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PICO IYER
(1957 - )

Kristin Winet
Kristin Winet received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona and is now working on
her PhD in Rhetoric, Composition, and the Teaching of English (also at the U of A). She is currently
writing her dissertation on applying theories of feminism to digital travel writing practices. Kristin also
works as a freelance travel writer and photographer (hence her admiration for Pico Iyer) and she
frequently contributes to a number of magazines and blogs.

INTRODUCTION

Though Pico Iyer was already a correspondent for Time magazine when he landed in

Nepal in 1985, he had no way of knowing that this trip would be the inspiration for Video Night

in Kathmandu, the best-selling landmark book that instantly established him as one of the

world’s leading travel writers. The book, divided into eleven chapters and spanning Nepal, Tibet,

China, India, and Thailand, dealt with the most unusual of travel topics: from the sari-clad

woman who was chosen to play India’s remake of the American Western Rambo to Japan’s

fascination with Disney characters and baseball, anything and everything related to American

pop culture imperialism is fodder for his subjects. What Iyer did with this book—exploring how

American pop culture spread into Asia through his own travels there—was fresh, insightful,

inquisitive, and against the grain of more traditional travel writing, and in the nearly thirty years

since its publication, Iyer has continued to define, re-define, and develop the notion of

contemporary travel writing and what it means to be a global citizen at the end of the 20th and

beginning of the 21st centuries. Known for his philosophical insights, lucid prose, and elegant

travel narratives, Iyer’s subsequent books, including The Lady and the Monk and The Global

Soul, have become beloved additions to the provocative and sometimes controversial repertoire

of travel writing. His theories on global citizenship, belonging, and the fluidity of culture, along
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with his unique narrative voice, have made Iyer one of the most talked-about travel writers

writing in English in the 21st century.

Within academic circles, Iyer is regarded—somewhat indisputably—as one of the most

important travel writers in the development of the contemporary travel narrative. Discussions on

and analysis of Iyer’s work, however, tends to fall into one of two general camps: on the one

hand, he is revered as a postcolonial travel writer, bringing a fresh voice and a multicultural

perspective to a world that was previously dominated by the camp of white, male, Western travel

writers (Paul Thoreau and Bruce Chatwin immediately come to mind). He comes to his subjects

and his journeys through the overt acknowledgment that he is a tourist, that he comes to his work

from the perspective as a tourist who is not always informed or well-versed in the language or

culture, and that, despite claims to the contrary, every writer is in some ways “an outsider to the

subject he is writing about” (Brenner). He is unabashed in proclaiming his privilege, recognizes

that he is part Asian and part Western, and likes to believe that his work directly contradicts the

imperialist tendencies of the travel writing genre. His texts are taught in college and universities

all over the country and in disciplines as diverse as literature, economics, rhetoric and

composition, and political science. His work is often celebrated as bringing to light issues of

globalization and the potential for a decentered global cultural system built upon foundations of

diversity, multiple identities, and shifting subject positions, and he is, in many ways, working to

“stretch the margins” of both the genre and of his interpretation of what a travel writer is—and

does (Davis).

However, on the other hand, he is still accused by some scholars of perpetuating the same

imperialist tendencies upon which the gamut of white, male, Western writers have built their

careers. As one scholar argues, Iyer’s work exhibits “unspoken privileges of whiteness and
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Westernness” through his “adoption of a migrant, cosmopolitan persona” (Scheuller 30). Further

still, some scholars claim that his work continues to use the trope of “male penetrating

East/woman as used in male Western travel writing and literature about the East” (35). Though

neither perspective is entirely without merit and while one could argue that the anti-Iyer critique

is short-sighted (he is, after all, coming into a long-standing tradition as a heterosexual male with

his own ideas and insights about globalization, a highly contested subject on its own), it is worth

noting that is work has spurred quite a bit of debate within academic and popular circles. As Iyer

says in response to these critiques, changing the dialogue and approach to travel writing is going

to be a hurdle that he is not sure how to completely surmount, but he is confident that travel

writing is moving away from the white male surveying his colonies and “more and more about a

half-Thai, half-German girl living in Iowa City, going to an Afghanistan full of German aid

workers and Japanese businessmen” (Brenner). Whichever perspective seems most convincing,

one fact is certain: Iyer’s work—and his life as a man straddling three cultures but never being

sure which one he most belongs to—begs further exploration. In attempting to fill this gap, then,

this essay offers insight into Iyer’s life and contextualizes each of his major works within larger

discussions of globalization and everything from jet lag to shopping malls.

BIOGRAPHY

Pico Iyer, who was born Siddharth Pico Raghaven Iyer in 1957 in Oxford, England, likes

to tell the story of his birth—and his name—as a kind of travelogue in itself: born to Indian

parents, raised in England, and moving to California when he was only seven years old, Iyer’s

fascination with travel was literally encoded in his blood. Even his name, which is a combination

of Raghaven, his father’s name, the Buddha, and the Florentine neo-Platonist Pico della
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Mirandola, was his metaphorical first step into what he calls becoming “a global soul,” a person

not tied to any one particular culture or affiliation and who finds comfort in identifying with the

spaces in-between nations, cultures, languages, and identities. Having grown up as a mashup of

Indian, English, and American cultures (and often never feeling like he truly belonged to any of

them), Iyer’s fascination with living outside of fixed boundaries has followed him throughout his

entire writing career and life.

