A Conversation with Pico Iyer
By Scott London
Pico Iyer once referred to himself as "a global village on two legs." It's a fitting description for someone who was born in England to Indian parents, immigrated to California as a boy, was later educated at Eton and Oxford, and now spends much of his time in Japan.
"I am simply a fairly typical product of a movable sensibility," he says, "living and working in a world that is itself increasingly small and increasingly mongrel. I am a multinational soul on a multinational globe on which more and more countries are as polyglot and restless as airports. Taking planes seems as natural to me as picking up the phone or going to school; I fold up my self and carry it around as if it were an overnight bag."
A longtime essayist and author of numerous books, Iyer is regarded as one of the most eloquent and incisive observers of the emerging global culture. His writing moves from travel reportage to social criticism to philosophical rumination, always with a keen eye for odd juxtapositions. Whether he's speaking German to a tipsy police chief in Cuba, eating enchiladas in Nepal, or reading a Jackie Collins novel at a public library in Bhutan, his world is one where the foreign and the familiar always coexist in unexpected ways.
The Utne Reader has called Iyer one of America's leading visionaries for "elevating travel reportage to new heights," and the Los Angeles Times has called him "the rightful heir to Jan Morris, Paul Theroux, and company." He has also been compared with Indian writers Vikram Seth and Gita Mehta, though he dismisses the comparisons. "I'm different," he says simply. "I guess I'm more international because of the vast amounts of traveling I do. I'm not so much an Indian, but an international traveler."
When I met with Iyer at his part-time home on a hilltop overlooking Santa Barbara, California, I found him as amiable and unassuming in person as he often seems in his prose. The impression was not dispelled as we launched into conversation, though overshadowed now and again by his flashing intellect, playfulness with words, and highly developed sense of humor.
Scott London: Your work could be described as a study of the emerging global culture. You travel to the Far East and describe seeing a Rambo movie dubbed into Mandarin, or eating tiramisu at a Burger King in Kyoto.
Pico Iyer: When I first became a travel writer and went to places like China and Japan and India, I realized that people have been visiting the temples of China and the gardens of Japan and the Mountains of India for hundreds of years and written wonderfully about it, but what was new and striking and more or less unrecorded were these new, absolutely contemporary, and constantly shifting wonders of the modern world. What I was interested in was that in China, for example, three times more people watch the Super Bowl than in America. In Japan they play baseball but they smile when they strike out and they don't slide into second base because they don't want to offend the opposition. In India, as you were implying, they were making five different remakes of "Rambo" while I was there and one of them actually had a woman in the title role. So all of these seemed to me unrecorded and unprecedented.
I am a global village on two legs. More and more people are in this position of having hundreds of different cultures singing and clashing and conspiring within them. I think that the global village is increasingly internalized within us.
I am writing about the future, in a sense, because these are the new forms that the world is going to take. Things we take for granted here acquire a different meaning and value abroad. McDonalds is a status symbol in Thailand, for example. When you go to Beijing and wander around Tiananmen Square, one of the sights you see is the Mao Tse-tung mausoleum. But an even more startling and eloquent sight is a Kentucky Fried Chicken parlor just around the corner because it is the biggest in the world, the people eating there have mostly spent a whole week's wages just to eat. They are filing around in awe taking pictures of one another in front of the tables and staring at the pictures on the walls that show such promised lands as Santa Barbara and Hollywood.
I think of the global village partly in those terms, and partly in terms of individuals because to some extent I am a global village on two legs. More and more people are in this position of having hundreds of different cultures singing and clashing and conspiring within them. I think that the global village is increasingly internalized within us.
London: What do you consider home at this point?
Iyer: There are two ways of responding to this state of statelessness, as it were. To some extent you can go all around the world and feel alienated and displaced from wherever you are. Somebody like V.S. Naipaul, who is a kind of grandfather of post-colonial wonders, I think, is in that state. Wherever you are you are not in the place you grew up but you are also not part of what you have come to. Or, you can treat everywhere as equally home. Because I'm not fully English, Indian, or American, when I go to China or Ethiopia or Peru I'm no more displaced really than when I'm in India and can't speak a word of Hindi, or when I'm in England and don't look like an Englishman, or when I'm in California and speak with this accent that sounds so bizarre and incomprehensible to people.
In some ways I feel equally unsettled everywhere. But I think that the drawback of all of this is that it is hard to lay down roots. To this day, at my relatively advanced age, I still don't have a place I can really call home. I've never bought property. I just move between temporary base camps. I know that the very notion of home, of having a family or community, is a hard one for me to embrace.
