Global Writer, Heart & Soul
An Interview with Pico Iyer
In the last chapter of Video Nights Iyer writes:
“I had thought when first I visited the Orient that I would find myself witnessing the West in conquest of the East, armies of its invaders bearing their cultural artifacts across the barren plains of Asia. Yet the discovery I made most consistently throughout my travels was that every one of my discoveries had to be rejected, or, at best, refined. And as I got ready to leave the East, I began to suspect that none of the countries I had seen, except perhaps the long-colonized Philippines, would ever, or could ever, be fully transformed by the West.”
Like all writers who bring their own histories and sensibilities into their writing, perhaps Iyer’s natural humility and generosity come from his own multicultural upbringing. Born in England to Indian parents (both professors), Iyer’s family moved to southern California when he was seven. He was later educated at Eton, Oxford, and Harvard. Between globe-trotting, he’s lived contemplative lives in a California monastery, and “in the middle of nowhere” in Japanhis current residence of choice.
Iyer continues to challenge himself as a traveler and writer. After losing all possessions, including books and unfinished manuscripts, when a fire destroyed his California home, he chose to look forward. He sees the loss as a liberation, yet honors the past by thinking not of physical possessions but of his travels and the people he’s met along the way. In Abandon he tackled the world of Sufis, elegantly weaving a contemporary love story with mystical threads of Persian poetry. During the course of our interview, he offered this reflection:
“I don’t know if you knew or guessednobody else didbut Abandon was very much inspired by (Nobel prize winner, Turkish author Orhan Pamuk’s) My Name is Red, in particular one tiny section in which I describe a character seeing an exhibition of Islamic miniatures in Santa Barbara, which I intended as a tribute to Pamuk, and to his larger point about how Islamic art, and its proportions, gave way to Western art in Venice.”
Named one of a hundred visionaries who could change your life by Utne Reader, Iyer offers us the opportunity to live by his own axiom: To write well, one must read well. With this, his own words tell his story best.
WRR: You seem to have been born into a multicultural world with wanderlust in your veins. Can you describe your earliest travel memories?
Growing up in England, I took small holidays with my parents to Spain and Switzerland and elsewhere images of the Alps and of bullfights loomed in my four year-old imagination but my first real travel came when I was six, and my father was invited to go and teach in Chicago for a winter. My first taste of pizzas and of Turtle chocolates! My first experience of police sirens in the street, and stories of what I was told were “ambulance chasers.” My first touch of the biting wind across the lake and the wonders of a science museum in what was already clearly the dawning power of the century.
I still remember getting off at Reykjavik’s airport on the Icelandic Airlines flight over to America (it was then the cheapest way to travel from England to the U.S.) and the locals crowding in to see my mother’s sari, never having seen such an exotic piece of clothing before.
So when my family moved to Santa Barbara the following year, a part of me was prepared for foreignness, if only on the surface.
WRR: In your writing, whether it’s about Sufis or the L.A. airport, I get a sense of the spirituality of people, and a nonjudgmental quality in your writing. Do you believe in a connectedness in all of us in the metaphysical, mystical sense?
That’s very nice of you to say it the highest compliment I could receive. To travel, for me, is to wander out into another person’s (or culture’s) imagination, to try to see the world through radically different eyes (as one can do through fiction, too), and to leave your own assumptions and values at home so as to entertain and occupy, for a while, someone else’s, and so broaden your assumptions and challenge your dogmas. So when I travel, the last thing I want to do is pass judgment on what I’m seeing (which in any case I barely understand), and the first thing I want to do is fly into some other way of seeing things, and perhaps see myself as an alien and my own belief structures as odd. Even when I’m reading a book and certainly when I’m writing one I want to occupy someone else’s mindset for a while, since my own keeps me company every waking hour of the day.
I travel to be taught, to some degree, how little I know about the world, how local all my assumptions are, and how everything I think I know is wrong.
I do see a connectedness, deep down, within all of us, at the human level, across centuries and across continents (we can read a book set in Afghanistan, or in Shakespeare’s England, and instantly recognize most of the feelings and interactions). But I wouldn’t want to minimize the deep, deep cultural differences that remain, and that make us “one but not the same,” in Bono’s words. The current wave of globalism tempts us sometimes to assume we have more in common with Iraq or China than we really do because we can see them on screen and they can watch our movies. The traveler goes to Syria or Beirut to see how much we have in common with people on the far side of the globe once we leave our preconceptions and theories at home; but the excitement of going to Syria and Beirut comes largely from all that is foreign there, startling, even incomprehensible to us.
