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Pico Iyer’s Mongrel Soul

A picture of me, Pico Iyer"Suddenly, the flames were curling seventy feet above my living room," The Global Soul begins. The author's house burns down, and next thing we know we're caroming from island to city to jungle, culture-hopping the globe, dizzy in the blur of it all.

Born to Indian parents, raised back and forth between England and the United States, and living now in Japan when he's not visiting some far-flung corner of the earth, Pico Iyer calls himself "a mongrel," part of a fast-growing population of global souls who exist in many cultures all at once "and so fall in the cracks between them."

A worldwide television network forbids the use of the word foreign on its broadcasts; Olympic athletes offer their bodies to distant nations in order to improve their medal hopes; various bestselling authors sell the majority of their books in translation; an international burger chain gains a foothold in Asia while, suddenly, a half dozen Thai restaurants appear in your city; and meanwhile, here you are, surfing the Net...

"All of us," Iyer said, "whether we move or not, are having to deal with this crossing of cultures."

Day after day, an ever-increasing traffic of humanity skips from continent to continent, hemisphere to hemisphere, the citizens of a community beyond nations, and for more and more people, the notion of home has little to do with any particular part of the planet. If this isn't quite what we'd imagined home would be, well, home has never been quite like this before.

Dave: We have at least one thing in common. In your Acknowledgments, I noticed you mentioned "the craggy transports of Van Morrison."

Pico Iyer: Really? You're a huge fan?

Dave: Along the same lines as you, I'm guessing.

Iyer: Have you seen a book called The Spiritual Tourist? It's by an English rock and roll journalist called Mick Brown. He goes around to the major teachers in the world, the Dalai Lama, Sai Baba in India, southern Baptists in Tennessee, but he begins the book with Van Morrison. He brings you into Van's inner sanctuary. It's very touching if you're a fan because it shows you why he maintains that gruff, even hostile exterior, what he's protecting.

But I love the fact, apart from anything, that in the context of this global world and the inundation of data, Van Morrison is so much going his own way, completely indifferent to distraction and the moment. He's the great modern mystic, as well as a soulful singer.

Dave: I hadn't had a chance to read your work until recently, but I really enjoyed The Global Soul. I found, especially toward the end, that a real shape emerged from the narrative. The last chapter felt very much earned.

Iyer: I begin deliberately with those dizzying surfaces and passageways - movement, an inundation of data, which I think reflects how the world is today - and you have to fight your way through it to get to the stillness and the settledness and the space that begins to open up in those last two chapters.

The first chapters make you almost jet-lagged; there's so much information that you can't tell right from left, east from west.

In part, the book is about the passage from speed to slowness and surface to depth. To me, that's the big challenge in the global era. The need for stillness, for seceding from that world, is greater than ever.

Dave: You mention near the beginning that attention skills fall 500 percent after a long distance flight. It seems like you're always getting off a plane. How do you get anything done?

Iyer: I'm working hard to travel less because it is very difficult to travel and write at the same time.

In the past, I've visited remote places - North Korea, Ethiopia, Easter Island - partly as a way to visit remote states of mind, remote parts of myself that I wouldn't ordinarily explore. One reason I dwell on jet lag in this book is because it's a different state of being, one that humans have never known before. We're in an emotional and psychological state of displacement. It's an alternate reality that I found interesting to explore.

In The Global Soul, I write a lot about traveling, but I've also been working on another book which is about spending time in a monastery, something I've done quite a lot of in the last ten years. It's a kind of a companion piece to The Global Soul about sinking roots, just being surrounded by silence and ocean and sky, and traveling without leaving a room.

Read an excerpt from
The Global Soul

In Japan, I live in a little neighborhood in the middle of nowhere. I don't have a bicycle or a car or anything, so my only movement is within the boundaries of my feet. I feel there's a need for that kind of conscientious objection to the momentum of the world.

Dave: The parallels and allusions to Walden and Thoreau are interesting for me, especially toward the end when you talk about rooting yourself in an environment that presents very little which is familiar to you. You almost achieve the Walden-like state Thoreau wrote about - that degree of simplicity - but you've clearly made a conscious effort not to assimilate yourself more thoroughly into Japanese culture.

Iyer: It's a way of filtering. Because I speak only rudimentary Japanese, I can't watch TV, I can't read the newspaper, I can't engage in chit chat. Cut away all those externals and distractions.