But I think that perhaps it is going to become easier for people like me in the immediate future as there are more and more people like us. Now when I walk down the street in Los Angeles or San Francisco most of the people I see are in a similar state of rootlessness.
London: The Indian writer Bharati Mukherjee has said that, after spending her whole life searching for home, she feels she has found it here in the United States.
Iyer: I think that America is an ideal place for the privileged homeless for people like Bharati or myself who are used to different cultures. It's easiest and most accommodating because it is a country of exiles and immigrants and newcomers. There are no walls, in that sense. There is always the sense that traditions are being made as we speak. So you can slot yourself in. If you are living at a distance in society, this is one of the most congenial societies to live in.
I think that what she must have found, and most of us do too, is that home is essentially a set of values you carry around with you and, like a turtle or a snail or whatever, home has to be something that is part of you and can be equally a part of you wherever you are. I think that not having a home is a good inducement to creating a metaphysical home and to being able to see it in more invisible ways.
London: One of the side-effects of the new global village in which we live is a widespread sense of homelessness. With the erosion of family and community, many of us experience a homelessness connected with a place. But beneath that there also seems to be a certain spiritual homelessness. What's your feeling?
Iyer: I think "spiritual homelessness" is a wonderful phrase to use and that probably is the case, partly because we can better see and reach things that were once inconceivable to us. Our grandparents could never go to Tibet. Now you or I could go to the airport and be in Tibet in a few hours. I actually regard that as a great opportunity so if there is a spiritual homesickness it's partly because more and more of us can see what our spiritual home might be.
One archetype that hits me very forcefully, as it does many people, is that when I'm wandering around the Himalayas, for example, most of the people that I see are Westerners from Germany, California, or the Netherlands, who are wearing sandals, Indian smocks, and are in search of enlightenment, antiquity, peace, and all the things they can't get in the west. Most of the people they meet are Nepali villagers in Lee jeans, Reeboks, and Madonna T-shirts who are looking for the paradise that they associate with Los Angeles a paradise of material prosperity and abundance.
So it's tantalizing because we can better see what we don't have. The other man's grass is always greener and now we can actually go and visit his grass much more and feel the absence of green in our own lives.
I think spiritual homelessness is not necessarily a bad thing if it is an inducement to questioning the assumptions that one has grown up with and if it's taking one deeper and deeper into foreign cultures. So I regard it as a good thing.
Just as there are many more Californians now to be found in the temples of Kyoto or the villages of Bali or the mountains of the Himalayas than ever before, what is also exciting is that one can just go downtown Santa Barbara and find ayurvedic medicine, Thai restaurants, and Japanese cars in abundance.
Actually, I think that mass communications as well as mass travel have made the whole world available to us in ways that they haven't been. As with any kind of freedom, the more of it that one has the greater the need for limit and restraint. But I think that it's a nice challenge to be saddled with.
London: You mentioned Los Angeles. That is a city that perhaps best exemplifies what the world will look like in, say, ten or twenty years. But in some ways it's a rather frightening image because Los Angeles is a cold and impersonal town full of extremes South Central on one side and Bel Air on the other.
Iyer: You're absolutely right, it's the epicenter of the new kind of city where a thousand different tribes are being thrown together. While the virtue of it is that one has access to a hundred worlds that one couldn't see before, and that one can travel the world just by walking down the street, the drawback is of course the clash of customs.
Los Angeles famously in its school district now teaches 82 different languages. It is the second biggest Thai, Salvadoran, and Korean city in the world. I was just spending a lot of time in Los Angeles Airport and there you really see the future landing with a bump all around us and not really knowing what to make of it.
What is also interesting about Los Angeles is that more and more of the world is made up of these generic cities. So it's not just the global village, but it's also a global metropolis. When you fly to Toronto to London to Singapore to Sydney to Los Angeles, say, you really feel as if you are just going along five different suburbs of the same city because they all have the same constituency. When you are flying from here to Toronto, most of the people on the plane will be Chinese and most of the people that are waiting to greet you at Toronto airport are Indian. The same pattern is repeated in London and Hong Kong and whatever. So more and more cities are just becoming part of a global culture.
London: You've said that one of the dangers of the global village is the "illusion of understanding" between cultures. It's easy to think we understand each other when we have a classmate from Pakistan, for example, or a neighbor from Jamaica. But often our differences are more deep-seated.