The book I’m completing right now, The Open Road, out in spring 2008, is about the XIVth Dalai Lama, and one of the things that makes him such an exciting traveler and globalist is that he always speaks of and for common points, and not differences, as suggested by the interconnectedness at the heart of his philosophy (shunyata, the central Buddhist term that is often translated as “emptiness,” he translates as “empty of independent existence” everything, to him, is part of a single, pulsing network, which is why to hurt someone else is, ultimately, to hurt oneself, and to help others is the best medicine for oneself).
At that level, there will always be things we recognize in others, but on the surface what is bewildering will surely never cease. Some people worry that the world is growing more and more homogeneous, and that everywhere looks and feels the same; my experience, traveling, is that the world is as heterogeneous, as strange and different and varied as ever, and the distances between us are sometimes increasing precisely because of the assumption of sameness. We’re all drawing on a common pool of images Paris Hilton, The Lord of the Rings, the Golden Arches but each of us is making something different of them all, translating them into our own terms.
WRR: When artist/architect James Hubbell begins a cross-cultural urban project with other countries, he says that he first studies their folktales, history, and mythology, before designing structures so that the art can connect with the people’s culture. This same sensitivity comes through in the pages of your writing, leaving the reader with an understanding of the roots of a culture we may never visit. Do you approach the countries you visit by studying their folklore and history, or just go and observe and research later?
I wish I did do that, and I know my writing would be more informative and enlightening if I did. But I’m not a professional anthropologist, alas, and so I try not to make claims for knowing much about any of the cultures that I visit. I find that, because I read a lot and I try to read books rather than newspapers or magazines and because I’ve traveled a bit, I’ve picked up a little about cultures before I visit them, but I’m afraid that when I go somewhere what I can offer is not the perspective of a knowledgeable observer who knows and has studied a place’s history and folklore, but rather that of a typically ignorant one, who makes the mistakes that any foreigner might make. I try to write as a blundering Everyman more than as an expert.
Thus, for example, when I made my first trip ever to Sri Lanka last summer, I was familiar with aspects of the place before I visited, through years decades of reading Lawrence and Leonard Woolf and Ondaatje and Jan Morris and the recent Sri Lankan novelists (such as Romesh Gunesekera). I’d written pieces for Time magazine and seen movies and followed reports for twenty or more years on the current unrest. And before I made the trip, I steeped myself in what little history and folklore I could pick up in maybe two weeks of desultory reading in the library. But when I arrived, I still didn’t really know what to make of anything I was constantly befuddled and surprised, and nothing I had read in Paul Bowles and Shyam Selvadurai had prepared me for suicide bombers down the street, terrorists haunting the jungles, and an air of jumpiness and quiet desperation everywhere.
WRR: Also, in this same line, do you see that globalization (travel and economics) is changing the mysticism of cultures with each generation?
Mysticism, to me, is what stands out of time and beyond circumstance: read a 13th century Zen discourse, pick up St. John of the Cross, and listen to the latest Leonard Cohen album and you’re instantly in the same place; mysticism is almost the unchanging backbeat and backstage truth that stands behind all the changing surfaces and shifts in the world. So I think that globalization itself makes no difference to what counts; it’s like painting a car in gaudy colors and plastering it with bumper stickers. None of that changes the engine (mysticism), which is ultimately the thing that makes it move. It’s only when you alter something in the soul or heart, something fundamental that lies behind travel and economics, that you really alter a person or a place (which is why I’ve never been convinced that Madonna or MTV are deeply going to change cultures that have been around and laying their foundations for 2000 years).
Mysticism, I think, would say, “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose” and even that changes on the surface are themselves symptoms and proof of some deeper changelessness in the larger order of things.
WRR: The descriptive detail in your writing is amazing. In The Global Soul you manage to humanize the L.A. airport no easy feat and I’ll never be able to go there again without paying closer attention. You’re a master of observation and chronicling. How do manage your copious note taking on the road, and sift, synthesize, and organize all the pieces into a narrative?