In the past, most of the books I've written have been broadly categorized as travel books because they're about the adventure and excitement of seeking out foreign places. This book is about travel not as a quest or a pilgrimage, but as a way of life among people who have to do it. Merchants, for example, who have always moved from door to door the way traveling salesmen do, but now have to wake up in summer and fly across the world and sleep that same night in winter. The global economy is making them global beings.

"Globalization" has become the great tag phrase, but when we talk about it, it's nearly always in terms of the global marketplace or communications technology, either data or goods that are whizzing around. We forget that people are whizzing around more and more. On them, it takes a toll.

The life of Thoreau has always exerted a great attraction to many people in many different societies. It seems there are more and more people, even while they're conducting regular lives, are deciding that they have to clear out more space for themselves.

Thoreau is at the secret heart of this. When you're lost in one of those secret passageways in Hong Kong, it's easy to forget that's what underneath.

Dave: An essay of yours was included in The Best Spiritual Writing 1999. You write:

Travel is the best way we have of rescuing the humanity of places and saving them from abstraction and ideology.

That idea seems elemental to your ideal of what a multicultured city like Toronto can strive to be.

Iyer: It's the case in Portland, but certainly in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, or New York, that even someone who has never left the city is surrounded by many languages she can't read and customs she can't follow. All the remotest parts of the world are suddenly at her front door.

People are traveling even if they've never left their home town. All of us, whether we move or not, are having to deal with this crossing of cultures.

In America, where the economy is prospering, there's a sense that the doors being opened by technology are very exciting. It gets easier and easier to forget that ninety-seven percent of the people who are about to enter the world are dirt poor and they need just the most fundamental things: food, shelter, and safety.

Sometimes we get so excited by the possibilities of the Net, for example - which does help bring health and educational support to people - but in our relatively privileged places we forget that in Cambodia, for example, where I was last year, what they most need is a mosquito net. I was told that if you spend five dollars, you can save three lives in Cambodia. Technology is a wonderful thing, but in most places I visit the needs are much more urgent and age-old.

One of the strange things that seems to be happening as we get more wired is not that the world is getting smaller, but that in some ways I feel the distances are expanding. We're only caught up in the illusion of smallness. A tiny part of the world is becoming very rich and mobile while the rest is more deeply entrenched in its problems than ever.

Dave: You use Hong Kong as an example of a place where you can be a plane-hopping, mobile person traveling all the time and still never see anything. 6.2 million people live in Hong Kong, you write, and of them, 6 million are Chinese. But your friend, who lives in what's basically a complete city unto itself with living quarters, shopping, food, entertainment, and a connection to the airport - a place you call "a kind of floating International Settlement" - never sees any of those Chinese.

Iyer: Yes, a traveler can screen out more and more of the world unless he takes particular pains to go to those kinds of places. But we can get these lessons in our own cities, of course - if you just take the wrong subway train in New York, you're certainly reminded of what's happening outside privileged Manhattan. Or if you walk around the Capitol late at night in DC

At some level, people are more exposed to other cultures and know more about them than ever before. Here in Portland, people can eat Thai food, they know about Tibetan Buddhism, they may have met an Ethiopian, all kinds of things that were inconceivable only twenty years ago. At the surface level, we're all much more cosmopolitan, but at the level of conscience, I'm not so sure - just as in the example of the Hong Kong expatriate.

Dave: You do like Toronto a lot, though. It's not perfect, but Toronto seems to represent the hope you have for how cities might develop.

Iyer: Yes, partly because the government is very self-consciously and earnestly trying to draft what is essentially a multicultural bill of rights. Canada, in general, and Toronto, in particular, is small enough and malleable enough to be shaped into a workable international community.

The other reason why I was drawn to Toronto initially was that every few months I'd get a book through the mail, and it would be the most exciting and unprecedented book I'd run into. When I looked at the back, it seemed the author was always from Toronto.

Michael Ondaatje is the obvious example. But Anne Michaels and so many others who are making this new Canadian literature - and Canadian literature is as resurgent as any, though it's being made largely by people from Tanzania and India, Sri Lanka, The West Indies, and other places - many of these authors are imaginatively trying to construct new notions of a community beyond nations, as in The English Patient, where just at a time when nationalism is most intense, during World War II, and people are being killed because of nationalities, these four individuals exist, as it were, in a desert where all distinctions are dissolved.

Toronto seems in certain small, practical ways, to be trying to fashion a new sense of order, how to make a peace between cultures, and its writers seem to sense that they're living in the midst of something very exciting. Also, of course, Toronto is the birthplace of the Global Village - that's where McLuhan wrote about it.

