An Interview with Pico Iyer

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An interview with the world renowned travel writer, Pico Iyer.
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MONICA J. SMITH FOR MOTHER:First of all, could you define what a global soul is?

PICO IYER: I think a global soul is somebody who lives in the cracks between cultures, or lives in a world so international that he or she has to devise some scratch answers to the most fundamental questions: what is your home, what is your community, what tradition do you belong to, and even who are you. When my grandparents were born, they had a very — perhaps oppressively — strong sense of where they belonged, and which tradition they were a part of. Their boundaries were very strongly defined. In only the last 30 or 40 years all those old categories have been dissolved, and some of us are living in between cultures. Even people who are very rooted only have to turn on a screen and suddenly they’re surrounded by more that’s unknowable than ever before.

MOTHER:You’ve written a lot about not really belonging to one place. Without a sense of affiliation, how do you develop a sense of accountability for a place? How do you care about a place without belonging to it, or being invested in it?

PI: When I write about the global soul I’m partly writing about the wonderful possibilities of this new borderless world, and I’m partly writing about the challenges that we have to face. The biggest [challenge] is the lack of responsibility. I think of a certain kind of global soul as living in midair — in an airplane six miles above. The danger of that is that it’s a realm of all rights and no responsibilities. In some ways I think being a global soul means having to find out what your affiliations are, that what used to be a given is [now] a chosen. My affiliations would be perhaps to people, to values and to the grounding, centering tendencies I carry wherever I go.

I don’t think [Walden Pond] has to be interpreted literally as, “you have to construct a cabin in the woods.” I think it has to do with constructing a cabin inside yourself that’s sufficiently strong so that [wherever you are], you’re still living by the values that are inside that cabin — inside you.

MOTHER:About responsibility, you wrote that a new sense of community must be formed on the basis of something deeper than soil and higher than interest rates. We’ve discussed personal affiliation, but what would a sense of community be based on?

PI: In recent years, I’ve spent time in a Catholic hermitage in California. I’m not a Catholic and I’m not entirely a hermit, but this is a form of community that has a very strong sense of ritual and center and purpose. Although I don’t feel that I could be a member of it, what I try to do several times a year is live on the fringes of it. Since I’m going to be living on the fringes of community wherever I am, I might as well live on the fringes of one whose values and purpose I really respect. I’ve been lucky enough to try to choose the communities I surround myself with. One is the Catholic hermitage, and the other is Japan, which in some ways is such an alien place.

MOTHER:Why have you chosen to spend most of your time, when not on the road, in a place that is known for keeping foreigners at arm’s length?

PI: The reason I live most of the time in Japan is that the values [there] are ones I find very steadying and centering. My feeling is that if I lived there for 50 years and spoke fluent Japanese, I would still be called a gaigin, an outsider person. By comparison, in California, which is such an accommodating and hospitable place in some ways, I feel as an immigrant that I always have one foot inside the society and one out. California is more than ready to accept me as another Californian, and yet if I were to live here for 50 years I would still never be a Californian. And so I suppose, in a world where borders are collapsing, I take comfort from living in an old-fashioned culture that has very strong borders — even if they are borders that exclude me.

MOTHER:Do you plan to stay there?

PI: I think if left to my own devices I probably would. This circles around to what we were talking about a few minutes ago. The only reason I leave Japan is that my mother is here in California, and in my floating life, my mother is one of my anchors, and one of my strongest affiliations.

MOTHER:In The Global Soul, you commented on the similarities between living as a foreigner and living in the wilderness.

PI: It’s a kind of social wilderness for me. For the last six weeks there I don’t think I spoke English to a single person. And I don’t speak much Japanese, either. One of the charms to me of living in this very foreign place is that I can’t read the newspapers, I can’t watch the TV, and when I’m walking down the street if everyone is talking about Princess Diana or Florida politics, or the O.J. Simpson case — as they might be even in Japan — I can’t understand what they’re saying. And so in some ways I’m back in a world much closer to the sense of silence, and even of purity that I find when I’m in the Benedictine hermitage.

MOTHER:Many of us place a great deal of importance on staying in one place: building a home, tending the land, setting down roots. As a travel writer, you do just the opposite. Can you make an argument for not belonging to a place?

PI: I would say that movement is only as valuable as one’s rootedness within. My hero has always been Thoreau — that sense of living by your own values, living on your own foundations, living by your own direction. For me, Walden Pond is portable in a sense. I don’t think it has to be interpreted literally as, “you have to construct a cabin in the woods.” I think it has to do with constructing a cabin inside yourself that’s sufficiently strong so that [wherever you are], you’re still living by the values that are inside that cabin – inside you.

I do think there’s a great value in going around the world and being exposed to foreign cultures, but I’m equally a great believer in traveling in, and staying in, one place. I think people who stay all their lives in a single place are not missing out on anything. I think travelling physically is just a shortcut to thinking about the kind of values and issues that we have to face in our day-to-day lives that sometimes we’re blind to because of habit or routine.

MOTHER:What do you suggest to people who are not going to leave home, but want the broadening experience that comes from travel?

PI: I would say to look on your home as if you were a foreigner. Try to imagine how it might look to somebody from the other side of the world who might be actually more alert to its graces and beauties than you are. I think we travel when we fall in love, or when we open a different kind of book, or when we get lost driving a car around our hometown. And I think all those are as valuable as going to the far ends of the earth, as long as we have the ability to appreciate the opportunity they represent and the eyes to accept the possibility. I think travel is mostly a way of breaking out of your familiar self.

MOTHER:I’ve read that you have never used the Internet.

PI: No, I do e-mail, but I’ve never been on the Internet. Many of my friends tell me, “you know, this is a wonderful whole new universe to explore.” But I consider that two-thirds of the people in the world have never even used a telephone. In Cambodia, what they most desperately need are mosquito nets. One costs $5 and can save three lives. Of course, the Internet can help bring them certain facilities and protections that will doubtless save many more lives. But for the time being, travel is a way to remember that we’re living in a kind of technological bubble from which most of the world is screened. After my [California] house burned down, I had to think about how I would construct a new kind of life without any physical soil under my feet. But I also was reminded from my travels that the number of refugees in the world has gone up tenfold, and that I am actually still much luckier than almost anyone, anywhere.

MOTHER:It seems that people adjust to what they have. You wrote about acquiring a typewriter after having been without one for a long time, and about how you quickly became dependent on something you’d lived happily without.

PI: Yes, exactly. I find it’s not that I distrust technology, but I distrust myself with technology. I think I’m not strong enough to resist its temptations. If I need to check a fact, I turn to my world almanac, which is really my only research material. If I really need to do research I have to take a 90minute train ride to the nearest English language bookshop. In some ways that’s not such a bad thing, because it reminds one of how little one really needs. Living in Japanwhere I have very few material possessionsthe thing that hits me most is how little I miss. I rarely say, “Oh, I really need something and it’s not here.” That almost never happens. I find ways to work around it, as people always have through the millennia when there was no Internet and no trains.

MOTHER:It must be quite satisfying to recognize that you can get by with so little.

PI: I feel that the things that really sustain us — you know… love, faith, community, peace, all the things that people have always lived off — sometimes get obscured by the clutter. I suppose the question I’ve been trying to address is, “how do you lead a Thoreauvian life in the midst of the acceleration and destruction and impersonality of the 21st century world?” One way of course, is physically to retreat to the wilderness to try to live simply, without possessions. But I’m not cut out for that, so what I’ve been trying to do is to make a Thoreauvian life in the midst of Kentucky Fried Chicken and shopping malls and whatever. Going to Japan is like going to the wilderness in some ways.