In addition to his love for travel, examining the world from a theoretical perspective is

literally encoded in his blood, too. The product of two academics--his father, Raghaven

Narasimhan Iyer, an illustrious Oxford philosopher and political theorist, and his mother,

Nandini Nanak Mehta, a religious scholar—Iyer spent most of his childhood living between the

idealisms and dreams of his parents, who were both beloved teachers and scholars in their

respective fields. When he was nine years old, his father, who Iyer claims was “convinced [he]

was going to remake the world in California,” moved the family to Santa Barbara to become a

member of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, a Think Tank founded by Robert

Hutchins and that assembled many of the greatest minds in philosophy at the time (Davis). A

year later, in 1964, his father joined the political science department at the University of

California, Santa Barbara, where he would teach from 1965 until his retirement as Professor

Emeritus in 1986. Always the political idealist, he also founded the local branch of the United

Lodge of Theosophists and, with his wife, the Institute of World Culture, where he served as

President until his retirement.

Perhaps because of his unusual upbringing of straddling cultures, continents, and political

ideologies, Iyer believes that his childhood prepared him well to be a writer of world affairs and

travel. As he recalls, “my upbringing schooled me, I suppose, in expatriation and in outsidership,
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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” (Davis). Some of his

earliest travel memories, which include small holidays to Spain, Switzerland, and a short layover

in Iceland on the way to Illinois, have stayed with him well into his adult life, primarily as he

remembers the way locals crowded around his mother’s sari in Reykjavik or the decadence he

felt tasting his first slice of deep-dish pizza at a Chicago pizzeria. These moments, which

resonate even in his most current work, have helped him see the point in travel and the writer’s

purpose: “To travel, for me,” as he says, “is to wander out into another person’s (or culture’s)

imagination, to try to see the world through radically different eyes (as one can do through

fiction, too), and to leave your own assumptions and values at home so as to entertain and

occupy, for a while, someone else’s, and so broaden your assumptions and challenge your

dogmas” (Brenner).

After moving between schools for most of his life, he began his studies at Oxford

University, where he graduated with highest honors and decided to continue his studies in the

United States. Though Iyer did begin his career teaching writing and literature at Harvard while

pursuing his PhD, he ultimately decided to leave the world of academia and take a

correspondence job in world affairs at Time magazine in 1986. Writing was always an activity

for him, and he had always enjoyed the solitary act of being at his desk with his thoughts;

nevertheless, not until he started his incessant journey into graduate school did he gather the

strength and clarity of mind to actually change his path. As he remembers, “the more I studied

English, because I actually studied nothing but English literature for eight years—and each year I

became less and less employable, as I see it, and less and less qualified to do anything except

read or write—the more the idea took hold in me” (Davis). Since then, his career has only
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blossomed: he has authored numerous travel narratives (including The Global Soul, which is

more of a nonfiction treatise on the theory of a “global soul” than a travelogue), a fictional novel,

introductions to many collections and other travel writers’ books, and gives TED Global talks

and lectures at colleges and universities around the world. He also continues to write for such

highly respectable publications as Time, Harper’s, The New York Review of Books, The New

York Times, and Conde Nast Traveler. Since 1992, Iyer has spent much of his time in Japan,

where he lives with his with wife, Hiroko Takeuchi (who he has revealed as the “lady” in his

third book, The Lady and the Monk), and her two children from a previous relationship.

ON CRAFT AND WRITING TRAVEL

As a travel writer who began his career as a world affairs correspondent, Iyer’s writing

process is unsurprisingly journalistic in nature. As he says, he never goes blindly into an

assignment. Rather, he typically poses a question to himself, one that is both specific and

malleable in order to give him both the initial focus and freedom to change directions when the

experience calls for it. He believes that is an “act of presumption” to go to a place like Nepal or

Tibet and write an entire chapter about it without fully interrogating the experience or allowing

the place to alter those initial questions (Davis). As he recalls when writing Video Night in

Kathmandu, he chose a specific—yet broad—focus for each country, focusing on baseball in

Japan, pop music in Manila, and sex in Thailand. These individual themes, he says, were a

microcosm, a keyhole through which he could focus his material and learn about a cultural tic

that he “couldn’t pretend to say anything definitive about” beforehand (Davis). From there, he

poses a broad question, frames a loose argument or thesis, and then, as any good travel writer

does, throws the question out the window and replaces it with another one as soon as he gets
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there (Davis). However, situating himself before he goes and coming with a particular topic in

mind is what helps him focus and find those deeper, more meaningful questions—ones that, he

says, often have no answer at all.

In terms of his writing process, Iyer likes to investigate a topic of interest, pose a research

question, map out a brief outline and research itinerary, go into the field, take voluminous, hand-

written notes (he grew up in the pre-computer era and still jots everything down by hand), and

then spends weeks combing through his notes, writing and rewriting. Then, and only after he has

written pages and pages of drafts, he steps back to allow the ideas to percolate and solidify

before he starts the process of organization and revision. Of course, the process is not always so

simple: on the one hand, after he maps out his itinerary and outline, he is “confident that both

will get exploded as soon as [he] travel[s];” and then, when he goes places, many times his notes

comes out “so illegible [he] can hardly read it;” and then, when he returns home, he will often

have “two hundred fully paragraphed pages” that never make it into his final manuscripts

(Davis). This doesn’t even take into account the delays, deadlines, and editors that make the

process ever more complicated: when he wrote Video Night in Kathmandu, for instance, he had

three months to write all twelve chapters (which is why, in addition to being in his 20s when he

wrote it, the book does not have the kind of reflective distance some of his other works have).

