Peeking into Pico Iyer’s Perspectives

A picture with the perspicacious Pico Iyer (from left to right): Goh Khiam Li, Edward; Loon Kin Yip, Brendan; Pico Iyer; Darshini Rajen; Mohamed Adri Bin Mohamed Rafik Alkhatib

Like an ivory frontispiece to a magniloquent tome, wherein lay the annals of a nation splayed across its vellum pages, stood the Raffles Hotel, monumentalising old-world resplendence and modern mystique in its grand visage. Stark against the Singapore sun and sky stood its frosty white marble pillars and alabaster walls, chilled by both its grandeur and the modern air-conditioning.

Sweating from the heat and the imposing event ahead, we students approached, with caution, unsure of where amidst these colonnades, balustrades and quadrangles we would find our session with internationally acclaimed travel writer Pico Iyer, author of The Man Within My Head (2012), Sun After Dark (2004) and The Lady and the Monk (1991). This exclusive engagement on 14 August 2019 for National University of Singapore (NUS) literature students arose on occasion of Mr Iyer becoming the first Writer-in-Residence in the new Raffles Writer’s Residency fellowship, set up by the Raffles Hotel. For the joint organisation and coordination of this opportunity, Associate Professor Anne Thell and the Raffles Hotel receive our sincerest thanks!

We eventually found the venue for the session: Jubilee Lounge. This in turn found us jubilant at our arrival in time – and, mutually, the hotel staff equally jubilant at their successful wrangling of a dishevelled group of students through the labyrinthine hotel and into this immaculate room. Thence began the magic of the moment, manifest by the man of the moment: Mr Iyer opened—with characteristic courtesy, asking leave of the audience to read a passage from his notable work, The Global Soul (2000)—with a reading of a quasi-autobiographical scene of his burning house set ablaze by California forest fires and his harrowing escape.

With a meditative coda, Mr Iyer’s tone dispossessed itself from that different time and turned with warmth to us, instead. With his eyes gleaming with learning and reflection, and his smile—genial, assured and knowing—he invited us into conversation on the notion of home, initiating this topic with intellectual and spiritual verve as he expounded on Buddha’s Fire Sermon, in which the image of a burning house features most prominently as a symbol for the stripping away of the pleasure and perspective of visual indulgence for one to bear witness to the truth. Indeed, for Mr Iyer, a cosmopolitan supra-cityscape like Singapore—with its global connections, globalist orientations and sparse land space—was conducive for the making a global, mobile people who would be especially prepared to take their sense of home with them wherever they went, rather than tether ‘home’ to an expression of a thing or a place.

What constitutes home—for us, for anyone? Our responses were too varied to capture in this brief essay, but I will offer a skeletal report: One English Literature major alumnus, Ong Lin Kang, proffered the observation that the mobility of a people whose homes could be ensouled and so carried with them despite their travels had to be supported by a certain status and privilege. Given this, the increasingly vociferous reactions and sentiments of xenophobia, especially with respect to immigration, could be seen as a conflict between those who sense of home is physical and those for whom it is not physical. Mr. Iyer averred and supplemented this idea—and this in turn prompted Augustine Chay, a current postgraduate student, to ask about Mr Iyer’s views on the ethics of representation in the craft of a literary practitioner of travel writing, as to whether one should take pains to reorient unconscious biases to one’s conscious values. Showing utmost respect to the audience, Mr Iyer asked leave to answer the question posed, in another way. He related his own complex cultural programming: American by residence; British by birth; Indian by ethnicity, citizenry and ancestry; and Japanese by residence and through marriage. Only with an exceptional exercise of self-awareness and self-abnegation could he identify how one or another cultural lens contributed to his perspective – the perspective through which he views the subjects of which he writes, and with which he narrates his views to readers through his work. More often than not, however, it would be a nigh-impossible task. The question then was for readers to identify, and then de-orient themselves from, the writer’s unconscious biases, in relation to the reader’s conscious values. This was why he stood by the words he said in an interview in 2006 that “imaginative imperialism when writing about the West’s meeting with the East […] never concerned [him] too much” – not because it did not concern him at all, but because there was little, if anything at all, that he could do to operationalise that concern. How he could do anything about it, however, would occur in his teaching: guiding others towards developing a critical literary intelligence and independence to do the work of reading with relish, responsibility and resistance.

