Restless, Not Rootless: Pico Iyer Talks to Khabar
A Conversation with Writer & Wanderer Pico Iyer
Pico Iyer is a traveler, writer, seeker. And as a ‘global soul’ for over 25 years, he has created a distinctive body of work that attracts wide praise. In an interview, he talks about being an outsider, authors Graham Greene and R. K. Narayan, the Dalai Lama, living in Japan, his Indian roots, travel writing, the Internet, and the joys of a quiet life.
Pico Iyer’s sparkling nonfiction debut, Video Night in Kathmandu, generated much enthusiasm among fans of travel literature. In vivid and witty prose, Iyer brought fresh insights from his brisk tour of ten Asian countries, showing us how the techno-cultural ferment of the ’80s was drawing East and West closer to each other in fascinating, often unexpected ways. His book rejuvenated the genre, marking Iyer as a writer who was in tune with the newly globalizing era. The Lady and the Monk, which came next, was set in Japan, where Iyer met his wife at a Kyoto temple. Other successful travelogues followed, titled Falling Off the Map, Tropical Classical, The Global Soul, and Sun After Dark.
Several times a year, Iyer retreats to a Benedictine hermitage in California for brief stints of simple living, silence and serious reading. And for the rest of the time, when not taking off to distant corners of the globe, he lives in rural Japan with his wife in a two-room apartment or spends time in Santa Monica, where his mother resides. Iyer is not a fan of social media (his low-speed Internet access is mainly for work-related correspondence) and he doesn’t own a cellphone. But if one does a Google search of “Pico Iyer,” the number of results—currently at 506,000—keeps rising. Like his heroes Norman Lewis, Jan Morris and Bruce Chatwin, among others, Iyer has joined the pantheon of distinguished contemporary travel writers.
Iyer has also written two novels, Cuba and the Night and Abandon, along with The Open Road, a clear-eyed account of the 14th Dalai Lama’s global journey. His latest book, The Man Within My Head (Knopf), is a departure in that he’s created a hybrid, incorporating not just three literary forms—memoir, travelogue, criticism— but also three voices. Iyer, the author Graham Greene, and Iyer’s father are the three men within his head, giving us a book that is, as The Los Angeles Times put it, “filled with insights, sadness, rumination and splashes of the dazzling travelogue that Iyer’s readers have come to expect.”
The father, Raghavan Iyer, was a brilliant theosophist and a specialist on Gandhi. Pico Iyer became a wanderer even as a child, shuttling over the Atlantic between home and school. And the only full-time job he has ever held was his stint in the 1980s at Time magazine, for which he continues to be a contributing writer. After attending Eton in the U.K., while his scholarly Indian parents lived in California, Iyer headed to Oxford University and then went on to complete his education at Harvard. Pedigree and privilege, however, are not the words that come to mind when we think of Iyer. He has written illuminatingly about being a traveler from the first world and about the close, sometimes complicated, friendships he forms with the less fortunate in the third world. And once, in an incident that put things in perspective, their family home in California burned down completely, leaving him with virtually no worldly possessions.
What Iyer should be known for, besides his books, is his deliberate embrace of frugality and a life of the mind. As he noted in one of his essays, “luxury, for some of us, is measured by the things we can do without.” His great wealth, one could say, lies within.A Conversation with Pico Iyer
The Man Within My Head is perhaps your most unusual book. There are three voices—yours, Graham Greene’s and your father’s. I’m wondering how you envisioned this book. Is it a biography, an appreciation, a memoir or a hybrid?
Actually hybrid comes closest. I was deliberately trying to create a very strange, new form for myself. If you can believe it, the whole book was once upon a time only fiction. I wrote 40 sketches about Graham Greene and then I took some of those fictional pieces out and added some literary criticism. I wrote 3000 pages, fully checked and corrected, and polished them in order to generate the few pages you have in the book. So I suppose I was trying to create this weird collage that wasn’t quite biography, and wasn’t quite memoir, and wasn’t quite literary meditation, but it drew on all of those. I think that writing is such a hard sell these days. There are so many exciting forms of other media all around that there has to be something strange and radical to justify its existence. And because I’m a traveler, part of the fun was the journey of trying to create a new form.