Now, he still takes hundreds of pages of notes, but when he sits down to write his books, he

waits three months to allow his memory to filter his impressions into meaningful experiences so

that he can fully write “from the heart,” rather than from his notes alone (Davis).

However, because he writes about real places with real political situations, his writing

process must be flexible. Iyer often recalls a piece he wrote about the Middle East for Conde

Nast Traveler in 2001 as an example of the messiness of writing about world affairs like this.
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Just a few months after writing a piece to his American readers encouraging them to visit Syria

and Jordan, the United States was devastated by 9/11, and suddenly the prospect of visiting the

Middle East, especially for a vacation, seemed no less than a death sentence. Similarly, shortly

after he went on assignment to and returned safely home from Nicaragua and El Salvador—

places with reputable war zones—his house burnt down in Santa Barbara and he nearly died

because he was writing his book inside it when it caught fire (Davis). He tells these stories

because he wants his readers to know that no place is what is seems and that it is the job of the

travel writer to explore the fissures, cracks, and upend the preconceived notions cultures have

about each other.

Writing about the experience of travel in a time when news circulates almost immediately

comes with its own set of complications too. In interviews, Iyer is often asked how travel writing

has evolved since he began writing in the mid-1980s, as well as how globalization and the

ubiquitous availability of global media has affected the genre and its goals. His answers are

always two-fold and optimistic: what might have once been characterized as a “straight line”

(what he calls the white Englishman going into Africa and surveying the strange customs of the

natives) is now a “rainbow explosion,” a cacophony of voices of different genders, races,

histories, and lived realities. It is also multi-voiced, a collection of women, people of color, and

people from different languages and cultures, writing from perspectives that haven’t been given

much critical attention before. Socio-economics aside, Iyer believes that the contemporary

perspective on travel is both multiple and shifting, and he is hopeful that conversations are

moving away from discussions between colonizer and colonized and more into a kind of dialogic

interplay between people who are, innately, curious about each other.
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In terms of the role and craft of the contemporary travel writer, Iyer believes that this,

too, is quite a challenge. For one, as he says, it is no longer remarkable to describe Mongolia or

Tibet because “anyone sitting in Iowa City can access them on the Internet or their TV screens”

(Davis). Instead, because of the ease of accessing place on Google Earth or the Discovery

Channel, travel writers must extend the form and, as Iyer says, refresh it, transform it, rethink

what “discovery” means, rethink what “exoticism” means, and “push the material inwards”

(Davis). He is tired of the conventional narrative in which a person goes for a few weeks to a

foreign place and reports back on his or her experience—nothing more. As he claims, the writer

must turn the lens inward (or at least in different directions) and bring back more to the reader

than just a place’s sights and sounds. Because travel writing has had to change in order to survive

in a post-industrial era of globalization, Iyer believes that travel writers should take on

unconventional topics that put place directly in the center, such as an essay on jet lag, an

exploration of the Los Angeles airport, the transformation of a particular neighborhood in

Chicago, or even a shopping mall or a hospital, places where people are always passing through.

If nothing else, he recommends that travel writers should strive to “narrow in on one small aspect

of a location that your particular passion, experience, and background can light up, which would

have otherwise remained dark for the rest of us” (Andrews).

VIDEO NIGHT IN KATHMANDU: AND OTHER REPORTS FROM THE NOT-SO-FAR

EAST

Perhaps Iyer’s most famous collection, Video Night in Kathmandu takes the reader on his

adventures through several East Asian countries. Though published in 1988, the collection’s

subtitle aptly captures the how formerly romantic and distant places have been made more
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accessible through globalization and tourism. As the subtitle also suggests, access has not only

been accomplished by advances in technology, but countries as diverse as the Philippines and

China must contend with an emerging global civilization while also attending to their own

unique histories, languages, and cultures. Such negotiations are never easy, and Iyer himself

describes Video Night in Kathmandu as a mental rather than physical itinerary in relationship to

the sometimes troubling, sometimes wonderful encounters with the places where East Asia and

globalization intersect (25). A reflective, even philosophical writer, Iyer builds Video Night in

Kathmandu into an inward journey that seeks after, and partially finds, epiphany.

Iyer devotes his first chapter to Bali, bestowing upon one of the world’s most popular

tourist destinations a fittingly allusive—and ambiguous—subheading: “On Prospero’s Isle.”

Referencing the shipwrecked sorcerer of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Iyer evokes the tourist’s

dilemma: “For if it is the first vanity, and goal, of every traveler to come upon his own private

pocket of perfection, it is his second vanity, and goal, to shut the door behind him” (33). Bali

serves as an appropriate first chapter for a collection that searches after—and sometimes fails to

find—a private pocket of perfection. The second chapter, for instance, focuses on Tibet and

describes “The Underground Overland Invasion” of a Shangri-la overrun by a “free-floating

band of Whitmanic democrats” who are searching for a spiritual experience they could not find

in the United States (63). Iyer spends some time surveying the modern history of Tibet, which

includes first a military invasion by the Communist Chinese and then a second, more insidious

invasion of tourists seeking enlightenment.

