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 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
DH: What made you decide to move back to this continent for graduate school?
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
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
DH: But technically, one could say that you never went home. Since you are ethnically Indian, your parents are Indian; technically
PI: Yes, I have always thought of that as an advantage in so far as living in
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
DH: How did your father know him?
PI: He was interested in Buddhism, so even while we were living in
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….