WITS student Yasmin Elmi from Foster High School shared her poem, “A Story, Somalia,” with the audience before Pico Iyer’s lecture. Click here to read her poem.
At the intersection of history, anthropology, fiction, and fact, Pico Iyer looks critically in all directions. His accounts of culture and character take readers around the world, stretching boundaries of comfort and home. Known for his astute eye and careful questioning of the conversation between East and West, Iyer first appeared on the literary scene with Video Night in Kathmandu And Other Reports from the Not-So-Far East in 1988. He was 28. The previous year, while working a desk job in New York, he had secured a six-month leave and traveled for three months from Bali to Tibet, Nepal to China, The Philippines to Burma, India, Thailand, and Japan. He took copious notes, essentially drafting entire essays while he was gone, then returned home and wrote for the next three months. The resulting collection of essays was called “funny and alarming,” “engaging and provocative,” quick-witted and perceptive,” and gave B.I. (Before Internet) readers a fresh glimpse of the other side of the world.
Born in England to Indian parents and raised in California, Iyer began traveling back to England for schooling at the age of nine. “Travel entered my bloodstream very quickly,” he said in an interview with writer Matthew Davis. “My upbringing schooled me, I suppose, in expatriation and in outsidership, which is to say in writing, in a way, certainly in observation, because everywhere I was, whether it was in England or California or India, it was a foreign place to me.” His interest in the ways we define our culture, the places we call home, and the global society we are quickly becoming have proved to be rich themes. “In that first book,” he said, referring to Video Night, “what I was watching was a dance of fascination between, say, a Filipino woman and a German man. And what I’ve done since then is try to see what the children who come out of that marriage feel and sound like, and what happens in the next act when the dance of cultures is happening within somebody rather than actually on the streets on in the bars.”
After Eton, Oxford, and a stint of graduate school at Harvard, Iyer wrote for the Let’s Go travel guides and then covered world affairs for Time Magazine for four years before writing Video Night. His nine subsequent books include two novels—Cuba and the Night and Abandon: A Romance—and six books of nonfiction. He is also the author of hundreds of articles and reviews for publications around the world, including Partisan Review, the Times Literary Supplement, The New Yorker, Conde Nast Traveler and Harper’s. The Los Angeles Timescalled Iyer “the rightful heir to Jan Morris, Paul Theroux, and company” for the elegance of his language and his stretching of genre boundaries. In part it is his firm grounding in the style and structure of the novel, and in part it is his acceptance of being a foreigner everywhere that gives his language its Everyman sense. He is brave, critical, and comfortable all at once; at times sharp, at times charming, always humble.
“The reason I love travel is not just because it transports you in every sense,” Iyer said, “but because it confronts you with emotional and moral challenges that you would never have to confront at home…and forces me to reconsider my assumptions and the things I took for granted. It sends me back a different person.” He has recently spent much time in Dharamsala, a place he calls “as compact and compressed a global village as you can find anywhere,” for his latest book, The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. He lives in California and rural Japan with his partner, Hiroko, and her two children.
Excerpt from The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (2008)
The book opens with:
The two young men (the Dalai Lama and Pico Iyer’s father) had many things in common as they settled into the room under the snowcaps, bright Tibetan scrolls on the walls, pine-covered slopes all around. Both of them were travelers—exiles—who had left their homes behind and so were in a position to think about home in a new way, without the limitations of nationality or race. Both were philosophers, too, but philosophers with a keen interest in the real world and the ways in which politics and society could be transformed by being seen in a different light. Both were coming of age at a time when cultures could reach one another as never before, thanks to jet planes and television screens, and the first question before them, perhaps, was how to turn this global reality into a fresh opportunity.
The Fourteenth Dalai Lama was only twenty-four at the time, having come into India barely a year before, in March 1959, when Chinese troops had threatened to bring war to his capital of Lhasa and he had been forced to flee his native Tibet . . .
It closes with:
His (the Dalai Lama’s) own position has always been that, in the deepest sense, if we can live free of ceremony and superficial tradition, the Dalai Lama, Tibet, Buddhist temples won’t have to exist at all, so long as we keep the principles they represent alive inside us. People and cultures and buildings are perishable, changeable things, he keeps on saying—himself as much as any; but truth, possibility, fairness, kindness are not. The open road is always leading around the next corner, calling for further investigation, even if no final destination is assured.
The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (2008)The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto (2006)Sun After Dark: Flights Into the Foreign (2004)Abandon: A Romance (2004)The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home (2000)Tropical Classical: Essays from Several Directions (1998)Cuba and the Night: A Novel (1995)Falling Off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World (1994)Video Night in Kathmandu: And Other Reports from the Not-So-Far East (1988)