Thank you. I do indeed take highly copious notes while I’m traveling fully paragraphed, mini-essays, which I write down then and there, while perched above the rock-temples in Ethiopia, or while in the midst of a Balinese cremation. I write very, very fast, in a hand so illegible that even I can’t read it often (and some of my misreadings make for my most imaginative word-choices!), and I write while I’m in the midst of the experience so I can get down while I feel them all the smells, the sounds, and the intangible quality and atmosphere that is gone before you know it.
Then, at the end of the trip, I read through the hundreds of pages of impressions I’ve caught, over and over, to see what impressions are the strongest, what themes are beginning to recur, what kind of progression there has been in my understanding. Often these days I will put the notes aside for a few months and let memory select what moment it was in Haiti or Cambodia that stayed with me and that haunted me most.
I had an interesting experience in regard to note taking when, some years ago, my house burned down, and I lost everything I owned in the world, every note I’d ever taken, every book I had begun, every hope I’d ever constructed, all my writer’s life savings that I’d been hoarding to make a future. When I called up my very wise editor in London, after making the appropriate noises of sympathy, he said, “You should celebrate. As a writer, this can only be good for you.” What he was getting at, because he was wise, was that I relied too much on notes and that being freed from them might liberate me towards writing a more thoughtful and deeply sounded kind of prose.
WRR: From your writing and previous interviews, you seem to require solitude between travels. I wonder how this is possible given the quantity and quality of your work, and imagine that you’re surrounded by the high-tech trappings of e-mails, faxes, correspondence, phone calls, and schedules. How do you manage to balance your chosen profession with a meditative life as well?
My heavens, my life is the very opposite of what you imagine! I live here in this two-room apartment in an uninflected suburb, in a country where I don’t speak the language and know almost no one. I have no printer, no TV I can understand, no iPod, no bicycle, no car. Just to get to the nearest English-language bookstore involves taking a bus and three trains, and then walking for a few minutes. I don’t go on the Web, ever, except for e-mail, and the phone rings perhaps once or twice a month. I go to sleep every night at 8:30 p.m. (last night it was 7:45!), and see maybe one movie every two or three weeks. All I have to keep me company are two shelves of books, about five or six cherished CDS, and my thoughts.
And when I leave here, it’s generally to go to a Benedictine monastery in northern California, where I don’t even have the CDs! I often wonder if my life is too meditative and too unruffled (which may be why, when I travel, I try to go to places of great tumult and difficulty, to shake myself up, and to remind myself of how most of the world is living day to day).
I think the reason that I can write quite a bit is precisely because I lead so settled and quiet a life; every day here there’s time for eight hours of writing, and I still have several hours free for taking walks, sitting out in the sun, playing two hours of ping-pong, and reading deeply for hours. The very stillness of my life here makes for a certain spaciousness and freedom the freedom, you could say, of living as a foreigner and not having the phone ring and not being very wired. It’s only, I believe, when you step well away from the world that you can truly take stock of it and make sense of it.
I did, more than twenty years ago, work for Time magazine in New York, which gave me an exhilarating sense of what it would be like to live in the middle of a churning metropolis, with engagements, people, diversions, beeping phones all around. And I did, for the purposes of writing The Global Soul, try to occupy and give voice to global commotion and sensory overload, the way I might otherwise give voice to the texture of the Philippines or life in forgotten Burma, but I think I did all that to explore the Other, to examine what was the opposite of my life, the way Bono sometimes plays the devil, quite literally (wearing horns and speaking for venality) in U2’s concerts.
Really, my life seems almost all solitude, and most of the travel I do is at my desk. Though maybe I give the opposite impression on the page, in truth I take only one or maybe two real trips a year, and for the other forty-eight weeks sit in this blessed and immaculate silence.
WRR: You’ve noted that you turn to the writing greats such as Jan Morris, Colin Thurbon, Norman Lewis, Emerson, and Thoreau for inspiration. However, there are many women travel writers, especially the gutsy British women of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Why do you think there are still so few women writers published and respected in the same classical category?
