Cross-Continental Travel, Anonymity, the Creative Process, Being English and the Dalai Lama - An Afternoon with Pico Iyer

For those of you who read fiction, 'travel writing,' Time Magazine, book reviews, Financial Times, the LA Times, Harper's, Conde Nast Traveler (the list is actually endless) will have most likely heard of Pico Iyer. I was first introduced to his writing, when rummaging through the shelves in Barnes and Noble in midtown Manhattan, I came across the book "Global Soul." (According to Pico, this is his least favorite book, but I am grateful he wrote it because it turned me onto all his other works). Since then, I have been an active reader of - "The Lady and the Monk," "Sun after Dark," "Falling of the Map," "Tropical Classical" and so on. One of my favorites is an article he wrote on "Why We Travel." When reading his writing, I appreciate his perspective, his observations, but most of all I enjoy the delicate manner in which he pieces together a sentence; the sound of the words, they way they flow side by side, their significance. It is so easy to get lost in his descriptions, that many a time, I forgot how uncomfortable I was in this crammed and suffocating subway during rush hour on my way to a job that was even more unbearable. Instead I was transported to the opposite side of the world - on a dusty and deserted road, or entering a temple in Kyoto....

Sometime ago, I was fortunate enough to be able to sit down with Pico Iyer to interview him and hash out an idea I had for a book. He was very generous to open up his home and his life to me. The following is a portion of the interview:

Pico Iyer at his home in Santa Barbara

[Pico Iyer was born in Oxford to Indian parents in 1953. When he was seven his family moved to Santa Barbara, California. For more than a decade, he commuted between England and California, attending boarding school. He then went to Oxford University, studying literature. He pursued his graduate studies at Harvard University. Upon graduation, he worked with Time Magazine before launching his own independent writing career. Since then he has traveled extensively to places many people can barely identify in an atlas - each time to return to share his story.]
Deeba Haider (DH): How was boarding school?
Pico Iyer (PI): I felt a little homesick at first because my nearest relative was 6000 miles away – my parents in California and my other family in India and there I was in England by myself with this Dickensian godfather that was ostensibly in charge of me. It took a little bit of adjustment – but I never thought myself different from the English kids around me – because I was the type of person who couldn’t see that my skin was darker. With that type of background, I learned very quickly to adapt to the point that I would be aware that I would change many aspects of myself on the plane. As I would come back to California, my accent would change; my positions on the world would change, just in that ten hour flight. Then going back to English boarding school, I knew that to survive I would have to turn myself into the typical English boy, which I was able to do. I think it does make one very self sufficient.
DH: What made you decide to move back to this continent for graduate school?
PI: In England, I always thought of America as the land of promise, opportunity, space, the future, an exciting place. In England, everything was stodgy and familiar - it was what I was trying to get away from. It was a very easy choice. Since I have left England at the age of 21, I haven’t been back very often. I have never been tempted to spend some time there. Even though, I feel that I am more substantially English than anything else. Most of my closest friends are English. I also notice that I’ve been in this country over forty years, and the longer I have been here, the more alien it seems. I feel much more a foreigner now in California probably than I did when I was twenty years old. As the years go on, I see, I acknowledge more and more how much I was formed by my English upbringing and how much of England there is in me and how separate that makes me from this country, though I have spent much longer in this country.
DH: It is becoming more alien to you because of your English upbringing or is there more?
PI: I think it is just that. I think it is just the phenomenon that maybe all of us as we get older, on some level return to and get consolidated with the culture that is deepest within us and that did most to form us. At this point in my life, I see that England did everything to shape me and America was just a holiday that I was lucky enough to enjoy three times a year when I was growing up and then permanently when I moved here.
One thing I also found - is my upbringing really made me comfortable being a foreigner to a point of thriving on a sense of being a foreigner and feeling most at home being a foreigner everywhere. What is most difficult for me is being a part of community and settling down. I realize that I am quite different from and curious for the people around me. I like being a foreigner in California, I like the fact that it is alien which therefore means it is glamorous and romantic, exotic and interesting to me in a way that England isn’t. When I have traveled, I’ve never been perturbed, like when I was arriving first in Japan that there is such a strong barrier between those inside and those outside. I never fretted the way some people might that I am an outsider. I will happily live there as an outsider. I think partly it agrees with me because I am so much an outsider. My upbringing has trained me very well to be an outsider and that is what I am very comfortable with. I doubt at this point whether I will ever form a community of my own or claim a place as my home.