It should also be said that whenever I pose this theory to Torontonians they're pretty surprised. They're much more skeptical about the city than I am. But statistically, it's the most multicultural city in the world, according to the UN. It's the safest city in North America, and it's generally regarded as one of the cities in North America that works best. It's also the most mongrel. When you put those things together, it offers a very hopeful prospect of how the city of the future will come into being.

Toronto provides a counterpoint, in my prejudiced opinion, to Los Angeles, for example, or Atlanta.

Dave: Ha Jin visited recently. We talked a bit about Atlanta. I think he'd agree with much of what you write about it in Global Soul.

Iyer: Did you enjoy Waiting?

Dave: I did. More than anything else, I guess, it was just so different from anything else I normally read.

Iyer: And so different from our experience, too. It's incomprehensible, those lives. But I was a little surprised that it did as well as it did.

Dave: It was surprising, but he tells a great story, and I think the style was just so fresh and shocking. It was so devoid of the clutter that ends up in most novels now.

Iyer: In that sense, very Chinese, reflective. The minimalist background.

What's interesting to me about Atlanta is that, on paper, it's one of the forces that makes the global economy go round. It's the home of CNN, Coca-Cola, Delta, Holiday Inn, and UPS, and yet in reality it seems utterly locked in those old black and white divisions, in every sense.

You're standing outside Martin Luther King's birthplace on Auburn Avenue and the whole neighborhood around it is completely derelict and disenfranchised, then a ten minute walk from there you run into all the gleaming towers and convention centers and seventy-story hotels. It's poignant. But a lot of the world is beginning to look like that: a few, futuristic towers linked into the global economy and around them, wasteland.

Dave: The chapter in The Global Soul about the Olympics was one of my favorites. I read passages to my roommate, who used to live in Atlanta and just moved here from Salt Lake, two cities made-over for the Games. I loved the story about those archers from Bhutan who arrive in Atlanta and are absolutely blown away by how different things are from their homeland, the only place they'd ever known.

The new allegiances are corporate, though, not national. Michael Jordan threatened not to stand in front of the flag if he couldn't wear his Nikes and it's not uncommon for athletes to compete on behalf of a country that's thousands of miles from his or her actual home.

Iyer: The Olympics is really stranded on that shift. It's based on national divisions which, to some extent, have ceased to exist. Kenyans turn into Danes so as to enhance their chances of winning a medal.

Dave: Torontonians may not agree with your idealistic view of their city, but you also mention Haruki Murakami and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. Murakami, who's Japanese, doesn't agree with your idealistic view of Japan at all. The point being that any native tends to be more cynical about his own culture.

Iyer: I think I say in the book that a foreigner tends to see paradise where a native sees purgatory, insofar as a foreigner is in a privileged position and has more appreciative eyes, undimmed by familiarity.

It's the case for me, too: I was born in England, and England is the one country in the world that will never have any glamour for me.

Dave: I was entertained by the various literary references in the book. It seems like you spend an awful lot of your time reading.

Iyer: I do have the advantage of living in the middle of nowhere. In Japan, I know my girlfriend, but otherwise I have very little contact. It's a good place for reading and writing, for being calm, and following those pursuits. I do review books, as well. And I read for pleasure, but principally, I'm drawn to books that are likely to speak to me.

One of the exciting things now is that more and more of the prominent books around us are written by mongrels about the interaction between multicultured beings and multicultured cities. Whether it's Kazuo Ishiguro, Ondaatje, Salman Rushdie, or Derek Walcott, so many of the figures who are dominant in the world of the novel or poetry are wrestling with these issues because they've been uprooted, themselves.

The Remains of the DayFor example, I think a lot of the great writers on globalism, imaginative writers, are from India. That's partly because people who grow up in India tend to be multiculturalists, already - they have three or four cultures already. Whether you're talking about Rushdie, Bharati Mukherjee, Anita Desai, or Amitav Ghosh, all the famous Indian writers literally have feet in four or five different cultures and so have a sense of how this new internationalism is forming that those more rooted in traditional cultures don't. That, to me, reflects the new inner globalism that is a theme of this book.

And they're bringing a freshness. These writers from four corners of the universe who are working within English Literature are flooding it with alien smells and curious words, different customs, and utterly unprecedented rhythms. It's as if the stuffy old house of English Literature has suddenly been given bright tropical colors. Novels in our own language now are as exciting as those of Garcia Marquez or those from Africa. And that's all happened in the last twenty years or so.