“Wherever I go in the world, people associate India with Gandhi, with yoga, with its great spiritual and philosophical traditions. Many countries in the world think of India as kin—whether as a nonaligned country or as a country dealing with the same problems as other places.”The book is also about your father, who was the only Rhodes Scholar from India in 1950. He wrote about Gandhi and was an esteemed professor who was popular with his students in California. At the same time, you didn’t seem to be close to him because you were away. How would you characterize the relationship?
When I was writing about myself in this book, I was trying not to write too much about myself or my father but about something archetypal. Any little boy growing up feels he has to turn away from his parents in order to establish himself and create his own identity. We’re so keen to be our own people. And yet, as the years go on and we get older, we find that in fact we’re much more connected to them than we thought. I’ll often look in the mirror and see my father’s face. I hear my voice and hear my father’s voice. Mostly what I was trying to get at was that we try to move away from home when we’re young. We choose these shadow parents, as I chose Graham Greene, and then the years catch up with us and we find that we can’t run away from our blood. In the end, daughters often become their mothers and sons often become their fathers.Roots and a sense of belonging are essential to many people, but you seem to revel in being an outsider who doesn’t belong anywhere. Has this been important to you in making you a writer and a wanderer?
It’s a great advantage to be an outsider because everything is interesting to you. You’re observing everything, and you’re not taking anything for granted. Clearly it’s something I relate to, to sit outside groups and categories. Greene once said at the end of his life that he didn’t think he was rootless, but he did think he was restless. I think that’s the case with me, too. I feel as if I’m strongly rooted in my friends and my values. That has not changed in my life. But I’m restless and always eager to see the next thing around the corner. One thing I like about Greene is that because he was restless himself, he always challenges restlessness in his books. I was obviously trying to do the same here, challenge my own tendencies. To answer your question, yes, as a writer I try to turn it to an advantage. Every one of us has certain circumstances, and when we enter a job like writing we see how we can try to use it to good effect.You’ve been to most countries in the world, if not all of them. What keeps you going? And how has travel writing changed in recent years, now that we live in a more globalized world, with the Internet, cellphones, satellite television and so on?
When I went to places like Tibet or Burma in the mid-1980s, I assumed that most of my readers or neighbors and friends would never get a chance to visit them. So I had to bring the sights and sounds and smells of the places back to readers. But now, of course, anyone anywhere in the world, almost, can access places through the Internet, TV and many other ways much more powerfully than writing can bring it to them. So I feel that one thing that writing can do is claim an interior space, a space between images and a world of nuance that cameras and other devices can’t. So travel writing has to become more inward. A writer writing about Afghanistan, say, is going to find it very hard to compete with TV or the other things. That’s the main way it has changed. And because I’m a traveler at heart, with each book I’m trying to create a new form. That’s what keeps me going. With this book I knew from the outset that whatever I did, I didn’t want to write a conventional biography or a conventional essay. This would be my journey. I’m trying to wander into a new literary landscape.You are of Indian origin, though you haven’t lived in India. Is it a hindrance or has it helped you when you are traveling around the world?
It’s been a great benefit. One of the advantages has been my dark complexion. Whether I’m in Cuba or Indonesia or the Middle East or Yemen, I can almost pass as a local. That’s an advantage. Another is that so many people in the world have a great respect, a fascination with, and an affection for India. If I were traveling as a British person, I’d be going to many countries that have a historical resentment against Britain. If I had an American passport, I’d run into a different kind of antagonism perhaps. Wherever I go in the world, people associate India with Gandhi, with yoga, with its great spiritual and philosophical traditions. Many countries in the world think of India as kin—whether as a nonaligned country or as a country dealing with the same problems as other places. So I think it’s been a great benefit.Despite some of the problems that many South Asians have had, unfortunately, in the wake of 9/11, you think it’s a good experience overall?
Yes, it is. I’ve run into those problems, and I ran into them before 9/11. But whoever I was, whatever I looked like, I’d run into suspicions of some kind…. [Laughs]
For the last two decades, you’ve lived in rural Japan with your wife. At the same time, you’ve said how alien that society is, how even closed it is to somebody like you. Apart from the fact that your wife is Japanese, what is it about Japan that attracts you and makes you stay there?