In another essay, Iyer encounters a similar mixture of East and West in Nepal, describing

the place as the “intersection of hippiedom and Hinduism, where Haight-Ashbury meets the

Himalayas” (78). This conflation of San Francisco flower-power mentalities and Buddhist
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spirituality has produced a place that caters to nearly every other country except Nepal.

Throughout his time there, he struggles to find a Nepalese restaurant, to hear Nepalese music, or

to even witness Nepalese architecture. Long notorious for the availability of narcotics and its

lack of enforcement, Nepal has become, in Iyer’s eyes, a shadow of its former self. Like the

hippie who had shed “ragged threads” for business suits, Nepal had lost something of its idealism

and identity in the process of becoming more open to tourists (102). Iyer encounters similar

challenges in China, a place “built not for people but for abstractions” (114). In this chapter, Iyer

provides descriptions of China that would become commonplaces to the Western imagination: a

place of concrete projects and massive scales, where entire malls and buildings are constructed

and often left unoccupied. But for all this so-called progress, Iyer observes that the New China

has a “clearer sense of the system it was abandoning than of the one it sought” (145). In China,

as in much of the rest of Asia, traditions are being displaced by uncertain cultural alternatives,

and he is not sure what the future holds.

Nowhere is this displacement and uncertainty perhaps more pointed than the Philippines,

the only country Iyer visits that had been an American colony and that now plays “minstrel to an

entire continent” (153). Iyer mentions the Filipino penchant for imitation: throughout the islands,

top American talents are emulated; however, Iyer notices that the kinds of songs produced in the

Philippines are “ballads of heartbreak and high spirits, (164). These musical tastes harmonize

with Iyer’s other observations about the Philippines: the island-nation is at once simmering for

American popular culture and also struggling with abject poverty. Iyer admits that he never

found any sign of Lincoln or Thoreau or Sojourner Truth; only pop culture figures like Dick

Clark, Ronald McDonald, and Madonna. For Iyer, these obsessions inform a tragicomic political

culture marred by graft, nepotism, incompetence, and arbitrary justice. “The saddest part of the
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whole fiasco, however, was that these knockabout characters from Dynasty were stumbling their

way through a tragedy by Sophocles,” Iyer laments, referencing in the same sentence the 1970s

soap opera sensation and the great Greek tragedian (170).

Appropriately, Iyer next turns to the country of Burma. “The Raj is Dead! Long Live the

Raj!” his subtitle humorously declares, a fitting label for a country that has, unlike the

Philippines, no significant aspirations to open itself to a wider world. Iyer lovingly compares the

country to a hardback one might fight in a second-hand bookstore, “which someone had

inscribed as a present to their beloved and their future forever together,” a place preserving

everything with a dearness, even of its own colonial past (217). This almost pathological sense of

tradition is juxtaposed to Hong Kong, less a city and more a “dervishing congregation of self-

interests” (224). India offers another alternative at the intersection of the postmodern and

ancient: in “Hollywood in the Fifties,” Iyer describes an India “sloughing off some of its musty

Edwardian past and taking on more of the bright new futurism of America” (279). But what Iyer

witnesses is a kind of back-to-the-futurism—India cinema reminds Iyer of 1950s cinema.

If Iyer experiences an India eager to borrow from the world, he encounters, conversely, a

Thailand ready to sell anything and everything to the world. “Love in a Duty-Free Zone” worries

over the infamous sex trade in the southeastern nation. “Wickedness, by all accounts, was an art

here,” Iyer acknowledges. But Iyer is also careful to point out the kindness of the Thai people

that he meets during his journey, as well as his encounters with tribal villagers in the country’s

north. In Japan, Iyer tracks how the Japanese have adopted and adapted the sport of baseball.

Long associated with Americanism, baseball in Japan attaches a different understanding of

celebrity to its greatest players. Sadaharu Oh, known as the “Babe Ruth of Baseball,” does not

describe greatest hits in his autobiography; rather, Oh “concentrates on the stages of his often
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painful quest for spiritual maturity” (325). This penultimate chapter on Japan foreshadows Iyer’s

broadest claims about what he experienced throughout Asia: the future, which he had long

thought would be dominated by the West, is in fact the East’s to inherit (361). And yet, after

providing this prophecy, Iyer admits that he has never left Asia at all and the people that he has

met there could never quite return to the Asia that had existed before the West.

THE LADY AND THE MONK: FOUR SEASONS IN KYOTO

Pico Iyer’s second book, published in 1991, is a somewhat radical departure in both

content and tone from Video Night in Kathmandu: it is a quieter, more reflective memoir

chronicling the year Iyer lived in Kyoto and his struggles with both the changing landscape of

Japan and his budding friendship with a young Japanese woman. Because of his interest in

Japanese poetry, the practice of Zen Buddhism, and his interest in living a more peaceful life,

Iyer had always been attracted to Kyoto, but after spending a short layover there, he realized that

his experience with Japan had only just begun and that he was inextricably drawn to the country.

As he writes, two major impulses eventually inspired his year-long journey there: one, the desire

to reconcile—for himself—competing images of Japan as being both ultra high-tech and gently

introspective, and two, the desire to live a more reflective, Thoreau-inspired lifestyle. He

believed he could do that in Japan, a place that “[e]ver since boyhood, [he] had always been

powerfully drawn towards” and a place to which he felt “a shock of penetrating recognition” (5).

