A Conversation with Pico Iyer: Part One
On January 26, I had the honor of hosting a conversation with the poignant, provocative, and peripatetic author Pico Iyer at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco. This event, sponsored by Adventurer Collection member Geographic Expeditions, launched Pico’s North American tour for his new book, The Man Within My Head. The evening turned into an exhilarating exploration of places and lessons cherished by both of us. We hope you will enjoy this edited transcript of our conversation. For reading ease, we are publishing it in five parts. This is the first part of our conversation.
Don George: It’s a great pleasure, Pico, to see you, and, as always, it’s a great honor for me to share the stage with you.
Pico Iyer: Thank you.
DG: We were remarking earlier that we haven’t seen each other in two years, but it feels like only yesterday. I wanted to begin this evening—speaking of the passage of time—by showing you a picture and asking you what you see in that picture. I wish I could show all of you in the audience this picture, but since I can’t, I’m going to describe it. It’s the author photo on the back cover of the jacket of Pico’s first book, Video Night in Katmandu, which was published in 1988. There’s a very handsome young man with a lot of hair. So, Pico, here you are. What do you see when you look at that picture?
PI: Loss, impermanence, but freshness too. You probably know that one of my prejudices is that I think all writers write the same book again and again, but we try to cover it up by wearing different clothes or adopting different voices, but fundamentally we have the same single question driving or guiding us though our lives. When I see this book, I probably see something very different from you because at some level I’m just writing the same book again and again, more imperfectly each time. It’s interesting how first books are more revealing because they only come from the obsessions that have gathered slowly. In this case it was 27 years before I actually wrote it.
DG: You really feel that you’re basically rewriting the same book?
PI: I think we’re all defined by our upbringings and the central tensions of our upbringing. For this book I traveled very quickly through 10 countries in Asia. I was watching how so many of the people I met in Asia were transfixed by California, by San Francisco, by images of modernity and freedom and affluence—the things that they didn’t always have very much of—and I saw that other people in Asia, people like Don and myself, were drawn there by antiquity and continuity and even simplicity—the things we don’t always have. This was a book about the dance of dreams or illusions or projections between them.
My most recent book (The Man Within My Head), which Don is cradling there, is about how when I was a little boy I went back and forth six times a year between my parents’ house in ‘60s California, where the students down the street were burning down the Bank of America, razing to the ground all the foundations of society as we knew it, and the very opposite world, my boarding school in England, which was set up in the year 1440. We had to wear full morning dress to class every day. We had to write poems in dead languages—ancient Greek and Latin. At an early stage, I was really defined by the movement between those two places. I didn’t belong to either of them. I could bring an outsider’s eye to each of them and I was fascinated by the way that their notions of each other collided in the middle of the Atlantic. So it’s not a surprise that I wrote this [first] book, and it’s probably not a surprise that 24 years later I come back to really that same movement back and forth, and the way that so many of us, especially in a city like San Francisco and at a time like now, are creating our homes in the space between places.
Home is not so much attached to a piece of soil these days but almost to a piece of soul. If you were to go to a university or a high school in San Francisco, probably 40 percent of the kids there would say, “I’m from Vietnam and my boyfriend is from Iran and I want to go to Costa Rica and I’ve spent most of my life in Dubai.” Their sense of home will be a work in progress that they’ll probably never complete, and a matter of piecing together all these different places into a kind of stained-glass whole. I suppose that sometimes when I’ve written about myself, it’s only because it seems to me to speak for a much larger phenomenon, that this is the age of living in a state of passage. That’s much more than you bargained for when you asked me about that photo, isn’t it?
DG: I didn’t see that when I looked at it actually. Wow.
DG: No, that’s good! I’m curious: Do you think the person in that photo is more or less innocent than the Pico today?
PI: Well…on the plane from Seattle this morning I read that travel makes one wiser, but less happy. I think there’s a truth to that. A part of me misses the recklessness I see in that boy [in the Video Night photo], the heedlessness, the readiness to go places that I would be anxious about now, the freshness of discovery of the world. I think innocence is a lovely word to invoke because I think that’s what travel gives us—the eyes of a child again, the eyes of wonder, and the eyes of first discovery. Certainly they came naturally to me then.
