Joe and Azat starts with a taxi ride and it ends with a taxi ride. These two rides work as bookends for the story. One taxi takes you in, another takes you out. In reality it was a Lufthansa jet that brought me to Turkmenistan and another one that took me out, but I thought taxis were better.
Because I rode in so many damn taxis in Turkmenistan.
I rode in taxis across the entire country. I sat in the backseat of a taxi crammed in with two other people for nine hours. I had taxi drivers try and rip me off. I had taxi drivers who didn’t have licenses and would bribe there way through the frequent military checkpoints. I had one taxi driver who had to be the worst smelling man I have ever met. I had taxi drivers who refused to turn their lights on at night because they thought the lights would run down the battery. I had taxi drivers who insisted I not wear a seat belt, claiming they were good drivers despite the spider web of cracks on the passenger side of the windshield. I had one taxi driver who somehow had a dvd player and flat screen TV in his cab and only wanted to show me his massive collection of porn. One taxi driver wanted me to go to a prostitute with him, bragging that the prostitute was only eighteen and he was fifty-eight. I rode with fat old women. I rode with crying babies. I rode with hungover army men who repeatedly asked if I wanted to have sex with a goat and then quizzed me in Turkmen to see if I knew my colors. I rode in a taxi where the entire back seat was filled with frozen goat meat. I road with a taxi driver who insisted on playing the same song over and over and over again for two and a half hours. I rode in a lot of taxis.
And so my book begins and ends with a taxi ride.
It’s coming out next month. Check it out. Check out my blog as well.
My book Joe and Azat ends with a big wedding, and while I was in Turkmenistan I went to a lot of weddings. I also got a fair amount of pressure to get married. People who had known me for only five minutes would find out I was twenty-seven and immediately tell me I should get married. Most of the time they also just happened to have the perfect girl for me.
People married young in Turkmenistan, and there really wasn’t much in the way of dating. Girls were supposed to be virgins, and if they weren’t they were ruined. So the average Turkmen girl would wait until she was married to have sex. Which puts so much pressure on that night. I don’t know about anybody else, but I was nervous the first time and it was just me and a girl. I can’t imagine having this big celebration focused on me with some two hundred fifty close friends and family all making toasts to me, everybody looking, everybody knowing what was going to happen that night. I don’t know if I could deal with sending out a save the date card for the night I lost my virginity.
If I woman said she was married in Turkmen, the little translation was that her life had been changed.
Check out the book coming out in September. Check out my blog, too.
When I tell people my book is about the Peace Corps, they tend to think it’s a book about living in some hut with no electricity and no running water, which is pretty inaccurate. There was electricity. There were televisions. There were tons of satellite dishes. I probably drank more Coco-Cola and ate more Snickers bars there than I ever had before or since. It wasn’t the complete isolation that some people expect.
What amazed me was what came to Turkmenistan from America. There were music videos with all the bumping and grinding. There were action movies with all sorts of guns and explosions. There were horror movies with the chesty heroine in the tank top getting more and more blood covered as it went on. There was no Woody Allen. There was none of the music I like (part of this is because action, horror and sex translate really easy while metaphors and lines like, “we can walk to the curb from here,” do not). It was all the garbage that America spews out (I mean straight to video stuff)(think Shark Attack 3). Which left Turkmen with some pretty odd impressions of what America was like. Based on action movies a lot of people were under the impression that every one in America has guns. I was regularly asked how many guns I had and how many high speed chases I’d been in. When I replied that I had no guns and didn’t even own a car they looked at me strangely, as if they doubted I were really an American. Many men were also under the impression that you could go to any bar in America and have sex with any of the girls there. They were so let down when I explained that was not the case (maybe some slick pick up artist can do it)(but not the guys I was hanging out with).
Probably the best question I ever got was while I was watching Lethal Weapon 4 and during some chase scene a cop car leaped off the interstate and into the third story of a buidling and ended up driving all the way through the floor and launching out the other side and back onto the interstate. In complete earnest I was asked, “Would insurance pay for that?”
When I explained that none of the things they saw in American movies was real, people always seemed confused. I was asked why America made itself look so bad in the movies.
They were never satisfied with, “It’s just entertainment.”
Check out Joe and Azat in September for more about Turkmenistan and what it’s like to be an American there. Check out my blog, too. Check out Run To Your Grave by the Mae Shi as well. It’s my new favorite song.