Though his plans for solitude quickly derail when he meets Sachiko, a vibrant, young-spirited

Japanese woman with whom he becomes dear friends, The Lady and the Monk beautifully

reveals Japan as the dichotomy Iyer believes it to be—simultaneously timeless and changing,

both fearless and ephemeral.


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In terms of structure and thematic content, The Lady and the Monk’s premise is fairly

simple: divided into four seasons, each part wrapped up in and reflective of the subtle changes of

the seasons. As Iyer says about the beginning of fall, for example,

Autumn this year promised to hold even more elegiac weight than usual, as all Japan, in a

sense, was holding its collective breath, waiting for the Emperor to die and a new

imperial era to begin. And for me, as I felt the first chill entering the city and saw a whole

new generation of foreigners beginning to appear, the season itself seemed to have grown

older, as the city had. By now, I felt, I knew Kyoto’s moods so well that I could almost

tell the time without looking at my watch: how the light lay silver on the river in the

sharpened afternoons, how the temples exhaled mist in the early light (335).

As indicated by this passage and others, Iyer’s intimate connection with the seasons reflects his

own self journey, and he is able to use these “passings” to show his journey into Japanese

literature, Zen Buddhism and monkhood, and the city and surrounding areas of historic Kyoto.

The text, as all of his other books, is written in first-person and relies heavily on imagery, self-

reflection, introspection, and a retelling of events as they unfolded chronologically. As a

journalist, he spends most of his time walking around the city streets, observing the strange, the

unusual, and the timeless, and falling in love with a land he has always admired. With an eye

toward contradictions, he notices, for example, that ancient Zen temples coexist alongside 24-

hour convenience stores, that vending machines selling everything under the sun populate

airports, city streets, and tourist attractions, and that even McDonald’s place mats are printed

with maps of Buddhist temples and rock gardens around Kyoto. He sees that fluorescent lights

and chaotic nightlife counter the gentle, rolling landscapes and cherry blossoms as in an
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effortless joining of two puzzle pieces. In a way, his notions about Japan being either/or quickly

shift into being a combination of both/and.

As the book progresses, the relationship between femininity, domesticity, and Japan

begin to deepen and become a kind of thematic thread on which the rest of the book relies. As

Iyer moves further and further away from the stereotypical Western male’s experience of

Japan—bar-hopping, business ventures, and boasting about Japanese lovers—Iyer turns inward,

both physically and mentally, in his pursuits to find out for himself if the dreamy images he has

of Japan’s “rapt stillness,” “elegiac softness,” and “small villages set amidst rich green hills, all

scaled with a cozy modesty” still exist (4). Relatively early, in the first section of the book, he

meets Sachiko, a spunky 30-year-old Japanese woman married to a relatively absent husband and

raising two well-behaved and curious children. Though their relationship seems impossible from

the start (after all, they can hardly speak to each other and she is clearly unavailable for romantic

pursuits at the time), Iyer finds himself drawn to her as each part of the book progresses, falling

for her whimsical, child-like fascination with the world and all things Western and reveling in

their linguistic mishaps and miscommunications. Because they are always confusing words like

“Tuesday” and “Thursday” and “yesterday” and “tomorrow,” their meetings are miracles in

themselves, but as they spend more time together and begin to understand each other, Iyer

realizes that Sachiko’s life isn’t as carefree and independent as he initially thought; instead, he

starts to see that her life is radically constrained, that she plays a role that she has been destined

for since she was a little girl, and that she cannot escape from the societal demands of

motherhood and reserved wife. Her presence in the narrative begins to take precedence over his,

and slowly, the book becomes less about Iyer—the “monk” the title refers to—and more about

the lady—Sachiko.
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In many ways, Iyer uses the character of Sachiko to make a much larger statement about

the sometimes contradicting—and yet intertwined—faces of Japan: in one sense, Sachiko

functions as one of many women, quietly constrained to her traditional roles and feeling the

pressure to play that role as flawlessly as a geisha, but she also functions as the face of modern

Japan, a Japan that gives her rock concerts and fleeting tastes of an independence she craves. In

the last chapter, Iyer describes the way that Sachiko finally sets herself free, preparing to divorce

her distant husband, move into a new home with her children, reclaim her maiden name, and

become a professional tour guide for Asia and Japan. In this way, The Lady and the Monk is not

merely a love story; it is the story of a lady craving freedom, a monk-in-training craving solitude,

and a subdued, gentle meditation on how two very different people connect, disconnect, and

move throughout the city of Kyoto and beyond. Though the two do not end romantically

involved at the end of the book and Iyer instead ends the book with their very bittersweet parting,

he has revealed in later interviews that Sachiko is indeed his wife, Hiroko, with whom he has

lived in Japan for the past twenty years.

