Literature as travel, travel as transformation: An interview with Pico Iyer

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Pico Iyer approaches every place he visits in the world like a new novel. Each new country the travel writer and novelist visits presents new stories to uncover, new characters to learn about and new eyes through which to see the world.

“Especially the first few days in any new country, I try to walk, walk, walk as much as possible, almost around the clock, letting the place introduce itself to me,” Iyer said in a phone interview with The Daily Californian.

Over his 30 years of traveling and writing, Iyer has written numerous pieces of nonfiction and a handful of fictional novels, all based on his global travels and cultural experiences. A man with many places to call home, Iyer speaks of his travels with passion and enthusiasm, as if they are old friends he is remembering fondly.

For Iyer, his travels are for fun and adventure, but also to open his worldview. He explores the world in order to experience cultures and places different from those he knows.

“Oftentimes these days, I will travel to places we hear about a lot in the news, because my sense is that the places we hear about are often the places we know the least about,” Iyer said.

Iyer’s most recent travels have been to countries such as North Korea, Iran, Cuba and Yemen, places that are sensationalized in the media, their citizens deprived of their humanity. Iyer sees his travels as a way to bring back the humanity of “the other.”

“I feel that the biggest danger in the modern world is seeing other countries in terms of abstractions,” Iyer said. “So I try to go to places, and as soon as I’m in the midst of their complex human realities, I can’t really reduce them to stereotypes anymore.”

Having lived in the United States on and off for most of his life, Iyer has a particular concern for the cross-cultural understanding of the country. After experiencing places and destroying his own stereotypes and misconceptions about foreign worlds, Iyer feels an obligation to spread his eye-opening experiences with others.

“I do feel one of the worrying things about the United States is that we are in some ways the strongest nation in the world, but we are not the one that knows a lot about the rest of the world. So we have a lot of power, but (it’s) not always matched by knowledge of other cultures,” Iyer said.

Iyer encourages American travelers to work to subvert this common American ignorance. “One of the things I like about traveling is that I’m not talking very much and I don’t want to be voicing my opinions on the people around me,” he said. “But I’m really excited and keen to hear what they think of everything, starting with what they think of the United States, perhaps, and what they think of their own countries. It’s a great exercise and adventure in curiosity.”

Iyer often writes about his eye-opening experiences for journals or newspapers such as the New York Times and Smithsonian. Most recently, he has ventured into speeches and TED Talks, which he attributes to a declining interest in publishing written work.

In an age wherein YouTube and documentaries are perceived to visually capture the sights and sounds of a foreign place more vividly than mere words, an age characterized by decreasing attention spans and rates of American literary reading, Iyer remains optimistic about the power and influence of contemporary literature.  

“The only way I can justify writing now is by working really hard to find those spaces that a video camera couldn’t catch. They always exist, of course, but I think the writer has to be more self-conscious, more searching, more inward and more nuanced if he or she is to find something that can’t be trumped by YouTube,” Iyer said.

This philosophy is the subject of Iyer’s closing keynote speech for the Bay Area Book Festival this coming weekend, “The Power of Literature to Create a Better World.” Iyer, who shared that his first book tour and interview were in Berkeley more than 30 years ago, feels a connection to Berkeley and the deep culture of literary appreciation that exists therein.

Because of this connection, Iyer makes a point to always stop in Berkeley on his book tours. He’s excited to return to Berkeley this year and next, when he’ll promote his two new books on Japan, which are expected to be released next May and November. Though he’s often traveling for work rather than vacation, the writer cherishes the time he spends in the places he loves, Berkeley included. He encourages students to “go, go, go,” to get out of their comfort zones and see new places.

His advice for aspiring travelers?

“Travel in order to listen to the world, rather than lecture to it,” Iyer said.

“The Power of Literature to Create a Better World: Closing Keynote with Pico Iyer” will take place April 29 at 5 p.m. at Freight & Salvage as part of the Bay Area Book Festival.

Rebecca Gerny covers literature. Contact her at [email protected].