Iyer: Yes, I think those are precisely the kinds of conflicts that a place like Los Angeles is dramatizing because our grandfathers could never enjoy the illusion of knowing Pakistan it was on the other side of the world and they hadn't even seen images of it. It was as remote as the moon. You're right, the sense now of having a superficial acquaintance... And the fact that surface and depth are themselves changing their relations in the information age with video technology or whatever. We see more and more images and we don't know how deeply they go into us, or how to sift the ones that are fleeting from the ones that are eternal. So, in the same way, we can see every possible image of Pakistan on our CD-ROMs in our living room and yet really have no more understanding in fact, have less understanding because of that illusion.
London: I was working in Norway some years ago, in a remote town north of the Arctic Circle. At the time, the people there had a vibrant local music scene. Local pop, folk music, and even polka were quite popular. But during that time the Norwegian government installed new satellite and cable technology to the town and suddenly people were picking up MTV, CNN and other stations. Overnight, the people were inundated with American pop music, news, and advertising. I was struck by how fragile their local culture was and how quickly it was swept aside by this new international but mostly American culture. You must have seen a lot of this as you travel to small and more remote places?
Iyer: Yes, and I think you are right that the scary thing is that it can happen so quickly and that there is really no defense against it. A culture like Iceland's, which is more or less on the Arctic Circle, takes great pride in the fact that it has an unbroken cultural lineage, to the point where to this day everyone who goes there has to adopt a traditional Icelandic name. If I went there tomorrow I would become a Bjorn or a Gudrun or whatever. The language is unchanged since the thirteenth century so they can pick up the sagas and read them as if they are tomorrow's newspaper. There are no dogs in the capital. There are all kinds of curious laws to try to preserve the culture. And yet when I went there most recently the old geyser formations were named after Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Madonna was on every street corner. Really there is no way to try to keep at bay those forces.
Bhutan is one of the most remote countries in the world, to the point where in its entire history it has seen fewer tourists than go to the Dodger's Stadium for a single ballgame. There are no high-rise buildings and no television in Bhutan. But when you go there you can be forgiven for thinking that the actress Phoebe Cates is the queen of Bhutan because although there is no television there are more video stores than there are on Main Street and for some reason she is the flavor of the moment. So when you walk down the main street in Thimphu this tiny, silent capital full of arches you can easily believe you are in a Phoebe Cates fan club.
I think every parent knows that as soon as you tell a child not to do something that is a sure-fire way to get them to do it. So even those governments that try to keep out foreign influences the Magic Johnsons and Madonnas are more or less, in that very act, inviting people to enjoy them. So I think that is an irreversible trend and there is nothing to be done about it.
What's interesting to me is that every culture sings Madonna with a foreign accent. The very fact of hearing her in Lhasa means that she is something different for the Tibetans from what she is to us, and she is very different to us than she is at home. One of the great things about travel is that it better enables you to appreciate the things you have here.
London: Music is a good example of this because as American and British music becomes more and more popular around the world, we find ourselves looking to other, more exotic cultures and their music. World music, in this sense, typifies the dilemma we've been talking about. The debate raging now is between those who feel that the best new music blends and fuses different genres and cultures adding Brazilian samba beats to West African griot music, for instance, or adding a disco beat to East European choral music. Then there are those others, mostly from smaller, more insulated cultures, who feel that their local customs and their local musical heritage is vanishing in the drive to commercialize and to meet the West's demands for more "exotic" music. How do you feel about this borrowing and lending between different cultures?
Iyer: Well, I think that it's always easy to see the dangers of, for example, mass tourism culturally, as you describe it, or just the process of people visiting. I think that what is often forgotten is that tourism and this very process of cross-cultural communication can be an incentive to creation. In places like Bali, the influx of tourists has generated new dances, new musical forms, and breathed new forms of life into a culture that they took for granted.
So in some ways, like it or not, these fusions are the form of our future. Within the privacy of people's homes, they are doubtless keeping virgin the traditions that they have grown up with. So I think that I tend to be more of an optimist than many people.
In fact, what I'm interested in is what I call "world fiction," which is the literary equivalent of world music. It's striking that, for example, in the last 14 years, the English Booker Prize which is given to the best novel of the year has only gone to an English person maybe twice or three times. The winners are nearly always from the West Indies, India, South Africa, Australia. They say that it's an example of the empire striking back; all those years poor little kids in St. Lucia and Delhi were made to read Keats and Wordsworth, and now kids in London are reading Indian voices. So there is a nice kind of symmetry there, though I agree with you that the drawback is that all integrity can get lost in the process and we will be inhabiting a world of blurred boundaries where everything is a hybrid.
London: What do you think will be the result of all this blending and fusing of cultures? Will it lead to a bland monoculture or a vibrant mosaic of different cultures?