I think, happily, that’s all changing, as the world changes, and more and more women travel and record their travels. Funnily enough, Paul Theroux was visiting Kyoto two days ago, as part of a long trip he was taking, and as we talked about traveling and writing about travel, we were mostly talking about Alexandra Fuller and Mary Morris and Gretel Ehrlich and Lucretia Stewart. I grew up, in part, on Isabella Bird and Freya Stark and Isak Dinesen. You’re absolutely right, that only a generation or two ago, nearly all the people on the travel shelves were male, and white, and from the colonizing countries. But in only a very short time, that’s all wonderfully changed. And one development I especially appreciate is that women are writing about their conquests of and in foreign countries the way men have always done (sometimes to excess). A new world is making for new readers, and new writers to speak for and to those readers.
Dervla Murphy, Jan Morris and Annie Dillard all offer stunning examples of over-sixty women who have traveled fearlessly to some of the darkest corners of the world and, in the process, have expanded the territory of writing and the soul. I think there will only be more such examples with each passing generation. The wall is coming down; the borders are falling in that realm, too.
WRR: Do you think there’s a different expectation by readers of how women experience and report on their travels than men?
I think there is, and there should be. Women apprehend the world differently from men, by and large, just as those who grew up in China see things differently and see different things than those who grew up in California. That’s not always true, of course, and it’s easy to overstate the differences, but it’s hard not to pick up a page of Charlotte Bronte and one of Herman Melville, and see how different their priorities and perspectives are. That’s why some of us turn, again and again, to Virginia Woolf, or the Brontes, or Emily Dickinson or these days (in my case) to Sue Miller and Alice Munro.
Japan, in fact, is a perfect illustration of this. Because of the nature of society here much more Jane Austen than Robert Stone and (to risk a wild generalization) highly nuanced and intricate and understated my sense is that foreign women can get to the heart of the place much better than most men. The best foreign writers on Japan are people like Angela Carter, Diane Durston, Liza Dalby, and Deborah Boehm, in part, perhaps, because they’re apprehending Japan imaginatively, through the senses, through its textures, and its everyday details rather than bringing the clanking theories or overburdened ideas to which men are sometimes prone (explaining Japan through the head, or through ideas is akin to trying to eat noodles with a knife and fork). I would tell any foreigner coming here to pick up Leila Philip’s The Road Through Miyama, Liza Dalby’s Geisha or Diane Durston’s Old Kyoto if she wants to see Japan from within, seen with the eyes and sense of empathy rather than heavy-handed cerebration.
And the other foreigners who have best caught Japan over the years in the tradition of a Henry James or a Somerset Maugham tend to be gay men, such as the peerless, uniquely sensitive, and alert Donald Richie, who to me is the single best writer in English on Japan, ever, and whose record of sixty years of living in Japan should outlast Hearn and every anthropologist’s or sociologist’s book around.
WRR: With an interest in the poet Rumi and having gone to Konya, Turkey to watch the whirling dervish festival, I was drawn to your novel, Abandon, for its Persian mystic set in modern day California. What drew you to this subject and inspired you to write about this in the form of fiction?
I wanted to explore mysticism and, having written already about Buddhism in Kyoto, and being of Hindu origin, and having grown up in Christian schools, I thought Islam was the great unknown for me, and the tradition I ought to try to study and learn more about. And as someone of Hindu origin living in America, moreover I felt that my first obligation as a citizen was to inform myself about and enter imaginatively and see the world through the eyes of the Islamic tradition, the culture that we were always tempted to demonize. More than all that, of course, I, like so many others, have been moved and stirred and transported for years by the translations of Rumi I had inhaled, mostly thanks to Coleman Barks.
It also was pregnant to me that, at a time when America demonized Islam politically, and vice versa, the single most popular poet in America, thanks to Coleman Barks, was Rumi, with his unapologetically Islamic devotions (just as some of the most popular items in Islamic countries are Desperate Housewives, perhaps, or Sex and the City or if the Hugh Grant movie American Dreamz is to be believed American Idol). It speaks to my sense that cultures can see past and through all the divisions that politicians make and intensify; if so many Americans are reading Rumi, I thought, some of us are misreading him, some are translating him into our own contexts, and yet the fact remains that we are turning in our hunger to Rumi, and not to George Herbert or Walt Whitman. Islam is instructing and inspiring us even as we are thinking of it, reflexively, as the enemy (an impression I had that was only confirmed by spending time in Yemen in August 2001; if you can believe it, I sent my book about Islam’s debate and romance with the West in to my editor on September 12, 2001).
