Pico Iyer's latest book The Man within my Head is about the mystical connections he has felt with Graham Greene. Here the travel writer talks about this kinship, his evolution and current concerns of balancing the external and internal worlds. An exclusive interview.
After years of travelling to some of the most distant and exotic places in the world, travel writer Pico Iyer sets out on an inward journey in his latest book The Man Within My Head (Hamish Hamilton). He explores the almost mystical kinship he has felt with the British writer Graham Greene, whom he never met. In an email interview, he tells Meenakshi Kumar about Greene’s influence on him and his travel writings.
At what point did you start feeling this inexplicable connection with Graham Greene?
As soon as I started travelling, I began to find that no one caught the places I was visiting — from Cuba to Vietnam to South Africa to Haiti — as well as Graham Greene did; and, more important, no one caught all the moral and emotional complications of travel (the unease of being a privileged foreigner, the sense of being surrounded by political situations you often misread, the equivocal encounters with locals who have everything to gain from befriending you) so well as Greene.
He’s almost the patron saint of travellers, especially as they sit with their doubts in their barren rooms. And though those who stay at home might read him as a fugitive, always running away from commitment, I see him as asking all the most difficult questions of himself, including the ones having to do with commitment.
Plus, on a very superficial level, I was born, of course, on the same road in Oxford next to which he had lived. I went to the same school that his son had been to and I was formed — or deformed — by all the classic English boarding-schools of which he was both product and poet laureate, and I’ve always been fascinated by the conundrums of faith, as he was. So, I feel a kinship with him on a very superficial level as well.
You write in the book that you never wanted to meet Greene. Why is that so?
As a writer, I’m keenly, sometimes painfully aware that the person who writes is radically different from the one who meets the world; it’s the difference between seeing someone alone, lost in his thoughts and his imagination at his desk, and seeing him after he puts on a face and a voice to confront the world.
And in Greene’s case, I always felt that I got the heart of him, the best and most intimate part of him, his doubts, his terrors, his secret habits, through his books. If I’d met him, I’d have been seeing only that public surface he put up to distract the world. It would be like seeing the costume, the personality of someone, when on the page you can commune with his soul.
In that sense, meeting Greene might not just have simplified my sense of him, but complicated it; it would have given me all kinds of features — the high colour in his face, his surprisingly thin voice, his courteous manners, his very long legs — to distract me from the parts of him that really spoke to my core.
A writer is a deeply private person who has to impersonate himself when he goes out in public.
The book is as much about you, your relationship with your father as it is about Graham Greene. Would you then like to call it a veiled autobiography?
I certainly make it seem as if it’s a covert autobiography, and that looking at Greene is a way for me to get out some of my own story. But, in fact, I think even that’s a bit of a ruse; many of the aspects of my own life I describe here are not ones even my wife or mother would recognize, and although there’s nothing that’s untrue in them, I leave out so much that I wouldn’t call them true, either. That’s one reason I kept out a subtitle from the cover — so the reader wouldn’t even know how much of this is fiction, how much non-fiction.
I’m not really interested in my own life and story; after all, that is what surrounds me every day, and I think most of us are least to be trusted when claiming to tell or write about ourselves and those closest to us. But I am interested in the way any life, even mine, plays out some archetypal patterns, and that’s what I try to bring out in this book.
A boy leaves his parents to go out and become himself and, 30 years on, finds that he has turned into his parents, more or less. Fires wipe out a house, sending members of a family back to square one, and they’re obliged to think of how the Buddha said that all life is a burning house, and what we do with that impermanence is the story of our lives. A man wakes up in a city named for peace — La Paz, Bolivia — almost as if he’s being born and then, 220 pages later, almost dies near the city named for peace.
I hope these are the kinds of almost mythic patterns that many a reader might relate to, whatever kinds of births and losses and families they live among. When I write about my father, for example, I tell very, very little about him — or about me — but just try to get at some larger, more universal story of fathers and sons.
