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On the Road With Pico Iyer

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Pico Iyer
(Pico Iyer)

Pico Iyer has been called "the Nowhere Man" and a "privileged homeless person." The travel writer and author was born in Britain, to Indian parents, and eventually wound up in America. He now divides his time between Japan and California, but most of his life is spent six miles up in the air on the way to his next destination. John Moe talks with Iyer about his portable idea of home, finding sanctuary and what it was like losing his home to the California wildfires in 2000.

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The complete transcript of John Moe's interview with Pico Iyer:

John Moe: Just giving a rundown on your past is like reading an atlas.

Pico Iyer by phone from Nara, Japan: (laughs) I know, home is a work in progress. I feel in my case it's almost a manuscript because I'm constantly revising and updating and adding to. So if you were to ask me "Where is my home?" it would really depend on what day it is and what time of day.

Moe: Well, how about today?

Iyer: Today it feels very much like Japan, because I'm sitting here in the middle of autumn with the sunlight streaming through the windows. And I think if you've moved around a lot, as I have, it's really important to have one still point, in your life, one steady base.

So for more than 20 years now, I've come back to Japan for about six months of every year. And when I'm in Japan, I don't even have a car or a bicycle or anything really. I'm very fixed, so that's what allows me to travel around the rest of the time.

Moe: Why Japan?

Iyer: I think just affinity. When I was a little boy, I would read poems or look at woodcuts, and feel this mysterious sense of kinship, so I don't really speak Japanese, I don't eat Japanese food-to the horror of my friends-and I've never worked in Japan. I'm still here on a tourist visa after 21 years. In some ways, it makes sense to me. And at that level, I do feel absolutely at home.

Moe: You say six months out of the year. How about the other half of the year. Are you thinking, "I'm away from home" or "I'm at home on the road?"

Iyer: Exactly. I'd say "home on the road" is a very good way of putting it. I think I got very early into the habit of feeling at home everywhere. As you said, I sort of grew up with parts of myself in India, and Britain, and California. And I think that meant that I could be at home anywhere, although I would never be at home 100 percent anywhere.

But I think the advantage of such a background is when I later found myself in North Korea, or Ethiopia or Paraguay or quite remote or difficult places, I don't think I was disoriented or didn't feel displaced the way most people might be.

Moe: I had the experience not long ago of moving across the country from Seattle to the Twin Cities, and I've noticed that my idea of home has shrunk down a little bit. It doesn't so much matter to me, now that I'm 40 years old, whether I can get to a nice restaurant or go to certain clubs. It can be a smaller place to me. Have you had that experience?

Iyer: I think so. I think the fewer things one needs, the happier one is. If home is stripped down to almost a minimum of needs, which is probably what I seem to have done because I live in just a two-room apartment with no TV, no internet, no anything really, then it's very easy to feel very satisfied. And I think what I've noticed also is that for me, more and more as the years go on, home is not really where I sleep, but where I stand. My home is almost in my carry-on bag, or in myself. And my home is made up of my favorite Leonard Cohen album, or a Graham Green novel, or the picture of my sweetheart of 21 years. Those things I can really carry around with me anywhere.

And as you say, when I was young, home was an essay that would take me 20 pages to complete, and now it's probably a Haiku!

Moe: I'm interested in this home you have in Japan also because you're not eating the Japanese food, you're not watching television, you don't have transportation around Japan, does it feel like you're in Japan?

Iyer: Yes, I think it does. It's an interesting choice too because I think people who travel a lot will tell you, Japan is the most alien society on earth. It's the one that most feels like a science fictional place. Even though I've been here more than 20 years, it still does feel like another planet.

But at a much deeper level, it makes absolute sense to me. When I'm walking around my neighborhood, even though I can't understand everything people are saying, I feel I can understand why they are doing it. I both respect and want to learn from, and occasionally share, certain of their assumptions.

I think it helps me that I grew up in England and Japan to me is like England made exotic. It's quite similar, really, to the place where I did grow up in Oxford, England. But like Oxford will never have, it remains a little exotic, romantic and glamorous to me.

I always feel when we're choosing a home or a job or a partner, what we're really looking for is that special mix of strangeness and familiarity. Strangeness enough to keep you interested and not to feel that you know everything, but familiar enough to make you feel rooted and protected in some ways.

Japan does give me that. Even though I don't understand its surfaces, I feel I do understand its depths just because they're similar to the ones I have.

Moe: Does the fact that Japan is exotic and feels "other" to you, even after all these years, does that make it easier when you spend the other half of the year traveling because there is no place that is completely "of you" that you spend a lot of time?