Iyer: I think it will be harder and harder to find someone who is, as it were, a spiritual Icelander. Icelanders are very proud of the fact that they are 100 percent Icelandic blood. I think we are almost living in a post-national age at this point where everyone will be a hyphen. They may even look nostalgically back to a time when somebody could say, "I am one hundred percent Indian" (which I suppose I can say even though I've never lived in India and don't speak a word of the language; I suppose I'm an example of the ending of the process).
I think that is why a place like the Los Angeles Airport is fascinating, because you can actually see the future form before your eyes and you can see that it is one made up entirely of minglings and mixings.
London: You used the expression "post-national age." In economic circles, in particular, a lot of people are now talking about how we are moving into an era without borders. What do you see?
Iyer: People say that soon there will be no Japan, only Japanese, and that we are returning to a state akin to the Italian city-states of the fifteenth century or whatever which is making many people nostalgic for the clarity of the Cold War where there was only one enemy and everything was relatively clear-cut in black and white and you could align yourself firmly. In a world full of shifting borders, it reminds me more of a Jackson Pollock canvas. Everything is happening all at once in every possible direction.
Indeed, living here in California, I think one of the scariest things about California is the fact that it is rewriting its script and changing constantly and so many people don't know who they will be and who they will be with a year from now. When I go to Japan, where I spend a lot of time, I can really see the virtues of having a strong sense of tradition and community. I think that what gives the Japanese their strength economically, psychologically, and other ways, is that they know that every April 16th they will be doing the same thing and the same cherry blossoms are going to flower next year as did ten years ago and one hundred years ago.
I suppose that the more that external forms fade around us the greater the necessity for creating inner rituals and forms, or else we will just be formless selves moving in a formless world and things will become very amoebal.
London: You're not an American citizen.
Iyer: No, I'm not. I've never been a part of any community. While I love going to those occasions where the world comes together... For example, I've been to four of the last five Olympic games. I think the world is more and more turning into not quite an Olympic games opening ceremony but more like what happens at the end of the Olympics when all the nationalities spill onto the central field and the flags are thrown down and you can't tell them apart. While I love that kind of fusion, I realize that I don't really have a sense of affiliation. When I go to the Olympics I think, "Well, who am I rooting for?" Occasionally I can summon some excitement toward the Japanese, which I suppose is my adopted home, where again I don't have to have any responsibility but I can enjoy all the luxuries of being there. I think that is the great advantage of being a foreigner: you're not paying your dues, but you are getting all the benefits. Sometimes I support the Cubans. But it can be an alarming thing to see people all around me shouting and realize that I'm not.
We hear a lot these days about the great dangers of nationalism and the way that tribal differences are actually consolidated in this kind of world because people need to have some definition. So we've seen much more of an affiliation with a sect or a group now than even twenty years ago. But I think the opposite danger is that of internationalism and that people like me, who don't know who to root for, and who can perhaps move to extremes of dispassion our problem is not that we are all too ready to fight wars against all our enemies but that we are all to reluctant to fight wars, that it's hard to see who our friends or our enemies are.
London: And there is also the difficulty, perhaps, of not having a real sense of belonging. With all the traveling you do, do you ever get lonely?
Iyer: Well, I'm one of those perverse people who likes being alone. I'm an only child. And, indeed, I got a good training in solitude because when I was growing up my nearest relative was 6,000 miles away. I went to school in England, my parents were in California and my other relatives were in India. So I think I always took myself to be a community of one. That's what I am comfortable with.
Travel, in the superficial sense at least, is a good cure for loneliness. When you travel, especially in the third world, you quickly find that you get more friends than you know what to do with. You can hardly walk down the street before some woman is proposing marriage and somebody else wants to take you off to his uncle's carpet shop and somebody else just wants to practice his English with you. So in a day-to-day way, traveling opens you up to many more possibilities than you would have elsewhere. Plus, you have a glamour when you're abroad. If I were inhabiting a world made up entirely of Indians born in England and living in California, I would just fade into the crowd. But when I'm abroad I become a symbol of something exotic.
But I think loneliness can come in a more fundamental way, just as you are saying, if you realize that you don't have an affiliation anywhere and that if you are going to cast a vote it has to be a kind of inner vote that you are not participating in any kind of democracy except a democracy of the self.
But even a country like this one, which seems to me the loneliest place in the world in many ways if you acknowledge that loneliness you are one step closer to dealing with it.
London: We've talked a lot about the globalization of the world. What about the Americanization of the world? We've got McDonalds in Beijing and Moscow, and Disneyland in Europe. Is the world becoming increasingly American, or is the empire going to "strike back," as you were suggesting earlier? Are we going to have the same influx of foreign culture someday?
