Famed travel writer who 'goes nowhere' for a living to launch new book in UAE

Pico Iyer will be speaking at the Sharjah International Book Fair 2022 on November 9

Photo: Malek Hue; Imaging: Raja Choudhury
Photo: Malek Hue; Imaging: Raja Choudhury

Anamika Chatterjee

Published: Thu 3 Nov 2022, 3:35 PM

What does seeing more of the world change for the person within? For more than three decades, Pico Iyer’s writings have given us insights into places, cultures and societies on the brink of transformation. What have set his works apart is the ability to go beyond the surface of places and sieve the truth from the hype. An extension of which is The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise, Iyer’s latest book that examines places that have been deemed ‘paradise’ but have been fraught with ambiguous realities. All set to unveil it at this year’s edition of the Sharjah International Book Fair, Iyer maps his journey as a writer and his transition from travelling to places to the journey one takes inwards by 'going nowhere'.

Edited excerpts from an interview.

Can you tell us a bit about The Half-Known Life, the book you will be unveiling at the Sharjah Book Fair?

The pandemic gave me a perfect chance to reflect on almost 50 years of crisscrossing the world — as well as 50 years of sitting still! How can we make hope and history rhyme, and how can we find something human to join us in an even more divided world?

So my new book, which I’m so excited to be showcasing for the first time in Sharjah, is about visions of paradise, often in places of conflict, from Iran and Belfast to North Korea and Jerusalem. It’s the first time I’ve written at length about South Asia — Kashmir, Ladakh and Sri Lanka feature prominently, and the book ends, as it must, in Varanasi.

How can we look at the real world and still find something to love in it, and discover seeds of a radiant future? And how can we remember that even as ideologies clash, our experience as humans — as parents, children and friends — often unite us? So many across the globe were going through exactly the same emotions and challenges during the pandemic, regardless of race or religion or circumstance. And physicians and nurses were responding to patients in much the same way, regardless of skin colour or political position.

In many ways, it’s a sequel to the book I wrote on the Dalai Lama, after my 34 years of constant talk and travel with him. It’s only by steeping ourselves in the very real world that we can emerge with a rigorous sense of possibility.

You created a new language for travel writing. What were the ideas that informed your writing back then and how have those evolved over a period of time?

I have never been very interested in travel, but I have always been curious about the crisscrossing of cultures, which, as you know, is happening with greater intensity, volume and speed than ever. When I began travelling, I thought that maybe if I visited the UAE or the Philippines, I would not see these places as someone who only ever lived in India, or the UK or the US would but could come from everywhere with many angles and mix and match perspectives. As a little Indian boy born in England and raised in California, I had been given, through no grace of my own, three sets of eyes.

So when I travelled across Thailand, for example, I did not think I was in a position to say very much about the country. But I could see the influence of the West from the perspective of someone who is entirely of Indian blood. I could look at the East from the perspective of someone who was born and raised in the West. Traditional travel writing was often a colonial enterprise: an Englishman would travel to Asia and write about the “natives”. But by 1985, the time had come for someone from Asia to write about the peculiar ways of the West. Salman Rushdie had been doing this in his fiction, and I thought there was a place for it in non-fiction as well.

In terms of evolution, I am now always trying to push the journey inwards. Today, the crisscrossing of cultures is happening within, with so many of us made up as we are of many different places. Also, one can see so much online. When I began travelling in the mid-80s, I believed a typical reader in California or Sharjah might not get an opportunity to visit Tibet or Cuba. The best thing I could do as a token traveller was to bring the sights and sounds of those places to people who’d never see them first-hand. In the age of the Internet, when you and I can see each other on screen, there is no point in that. So my job as a writer now is to try to find those places that prose can capture better than any camera.

I have to admit The Art of Stillness resonated rather deeply with me during the pandemic. It had a very interesting idea at its core: that of travelling within. Could it possibly be the most difficult journey one embarks on? At which point in your life as a travel writer did you find yourself drawn to stillness? And did the pandemic reinforce the impact of stillness?

