and interesting place in that, as far as I’m aware, it’s a part of the country that’s virtually never portrayed,” he says. “You sort of feel forgotten growing up there.”

The New York Times, therefore, has more to learn about Bissell.

He is not just an “observer of a new generation lost in a complex and dangerous world,” but the voice of a region tucked away from the complexity and danger of the wider world.

—Staff writer Brittney L. Moraski can be reached at bmoraski@fas.harvard.edu.