FALLING OFF THE MAP: SOME LONELY PLACES OF THE WORLD

In Falling Off the Map, published in 1998, seven years after The Lady and the Monk, Iyer

showcases eight travel essays that highlight “lonely” places, or places that have been

geographically or politically isolated, notoriously difficult to visit, or, as Iyer writes, just

“marching to the beat of a different satellite drummer” (5). In the first chapter, he asks his

readers to re-think their assumptions about loneliness and upend the notion that a lonely place is

simply a “moody outcrop off the coast of Scotland” or “washed-up atolls adrift in the Pacific;”

instead, he implores his readers to think of lonely places as places often exiled “from the present
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tense,” places that have an air of “haunted glamour” of the past (6-7). Though the eight countries

of which this collection is comprised—North Korea, Argentina, Cuba, Iceland, Bhutan, Vietnam,

Paraguay, and Australia—might seem initially unrelated, as the book progresses, his stories

about these places begin to tell a more holistic story about isolationism, fairy tales, innocence,

and, ultimately, the unexpected effects of globalization in the most far-flung locales on earth.

In the first essay, for instance, Iyer visits North Korea. Aptly titled “My Holiday with

Kim Il Sung,” the essay is structured around all of the patriotic slogans, images, paraphernalia

associated with the leader of the Communist nation that Iyer cannot help but see everywhere.

Even on the plane from Beijing to Pyongyang, Iyer notices that the North Korean passengers

“were the ones with Kim Il Sung badges pinned to their hearts,” that the in-flight magazine

touted quotes from the Great Leader (helpfully, he tells his readers, printed in effusive bold type)

and gushing articles about him and his benevolent, kind, generous aura, and that children greet

him patriotically with a “Welcome” salute on the streets. Even the city, he says, is filled with

statues, paintings, and repeated images of Kim Il Sung’s face (13). However, this essay is more

than a documenting of the lavish repetition of images and military propaganda throughout the

city of the late Communist leader; it is a meditation on the fact that although everything is

meticulously put together to feel indistinct and efficient by the Party, North Korea is still—

despite, perhaps, its attempts to the contrary—distinctly Asian. For instance, though his first

walk around the city has him feeling like Pyongyang is entirely generic, planned-out, and

anonymous, a city that resembles, to him, “the last souvenirs of a system that was elsewhere all

but extinct” (15), he starts to realize that he might instead be seeing a characteristically Asian

city, one based on principles of patriotism, single-mindedness, and solidarity. Nevertheless, he

does feel the weight of Communism, isolation, and propaganda-fed rhetoric everywhere he goes,
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from people chanting in the street to even his tour guide, who tells him that the government

intentionally constructed Pyongyang to look grey and dreary so that no one would want to move

there. Because of this, he is left with contradictions: in a country where everyone is passionately

patriotic and open about their loving feelings toward Kim Il Sung and Communism, he still feels

at arm’s length, strangely distanced from the people, their culture, and their country. In his

characteristically contemplative fashion, Iyer ends the essay by descending, anonymously, into a

dark underground passageway filled with expressionless faces.

In another essay, Iyer returns to a place that he says stirs his most passionate feelings, a

place that, like Pyongyang, exists in relative isolation from the rest of the world but that, unlike

Pyongyang, he feels he knows much more intimately. In this case, he is in Iceland, a country

isolated due to geography and not necessarily to its political leanings, a country that, to Iyer, is

filled with a sweet innocence and a “spellbound air charged with an immanence of spirits,” fairy

tales, and eccentrics (82). He tells his readers that he has been to Iceland four years ago during

the season of never-ending light and has returned because he desperately wanted to experience,

this time, the season of lunar darkness. What he finds there—a place of poets, heavy metal

music, volcanic craters, the largest glacier in Europe, and fishermen—is simultaneously

untouched and threatened. More than any other of the places in this collection, Iyer believes that

Iceland has remained relatively untouched for ten centuries, preserving its own culture and “its

Old Norse diphthongs by living apart from the world, remote from changing realities;” that is,

until his second visit, when he realizes that television has “cast a shadow over a world in which

lighthouse keepers read Shakespeare to fishing fleets” and that the country, who used to have no

broadcasting at all in the month of July, now boasts more VCRs per household than any other

country in the world (73). The Westman Isles, an unusual rock formation, has been colloquially
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changed to the name Marge Simpson, and Reykjavik is now full of foreign faces, Thai

restaurants, refugees, and rock ’n roll music. However, despite Iyer’s dismay that Iceland is not

exactly the pristine, untouched land it was before the infiltration of pop culture (though it is, he

writes, still a “cozy, friendly, Christmas-tree kind of place”), he is aware that the innocence he so

loved about the people has not left them (80). As he meditates on the changes he has witnessed

and recognizes that the strangeness he finds in Iceland does, to some extent, exist only in his

mind, he is comforted by the fact that Iceland’s remoteness and haunting natural places still leave

an indelible mark on his soul: as he says, sometimes, looking out over the forty or more miles

across what he calls the “glassy air,” they—like Iyer—can also see inside themselves, seeing in

the land a reflection of themselves (83). The other essays in this collection, which cover

everywhere from Argentina to Australia, grapple with similar themes and share similar

reflections and insights, revealing that “lonely places” are about as diverse as the kinds of

countries they can encompass.