The pandemic certainly reinforced the importance of stillness in everyone’s lives. In my case, I have been going regularly on retreat to a monastery for 31 years, nearly as long as I have been writing. And to be a writer is to spend hours each day sitting still. As the world moves ever more intensely around us, more and more people are consciously seeking stillness — be it through yoga, meditation or tai chi. It’s really only when you are centred that you can begin to change.

So, for every two-week trip I take, I spend two months at my desk processing it, sitting absolutely still; I think of myself as going nowhere for a living. To take an example, I will be coming to Sharjah for only two days but I imagine I will be thinking about the place for two months after I get home. Many of us nowadays have this sensation of being on a rollercoaster that we did not really choose to get on and now we cannot get off. So we have to consciously find ways to steady and anchor ourselves.

In terms of the pandemic, I am almost embarrassed to say that in our little world, it brought many blessings. I got to know the area around my mother’s house in California as never before; my parents had lived in that property for more than 50 years, yet I had never walked to the end of the road, 20 minutes away, until the pandemic. I also got months of uninterrupted writing at my desk, as would never have been possible otherwise. And since my mother passed away last year at the age of 90, I was really happy to spend most of her last 15 months with her. The pandemic reminded us of the value of being close to what we truly love. And it was the time of taking nothing for granted, and therefore of seeing everything more clearly and appreciating it more deeply.

Is the idea of belonging somewhere a little too romanticised? Also, what does seeing more of the world change for the person within?

What I have learnt over the course of my life is that belonging has very little to do with home and that you can belong to a place and still have little connection with it. I have been officially based in the US for more than 50 years now, for example. It’s been a very welcoming culture and everyone there is more than happy to think of me as an American. But I do not feel that I am even 1 per cent American.

On the other hand, here I am, talking to you from Japan where I have lived for 35 years on a tourist visa, and deep down, I feel entirely at home here. In a way, the idea of belonging needs to be complicated and deepened. These days we find — or create — our sense of belonging more than inherit it. I am not sure whether travelling has changed my understanding of that but it has sharpened my sense of which places agree with me or make sense to me. And of how little that has to do with where I officially live.

You’ve said, “Where you come from is much less important than where you are going. Home is not the place where you happen to be born. It’s the place where you become yourself.” And yet in contemporary social milieu, our identities are rooted in where we have come from. Would you disagree?

Such a good question. I would say that people are always going to see us in simplistic and distorted terms and there is very little we can do about it. Anybody who looks at me makes an assumption based on how I appear because I have an Indian face, even though I have not lived a day in the country. Someone who is listening to me will associate me with England, even though I am not a traditional Englishman in any way except through my birth. Someone who sees my passport will think I am American. I learnt very early on that we cannot do anything about what others project on us; we will always be at the mercy of other people’s assumptions. But if they read me, they may come away with a better sense of who I truly am. The only thing that really matters is how we see and determine ourselves.

Not too long ago, westernisation meant Americanisation. With a more inward-looking America, has there been a shift?

That has changed significantly since I wrote my first book in 1986. Even in that book, I wrote that the American empire was over, and fast being replaced by an Asian empire. When I hear people talk about their favourite TV show or music today, they are often talking about South Korea. And when they are talking about food, they’re more likely to stress on sushi than a hamburger. Anime may appeal to more global kids than Walt Disney does. In 1985, I wrote about how American players dominated baseball in Japan. I never guessed that soon the main story would be how Japanese players dominate the American game. The winds of trade have reversed dramatically.

But this may have less to do with America being not so open and more to do with other cultures emerging and eclipsing it. Whenever I go back to the US, it seems 15 years behind Europe and Canada and probably 25 years behind Asia. And not every American friend of mine notices it because they don’t travel so much. At the same time, legends have a deep resilience even as realities change. A bright young student from Sharjah today might still be more keen on living and working in Silicon Valley than in China or Japan. I think the American Dream keeps rejuvenating itself because America remains a magnet for the best and brightest across the globe.