Dave: You use The Booker Prize as an example of these trends. Most of the recent winners have been writers like Ondaatje who fall under the umbrella of the Commonwealth, but they're writing from a true multiculturalist's perspective.

You also talk about publicists measuring a book's success not by the number of copies in print but by the number of languages it's reached - the inevitable consequence of which is that those writers end up spending more time in foreign places and therefore will write, in the future, more about being in airports and hotels.

Iyer: Ishiguro says he's so conscious of an international audience that he deliberately fashions his novels in a way that's easy to translate, and without topical references, because he knows his readers are going to meet him as much in Norwegian or Cantonese or Arabic as in English.

From the minute he begins to conceive his novels, he's thinking of the global audience, and in his case, hitting a universal chord, very consciously aiming for that.

Dave: If an author writes with the understanding that two-thirds of his audience will read his work in translation, there'd seem to be a risk that he'd spend less time worrying about elements such as sentence construction and voice. Do plot and the theme threaten to take over?

Iyer: It depends what kind of writer you are. The two great writers of exile, the two great paradigms, are Joyce and Beckett. Joyce lived in Dublin all his life, imaginatively, and essentially suffuses the page with the most untranslatable stuff - every word is a pun spinning in many directions, rooted in the texture of Dublin - whereas Beckett's work is very easy to translate, and I think he pretty much wrote it in two languages at once. He goes instantly to some human core that's apprehensible anywhere. I think Ishiguro is trying to do that, and it makes sense for his kind of writing. But it would be dangerous for a writer instantly to think of a global audience because he may be robbing himself of his own voice.

It's a very special writer who can write in a universal tongue. Ishiguro has the peculiar blessing of having grown up neither Japanese nor English. The English he writes is both more formal than a typical English person's and also a little strange. It has a curious flavor. At the same time, by his own admission, he can't even write Japanese. In some ways, inadvertently, he's reflecting that mongrel background, and that can't be forced.

Dave: What are you thinking about these days? You mentioned you're working on the complement or companion piece to Global Soul.

Iyer: Yes. I've been spending a lot of time at a Benedictine hermitage in California. I'm not Benedictine, but the brothers there are kind enough to open their doors to anyone who wants stillness.

Also, I'm writing a novel. One advantage of turning myself into a novelist is that I don't have to travel so much. I can sit at my desk in Japan and travel inwardly. It's set in California but stitched around Sufism, of all things, a sort of Persian mystery.

In The Global Soul, I'm writing about globalism because it's my inheritance, and the inheritance of so many people around the world. Globalism is the landscape of the new century, the world we're entering. Having done this book, now I want to go deeper into what people are going to be doing against that backdrop.

Dave: In the last chapter of this book, things do become much more quiet, more pensive and still.

Iyer: It's perhaps a pity that you have to wait until the last chapter to go there, but that chapter is a conscious attempt to make sense of everything that's gone before it, to give a counterpoint and a perspective.

The last chapter is rooted in one alien but steadying little community in the middle of Japan. I went all the way to Japan and I found myself in this suburb which basically looks like the San Fernando Valley. There are none of the traditional props of Japan - no temples, no shrines, no narrow streets.

On the surface, it's another one of these rather soulless and impersonal places, and I deliberately write about it to emphasize the importance of not being distracted by the surface, keeping your eyes instead on what's essential, as Thoreau probably did better than anyone. Amidst alien surfaces you can certainly feel at home if you're surrounded by values or assumptions or priorities with which you're comfortable.

So the book begins with the burning house, with an account of my house in California literally burning to the ground, leaving me homeless. And it ends with me finding a home in this very alien place because I'm better appreciating that home has entirely to do with invisible, intangible qualities by which you guide your life. It has nothing to do with soil, really. As you said, there's a symmetry: the first chapter is called "The Burning House" and the last chapter is called "The Alien Home." It's a progression, from a house to a home.

The last chapter is the key. That's the chapter I like most, by far.

Pico Iyer visited Powell's City of Books on March 27, 2000. The Van Morrison CDs he can't seem to get out of his stereo lately are Poetic Champions Compose; No Guru, No Method, No Teacher; Avalon Sunset; and The Philosopher's Stone, disk one.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Abandon Used Trade Paper $4.50
  2. My California: Journeys by Great Writers
    Used Trade Paper $13.00
  3. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
    Used Trade Paper $9.00
  4. Fugitive Pieces
    Used Trade Paper $1.95

  5. The Spiritual Tourist Used Hardcover $1.50
  6. The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping... Used Trade Paper $8.95

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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