In my new book the former Turkmen leader Turkmenbashy isn’t a main character, but he’s very much a presence in the background of the story. I was in the country when he passed away (and I got to see his funeral procession which had a carriage holding his body pulled through the capital city of Ashgabat by a tank). I remember thinking that maybe things would change after he died. Maybe with Turkmenbashy and his nuttiness out of the way Turkmenistan would stop being such a crazy place. Maybe they would stop trying to build a river in Ashgabat (which is in the middle of the desert). Maybe there would even be a revolution.
But that didn’t happen. Things just went on as usual. The next President (Turkmenbashy had been president for life) won the election with something like ninety percent of the vote. It was rumored that the new president was the bastard child of Turkmenbashy, but who knows if this was true.
But even without a revolution it felt like things were changing. I stopped seeing crazy stories from Turkmenistan in the strange news section of the paper. I even heard that all the portraits of Turkmenbashy were coming down.
Then last week I saw this. There are plans for a inland sea to be built in the center of the Karakum Desert which covers eighty percent of Turkmenistan.
The strangeness continues. Check my book and find out what it was like to live in a place like Turkmenistan. It’s being solicited now, so harass your local comic shop into ordering a couple of copies (and check out my blog too).
And, sadly, I can’t make it to San Diego this year. Hope everyone has a great time!
Fights seemed common in Turkmenistan. I saw a few at weddings, a few on the street, and I broke up a few between boys at the schools I taught at. There was this sense of pride in Turkmenistan. To back down from a disagreement or to admit you were wrong was seen as a sign of weakness. I remember holding back a bloody and beaten boy who was desperate to keep fighting and save face.
I never got into a fight while I was there, though I came close. Once was when I drunkenly got into a religious debate (not that I’m religious in any way) about whether Mohammed was a Christian prophet and I also came close another time when a neighbor got way to drunk and started telling me he was the Turkmen Chuck Norris. The Chuck Norris story is in my new book Joe and Azat, which is being solicited in comic shops now.
A little bit more about Turkmenistan and the background for my new book Joe and Azat.
One of the things that it took a little while to get used to in Turkmenistan was the money. The Turkmen manat was valued at about 25,000 to the dollar. The largest bill was for 10,000 manat. I made about two million manat a month and I was always paid in cash. This meant that I was paid with at least two hundred 10,000 manat bills. Sometimes I was unlucky and I would get paid in 5,000 manat notes, which meant four hundred bills. I always walked out of the bank with a brick of bills. You could get a polyester suit for about a million manat (mine was brown), but when you bought it you had to count out all those bills with whomever you were buying the suit from. 1,2,3,4,5… all the way to 100, and then maybe you’d have an argument about whether you had shorted the seller or the seller was trying to rip you off and you’d have to count them all over again.
It could be a real hassle.
But for me it was rather easy. I got paid every month on time with no problems. Turkmen teachers would go months without getting paid. Then suddenly the money would show up at the bank, but the teachers couldn’t just go to the bank and take the money out. The director (the principal) would have to go the bank and take out all the teacher’s salaries at once. You would see the director carrying tarpaulin bags the size of trash bags filled with money.
But I did feel a little bit like a high roller with a giant wad of 10,000 manat bills in my pocket.
Too bad each one was only worth about forty cents.
Of course, you could get a beer for forty cents.
Anyway, check out my book when it hits stores in September. And check out my blog for non-Turkmenistan related stuff.
I love drawing comics. I like sitting at my desk and figuring out how to lay out a page. I like the smell of india ink. Last Friday I decided to stay in and draw instead of going out for drinks. I love drawing comics. That being said, there are some drawbacks to comics. Sometimes I really wish sound could be gotten into a comic. There’s just something so immediate and powerful about sound. It would be such a wonderful tool to have in my toolbox. I get so envious of movies. If only I could plug in an AC/DC when I need that extra kick. But sadly, there’s no sound in comics.
While working on my new book Joe and Azat I found another drawback to comics, but this is a drawback that I think all media have. No heat. The book takes place in Turkmenistan which is ninety percent desert and hot, hot, hot. There was a two week stretch in the summer where the temperature just hovered around fifty degrees Celsius (which is something like 130 Fahrenheit). I’d open the front door to go outside and it would just be like opening an oven. I wouldn’t even bother stepping outside in the middle of the day. I always had to wear a hat because if I didn’t it felt like my head was about to burst into flames.
