PICO IYER, presented by Janet Samber,
Calgary Women’s Literary Club, April 11, 2017
The profession of travel writer seems a natural choice for someone who was born in Oxford England to Indian academics, moved as a young child to Santa Barbara, and then at age 9, started commuting from California to his schools in England. He grew up with a sense that he belonged nowhere and everywhere, that he was a “global soul”, one who delighted in “living out of a linguistic suitcase”. A graduate of Oxford and Harvard, Iyer started a career as a journalist with Time magazine in New York, but soon decided to see in person all the places he was writing about. He became a freelancer, contributing to many journals and magazines.
His first book, Video Night in Kathmandu: And Other Reports from the Not-so-far East, marked a new type of travel writing, as rather than just describing exotic places, his essays revealed acute observations of the emerging global culture. He moved travelogues into the area of social criticism, philosophizing on the effects of travel on the traveler, as well as on the places travelled to. Iyer’s books of essays also cover subjects other than travel – book reviews, articles on authors, poets, mystics and musicians, writings on spiritual topics and spiritual leaders. Iyer glories in the odd juxtapositions he finds, he relishes encountering areas of the world where “the foreign and the familiar coexist in unexpected ways”.
Iyer is at heart a philosopher, which becomes very apparent in his spiritual writings in many anthologies, and in his biography of his friend the Dalai Lama, The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. His books The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto and The Man Within My Head, are difficult to classify. The Lady and the Monk, part travelogue, part memoir, part a philosophical discussion of changing culture is almost a novel as Iyer recounts his year in Japan and his relationship with the young Japanese woman he meets. The Man Within My Head discusses Iyer’s relationship with Graham Greene, whom he never met, but with whom he feels a very close connection. This book explores Greene’s works and his influence on Iyer’s journey as a writer. In it we learn a great deal about Greene, but also about Iyer.
Iyer has written two novels, Cuba and the Night, and Abandon: A Romance. In both, Iyer’s lyrical prose gives a very strong sense of place and of the culture of the two very different settings. Cuba and the Night, in which he tells in first person the adventures of Richard, an American photo journalist in the Cuba of the Reagan area, throbs with the beat of Havana’s street life, the heat, the music, the colour, the sexuality, and the sense of desperation. In contrast, Abandon : A Romance, is a calm, measured exploration of the English graduate student Edward’s search for a mythic lost manuscript of the works of Rumi, a Sufi poet. The mood of this book is quiet, and contained, as Edward journeys from Santa Barbara to Syria, India, Iran and Spain in search of the elusive manuscript. A parallel mystery enters his life in the form of the vulnerable damaged Camella. The book centres on finding connections, including establishing an understanding of Islamic thought in North American society.
On the internet, one may find many of the Ted Talks given by Pico Iyer as well as lectures given at universities and conferences. His website, picoiyerjourneys.com provides samples of his writings in the many fields that he explores.