Pico Iyer has made a writing career out of being an outsider, reports James Jeffrey
PATRICK Leigh Fermor may have belatedly taught himself to type, but Pico Iyer isn’t bothering. The author of The Global Soul and Video Night in Kathmandu prefers to write longhand at the child’s desk he has used for the past 15 years — sometimes with a Hello Kitty pencil — at his home just outside Kyoto, in Japan.
The author who has described himself as a global village on two legs tells Travel & Indulgence that of all the places he has been, his adopted country is the most alien.
‘‘ I’ve been in Japan on and off for nearly 20 years and it still feels like another planet to me, and that’s part of the lure of it. I’m not one of those people who hungers for belonging. I don’t want to be a part of a community, I want to be in the midst of another, exotic community that’s constantly fascinating, and Japan is that for me. Even if I lived here for 50 years and was fluent in Japanese, I’d still be an outsider from their point of view.’’
Born in England to Indian parents and reared in California, Iyer says it’s important for him to not feel assimilated. ‘‘ I’ve always been an outsider and that’s what I’m at home with. Even when I was born as a little Indian kid in England and looking very different to everyone, because in the England I grew up in there were no other Indians. And then as an Indian kid with an English accent in California, I was doubly an outsider.
‘‘ I like being an outsider. In that sense it’s good for a writer and a traveller to be somewhat removed from what’s around him so he can try to make sense of it.’’
Iyer is many things: travel writer (but never in the ordinary sense), philosophical essayist, novelist and strangely luminous explorer of Buddhism, just for starters. But travel writer is the tag with which he is generally lumped; Iyer has said in the past this does at least have the benefit of making it easier to find him in the bookshop.
‘‘ I think travel writer is a misnomer for almost anyone you’d find on those shelves. My interest has never been in travel so much as in all the questions you have at home and only suddenly see when you’re in the middle of Hungary or Sydney,’’ he says. ‘‘ Think of eminent travel writers: Jan Morris is mostly historian, Paul Theroux is mostly novelist, Bruce Chatwin is mostly anthropologist. The reason we read any of those travel writers is not because they’re travelling a lot around the world but because of what they bring to it, whether it’s a novelist’s intensity or an anthropologist’s curiosity or a historian’s sense of everything that lies behind things.’’
Even with his wanderings and his house in Japan, Iyer still thinks of California as home (‘‘at least that’s where I pay my taxes and dental bills’’). But he’s troubled by the inertia of his compatriots.
‘‘ I’m always sad that Americans travel less than almost anyone in the world. One of the things I love about Australia is wherever I go, there are Australians. Maybe it’s the tyranny of distance, but they feel moved to go out and interact with the world. Whereas in America the distance has entombed the country.’’
Not, he hastens to add, that travel is the solution to everything.
‘‘ Travellers often practise a kind of imaginative colonialism. We go to a place, we want it to remain picturesque and undeveloped and completely indigenous. ‘‘ We want them to look good in our viewfinders, but as soon as we go home we decide we need McDonald’s and cell phones.’’
What would he do if someone tossed him the keys to a time machine? ‘‘ No one’s ever asked me that before,’’ he declares.
‘‘ Definitely forwards. I’ve always felt that my roots are so scattered that I’ve pretty much turned my back on the past and I’ve thought that even as a travel writer, I would try to chart the future.
‘‘ The past never had any interest for me. Although I’ve written about many countries, I almost never look at their past. I’m always looking at them right now and what they say about tomorrow.’’
Global villager: Travel writer Pico Iyer feels he must not assimilate