I was constantly sweating. I’d be sitting in my room reading a book at my desk and I’d feel sweat drops rolling down my chest and back. There was one time when I had been working at a summer camp and I was walking home and I realized that I wasn’t sweating. I thought, “Finally, my Vermont raised body has adapted to this heat.” Then I went into a store and bought a bottle of water. Shortly after finishing the bottle I began to sweat again, which means that my Vermont body hadn’t adapted at all. Instead I’d just been so dehydrated there was no sweat left.
It was hot.
Words and pictures just can’t do it justice (and a scene of a guy reading a book and sweating is hardly entertainment). What I really wish I could do is attach some sort of heating unit to the book so people could really get a feeling of what it was like being in Turkmenistan. Sadly, just like sound it can’t be done in comics.
Anyway, when my book comes out in September you should find a really hot place to read it.
And check out my blog for non-Turkmenistan related stuff.
It seems that a lot of people think that my comics are one hundred percent true. I remember being shocked when one of my friends said she assumed that all the stories in my comics actually happened to me. A number of people after reading my first book Flower and Fade asked me if I was still in touch with Erika, the main female character in the book.
When I first heard these comments I got annoyed. I wanted to say all of it was fiction and that I made all of it up, but that really isn’t true. There are an awful lot of things that have actually happened to me in my comics. For example, In my new book Joe and Azat, the events shown above actually happened. I was riding in a taxi through the desert when the taxi driver stepped out of the car, popped the hood and opened the radiator cap to have boiling coolant explode in his face. That happened. The driver’s name was Dowlet. The car was a brand new BMW.
But I can’t say that the book is one hundred percent true either. There are many real incidents in the book, but the plot is entirely fictional. I take pieces of my life, little memories, anecdotes, people, and events and then I throw them into a blender and they get all mixed up and twisted around. Real events get bent around, warped and reshaped. Fictional endings and beginnings get added. Facts that are irrelevant to the story get cut. Three real people get mashed together into one character. Events get reordered for the sake of the story. New events are made up because narratively they should have happened.
It’s all a jumbled mess by the end, and sometimes when I’m looking at a comic I’ve done I’m not sure if what I wrote is factual or not. It all feels true by the end.
Hopefully, people don’t get too hung up on the reality of the book and they just enjoy the story.
Anyway, Joe and Azat should be coming out in September before SPX. Check it out. And check out my blog for more comics that I’m not sure actually happened or not.
One of the things I always get asked when I tell people my new book is about Turkmenistan is if Turkmenistan is a Muslim country. It borders on Iran and Afghanistan and like both those countries the majority of Turkmen would claim to be Muslim. Unlike those two countries Turkmenistan was under Soviet rule for most of the twentieth century. There was a strong Russian influence and as a result almost all the men I knew drank. One evening I was drinking vodka with cubes of pork fat for chasers. I asked the men around me whether they were Muslim and they all said yes. I then asked them about the vodka and the pork and they waved their hands and said they were “modern Muslims.”
So Islam really doesn’t come up too often in my book. In fact it’s only mentioned once in the whole story. In this panel and the one that immediately follows it.
So this weekend I finally had some time just to sit and think. I moved back to Boston last Sunday: packing unpacking, organizing, making lists of all the things I need, finding out where I can buy all those things that I need, figuring which combination of walking, bus and subway gets me to work the quickest. Then on Tuesday I was back at work teaching ESL and coming up with lesson plans and figuring out how to explain the present perfect progressive tense to a class of Brazilians (plus one Korean student and one Chilean student). Then on Thursday it turned out a friend of mine from the Peace Corps had a ticket to the Red Sox game. Then on Friday I went to the bar after work and didn’t leave until it closed (but I wasn’t drinking alone)(it was just the first Friday night back in the city). Saturday was spent… well, I got out of bed pretty late.
But now it’s Sunday and I find myself with a little time on my hands.
And my mind asks, “what’s next?” now that the Turkmenistan book is completed. Do I launch into another graphic novel? If so, do I do that book about baseball I’ve been thinking about, or that road book I’ve been meaning to do, or do I make a complete left turn and do some sci-fi silliness? Or do I forget graphic novels for a little bit and focus on smaller things? Or do I just sit on my porch for a bit with my guitar and sing songs while girls walk by in their summer dresses?
Writing the options down it seems obvious what I should do.
Which means I need to tune that guitar.
Anyway, I’ll still be posting comic about comics here and if you want to check out the random drawings I do you can head over to my blog.