Iyer: That's an interesting way to put it. I think probably it does. And I think also the fact that my life in Japan is so quiet and so changeless, that is something I can carry with me wherever I go so that in the middle of the flux, of being in Times Square or moving from place to place the rest of the time, I always have that still place I can return to in my mind.

And I should say that the other thing I've done for almost 20 years, because I do move around a lot, is retreat four times a year into a monastery and that's another still place. And I feel that wherever I am in the world, even if I'm bouncing from airport to airport, so long as I have the image and atmosphere of that monastery in my head, that will steady me through whatever comes.

And I've got to say that my official home-where I pay my taxes-is in California and I've been based there 40 years now. It actually seems very alien and different to me too. So I suppose that I always feel that if I'm in California, a part of me is completely accepted because California, like America, is a land of immigrants, but a part of me will never be fully Californian. Whereas when I'm in Japan, I have the clarity of knowing I'm 100 percent outsider. And I suppose what I'm really saying is I'm the odd kind of person who's always been at home feeling a foreigner. Since the day I was born, I felt a little outside whatever society I was in and I felt comfortable with outsideness. It's almost what I seek and I know that's, of course, not what everybody knows, but that's my experience.

Moe: You've also had the experience of losing your home to the California wildfires. How did that experience affect your thoughts about home?

Iyer: I think it made suddenly literal what had always been almost a metaphor. I had always referred to myself sort of blithely, as being "homeless" or not having a home in the soil, but inside myself. And then one day, as you say, I was sitting in my home in the hills of California and I looked outside and suddenly there were 70-foot flames arching over the living room, and by the end of the evening the house was reduced to ash and everything I had in the world was reduced to ash.

And yet, the next day, clearly I was living with the inconvenience of not having any possessions and not having literally a roof over my head. I just slept on a friend's floor. But at the same time, I didn't feel that terrible rending that some people might feel. I'd always had the sense of home as fluid and mobile and something that was as much inside me after my house burned as before. So I supposed it just underlined this intuition I had all along.

And I think the other thing maybe I should say here is that when I was growing up as a little boy, as someone with an Indian face, and perhaps an English voice, and an American residence, I thought, "Well, this is quite an unusual and lucky position to be in," to have parts of me in different cultures but not to be imprisoned in any one.

What I've found nowadays when I walk through the cities of the world, let's say St. Paul, but certainly New York or San Francisco or Toronto, it seems that half the kids I see are actually much more international than I am. This is almost the way of the future although it's a small number. I think what we notice among the younger generation is that they have this much more global sense of home, literally. Their home is partly where their partner comes from, partly where their parents came from, partly where they're choosing to live, but it isn't narrow and confined the way it was in our grandparents' day.

Moe: What year was this that you lost your home?

Iyer: That was actually 1990. And we rebuilt a house on the same property and we were sitting there three months ago and suddenly there were flames all around us and we had to evacuate and I was almost certain that the house would be burnt down again, though it survived that fire and it survived the fires more recently, about 10 days ago. But I think when you're living in hills of California, of course many other places now, you really feel you're living in a very provisional, temporary space. Tomorrow could bring a whole new set of circumstances. Every tomorrow could bring that.

Moe: How did you feel when you saw those flames again, about what may be about to happen?

Iyer: Yes, I must say, I think I was more chilled and more traumatized than most of the people around me who hadn't been through that fire. And interestingly enough, in July when we were evacuated and when this devastating fire came within a couple hundred yards of our house, the only thing I could think to do was to go to a nearby monastery, about 20 minutes' drive away in Santa Barbara and just go and collect myself, and close my eyes, hope that all would be well.

I remember one moment from the monastery, I looked across the hills to where my house was. It looked like this very tiny, fragile structure, alone on a ridge, just engulfed in flames and I thought, "Oh my heavens, there's no way I'll ever see that house again." My house did miraculously survive. But just last week, I heard that monastery where I went to say, that got burnt down in the recent fire. So even the place where you go to as a sanctuary, to be away from the turmoil of the world, is alas, as temporary as everything else.

Moe: When I was living in Seattle, my wife is from Chicago, and she was always traumatized by the idea that earthquakes might come at any moment. But I grew up in Seattle so I kind of accepted that. Then we moved back to the Midwest where she's from and there's no earthquakes, but a week after we arrived, there were tornadoes!

Iyer: Exactly. Really there's nowhere in the world where you're entirely safe. And, of course, that's why the notion of home is so important. We need illusion or the idea of safety and security to bind us to the ground. But I have found that such home as I've been able to build inside myself that is as secure as I am. As long as I'm around, or you're around, with whatever your values and friendships are, those things can withstand typhoons, earthquakes, hurricane and fire.