Iyer: As you said so well about world music, I think we are already getting that influx of foreign cultures. If you stop at a Traveler's Aid desk in Los Angeles you can speak in 115 different languages.
I think America the symbol and America the notion are still very different from America the nation. What's touching and almost regenerative is that whatever is happening in the reality of America, where there is a murder rate worse than Lebanon's and where there is so much homelessness and poverty, still America will be a shorthand throughout the world for everything that is young and modern and free.
One interesting thing about the Americanization of the world is that Mick Jagger, the Beatles, Reebok, pizza, and enchiladas are all regarded as American. Everything that is hip and desirable is regarded as American whether it's had any contact with America or not. I think that is why as Japan, say, becomes arguably stronger economically than America, nonetheless there is no "Japanese dream," and people in Germany and Peru aren't longing to emulate Japanese pop stars or see the latest Kurosawa movie, or whatever. Still, America has a hold on imaginations that no other country does. I think that is partly because it is an immigrant country and there is still a kind of innocence in America that translates very well everywhere in the world.
Milos Forman famously said, "Everyone in the world has two homes, the place they grew up in and America." I like the way that American has become a kind of spiritual home even for people who have never seen it. American dreams are strongest of all in the hearts of people who have only seen America in their dreams. I think it's refreshing and reviving to go around the world and see how America still occupies this special place, that George Washington actually has a kind of appeal that George III, say, never could have.
I don't really worry, in that sense, about things being Americanized. Partly because in cultures as old and deep and subtle as Japan or China they are able to take in as many American forms and fashions as they need while still, in some fundamental sense, remaining Japanese and Chinese. Indeed, I think that is where many of the problems come, because you may walk down the street in Shanghai and see them wearing American clothes and watching CNN and you think, "Well, we can do business with these guys, they have the same assumptions." But as soon as you do you quickly realize that there is a whole infrastructure of Confucian ideas and hopes that are very alien to us here. In some essential sense, they are speaking a different language, however fluent they are in English.
I think one of the dangers in the world now is actually brought about by a place like North Korea. I think we have talked quite a lot about the challenges facing a culture like ours where there are so many cultures involved. But when you go somewhere like North Korea you see the dangers of isolation. It's so removed from the outside world, so completely sealed, that it almost seems to have a cult-like mentality. It's as if it's another planet and either it doesn't know or it doesn't care how the rest of the world works. That is a very dangerous thing because it's as if everyone else is observing similar assumptions and suddenly there is a wild card which doesn't even know what the rules are and is liable to do anything. They say that Kim Jung Il, the current leader of North Korea, had until recently never met an American. There are no foreign newspapers. The whole country is absolutely hermetically sealed. Everyone has a loudspeaker in his room which plays propaganda whether he wants it or not. At six o'clock in the morning there are loudspeakers on the streets broadcasting things about how they are living in a socialist paradise. When you go to a country like that you realize that in some ways all our fears about it are very well founded, precisely because it has no contact. It is one of the last places that is living in an orbit of its own. So there is a safety in having a good sense of culture.
London: How did you get your start as a travel writer?
Iyer: I really began traveling in earnest when I was 17. One of the great benefits of growing up in England is that they still have those very old imperial traditions, one of which is that when you leave school you more or less have a year off before you begin university. The assumption is that you will work for the first time in your life and that you will also go somewhere exotic. So like most of my school- friends, I had my first extended trip in the third world and kept notes on it. So I was a travel writer in the sense that many of us are: just writing about my holidays. Then, when I went to college in England, I suddenly realized that living in California was exotic and that I could just write about California my home, sort of and be counted as a travel writer in England.
Then, the best thing I did was to go to graduate school at Harvard. Harvard is still responsible for putting out the Let's Go series of guidebooks, which are aimed especially at helping American students on Eurail passes go around Europe. So I did that as my summer job for two years in England, France, Italy, and Greece. It was a wonderful training, much better than I even knew at the time, partly because you really do have to eat rats and sleep in the gutter. They give you almost no money so you are obliged to cut almost every corner and really count your pennies just to make the salary stretch across the ten weeks of travel. The other good thing, in retrospect, is that you are moving at a very, very quick pace. For example, in France I might do 25 towns in 27 days. Literally, the schedule would be that I would take a train into town in the morning; I would walk it, walk it, walk it, walk it until I knew it by heart ostensibly checking out every hotel and restaurant then I would come back exhausted to my tiny little gutter in the evening at 8 o'clock; then I would have to write up that town; and then get up the next morning and write up the next one. At the time, it seemed like just a rigorous ordeal. But a few years later it turned out to be just the thing that a travel writer has to do lots of walking, lots of note-taking, and lots of quick writing on the spot.