DH: But technically, one could say that you never went home. Since you are ethnically Indian, your parents are Indian; technically India is your home.
PI: Yes, I have always thought of that as an advantage in so far as living in England or living here is a foreign country – I don’t think Uruguay would be any more alien to me than Santa Barbara, certainly not more than India. India would be the hardest place for me to live. Yes, I have multiple homes in that sense, but like many of us, I quickly, without thinking about it, realize that I need to fashion sense of home inside. And that my sense of home is really a set of values, loyalties and assumptions that I would carry with me wherever I went, the way a snail does. My home would be somewhat invisible, but I would need something very strong to ground me and steady me – but it wouldn’t be the physical ground under my feet, it would be my friends that I remain adamantly loyal to or this partner that I’ve been with for 17 years or this monastery that I have returned to several times a year – and those kinds of things would make up for me the sense of home. I think I have always felt that I was lucky to have that sense of homelessness. So if somebody would ask me what is your home- it would have to be the friendships that I have.
DH: You don’t feel the need to put down roots.
PI: No, really the opposite. I think at this point I have reached the realization that this will not abate as the years go on and I will grow more and more rootless. When I moved to Japan – and I was staying with my long time girlfriend and her two kids--for me it was my way of practicing this very domestic rooted situation. And as much as I love them, and as much as I love Japan, I can see that I will never be a domestic spirit – I just never had that growing up. To me it is unsettling and uncomfortable to be domestic.
DH: Why Japan?
PI: I think it is just a mysterious affinity really. I can give reasons and say that it is for example quite similar to me to the England where I grew up in the orderliness, the hierarchy, the scale of things. Just the way my neighborhood is in Nara is strikingly similar to the Oxford where I grew up. But it is an Oxford that is romantic and exotic and unfathomable to me. And most of us when we are looking for a home, or looking for a partner, we are looking for a mix of what is very familiar and what is interesting and strange, Japan is very familiar because it is similar to England but it is also endlessly strange and I will never figure it out. But I can also say, it is the perfect way of rebelling against India - because it is opposite from India in every way. Japan is the perfect way to position myself in the counter-India.
I think really at heart, it’s more got to do with my sense that most of us have homes or people with whom we are mysteriously connected, where you go to a place or you meet somebody and you instantly feel that you have known them forever. I am lucky enough that I can live in the place that has that strange connection for me. When I was growing up in this location where we are sitting, when I was 15, 16, I would look at Japanese paintings, I would feel this strange familiarity - this strong gravitational pull and then I decided to live in Japan, just because, when I was living in New York, I flew to Thailand and on the way back I had a twenty hour layover in Narita airport, so I went into the town of Narita in the morning, waiting for my plane back and on that morning, which happened to be an October day with the blazing autumn skies sending a chill to the air – on that day, I decided that I had to come back and live in Japan. So as soon as I freed myself from my job in New York, I knew that Japan was the place I wanted to be. Left to my own devices and all things being equal I would live their forever now. Of course after 17 years, some of that initial mystique has subsided and I can see things that are alien to me, but I think that is where I am meant to be. When I was saying, I can feel myself more and more English as I go along, well in a way it is saying I am becoming more and more Japanese, as I see either of those cultures as quite similar. In my travels, I have seen lots and lots of beautiful places, but none of them instantly make sense to me like Japan does. Most people would find it an odd place to choose since I am a Gaijin, or “foreigner,” and I am excluded from and I will never be a part of the community – but all that is fine.
DH: Did your parents ever feel the need to teach you about where they came from?