Moe: So if you're carrying that home around with you all the time, do you ever get homesick?

Iyer: No. Many of friends ask me that and I think that's a sensation that's alien to me. I've never felt as if I'm encircled by everything I want in the world. But I don't think most people do. But really there's nothing that I long for. It's an inconvenience to have my mother on one side of the ocean and wife on other and my friends in a third continent. It means I'm never ringed by everybody I'd like to be ringed by. But it also means that wherever I am, there's somebody I care about and something I care about.

I suppose maybe at a very early age as a little boy going back and forth between these different countries, I decided that the best thing was to fully relish whichever place I was in and not to think of the many many other places I could be.

Moe: How about the idea of the technology that we live with today where we are so interconnected to anybody around the world through circuits and electronic devices. And this is more and more the case all the time. How has that affected your idea of being with people, being home, having people in other places be part of your home? How does that impact you?

Iyer: Cyberspace is this new dimension that perfectly reflects, I suppose, what I have felt all my life growing up, which is that sense of connection. I was just talking with friends recently whose children had gone off to college and they said, as most parents probably do these days, "It's wonderful because we don't feel we've lost them in the way we might have before because it's so easy to talk to them and to access them in any way wherever they are," which may not be what the kids are feeling! But at least, I think all of us enjoy the benefits of that.

I particularly find that 25 years ago, for example, I think there's no way I could have worked full-time for New York companies, which is what I do, while living in Japan, the country of my dreams. And so technologies, although I'm suspicious of them, have allowed me and so many other people to craft lives that were unimaginable even a generation ago.

At the same time, I think most of us realize even if we can access our loved one with a webcam and through email, or however we do it, that's never the same as being with them. And I think we have more and more connections in the sense of phone connections, plane connections, technological connections, but never quite translates to really the human connection. So really, technology has done a lot to make us feel that we're connected with everyone, but in the deepest part of ourselves, it will never be enough. And the human always will trump the technological, probably.

Moe: Thanksgiving is upon us. Thanksgiving is a holiday that many Americans associate so strongly with home and families and these very American traditions. Do you mark Thanksgiving in any way when you're not in the United States?

Iyer: I suppose I'm in a peculiar position because growing up in England, I never really grew up with Thanksgiving, so it doesn't have same meaning for me that it would with most Americans.

Moe: Doesn't have those childhood memories in the same way.

Iyer: That's right. Yes. And my parents are vegetarians, so there wouldn't have been any turkey on the table in any case. But I know what you're saying. I do feel that sense with Christmas, and wherever I am in the world with Christmas, although I'm not a Christian, I do feel the need to mark it in some way. So I can remember that I went to midnight mass once in Egypt, and another time in Easter Island, and another time very memorably in Ethiopia. Those are just the E's!

I understand that the more rootless you are, the more important it is to guide and shape your life through certain rituals and markings. And although it's not Thanksgiving for me, I would feel bereft if I couldn't observe Christmas, or New Years or other important moments in my own way.

And it must be said as I sit here in Japan, Japan is pretty impervious to Thanksgiving. I think puritans and the wilderness don't make much sense to us here. But Christmas decorations are everywhere from November 1, the minute that Halloween ends in Japan, Christmas celebrations begin. Sometimes famously featuring Santa Claus on the cross! So as I sit here, Thanksgiving week in Japan, what I'm surrounded by are "Winter Wonderland" on the soundtrack in the supermarket and red and white Santas everywhere I look, much more than I think in the U.S. So in certain ways, they're making me feel at home.

Moe: Do you ever get the sense when you see something like that, or decorations around those sorts of holidays, that you're not really looking at something from home, but at somebody else's idea of home and even more alienating?

Iyer: Yeah, that's very well said. I think one could very much feel like that, but I suppose because I've grown up almost in the intersection point of cultures all my life, what I've really grown up with is a sense of the way cultures either misinterpret or misappropriate or translate each other into their own terms. So when I'm in California, what I notice probably is everyone is wearing T-shirts with Japanese characters on them but they don't know what the Japanese characters mean.

When I come to Japan, I notice that they're taking all these things from America but they're translating them or ripping them out of context and making them something very "other." And I think that's really just part of the human conundrum or situation. Now more than ever, we have more access to other cultures than ever before, but not necessarily more understanding about the cultures, so what we do is take all the forms without necessarily what they represent.

And I think that's fine. I've probably done a lot of that in my life too. So if I'm walking down the Ginza in Tokyo and surrounded by the Christmas decorations, actually to me, deracinated as I am, it wouldn't seem much stranger than if I'm walking down 5th Ave. in New York or Oxford St. in London.

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