And I wanted to approach the subject in fiction because Sufism, as I imperfectly understood it, has to do with surrender, with letting go of words and ideas, with throwing aside the assumption that you know anything, and just giving into a force much greater than you. To attempt fiction, a form I barely know and don’t understand, was to undertake a practice that seemed to me a little Sufi, letting go of my moorings, abandoning all the habits and territory I knew so well, and giving myself up to the unknown, to try to let other voices, other traditions speak through me.
The book is about, of course, a scholar trying to understand Sufism through textbooks and essays and academic apparatus and then, almost against his will and in the unlikeliest of circumstances, having to let go of all that and understanding it, perhaps, at a deeper level, by giving himself over to what he fears, what he doesn’t begin to understand, what might almost be a black hole. He only begins to catch the faintest shadow of the Sufi way after he throws his ideas, his intentions, the very word and notion “Sufi” out the window. In that context, it seemed important to have a writer myself letting go, too, making a fool of himself, going where he’d never gone before, and getting lost in a desert landscape after dark.
WRR: What poets do you read, and do you write poetry?
Derek Walcott has been a talisman and inspiration for me for decades now, and I’m not sure that any other writer has managed to bring together two competing inheritances, to marry the sound of the ocean and the solidity of the European cathedral, and to link classical culture to the moment, as melodiously and imaginatively as he. His use of language, to me, whether in prose or in poetry, is as rich and sinuous and layered as almost any that I can think of in English, and insofar as the central question for so many in the global order is how to reconcile the graces of a colonizing culture with the beauties of an indigenous, he has done so with an openness and natural sympathy that can open doors for millions.
I’ve been reading Keats steadily since I was about fourteen; I constantly return to the Shakespeare that is one of the only books I have room for here in my two-room apartment in Japan and I can never get enough of Emily Dickinson, Kenneth Rexroth, Leonard Cohen, and the W.S. Merwin of “Facing the Islands.” But I must confess that I’ve never written poetry, and the college where I studied in England was so crowded with truly accomplished and unsparing poets that perhaps I absorbed at an early stage that it was too compressed an art form for me. But as laureates of language and, more, as those who give us a way to look at the world and to stand apart from it poets are for me the unacknowledged legislators of, if not mankind, at least the soul of each of us, the truly invaluable writers. And when poets write prose whether it is Michael Ondaatje or Anne Michaels or Joseph Brodsky they open up the language and the world so that we can see all the possibilities hiding within both.
WRR: What first drew you to travel extensively throughout Asia and more specifically to Japan?
I think I was drawn to Asia, playing hooky from my job at Time magazine in the early ’80s only because I had grown up in Europe; my parents had long been settled in North America and I had traveled all around Central and South America on a bus as a teenager. So Asia was the great unknown. But when I pitched myself into that first trip, to Thailand and Burma and Hong Kong, I never realized the treasure-trove that was awaiting me, so rich and various that to some extent I’ve never left.
In the case of Japan, it was a much more personal and mysterious connection: Japan was the place I’d been inhabiting from afar, as a boy reading Kawabata novels and feeling a piercing, and inexplicable sense of familiarity every time I saw a Hiroshige painting of men walking through a rainstorm or snow banked up above a narrow lane. Japan was the place where I felt I belonged, before I’d ever been there, and, more remarkably, was the place where I longed to stay even after I had come to visit and replaced the romance with the hard details of reality.
I could say that I am attracted to Japan because it is the England where I grew up, but in a different key, and made indecipherable and strange. I could say that I savor the mix of serenity and energy here, the fact that people are always going somewhere, doing something, the opposite of apathetic, but without fuss and often without agenda, so the streets through which they move are immaculate and silent. I could say that the codedness, the hierarchy, the scale, the polish, and the manners of Japan are all things with which I feel familiar, if only because of spending my early years in Oxford.
But the truest attachments, by definition, are the ones that admit of no explanation you fall in love not because someone has blond hair or is 5’ 7“ or has blue eyes, but for reasons you can never put a finger on. So really my feeling for Japan comes from some affinity that I can’t begin to put into reasons my mother would say that I must have been Japanese in a past life.