The Japan one sees through your eyes comes across as a country of paradoxes. What is the real essence of Japan that captivated you when you first wrote about it in 1988? And how do you view it now? Why is impermanence so celebrated in that culture?

What attracted me and keeps me here is kindness. I have never met a more selfless and graceful people. And I feel I have so much to learn from the place, its discipline, courtesy and thoughtfulness. At the level of character, I am not sure it’s changed at all, even as the surfaces shift with every season. Just the way a grandmother may have grey hair and be slow of movement but still you can see the spark, the twinkle, the spirit she had as a little girl.

I sometimes liken Japan to an old man in a Planet Hollywood T-shirt. Very cool and modern, but deep down its heart is rooted in the eighth century. Japan has been very slow to change and that has hurt it economically and geopolitically. Culturally, however, it’s been a great asset.

Many people say the sense of impermanence here is the fruit of a Buddhism that believes in the end nothing lasts. But I think the sense of impermanence is even stronger in Japan than in the other Buddhist cultures I know, from Sri Lanka to Tibet. I read some while ago that every building in Tokyo used to be constructed to last only three years. Because it was assumed that it would be burnt down within a few seasons. That’s an astonishing assumption to make.

It really hit me during the pandemic that people in Japan expect life to be difficult. Reality isn’t a shock or an affront to them.

“What is the self, if so quickly it turns into something it couldn’t recognise two days ago,” you write in Autumn Light. Why does finiteness of life scare us? And how does the Japanese way of life help us come to terms with mortality?

Such a soulful question. There is a phrase I have heard that’s associated with Japan, suggesting that the essence of life is “joyful participation in a world of sorrows”. In other words, death is non-negotiable. If we are lucky, we will see old age. Nearly all of us will know sickness. Our job is to find delight and wonder in the midst of all this.

The pandemic reminded us of that. Living so close to death during the pandemic made many of us think how we want to live. The fact that nothing lasts is the reason why everything matters. My Japanese neighbours love the cherry blossoms precisely because they last for only 10 days and then we have to wait for 355 days till we see them again. If they were around all year, we would probably not even notice them, let alone celebrate them. It’s the frame around life that death gives us that potentially moves us to appreciate it more.

What scares me most about my death has to do with the people I will leave behind: how will they keep going? And yet, one of the wisdoms that Japan and other cultures bring to this is in the way they see the seasons as a kind of teacher, even a scripture. The seasons commemorate the fact that everything is changing but in a changeless way. Seen in one light, autumn is the first step towards spring.

What I sometimes worry about is that humans are now going through their own version of climate change. Many of us are living longer than humans have ever lived before and years after our minds and bodies have given out. That’s a frightening new prospect. We experience this with our loved ones who are ageing and are still alive but not the people they once were. It’s striking how most of us will prepare for job interviews, for exams, even for a driving test. But we do not prepare for the one thing that’s inevitable in life — our extinction and that of those we care about. The wisest souls I know use death as a way to clarify their priorities.

Have you visited the UAE? What have been your impressions of the country?

I have been to Dubai only twice. One reason I am so excited about this trip is that I get to sample Sharjah. I drove through it once, on my way from Oman to Dubai, and my sense is that all the Emirates are a perfect emblem of the modern crisscrossing of cultures.

In my very first book, I wrote at length about the Hong Kong airport because it seemed that people from every corner of the world were passing through it. Later I spent two weeks at the airport in Los Angeles, taking it as a model for modern world, with people from 180 countries gathered under a single roof but walking and talking past one another. If I were to write those articles today, I would likely write about the central mall in Dubai or some other site in the Emirates. In certain ways, they seem to be the geographical centre of the modern world. In that sense, Dubai is the epicentre of 21st century. It speaks for this global world that we are all entering.


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