I was quite pleased when a young friend (of Indian descent, in fact) read the book the week it came out and said, “Only you could be so personal without being revealing in the least!”
Was this a tougher or an easier book to write in comparison to your previous writings?
It was much, much tougher, but that was the fun of it! With every book, I try to set myself some challenge, so that the writing of it will seem a real adventure and a voyage to a country I’ve never seen before. There are certain writers, many of them great and among my favourites, who like to stay in the same place for years on end, as writers and as human beings; but my inclination is always to seek out the new city, the form I’ve never tried yet, the place I’ve only dreamed or heard about.
So in this case part of the difficulty — and the fascination — came in trying to create a new form, and a weird, deliberately challenging form that propels the reader from memory to literary criticism to travel vignette to biography — all in the space of a few pages! Because my subject here is mystery and the way the subconscious and intuition shape our lives in ways that reason cannot follow, I deliberately had to try to create a non-linear narrative, one that jumped all over and that hopped from place to place and from time to time, as a dream does. Since other people’s dreams are notoriously hard to follow, I had to try to stitch all this together in some flow that would hold and even divert a stranger.
That’s why I spent eight years on what it is, in fact, quite a tiny book, and wrote 3000 finished pages to generate the 240 I published. If a book is too easy to write, something in me goes dead. Though I might be able to hit all my marks and complete it to some degree, I feel as if I’m just walking around the block, eyes shut — almost sleepwalking — rather than going out in the desert after dark, which is how I felt here.
How has Greene affected you as a person and as a writer?
He’s taught me, as I say in the book, about kindness and honesty, and he’s shown me how what one does is more important than what one believes — or doesn’t believe — and that, however kind one may try to be in one’s assessment of others, one owes it to them to be unsparing on oneself. One has to look at all those places one would otherwise not want to look at — in the world and in the self — and one has to try to see the world through the eyes of one’s enemy, or someone entirely different from oneself.
As a writer, he’s taught me about the necessity of understanding the Other, the importance of not demonising any individual and about the value of tautness, economy. The fewer words there are in a scene, the more a reader is involved, even implicated, as she tries to complete it in her own head. The less you show, the greater the space left for possibility.
That’s another reason why I wrote 3000 pages and then took 2,760 out. So that the reader could complete the scenes or would have plenty of blank space in the book to fill out in her own way.
From travelling to some of the most exotic places in the world, you now travel inwards in this book. Has travel writing changed for you over the years?
I still feel it’s important to see the world and to keep up with it, first-hand, as much as my limited funds and free time allow. So, I still save up my money and try to go, as I did last year, to everywhere from Jerusalem to St. Petersburg, Dubai to Thailand, rural Arkansas to Hyderabad. I don’t trust the accounts of the world we get through the media — not because they’re fraudulent, but because they’re incomplete — so I’ve taken it upon myself to try to keep myself informed by going to visit the places that seem critical.
But when it comes to writing, I think travel-writing has to become more inner, more personal, more quirky in an age when anyone who reads my books or those of any other traveller can access parts of western Tibet that we could barely see on her iPhone or see corners of the Alhambra on the Discovery Channel that would be closed to almost every visitor.
A writer has to try to find those places — within — that no video camera or Skype hook-up or YouTube video could catch better, and these are places that lie in the realm of nuance, of silence, of memory and of contradiction.
So, it’s been a very conscious decision on my part that, after spending 12 years writing my first five books about the external world, I’ve devoted the last 12 or so to writing, really, about the internal world. I still describe the physical details of Dharamsala, say, but my real interest is in the vision that the Dalai Lama is so persuasively spinning out there. I still write, in my book Sun After Dark, about Haiti and Ethiopia and Yemen, but my interest is less in those places — about which I can’t claim to say or know very much — than in the larger parables they body forth. So, I take voluminous notes still when I visit a foreign place, but when I write about it, I leave those notes on the other side of the room, to try to catch some less physical dimension in it.
Having spent 12 years on the world of movement and 12 years on the realm of stillness, now I’ll have to try to find a way to combine the two!