I think the other maybe less expected difference between this picture and the haggard one on the back of this recent book is that when you’re a kid you think you know everything, and the more time goes on, the more you see how little you know about anything. The sentences in this [first] book are delivered with a really bratty confidence, like a kind of a smart Alec, wise guy. You know, “I know everything in the world because I’m 28 years old.” And this book, this recent one, is haunted by a sense of not knowing a thing, and that being the beauty of life but also the confoundingness of it.
My mother turned 80 last year and so I threw a little party for her. Some of her friends said, “Why don’t you interview her? Why don’t you be her Don George at the end of her party?” At first I thought this was a strange thing for a birthday party, but I raised the idea with her—she’s an adventurous soul, she’s up for anything—and she said yes. I asked her, as I would always be too shy to ask her in other circumstances, “What’s the main thing you’ve learned in your life?” She said, “That you can never know another person.” It really made an impression, first because I never even imagined my mother would say that and I didn’t know she thought about that. Secondly, to me as her son, it was her way of saying that she doesn’t know me and that she probably doesn’t know my father. I was so glad to have had the excuse and the occasion of a formal interview to get something out of my mother that will stay with me for the rest of my life. It did make me think that life is a gradual process of unknowing and unlearning and casting off from shore. I could pass such confident judgments in that first book because I’d never really left my home base. I was stuck inside my assumptions and my prejudices, and I probably still am now, but I’m a little more conscious of the fact that they’re lingering and I try to be a little more alert to not being hostage to my own prejudices.
DG: That’s beautiful. You really encapsulated what I was thinking about the difference between these two books and the journey of your life as a writer. You have stripped off layers and layers and layers as you go along, but as you strip off layers, you realize better and better what you don’t know, how little you actually know. That’s fascinating to me because in a way it means if you keep on writing at some point you’re just not going to know anything.
PI: We’ve already attained that stage, Don Partly I think it’s the difference between spring and autumn. One of the really poignant things about Graham Greene is that he always presented himself as a very undiluted, skeptical man without innocence and without conviction, and mocking the innocence. You can always tell that that mockery comes from envy. He wishes he could be young again. There’s a great Richard Thompson song in which he says, “I wish I could be a fool for you again.” And for all of us who’ve advanced into Act 4, or Act 7, of a relationship, a part of us wishes that we were still the guileless open-eyed person of Act 1. Graham Greene at the very end of his life said there’s wisdom in age and it’s all about wishing you weren’t so wise. Yet autumn can see spring a lot better than spring can see autumn.
I’ve always been fascinated by autumn. It’s my favorite season in the country that we both share as our secret home, Japan, because it can take in the whole cycle, because it knows everything is impermanent, and because it knows that the impermanence itself is rather permanent. All the leaves are falling, the cold is approaching, it’s getting darker, and the days are shortening, and that is all necessary to get back to spring. Whereas spring has a much more linear sense; it believes everything is moving in a forward direction. When I was a kid, I thought/expected I would know much more at 50 than I do at 20. Now I can see the progress moves cyclically rather than in a linear way, and follows the seasons rather than a manmade assembly line.
It’s a bit of the difference between the New World and the Old World. As we talk about this, the dance between spring and autumn is probably the dance between East and West. When I’m in Japan, I’m very conscious of California being a land of eternal summer, which is why our Japanese wives and so many of our Japanese friends long to be here. But it’s also the reason that people like you and I love to go to Japan, for that much larger picture, the roundedness. There are seasons in California, but there is the hope that you’re always pushing forward, whereas in Japan there’s a certain sanity for knowing that you’re ultimately going to come back to your grandparents’ place. For all the external changes in the world, for all the ways in which you’re shifting fashions with each passing month in Japan, ultimately you come back to the ancient verities. The new is only as important and valuable as the old that underwrites it. You notice this with technology, that we can only make the best use of our cell phones if we have something antique and depthless and wise inside us, if we have something rather old inside us. Otherwise we get caught on a rollercoaster that we never really wanted to get on and we don’t know how to get off. We find ourselves in this state of acceleration where we can’t really do justice to the new things that come into our lives. This is not where I expected our conversation on travel to be going, but maybe this is more interesting.
For further information: Adventure Collection members offer a variety of Japan adventure travel packages and guided tours.