[P]ico Iyer is lost. It’s a condition he uses to great effect in his increasingly internalised travel books as we find him on the road to somewhere he’s not sure of. Wandering through dark and foreign backstreets or along paths tinged with feral emptiness, sensitised to a world in which he almost always appears to be, even in the company of such luminary figures as Leonard Cohen and the Dalai Lama, somewhat alone in spirit. “For me,” Iyer says, “being a traveller means setting yourself new challenges even when you are sitting at your desk.”
In that sense it’s also about “the foreign places inside ourselves.”
His first book, the 1988 travel collection Video Night in Kathmandu, announced a major new talent. By 1995 the Utne Reader was placing him alongside Noam Chomsky and Vaclav Havel in a list of 100 visionaries worldwide who could change our lives. With his last collection, 2004’s Sun After Dark (subtitled Flights Into The Foreign), a kind of deeper, darker brother to 2000’s The Global Soul (subtitled Jet Lag, Shopping Malls and the Search For Home), he confirmed his place — if that’s not too ironic a word to use — among the finest travel writers we know.
Iyer’s limpid literary style, blessed with an essayist’s logic and a mystic’s openness to the inexplicable and the poetic, seems custom built for the profession. He nonetheless observes “the mark of a travel-writer is that he never wishes to be called a travel-writer — Jan Morris is a historian, Bruce Chatwin was an anthropologist of sorts, Naipaul is a writer on the legacy of colonialism, Paul Theroux I see primarily as a novelist. A travel writer is someone who doesn’t feel comfortable within the straightjacket of any definition. So I’ve never considered myself really a travel-writer, so much as an observer of cultures converging, or a describer of what’s new to me, and strange.”
The two of us began our correspondence a year ago when Sun After Dark was released, at first by email, then over the phone for an interview, and by ongoing email since that time. Somewhere along the way we became friends. As a fellow writer I’ve been struck by Iyer’s desire for comradeship as well as his ongoing faith in the affinities between people — and how that can be woven into a new form of community internationally. Not for Iyer the terse one liner, the lower case rush. He writes letters. And he writes them to you.
Born in England in 1952 to Indian parents who later migrated to the USA, Iyer spent his childhood in California before returning to England to be educated at Eton and Oxford. It’s a background that causes him to say he is “a bit of a weird mongrel.” In the past he has also called himself “a global village on two legs.”
The author now lives with his female partner in Nara, a city identified with the rural traditions and artistry of old Japan, where he shuns both car and bike and prefers to “travel by foot”. In-between global travels that take in annual visits to his mother who still lives in California, he regularly stays at a Benedictine monastery outside of Los Angeles where he has spent “two weeks in spring and two weeks in late winter every year for the last fourteen years. I travel a lot but I also need stillness. I look out from the monastery and see a great expanse of sky and ocean and there’s nothing but tolling bells. It kind of complements all the movement in my life.”
Iyer tells me the impact of digital communications and the World Wide Web has deeply affected how one should approach the task of travel writing, a problem of pacing as much as content. On a personal level he says he is part of the “pre-computer generation,” meaning he has a preference for taking notes and writing initial drafts longhand, “then and there, while the place is still inside me and I can see, smell, taste and hear it. There’s something about the energy of moving your hand across the page, the rhythm, a human connection. The whole movement of writing on computer is different. There’s a staccato to the keys. I noticed it first when I started using email for stories and a different self emerged, more metallic and chill.”
The bigger picture is that when he first went to countries like Tibet seventeen years ago “people had very little access to the place. Now there have been movies about Tibet, people can access images on the net,” the amount of information is simply greater. With this comes the danger of what he calls “the illusion of knowing” this can create, a kind of false intimacy with the world. In the specific case of Tibet it made him want to return and “explore the inner Tibet, take a more inward way of looking at it.”
This notion of internal voyaging and his appreciation for the molten condition of modern travel writing, “the way fiction and non-fiction have become blurred”, the radical movements within the best writers’ work that somehow embraces history, memoir and journalistic insight, are all inciting him forward to try new things. Which is why Sun After Dark had terrifically haunting pieces on Yemen and Bali set beside encounters with the author Kazuo Ishiguro and a literary appreciation of the work of W. G. Sebald (whom he calls “the prince of intimations,” a phrase that could well haunt the aspirations he has for his own writing).
In truth Iyer says he’d like to do something akin to what Paul Theroux managed in My Other Life and My Secret History, “which are his most interesting books — and his most interesting travel books — where he creates a character very much like himself, as if it were a novel.”