London: You eventually started working for Time Magazine.
Iyer: Yes, after that, I did join Time Magazine. I was in the curious state of writing world affairs for them. Curious because, as perhaps you know, Time and Newsweek have this peculiar system whereby half the people actually go around the world covering the news and the other half just sit in New York in little cubicles writing on it. So I was in that second category. Every week I would write palpitating, breathless accounts of foraging my way through Philippine jungles or ascending the Andes to find the Sendero Luminoso guerrillas or seeing an uprising in South Africa without ever having been to those places and without knowing what they look like.
London: It seems to me that, of all people, you should have been in the first category.
Iyer: [Laughs] Well, that is what decided me to become a travel writer. I made the fatal and unforgivable mistake of beginning to take holidays and I took them in some of the places I was writing about. I quickly came to the conclusion you just enunciated, which is, "Why on earth am I sitting in a cubicle writing about these places at one remove when I could actually be there." That is when I started writing my books and moving away from Time Magazine. But writing world affairs for them was a very good discipline in writing clearly and concretely. It was also a good crash course in world affairs because, literally, every week I would come in on Tuesday and be told, "You are going to be writing this week on Paraguay," or "Haiti," or "Ciskei." I wouldn't have even heard of them before, so I would desperately learn everything I could about them so as to be able to turn out a seemingly authoritative article two days later.
London: Your first novel was set in Cuba. You clearly have a special fascination for that country. I remember thinking that your essay on Cuba in Falling Off the Map really expressed a strong personal connection with the island. Then came Cuba In the Night.
Iyer: I think the main reason I travel, if I were to sum it up in one word, is for ambiguity. The reason I love travel is not just because it transports you in every sense, but because it confronts you with emotional and moral challenges that you would never have to confront at home. So I like going out in search of moral and emotional adventure which throws me back upon myself and forces me to reconsider my assumptions and the things I took for granted. It sends me back a different person.
Cuba is the ultimate for that because it is such a complicated, bittersweet place. One virtue of Cuba is that everything is happening all the time, right out in the streets. Literally, when you wake up at 9 o'clock in the morning in Havana you don't know where you'll be at noon. But it's a safe guess that you'll either be married, arrested, or in the midst of some incredible transaction where somebody is stealing your passport or paying you in Dominican pesos for it, or whatever. It's a wild place. In those ways, it reminds you of certain realities from which you are very insulated in a typical American city where things are relatively comfortable.
I think the other reason I love Cuba is for the emotional complexity of it. On the one hand, it is this dark, gray, absolutely bankrupt country where the stores are entirely empty and there is not a piece of chicken to be found on the entire island. On the other hand, there is this irrepressible Caribbean spirit of song and dance. In some ways, the worse things get in terms of material conditions, the more warmth and kindness and even high spirits you find among the people. So it's a very bewildering place and you don't know what to make of it.
I think the first good thing that happens to you when you go to Cuba is that you instantly slough off all the images you have of bearded dictators and communist dialectics and all that, because that has nothing to do with this West Indian island of 3,000 miles of beaches and a very strong and vibrant African culture.
The second thing that happens to you is you find yourself in somebody's living room facing a situation you don't know what to make of. Literally, a girl will come up to you and say, "If you don't marry me I'll probably die because I'm in a starving place. Will you marry me just to help me escape." Suddenly you have to think of things in a different way.
London: Yes, I bet you've had your fair share of marriage proposals.
Iyer: Yes, especially in very poor countries. What also makes the Cubans very excited is that until recently they saw almost nobody from the United States. So when they would meet me I was as extraordinary to them as somebody from Havana would be if he suddenly arrived here. Apart from anything, I think they just want to make contact. In a place like Cuba it's really heartbreaking because it's 90 miles from the U.S., yet you can't place telephone calls back and forth, letters almost never arrive, and almost everyone in Cuba has a brother, a mother, even a spouse living in Miami, say, but they can't make contact with them in any way. It is a kind of emotional amputation. There is a really reverberating loneliness, a feeling that half their lives are just across the sea; they can hear them on the radio, they can almost see it, but there is no way of communicating with them. So one thing that makes them excited about meeting someone like me is that they can suddenly give me all their letters to deliver to their families here.
London: Didn't you befriend a telephone operator at one point?