There’s a lot of kindness in Japan, even towards people who look like me that maybe the Japanese wish were not in their country. There’s a great sense of consideration…the Japanese are great listeners. They have a rich and deep culture. And I’ve always felt at home there. I respect their culture, and I try to learn from their culture. The fact that it’s an alien society to me is an advantage, because I always find it interesting…I never take it for granted. It’s always surprising.
They always used to strip-search me every time I came to a Japanese airport. One time I was on a plane and I met an Indian person flying into Osaka, and I asked him if it happened to him. He looked at me as if I was crazy and said, “Of course not. I always go to a customs lane with a woman customs officer, and a woman customs officer is never going to give an Indian a hard time.” So I’ve followed his advice for the last 14 years, and it’s worked perfectly. I’ve never even been asked a question. The women may be more interested in making contact with other cultures, and the men less so.If I remember correctly, in your book, The Lady and the Monk, you write how when you first met your wife it was she who first approached you [at a Kyoto temple]. I don’t know whether it was partly fictional…
Yes, you’re absolutely right. [Laughs] It was nonfiction, and it was she who first took the initiative.
In The Lady and the Monk, Iyer’s book set in Kyoto, he meets Sachiko at one of this ancient city’s numerous temples. Hiroko, which is Sachiko’s real name, eventualy became Iyer’s wife.
The Dalai Lama came to Emory University in 2010. You’ve known him since you were a small child. In your book about him, you write how his extraordinary visibility may have turned him, paradoxically, into “one of the least seen figures on the planet.” Are you saying that our attraction to celebrity and charisma has distorted our sense of who he actually is?
I’d say it has simplified our vision of who he is. I probably said something like—he’s one of the most seen and least understood people on the planet. Whenever anybody has that degree of visibility, it understandably creates a simple notion of who they are. In some ways, even when the whole world loves him and reveres him, he is underestimated. People don’t realize how sharp his mind is, how difficult his life is, and how remarkably versatile he is. People often look at him in terms of his warmth and his kindness and his laughter, but they don’t give full credit to his political acumen and his great philosophical wisdom—and the fact that, as a Buddhist, he is doing something quite radical by telling people they don’t need to take up Buddhism or even religion but just think about kindness.Some people see the celebrity factor in the Dalai Lama and note how he hangs out with Hollywood stars and so on. Does that detract from what he’s trying to say?
No, that’s a reflection on those people rather than him. Different people see him in different ways. I had a long conversation with him in 1996 when two Hollywood movies were coming out about his life. I remember he said there was nothing he could do about it. All he could do was carry on with clear motivation. If other people thought wrong things about him, it was their business. He didn’t have to worry about that. That was very clear-sighted. I meet him every time he comes to Japan and one thing I notice is that he meets, say, a thousand people every day. He meets scientists and monks and philosophers. Every now and then he meets an actor…and certain people may pounce on that. But for the Dalai Lama, he genuinely sees everyone as a fellow human being. A lot of people are intimidated by him because of his eminence, but he has this great gift for coming across as just another human and relating to people in a very intimate way.
“Whenever anybody has that degree of visibility, it understandably creates a simple notion of who they are,” says Iyer, referring to the Dalai Lama, whom he has known for decades.
You’re not a fan of social media and similar trends in our hyperlinked world. In an essay for The New York Times (“The Joy of Quiet”) you wrote, “The more we have to connect, the more many of us seem desperate to unplug.” But don’t you think the Internet and mobile devices are important today? How can we strike a balance?
You answered the question yourself with the word “balance.” I don’t want to give them up and I don’t want humanity to go backward. It just poses an interesting and new challenge for us—how to make our peace with them and how to enjoy all these new facilities without becoming their servant. I couldn’t live in Japan and send my articles by e-mail to my bosses in New York without these new technologies. I wouldn’t have been able to live in Japan and take a plane to see my mother 50 years ago. These are huge advantages that make my life possible. I just think that many of us, including me, when we get a new invention, we become addicted to it and then we find that our life is running away from us and we have less time than ever before. So we have to step back and take these conscious measures, or get lost.When are you happier—when you’re mingling with people in the far corners of the world, or when you’re living in monkish silence at a monastery, as you do every year?