WRR: You now live in what you call “the middle of nowhere” in suburban Japan. Do you finally feel rooted to a place and feel accepted there as a foreigner?
“Accepted as a foreigner” is a wonderful and suggestive phrase, which maybe begins to catch the contradictions or perversities of my position here. I think I’ve always been comfortable as an outsider good training for any writer or traveler and prefer to be on the outside of cultures than in the center of them. I grew up, after all, as someone not quite Indian and not really English and certainly not American, brown-skinned in Oxford, a mute illiterate in Bombay, and speaking very strangely in Santa Barbara. So being an alien is what I’m used to, and what agrees with me.
Japan is therefore an ideal place because I will never be a true citizen here, and will always be an outsider, however long I live here and however well I speak the language. And the society around me is as comfortable with that as I am all it wants is clear roles and someone who will stay in his place, as it were, live out his part (in my case as foreigner) perfectly, walking on the right side of the street, and not making trouble. Which to me is a fair exchange for the kindness and courtesy and efficiency it is ready to offer in return.
I am not rooted in a place, I think, so much as in certain values and affiliations and friendships that I carry everywhere I go; my home is both invisible and portable. But I would gladly stay in this physical location for the rest of my life, and there is nothing that I want in life that it doesn’t have. To me rootedness is mostly just a matter of deciding what you need, preferably as limited as possible, and finding a situation that answers that I call that man rich, as Henry James has it, who can satisfy the requirements of his imagination.
I’m not interested in Japan on its surface I barely speak the language, I don’t eat sushi or noodles and I am never to be seen in yukata or tabi. But underneath the surface Japan has much that I respect and would like to learn from, in terms of its gift for attention, its natural sense of responsibility, its ability to do away with personality and agenda, the kind of self-effacement and consideration that many a religion would long to teach. Maybe I just want to root myself in the virtues that Japan could teach a bewildered alien from everywhere.
WRR: Is there any place where you haven’t traveled that you long to see?
So, so many too many to list. I would love to go to Jerusalem, to Mali, to Mongolia. I wrote a whole novel based around Iran, and yet deliberately chose not to go to Iran until it was finished (so that I could apprehend the culture imaginatively and not just journalistically, and see what existed out of time, in a kind of archetypal Persia, rather than just annotating the Tehran of today).
So I’d love to visit an Iran that I spent nine years visiting only in my head; I’m interested in Zanzibar, and I’ve never been to Uruguay. To me the world is inexhaustible, and as fast as certain areas come to seem used up, other areas suddenly open up, and become available to us as never before. Even in my own ancestral homeland, India, I’ve never been to most of the places from Varanasi to Ladakh to Kerala to Goa that a typical traveler visits.
That said, though, one can travel sumptuously and liberatingly without leaving one’s desk. And if I could never get on a plane again, or ever see a new country, I don’t think I’d feel bereft. Everywhere is interesting if only you can bring the right eyes to it.
WRR: Can you describe, for our readers travelers and otherwise your definition of The Global Soul?
Among many other things, the global soul might be said to be someone who chooses to make up from scratch his sense of community, his sense of home and even his sense of self, someone who lives outside fixed categories and defines himself, perhaps, by the affiliations or the traditions that he chooses. A young Thai woman (with a German boyfriend) in L.A., a child who grows up all over the world because her mother works for the C.I.A., a person who’s never left San Diego but enters a new culture when she takes on a Hispanic partner and acquires a whole new continent through that love all of them are people who refuse to be confined within one narrow box when it comes to race or nationality or even religion. They are citizens of the new world of movement, belonging not, perhaps, to one fixed point on the map, but to the passageways between points, the places in between.
I coined this curious term because I felt that “global” too often was used to describe only communications and markets, and that what was global whether Microsoft, McDonald’s, or the latest MTV offering too often spoke only to what was lowest in us, nourished only the most superficial of needs and linked the universe in its least exalted elements. If “global” was truly to define our century, I wanted to see what a global conscience would be, a global imagination, a global sense of responsibility. I wanted to see how globalism could speak to a kind of universalism, a commonality of not goods but values: not Britney Spears sent across the planet, say, but a vision of hope. And so, feeling myself inundated with global surfaces, I wanted to excavate a global soul, on the assumption that globalism would only have real meaning if it sustained us deep down.