On the matter of how a writer operationalised his craft, Owen David Harry, another postgraduate student in English Literature, was interested in what Mr Iyer’s actual writing practices were. Mr Iyer was glad to divulge his experience – and revealed that of the questions students had prepared for this session, he was looking forward the most to attempting an answer to this one. He informed us that he sets aside a few hours, at least, each morning for writing, by hand, and insists that he continues this practice even if his writing that day does not come to him easily or well, or if he is travelling and in a new time zone. He perseveres in this way because he has realised that when he does so, even if he does not get much writing done on a current project, he produces something, and is better able the next day to discriminate between what was good in style or subject and what was not, and what should be in this work and what might belong in a subsequent work, like the next book or an essay.

Related to this concern of what goes into constructing place and in writing a book about places, a current English Literature undergraduate, Ariane Noelle Vanco, asked if elision in travel writing is a concern, as surely not everything experienced and observed may be accounted for in writing—and, furthermore, not much that is pejorative or unpleasant finds its way into travel writing. Mr Iyer prefaced his answer as both a response to Ariane and a continuation of his response to Owen about his writing practices: in writing Video Night in Kathmandu (1988), he shuttled from one city to the next, from Rangoon to New York to Manila to Hong Kong to Bombay to Beijing to Bali; and from one country to the next, from Thailand to the Philippines to Nepal to India to Burma to China to America. He was young, and traveling eagerly through fast-paced cities, and furiously scribbled down everything, attempting to record, as much as he could, every perceptual observation—sight, sound, smell, touch and taste—as it happened. He found, though, that while this method captured fresh perceptions, it also encouraged only nascent thoughts about them. Later, he changed his methods and began to exercise more discipline and focus. Now, he jots down phrases and fragments, and what creative and descriptive expressions dawned on him about his observations – how sights could be smelt; and how sounds could be touched and felt, for instance. He then writes from memory and carefully selects just a few details to include—the sound of a saxophone on a busy street, for instance. He acknowledges that reconstructing from memory is difficult, especially if you want to make writing come alive. Oftentimes too perceptions once missed cannot be recovered. Thus he returns to his notes to start writing about his impressions, as these allow him to reconstruct, or approximate, that feeling of first perception that is so central to capturing place. If he can still feel those first sensations via his writing, it is more likely a reader can, too—and that is his wish for any reader of any of his works: to feel place. He concluded jocularly that despite this conscious effort to connect with readers, each time he writes a book he strives to write a very different book than the one before, which may not be viewed as a wise marketing strategy since a reader who loves one book might hate the next! Optimistically, though, he hopes that a reader who hated a first book might find himself or herself loving another.

Picking up from Mr Iyer’s initiation of the topic of Video Night in Kathmandu (1988), I asked if he still held the suspicion that every Asian culture and city he encountered was “too deep, too canny or too self-possessed to be turned by passing trade winds from the west”, as he wrote in that book; and if, in the thirty years since its publication, that suspicion had been ossified or overturned. Mr Iyer smiled and said, “Of course.”

“These are grand, old civilisations that you have in Asia,” he continued. “They will not so spurn themselves to become someone else. Look at China and its resurgent ascendance. Look at India and its innovations for an electronic democracy. Look at Japan, and its cultural and aesthetic power. They have reassurance in and respect for who they regard themselves to be – and who they were and who they want to be.” He also mentioned that the underlying identities of cities and countries are not so easily changed; for instance, a city which might appear to have transformed entirely—a new skyline, new streets, new trends—still retains its unique character. Cities you know well are like old friends: recognizable even after years of distance. He concluded that this was much the case with Singapore, too: Singapore, as he writes in his recently published book This Could Be Home: Raffles Hotel and the City of Tomorrow (2019), “belonged to many cultures all at once, but wasn’t entirely hostage to any one of them.”

(Contributed by Loon Kin Yip, Brendan.)