THE GLOBAL SOUL: JET LAG, SHOPPING MALLS, AND THE SEARCH FOR

HOME

Iyer’s fourth book reads as a long meditation upon the “global soul,” a concept that had

appeared as early as Video Night in Kathmandu. Given Iyer’s international childhood, the notion

of global citizen has always held a particular fascination for him, and this collection of essays

articulates the tradeoffs of a world increasingly made up of these global souls. Throughout the

book, he suggests homesickness without the promise of home, and a kind of multiculturalism

that is as problematic as it liberating to the individual. Appropriately, Iyer quotes both Ralph

Waldo Emerson and Simone Weil before beginning these meditations: “What is man but a
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congress of nations?” Emerson writes, in seeming anticipation of the late twentieth century. “We

must be rooted in the absence of a place,” Weil cryptically urges. The global soul might be best

characterized as oscillating between the tones evoked by these two authors, between hope and

skepticism.

In the first essay in the collection, “The Burning House,” Iyer tells the story of evacuating

his California home after it caught fire. The evacuation forces Iyer to discover neighbors in a

community he had never known existed, as well as contemplate what community means in an

affluent California neighborhood. As a society “built on quicksand, where everyone is getting

new lives every day,” California offers Iyer one example of how California frustrates the

philosopher’s desire to make the entire world a home (5). Iyer witnesses wildfires, mudslides,

and earthquakes, and notes how these natural disasters seem to challenge any notion of

permanence: as he observes, “[e]verywhere is so made up of everywhere else….a polycentric

anagram” (11). Iyer laments that, even as people have more technologies to keep them

connected, Americans seem to have fewer and fewer connections “in the classic human sense”

(16). From here, he returns to Weil’s quote and then describes his own home, now only ashes

after the fire. He associates the image with a parable from the Lotus Sutra: “The only way to lure

them out, he realizes, is by promising them a cart—using the image itself to save those of us

hypnotized by images while the flames burn all our foundations down” (38).

Other essays in the collection wrestle, too, with this dichotomy of home and away. In the

second essay, Iyer turns to the concept of the airport, attesting that “[t]he modern airport is based

on the assumption that everyone’s from somewhere else.” These many travelers, always from

somewhere else, therefore need things they can recognize to make them “feel at home” (43). If

California had become a place of reinvention without home, the airport becomes, in Iyer’s
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imagination, a place of nostalgia obsessed with home. Sadly, even in this world that can

accommodate a “hundred kinds of home,” the trinkets and products only really attest to a

“hundred kinds of homesickness” (93). In another piece, the “Global Marketplace,” Iyer again

returns to Simone Weil and her book L’Enracinement (The Need for Roots) and alludes to her

concept of metaxu, “relative and mixed blessings (home, country, tradition, cultures, etc.) which

warm and nourish the soul and without which, short of sainthood, a human life is not possible”

(111). In the absence of metaxu, and alone in his hotel room, Iyer wonders what common

aspirations and values bind humans together. These questions, together with the concept of

metaxu, nicely prepare the reader for “The Multiculture,” a chapter dedicated to the city of

Toronto. Well-known for its openness to foreign residents and cultures, Toronto promises Iyer a

safe, modern city without metaxu, a place where the hope of the global soul that diversity can

leave him not “dissonance but a higher symphony” (121). Iyer finds much to praise in Toronto’s

cosmopolitanism and diversity, but he also notices a curious nationalist streak in the efforts of

many of its citizens to identify and maintain a Canadian literature. As he writes, Canada must

often confront being a kind of afterthought to its southern neighbor, but that when the world is

dreaming of America, it is really “dreaming of Toronto,” a kind of perfect place that America’s

cities strive to be (159).

These issues of self-definition and identity inform Iyer’s chapter on the Olympics. Iyer

begins the chapter by pointing out that the International Olympic Committee claims more

members than the United Nations, all of whom are pledged “to an ideal Oversoul that rhymes

with our highest, sweetest dreams” (179). Iyer writes of the 1996 games in Atlanta and notices

the efforts of the city to appear at once cosmopolitan, historical, and friendly to business. As Iyer

explores the city, however, he discovers himself more and more troubled by the city’s efforts to
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paint an attractive picture of itself. “Atlanta’s problem,” Iyer surmises, “was that it had plenty of

global reach and almost no global clout. Everyone relied on it, but no one spared a thought for it”

(198). In Iyer’s estimation, Atlanta becomes emblematic of a larger phenomenon of sprawling

suburbs and cities lacking centers and souls. Iyer also identifies Coca-Cola—one of the world’s

largest companies, and located in Atlanta—as a kind of private-sector counterpart to the

Olympics, with its products sold in nearly as many countries as participate in the Olympic

Games. Following the mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell, Iyer argues that the

great “challenge and invention” of the twentieth century was “suspended judgment;” however,

Iyer finds such suspended judgment under constant threat from global culture (222).

SUN AFTER DARK: FLIGHTS INTO THE FOREIGN

Beginning with a quote by Thoreau, Iyer’s collection Sun After Dark portrays countries in

which traveling is not “some pastime, but serious as the grave” (7). Iyer’s prose evokes an

element of desperation in this collection not directly encountered in previous works: the tone

evoked by his review of fellow travel writer W.G. Sebald, as well as his travel to places like the

Arabian Peninsula and Bolivia, indicate a consistent effort on his part to understand places of the

world that would soon become associated not just with poverty, but with terrorism. Iyer’s

seventh book was published in 2004, one year after the United States invaded Iraq. Many of his

essays concern watching the events of September 11—and the subsequent military responses—

from places as diverse as California and La Paz.