Iyer: [Laughs] Yes, which was my mistake because there are no telephones in Cuba but I didn't realize that a telephone operator is able to call one night and day wherever one is for free. In fact, the telephone operator who used to call me up day and night in Cuba singing Spanish love songs that I couldn't understand has now ended up in Guantanamo Bay. She has been calling up my mother and me on almost an hourly basis because she is trying to get out. So suddenly after seven years this person pops up again and says, "I remember every time I sang those Spanish songs to you, please would you help me escape."
Also, you quickly see the poignancy of the illusions that each country harbors about the other. In some ways, what is exciting about going to a country like Cuba or Tibet is that you are their only eyes and ears you are their contact with the world. So you are a piece of news in every sense on two legs. When you go there you quickly see that most of the notions of Cuba that we have had are misplaced and you are quickly confronted with all the notions that they hold about us.
One of the most powerful experiences in that way came last time I was in Cuba. I met a young guy who said, "You live in California and my brother lives there. He's got this huge house and he's got three Lincoln Continentals and a swimming pool and a tennis court. He's really made it good. I'm hoping I can go and join him. Please would you give this letter to him." I said, sure, no problem. He gave me this letter written to a brother in Tamal, California. I thought, that's surprising, I've never heard of Tamal, California, but I'm sure it's the right address. So I came over and I was loaded down with all the letters that I had brought back from Cuba and I sent lots and lots of them out. To my surprise, for the first time ever, I one week later got a response from the person in Tamal, California. He said, "I'm really grateful to you for sending a letter from my brother. I haven't had any contact with him for ten years. It makes me really happy to know he is still going strong in Havana. I don't know if he told you about my situation here, but I'm in San Quentin Prison and I'm on death row. So I'm really grateful to get the letter because I'm hoping that he can help me."
What was poignant was to see that each was living in complete unawareness of the other's circumstances. The person he assumed was living the high American life and making good on the American dream, as he sees it from Havana, was actually in jail. And the person in jail was assuming that Havana was the place to be.
So there is a very palpable poignancy about the illusions we have of other places. Certainly you will never hear America spoken of in more glowing terms than in Havana where they assume that it is everything that Havana is not.
Vietnam, too, is an interesting example. When you walk down the streets in Hanoi, say, little children will always say, "linso" which means "Soviet" and as soon as you say, No, I'm from America, their faces flood with smiles. These people who only 20 years ago were suffering a lot at the hands of the Americans want nothing more than to meet and befriend an American, to make contact in some way. So it makes you rethink American affairs as much as the world's.
I can think of one other thing to say about Cuba that relates it to some of the other things we were talking about. One of the virtues of Cuba is that it forces you to look again at all the things you take for granted here. I remember one of the times that hit me most forcefully was when I was in the apartment of a very good friend of mine there. He is an intellectual and a dissident and a very sophisticated person. One night after hours and hours and hours of talking, when the defenses had begun to fall down a little, he brought out what was clearly his most precious treasure. It was a copy of Michael Jackson's album "Bad" on which he had scribbled the most heartfelt pleas to Michael Jackson to rescue him from Castro, from Cuba, from everything. At first I was rather taken aback that he would invest so much in such a remote figure that people here tend not to think of very seriously. Later I realized that Michael Jackson in some ways is a shorthand for everything that's banned in Cuba. He is black, he is gay (more or less), he is very rich. He is a perfect illustration of all that it's not good to be in Cuba, and, to that extent, a perfect symbol of rebellion. Whereas here he seems like such an establishment figure and so unthreatening a figure, there he would be like George Washington or something the ultimate rebel and carry a political charge that he would never have in the United States.
London: We were speaking earlier about the concept of home, and I was reminded of something Edward Said once said. He spoke of exile as "the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place." He describes exile as the great tragedy of our era. In this age of globalization many people are migrating away from their homelands and their native communities in a kind of voluntary exile.
Iyer: I think I would make a very strong distinction between exile and expatriation, and between the people who are exiled by necessity rather than choice. I think there are 15 million refugees in the world, much more than ever before. In almost all cases that is not where they want to be and that is a very tragic state.
I think people like me are in a relatively privileged position because we have to some extent chosen to live in foreign places. (I didn't choose insofar as I was born a foreigner, but I have the means to live wherever I want.) I would always make the distinction between those who are exiles in terms of being thrown out of the place they want to be, and others who are exiles in terms of going toward a place they would rather be.
I know that Bharati Mukherjee, whom you referred to earlier, makes a very strong distinction also between an immigrant and an expatriate. The very words themselves, im- suggests coming in and ex- suggest going out. So I think there are voluntary exiles who really are making the best of these floating conditions, and there are others who are really its victims.