As you know, I moved from the center of midtown Manhattan to this very quiet life in Japan. This is my way of saying that this quiet life and this more concentrated life that I have when I’m either in the monastery or in rural Japan probably seems to be better for my soul. They make me deeper and broader and kinder than I would otherwise be. I love mingling with people and learning about them, but I find that sometimes I get very speeded up when I do that or I lose my sense of proportion. I’m having lots and lots of fun but I don’t have a chance to gain perspective. I think the quieter life seems to agree with me more.
For two decades, several times a year, Iyer has gone on brief retreats to a Benedictine hermitage in Big Sur, California. “I think the quieter life seems to agree with me more,” he says.
Coming back to your latest book, I was struck by the number of times you refer to The Quiet American. What makes this novel by Greene so special, even reminding you of your childhood?
It is my favorite novel of his. I think the reason I would recommend it to most people is that it tells such a complicated public story about the dance of empires, and it’s such a rending private story about three living, breathing, aching human beings at the same time—all in fewer than 200 pages. It is a prophetic book about the end of the British Empire and the coming of the American Empire and the way in which Asia remains outside the graph for both of them, and it’s a love story and a love triangle we can all relate to. I think it’s his densest and most complex book.
Every time I read that book, or any other great book, it brings a different meaning to me, because it’s changing and I’m changing as the years go on. When I picked up this project, I thought the relationship between the Englishman who seems to be skeptical and the naïve, young, hopeful American is exactly the one that I experienced firsthand all the years that I was growing up, going back and forth between California in the 1960s and my boarding school in England. And the book that I already loved so much had a new and personal implication for me. Each of these characters is dancing between skepticism and faith, realism and romance.You also note at one point how the film was screened on 9/10 [in 2001]. Wouldn’t you say The Quiet American speaks to us even now because it’s relevant to our time?
Exactly…which I think is every writer’s dream. Greene caught a very textured sense of Saigon as it was in the 1950s—and yet, as you say, in doing so he notes a much larger pattern around us. Just last week I was writing to a friend and I said if you want to know what’s going to happen in Afghanistan in the next two years, please read The Quiet American. I liked the fact that it was screened on September 10. You may also remember that later in the book I point out how I had written a novel [Abandon] about Islam and its quarrel with the West.
Graham Greene (top) and R. K. Narayan had a long, cherished friendship, and they were both famous writers in the last century. Iyer, who continues to admire them, thinks their work is still relevant in the 21st century
Greene played a crucial role in R. K. Narayan’s early career. And like Greene, Narayan also gained acclaim in the 20th century. How do you think Narayan’s work has aged? Following the boom in Indian writing, do you think readers can still relate to his work and find his books engaging?
I think they can relate to him very well because he caught something ageless and changeless in India. By chance, just three years ago, Penguin in this country was reissuing two of his books as Penguin Modern Classics—A Tiger for Malgudi and The Man-Eater of Malgudi. They asked me to write an introduction. So I reread Narayan for the first time in 20 years and he came off as seeming even better to me, as if he had caught something really essential in the Indian character that doesn’t change, even though the circumstances of India are changing all around. I found myself beginning my introduction by saying, if you’re a first-time visitor to India and you want to know what India is like, don’t read any of the recent books—read R. K. Narayan. I also learned, when I was reading him recently, how much he has in common with Greene, in terms of his characters being fundamentally lovable and good-natured, [even when] they’re shady or crooked. It’s a lovely relationship the two of them had.Finally, I know you held an Indian passport at one time. Are you now an American citizen or a British citizen or an Indian citizen?
I ask that myself sometimes. [Laughs] I did have an Indian passport until very recently. Earlier this century, I was traveling in Bolivia and my Indian passport was confiscated in some routine check. When I was trying to replace it, I realized that the paperwork would be so intense if I tried to get it again. And at that point, in fact, I became an American. I travel on an American passport, but at heart I’m an Indian still.
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