Pico Iyer has made a writ­ing ca­reer out of be­ing an out­sider, re­ports James Jef­frey

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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.’’



Pic­ture: Re­nee Nowytarger

Global vil­lager: Travel writer Pico Iyer feels he must not as­sim­i­late

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