London: I've developed an interesting friendship with a fellow via e-mail. He is from Barbados, spent many years living in England and Germany and now makes his home in Israel where he lives and works. He really typifies the new global citizen. We got to talking about this idea of exile and homelessness and he passed along a quote by a twelfth century monk named Hugo of St. Victor:
The person who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner;
the person to whom every soil is as a native one is already strong;
but he is perfect to whom every soil is as a foreign land.
Iyer: That's wonderful.
London: This quote reminds me of something you've written. You've said that you try to preserve that sense of being in a truly foreign land when you travel. That sense of the foreignness of it all seems to be what gives energy to your writing. But how do you find that quality when Tokyo and Singapore and San Francisco and Toronto look more and more like each other?
Iyer: In the ways that Tokyo will draw upon that common pool of images, as it were, and make it different. I used the example of baseball before. When you go to a baseball game in Tokyo and see the crowds all follow a cheerleader, singing on cue, they have a single different chant for every particular player. You see American players from the American leagues who have suddenly been recreated over there and are regarded as deities even though they are 35 years old and over the hill here. They suddenly become bright new prospects over there. So even the things that are familiar acquire a different meaning in a different context.
I think that foreignness is always with you. Indeed, I find California more foreign to me the longer I live here. As I think many people from England do, when first I came I just assumed, "Well, they are speaking English and it's really not all that different, at least from the world I got to know when I was growing up." But now I realize how great the rift is even linguistically. Most of the time when I am talking here I don't think, "The people around me don't know what I'm saying and I certainly don't know what they are saying." In thirty years of living here on and off, it hasn't lost anything of foreignness. If anything, it has gained.
I think that makes it a more desirable place to live. I like California because it still has the glamour and romanticism and exoticism of a very foreign place. It was the place that when I was young, I was raised on "I Love Lucy" and listening to the Grateful Dead and reading Jack Kerouac. They, to me, were all symbols of this very foreign sense of promise and movement. After all this time here I'm glad I still have it.
To some extent, home is whatever doesn't have glamour and exoticism to one whatever doesn't get one's pulse racing. As time goes on, I come to see that England is my home in that sense, because whenever I go back to England, whatever the circumstances even on a glorious, never-ending summer's day my heart sinks and there is no way that I can bring eyes of open wonder to it the way I could even to California. So I think that means it's my home. [Laughs]
London: That's very interesting. California is, in many respects, the epicenter of the Western world given that many of the images that are being broadcast around the globe through television and movies originate here.
Iyer: Yes, quite so. I think what is fascinating about a place like Los Angeles airport is that it is lots and lots of people, many of whom have saved up all their lives and channeled all of their energies toward coming to the promised land of abundance and plenty the American Dream. But as soon as they arrive here they get a crash course in the American reality. They are also remembering that Los Angeles is the place where Magic Johnson got infected, where Michael Jackson was involved in a court case, where Madonna is said to do who knows what...
London: To say nothing of O.J. Simpson.
Iyer: Exactly. Everything becomes much more complicated when they get here. I think one of the first sights that encounters them before they have even left Los Angeles Airport is that most of the people working there are recent Guatemalan or Vietnamese refugees who are working pretty grim jobs in a menial capacity. The people who come from Guatemala or Vietnam bright with hopes of the new lives they are going to make are instantly confronted with the reality that may be worse than the reality they have left.
London: When you project forward, say, ten or fifteen years, where do you see us headed?
Iyer: I think the Los Angeles model is a very good one. As you say, one of the interesting things about Los Angeles is that it's still supplying the whole of the world with its dreams through movies and songs and TV often of an all-American family at the same time as the real Los Angeles is peopled by souls from Vietnam, Guatemala, and Korea who look nothing like the images being beamed out. I think all that is going to have to change and illusion is going to have to catch up with reality in that regard.
One of the startling things for somebody arriving at Los Angeles Airport today from Tibet, say, is that suddenly half the faces they see are Chinese exactly the people they have been trying to flee from. Also, everywhere they turn they see kimchi restaurants and mee krob and sushi, and they wonder, "What is this America that we've landed in? This is not the hamburger-and-french-fry-paradise that we imagined." So I think people's minds are going to have to assimilate in the sense that all the world is international now. The whole world has gone global. I think cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles are the models of our future.
As you suggested, it brings with it many perils, but it's also in our hands to enjoy all the possibilities that were completely denied our grandparents who, whether they wanted it or not, were in almost every case rooted in a very single culture.
London: Thank you very much, Pico.
Iyer: Thanks so much.
This interview was adapted from the public radio series "Insight & Outlook." It appeared in the January 1996 issue of The Sun magazine under the title "Global Villager: An Interview with Pico Iyer."