In some of your earlier books, like Video Nights in Kathmandu, Falling off the Map and of course Global Soul, you try to look for the "soul" of a place and the role of globalization in shaping that place. But though you have been such a global citizen, do you think globalisation made it easier for you to feel at home at several different places at once?
I do. Growing up from the age of seven as a boy of entirely Indian ancestry with an English accent and birthplace and upbringing and then with an American residence meant that, from very early on, I couldn’t claim to be entirely Indian or 100 per cent English or exclusively American, but could feel that a part of me was in all those places, and that I could make my home in any one of them. And, even more important, could make my home in the passages and collaborations between them. If I read a book that’s set in New York and Mumbai simultaneously, if I come across a novel, like The Quiet American by Graham Greene, that’s about the dialogue between dangerously young and innocent America and dangerously unillusioned and middle-aged Britain, I feel I can position myself fully in either of those books and think of them as mapping my territory.
My example is not very important. But I do feel that this is the way of the new century. If I go into a classroom today in New York — or Toronto or Hong Kong or Sydney or maybe certain parts of India’s big cities — most of the kids I meet will have one home associated with their parents and another perhaps with their partners and another with the place they happen to find themselves in right now and another, no doubt, with their dreams. Home for them will be a work in progress. Many of the great cultural products of the age, whether it’s that food in Delhi or Jhumpa Lahiri’s fiction or movies that are international co-productions or Peter Brook productions of The Mahabharata are a product and a spokesman for this new form of ‘many-homedness’.
What ‘signposts’ -- cultural, emotional or other -- have you used to navigate your way in the places you travel to?
Hmm, I’m not sure there’s any one standard signpost; I try to use a different technique in every place I visit. But my first impulse, in every one of them, is to walk and walk and walk, for 16 hours in a day, my first day or two in any new place, to try to take in as much as I can, through every sense, and to try to open myself up to its influence before assumptions and analyses begin to take shape.
I just get on a bus and take it to the last stop, walk around every quarter I can, note the signs in the street, the conversations I can understand around me, the swirl of cultures overlapping all around. All of which is made much easier, of course, because I’m male (I’m not sure I could do many of the things I do if I were a woman) and because my Indian complexion allows me to pass as a local in Cuba and Oman and Indonesia and Brazil.
Each culture to some degree defines the way one can get into it — it would be foolish not to visit temples in Kyoto and not to listen to music in the Philippines, as it would be silly to visit India without going to a Bollywood movie and reckless to go to Rio without seeing what a beach there looks like. But beyond those particular features, I just try to be quiet and move around and let the place speak to me, as torrentially as possible.
You have drawn parallels between the Dalai Lama's example of being without a home and your own in The Open Road. But would you say, especially after the period of The Lady and the Monk, that you found some sort of a home, some sort of a rootedness?
To be honest, I’m not sure I was trying to draw parallels between the Dalai Lama and myself, except that he, as an exile, is bodying forth so inspiringly some of the possibilities that the rest of us strive towards in terms of constructing a sense of home and belonging inwardly. But you’re absolutely right that I do feel deeply rooted, in Japan, where I’ve lived now for 25 years (in a two-room flat in the suburbs, where I don’t have any bicycle or car and seldom leave the neighbourhood), in my wife (whom I’ve also known for 25 years), in my publishers (with whom I’ve been for 27 years now), in Time magazine (for which I’ve written now for almost 30 years), in my family (in India and California now) and in the monastery where I spend a lot of time in California (to which I’ve been going regularly on retreat for 21 years).
I think movement is only as worthwhile as the stillness that underwrites it; you can only begin to travel if you’re very rooted in one place. Otherwise, you’re travelling in search of a home or a life, which tends to be very treacherous indeed. So, I’ve never been as interested in travel so much as in continuity, steadiness, indeed the kind of unmoving clarity and directedness that the Dalai Lama exemplifies.