PI: I think they struck a good balance. Actually, I am envious when you say your father felt you should learn Urdu and your mother, Chinese, because I think that is a nice inheritance. Oddly enough because my mother is from north India and my father is from south India, their only common language was English. They were incapable of communicating in any other language. All the time I was growing up I never heard a word of Gujarati, Tamil or Hindi. But I think, to answer your question, my parents struck a good balance – they probably wanted to remind me subtly that I have a connection with India and that I had this inheritance behind me. But they also accepted the reality that I was growing up in England and later America and that was where I had to make my life. I think in some ways that is reflected in my name. My full name is in fact Siddharth Pico Raghavan Iyer – so they gave me this normal poly-syllabic unpronounceable Indian name. But they did have the sense to give me this Italian name too. They were admirers of the Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola – so that is the actual reason for the name Pico, but I think in some parts of their being they must have realized that it is easy to spell, easy to pronounce – this is going to serve him well since he is going to grow up in England and America. That is emblematic of their practical sense--well he is going to live here, so we shouldn’t make him 100% Indian because that is doing him a disadvantage.
DH: That is very insightful parents
PI: Yeah, maybe I am projecting that on them
DH: Would you define yourself in relation to any culture?
PI: No, no, I wouldn’t. In my introspective moments, when I think about my make-up, I have my own ideas about which cultures have played a part in my formation, as I was saying before, and recognizing that England is so much there even though England is the one culture I don’t want to live in. I am always amused – I will go a conference and the little tag will say ‘American writer’ and then I will go to some thing the next week and it will say ‘Pico Iyer – UK’. Really I am happy to live outside all categories. I think that has become a fairly important part of my make-up - to think to myself that unlike my grandparents and many people around me, I can’t exist in a box and I can’t give simple answers to these things. I can choose more or less to be just indefinable or to have shifting definitions and to exist in the passageways between places. It has made me allergic to fixity in some ways and allergic to categories. Whenever any one tries to assign a category to me, I am amused by it but it is certainly not comfortable. I wouldn’t gratefully receive any of those tags. I think that extends right the way through my life whether it is religions, occupations or a myriad of things. It has made me at home with the provisional.
DH: In your day to day life, how much control do you feel you have over your cultural identity?
PI: Very, very little because I think, like all of us, I can see I am completely at the mercy of other people’s perceptions. Listening to my accent – nobody knows what to do with it. Some people say “oh you sound so American,” somebody said to me recently “oh you sound so Indian” – which is surprising because I never lived there. I regard it all as arbitrary. Again it has to do with those people’s perceptions. But I think that is changing so quickly – when I used to go to Japan, even 8 to 9 years ago, they would always strip search me at the airport and they would really give me a hard time. They didn’t know exactly who I was; they thought I might be an illegal immigrant from Iran or an agent from Iraq – one way or another, a trouble maker just because of my complexion. Now they never do that and I think part of the reason is that there are more and more people who look like me who are flooding into Japan. In Japan, whenever they used to say “where do you come from?” - I would always say Britain, just to remind them that a British person doesn’t always look like Michael Caine. I think the rest of the world has woken up to that now but 14 years, 10 years ago in Japan – it was quite different. And I find the same in India. When I go back say, fifteen years ago, people would come up to me and speak Hindi in the street – I would feel a bit embarrassed. Here I am 100% Indian by blood and I can’t speak the language and they would look a little surprised, as if I was stand-offish. But now that doesn’t happen, because so many of the people who walk the streets of India are like me, who grew up in England and America and don’t speak the language. So I think the world is becoming much more comfortable and receptive to people like us because the numbers are growing so quickly.
DH: Has the food you eat been influenced by your travels?
PI: I eat at McDonalds.
DH: Shame on you!
PI: No-one can forgive me for that. But it has served me well. I eat fast food a lot. I always find what I want. And I love living in hotels. I was telling someone two days ago that because of my upbringing, I have never owned a piece of property. I have never been interested. I can’t even imagine the notion of having a house of my own – it has no appeal to me. But I love hotels. It’s the one luxury I indulge myself in. I’d gladly live my whole life in a hotel and to me that is the dream environment.
DH: Really?
PI: Whenever I go to any city, I often have very close friends there, and I always choose the hotel over the friends’ house. I like the sensation of being a temporary visitor and a guest – sort of this anonymous guest. I don’t like the sense of belonging. If I felt that I was belonging somewhere, I would probably jump on a plane and go somewhere else. So when I was in New York, I loved my job, I had very interesting colleagues and friends, but after four years, I felt that I was actually settling down, I was getting into a circle, so I had to leave. Obviously there is that impulse in me that doesn’t feel comfortable in communities. In my case it is partly compounded by being an only child and just spending a lot of time by myself.