Which is not to say Iyer abandons observational acuity for the inner search. Twenty years as a travel writer have conditioned him to a keenness of eye and ear the envy of many journalists. His more recent stories testify to that strength as much as any internal voyaging.
In ‘A Haunted House of Treasures’ he brilliantly evokes a visit to the war-ravaged monument of Angkor in Cambodia with broad historical and natural detail as well as sudden gestural shocks like “the little girl who put a water pistol in her mouth and pulled the trigger.” In another recent story, ‘The Khareef’ he sweeps you up into the dark velocity of physically distant but absolutely entwined worlds as moves through Yemen then back to the USA just prior to September 11. The promises and dark ironies of global interconnectedness are throughout his work. Iyer talks to me about how “America’s destiny is caught up in the Middle East but no one ever goes there.” Which make “the role of the writer is to penetrate the other” that much more vital.
Lately, Iyer tells me he has been following U2 and the Dalai Lama (who likes to call him “Pinocchio”) around the world for a new book project, though it is still taking shape as he contacts me from London, L.A. and wherever else he can find an internet cafe. “I suppose my theme, and my interest, in recent times has been trying to see the global reality forming all around us,” he says, “to travel from Syria to California to Easter Island to Japan, and to find what there is redeeming in it, at some level much deeper than markets or machines. And two of the obvious forces for good who are doing this on a much greater scale are U2 and the Dalai Lama, with their very different attempts to balance hope and realism, to make ‘hope and history rhyme,’ to paraphrase the phrase Bono took from [Irish poet] Seamus Heaney. So this year I decided to spend what time and money I could save following these messengers of hope.”
“I just read Bono’s book of recent interviews last week, and was constantly impressed that he speaks lyrically for the same battle with conscience and determination not to let the world get him down that the Dalai Lama does. He cites the Dalai Lama twice, speaking about how all life is a preparation for death, and [how] he wrote his great gnarled ballad ‘One’ for a Tibet Freedom Concert, noting, as the Dalai Lama might, that we’re ‘one, but we’re not the same.’”
When I read letters like this from Iyer I’m immediately aware of the fan in him. But there’s more to it than that. There’s his belief in the heroic, the poetic, the possible. That as human beings we’re all still making it up as we go along, and the best and luckiest among us have a chance to make at least some of it up for all of us. In that larger frame, the lyrics to ‘One’ aren’t just part of Iyer’s literary and personal conundrum, they’re a grace note for the communicators among us.
“It sounds pretentious, perhaps, but having written at length about Easter Island and North Korea and Bhutan and many other places, I get more excited these days writing about jet lag, or dream-states, or travels to the night, the unconsidered corners of the clock,” Iyer says. “I want to make travel writing new again for myself, and exciting. I want to expand it to cover something more, and deeper than a physical world that is already covered far too intensely.
“One of my great heroes among travellers is Thoreau, who ‘travelled widely in Concord,’ as he put it. And I’ve always felt that travelling is really just a case of being moved, being transported; the physical movement is only an easy way to catalyze the inner movement, which is what really stays with one. And so the realms of spirit, if that is what you wish to call it, are as inexhaustible as anything in Tibet, and I do much of my travelling now while just sitting in one room for months on end, or walking around my neighbourhood, or returning (as I am now, writing this to you) to the town where I was born, and trying to measure the shadow it casts inside me, and the person who emerged from its strange climate. ‘It matters little how far you travel,’ as Thoreau wrote, ‘the farthest commonly the worst. What is important is how alive you are.’
“Whether I travel, how I live, where I go and what I choose to look at are all, ultimately, just ways of trying to keep myself alive, engaged, and not in the rut that travel tries to shake you out of. Travel, again, is another word for transport, and transport really just a way of talking about travelling into other selves, the counter-lives, and alternative selves we visit do rarely in the normal run of things.”
“I think that degree of intimacy and unsettledness, what we share with those closest to us, is how we can take travel writing deeper, and make it something more than just a collection of digital slides from our trip bicycling across Gambia. It’s how we give it a landscape as rich and mysterious and unfathomable as those worlds that fiction and poetry have traditionally occupied. When you look at the great travellers of today, whether Kapuscinski or Naipaul or Sebald, all are bringing an intensity of questioning and engagement that lifts their writing to the level of the highest reportage or poetry. Putting themselves on the line — at risk — they are venturing everything in their attempts to wrestle their demons and the world’s to the ground.”