He travels more than almost anyone I know, but one never feels he’s lost or looking for something or journeying except to share what he can with others and learn what he can from them. He is one of the world’s great examples of someone so at home with himself that he is instantly at home in anywhere he visits; he knows where he stands, which means that he can travel freely anywhere.
With the world becoming flatter and more connected, how has the travelling experience changed?
I’m not sure how flat the world is, at a time when the disparities between rich and poor, in individual countries (such as India) and across the planet, are increasing with every year. And I don’t know how connected the world is at a time when most of its inhabitants can never dream of boarding a plane and are further from peace and basic food and water than ever.
To me the main function of travelling today is learning, and reminding others, what great distances remain and how unconnected we may be. Cuba and the U.S. are separated by 90 miles of water, to use an example that I’ve written about often, yet neither seems to know the first thing about the other’s reality. India and Pakistan share large borders, yet how clearly does each really understand the other? And of course, cities such as Mumbai where more than 5 million live on the streets while a few are plugged into a highly privileged international elite, are shorthands, across the world, for all the disconnections that remain.
The fact that more people in India have cell-phones than toilets, as some cite, is not to me a sign that the world is more connected than before, except on the surface. It’s a sign of a radical disconnect. So the travel experience now, at least for me, is largely about seeing how unflat the world remains!
What is a regular day like for you, considering that you are one of those few who have decidedly stayed away from trappings of a modern life? Is there another book in the pipeline?
I’ve been working for many years on a book on Japan, now that I am about to complete a quarter of a century living here, and I’ve collected probably 1000 pages of notes, though how I’ll make those live and create a new form of their own, I’ll have to see.
But my day is much as it has been for the past 20 years at least. I tend to wake up when it gets light, and, after two pieces of toast and a pot of tea, I go to my desk, to write for five hours or so. Then I take walks around my neighbourhood — the plum blossoms are just out now, in the early spring, and a new mildness has come to the air after the long months of chill — and return to our tiny apartment to read and to take care of correspondence.
In late afternoon, I walk across town to play ping-pong — or to exercise — with some very elderly neighbours, most of them born in Japan before World War II —and after a simple dinner, I usually turn out the lights and listen to music (Bach, Sigur Ros, Handel, Leonard Cohen) for an hour or two before going to sleep by 9:00 p.m.
As you know, I think, I’ve never used a cell-phone, I’ve barely gone on the Internet, I don’t have a TV I understand, I’ve never texted or gone on Facebook and I don’t get newspapers or magazines here. Which means that each day seems to last a thousand hours. I wake up and know that I can write for five hours — and still have maybe nine hours free to take walks, to follow the news through Emerson or Shakespeare or Emily Dickinson or Edith Wharton, to give myself over to the new Leonard Cohen record, with all its depths and silences, and to talk at intimate length to my wife.
Now our kids are gone and out in the world, my life here is probably more monastic than the life I know in my monastery. Which means that it doesn’t, as some people see it, have much in the way of stimulation, excitement, data flow; but it offers spaciousness, quiet and the room in which to think and feel.
It’s not for most tastes, I know, but rather than letting me know everything that has just happened (or not happened) in the U.S. Republican campaign, it allows me to step out of the moment a little so as best to try to make sense of it.
Graham Greene is the man within your head. Are there any others?
Many, many! In this recent book I wrote about him as a way to focus on one tiny part of my life and my being, as someone who has often been alone in foreign places and tried to think clearly about what is the kind thing to do in those circumstances, what to believe and where to put the energy of commitment. But you’ll note that the epigraph to the book comes from Thoreau, who has supplied the epigraph to many of my books, over more than 20 years, on Islam, on Japan, on the Dalai Lama and much else. Herman Melville is a man within my head, and Leonard Cohen (on whom I’ve written enough pieces to make a whole book) is there, too. D.H. Lawrence and Terrence Malick, too. And there are many women in my head, from Virginia Woolf to Joni Mitchell.
I think all of us have plenty of these unmet beings kicking around within us, and by looking at them, and what they’re doing there, we can perhaps understand aspects of ourselves, even — especially — those parts we’d otherwise never see.