DH: Are there rituals that you take from place to place?
PI: To some degree. I think being a writer is itself a form of worship and meditation – so the way that most people, wherever they are, will go for a run in the morning or practice their yoga. I think, for me my writing is a way of doing that. So wherever I go, if circumstances permit, I will sit down and write ‘till lunch time. That steadies me and grounds me and also makes me feel like I am there. It consolidates who I am. I am reading at the moment a biography of Graham Greene, and one of the amazing things was this part I was reading yesterday – he was 55 when he was writing ‘Our Man in Havana’. While he was doing it, he was almost constantly in motion. One day he is in Russia, the next day he is China, the next day he is Cuba. He also had two girlfriends and a wife simultaneously. When you are reading it you get dizzy, and he is keeping up a huge correspondence with all of them. And while he is doing all that, he is writing one of his most settled and charming novels. And part of it was that he had this unbending practice of writing five hundred words a day. So in the middle of this absolute turmoil, he is suddenly in a foreign country and he absolutely doesn’t know what he is going to do with his heart and he doesn’t know what he is going to be doing next week, and yet he would always sit down and write 500 words and that became his home. And that became his spiritual practice. I can relate to that – writing as a form of ritual. But I think rituals are important, otherwise you become fractured and lost just like an MTV video without any continuity or integrity. And I think clearly that is the big challenge.
DH: Now I want to move onto your creative processes. How do you create? What is the process?
PI: For me it is just a matter of staying at your desk every morning and staying there for a long long time and sometimes one’s mind is lucid and all kinds of things are coming to it and sometimes it is foggy and nothing is coming to it. But I am the kind of person that practices diligence.
DH: Is that part of your training as a reporter where you have to produce something at the end of the day?
PI: No, I think it is just me. I’m lucky, I have very strict discipline - if you were to give me a million dollars or send me to an island tomorrow, my idea of happiness would be to go my desk in the morning. So I suppose that is an advantage.
DH: That is amazing, to be able to say that you are really blessed.
PI: Yes - I am doing exactly what I like. And that if I was broke tomorrow or if someone gave me a million dollars tomorrow, I don’t think it would really affect me particularly because, I would just keep doing what I like and hope that will allow me to live.
[Pico Iyer's new book titled "The Open Road" is on the 14th Dalai Lama and will be out Spring 2008].
DH: Why the Dalai Lama?
PI: Hmm… because he embodies so many interesting paradoxes of the world today. I am doing a chapter on him in the context of globalism - partly because he is one of the first global icons and then a chapter on him as a monk and then a chapter on him in the context of Beirut and other war zones. The Dalai Lama plays into my other interests I suppose. And I thought if I am going to spend time with one person or one issue, this is a very healthy one to spend time with. I was lucky enough because of my father, to spend time with him when I was small – I was thinking like you said, this would be a blessing and would be silly not for me to reap that benefit.
DH: How did your father know him?
PI: He was interested in Buddhism, so even while we were living in England, as soon as the Dalai Lama came to India, my father went to India and met him. My father knew that this was an amazing Buddhist treasure who for the first time in history had become available to the world. I remember when I was 2 years old my father would fill me in from the radio everyday on the tale of the Dalai Lama fleeing the Chinese across the Himalayas - so even when I was little that was the first fairy tale I heard.
But to take that example, I decided that this would be a good thing and a fulfilling thing to spend time on and I have my 9 chapters worked out and I have begun sending notes whatever…but the hope is that any moment something will happen in the world or in me that suddenly will make me fill out all those chapters and guide me along and propel me into a sense of what I should be doing. So I make an outline to satisfy the lowest part of me and then I hope the highest will intervene and scribble through the outline. My sense of the creative process is that it is mostly clearing out a space and waiting. I remember when I first began writing, I think I read Hemingway who said something like, “I just want to be at my desk when the muse comes calling.” The hard thing is most days just saying from 8 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon, I am not going to do anything else and knowing that probably in that nine hour space there will only be about 2 hours, 3 hours maybe where something is happening; the rest is just frustration and waiting, but one has to leave the door open so that what ever will come will come….

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