Sun After Dark begins with a vignette of the Canadian folk musician Leonard Cohen in

the San Bernardino Mountains, following spiritual mentors with whom he cannot directly

communicate. The next essay follows the Dalai Lama’s complexities, a public figure advocating
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“kindness” who also has lived in a permanent state of exile in northern India. Both pieces speak

to Iyer’s desire to discover in the travails of the late twentieth century the glimmer of spiritual

realization in the wisdom of exotic religion. Appropriately, it is the figure of the Dalai Lama who

continuously reminds him later in the collection that blind faith is hardly any faith at all.

Other essays deal with terrorism and tragedy at national levels. For instance, in one essay,

Iyer retells the horrific events of 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, but only after

he has richly described a part of the world clouded in mist, and a history rich with global

exchange. Despite the textures of his descriptions, Iyer chooses to end this essay on an image of

distance, of Americans in large homes watching “versions” of the lives Iyer had just witnessed

on screen, “wishing destruction on them all” (94). The anxieties conjured by terrorism and war

also trickle into Iyer’s portrayal of La Paz, a city so high in altitude that the airport offers visitors

an Oxygen Room (99). In Bolivia, Iyer describes his own experience as a tourist prisoner in one

of Bolivia’s largest detention centers. The experience of humiliation, powerlessness, and

paranoia prompts Iyer to pause, for at least a little while, his studies of Graham Greene’s

Ministry of Fear. Even his return to Tibet in 1990 is marked by repression: martial law had been

declared by the Chinese government owing to protests from monks demanding independence

(126).

Dislocation, modern tourism, and the afflictions of modern tourism recur throughout this

collection as well. For example, “A New Millennium” portrays Iyer’s visit to Easter Island, one

of the most remote places on Earth. As he trudges through the lonely landscape, noticing the way

the island’s famous moai (sculptures) have been artificially arranged for tourists, he wonders

what this kind of artificial arrangement of actual historic relics actually means (189-90). In

“Nightwalking,” Iyer departs from the more serious themes this collection contends with and
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turns to the affliction of jet lag. According to him, since “a day, in most respects, resembles a

room in which our things are ordered according to our preference,” jet lag disorders the

metaphorical room and is therefore worth writing about as a serious travel topic (159). As he

explores the phenomenon throughout the essay, he suggests that jet lag almost parallels the larger

re-ordering of the globe in the late twentieth century but that it is a common illness, in some

ways, for this increasing world of global souls.


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SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

WORKS OF PICO IYER

Nonfiction Books

The Man Within My Head. New York: Knopf, 2012.

The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. New York: Knopf, 2008.

Sun After Dark: Flights into the Foreign. New York: Knopf, 2004.

The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home. New York: Knopf, 2000.

Tropical Classical: Essays from Several Directions. New York: Knopf, 1997.

Cuba and the Night. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Falling off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World. New York: Knopf, 1993.

The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto. New York: Knopf, 1991.

Video Night in Kathmandu: And Other Reports from the Not-So-Far East. New York: Knopf,

1998.

Novels

Abandon: A Romance. New York: Knopf, 2003.

Other Works

The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere. Simon & Schuster Digital Sales Inc. / TED.

2014.

Foreword to 100 Journeys for the Spirit: Sacred*Inspiring*Mysterious*Enlightening. New York:

Watkins, 1999.

“Where is Home?” Filmed June 2013. TEDGlobal video, 14:01. 1 September 2014.

http://www.ted.com/talks/pico_iyer_where_is_home?language=en

Critical and Biographical Studies


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Coklin, Ljiljana. “Iyer, Pico (1957-).” In The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Multiethnic American

Literature, edited by Emmanuel S. Nelson. Westport: Greenwood, 2005.

Schueller, Malini Johar. “Traveling ‘back’ to India: globalization as imperialism in Pico Iyer’s

Video Night in Kathmandu.” Journeys 10.1 (June 2009): 29-50. Accessed 1 Sept. 2014.

doi: http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy1.library.arizona.edu/10.3167/jys.2009.100103

Interviews

Andrews, Avital. “My Perfect Adventure: Pico Iyer.” Outside. 10 December 2012. Accessed 14

September 2014. http://www.outsideonline.com/outdoor-adventure/my-perfect-

adventure/My-Perfect-Adventure-Pico-Iyer.html

Brenner, Angie. “Pico Iyer – Global Writer, Heart and Soul.” Wild River Review. September

2014. Accessed 3 Sept. 2014. http://www.wildriverreview.com/INTERVIEW/Pico-

Iyer/PEN/angie-brenner/2-10

Davis, Matthew. “Pico Iyer: On Travel and Travel Writing.” World Hum. 30 November 2006.

Accessed 2 Sept. 2014. http://www.worldhum.com/features/travel-

interviews/pico_iyer_travel_writing_20061104/

Patrick, Bethanne Kelly. “Pico Iyer Writing Across Boundaries: A Travel Writer Finds the Best

Journeys Are Often Internal.” The Writer (Sept. 2004): 20. Academic OneFile. Accessed

1 Sept. 2014.

Potts, Rolf. “Pico Iyer.” Accessed 1 Sept. 2014. http://www.rolfpotts.com/writers/iyer.html

“Why I Write…Pico Iyer.” Publisher’s Weekly 259.9 (Feb. 2012). Academic OneFile. Accessed

1 Sept. 2014.

Kristin Winet
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