Pico Iyer in Jamaica: center of word and world

Calabash, the Caribbean literary festival, is an outdoor church of the written word, rocking and resonating on the south coast of Jamaica with the voices of poets and writers from Hong Kong, New York, Barbados, Nigeria, London, San Diego and Boston, among other home addresses.

In this first of our conversations from Treasure Beach, Pico Iyer is preaching. All his life, the Dalai Lama has been friend and inspiration. Zadie Smith is queen of his literary realm. And now Barack Obama is his “global soul in the White House.” Pico is our model of “global attitude,” in short. Born in England of Indian parents, he went to school and university in the United States and has lived 21 years now in rural Japan, on a tourist visa.

We’re at the center of the word, and the center of the world, now.

When I was born, everyone would have said the center was London or New York. The world has grown so much more interestingly complex, so quickly, that a literary event in Jamaica finds a much larger audience than a literary event in London or New York would.

A 21st-century novel is much more likely to be set in Bombay, than London or New York. I think of London as the capital of the 19th-century novel, New York as the capital of the 20th-century novel, and Bombay — by which I also mean Kingston, and Port of Spain, Lahore and Lagos and other places — those are the capitals of the 21st-century novel in the English language.

Before coming to Jamaica, I might have thought of it as a marginal place. Now that I’ve been here, I can’t say that. It’s not at the margins. You’re right that it’s on the edge of the great America as Ireland was on the edge of Britain, but it’s as central as New York. It has the same number of influences coming here – you an Irish-American person, and here’s me, an Indian-Japanese person. We’re converging by the sea in Jamaica, surrounded by other mongrels, like ourselves. And the conversation is at least as rich here, as in New York, but perhaps richer. We can’t talk anymore about a center of empire and a victim of empire. The empire is global and Jamaica is having its say, to London and New York, and London and New York have to attend to it.

It’s interesting that the writer that you and I have most celebrated during this conversation, Zadie Smith, is half Jamaican, half English – she lives in New York. But in her life, because she’s such an accomplished novelist and essayist at her young age, she is a way of saying, “I’m going to bring my Jamaican heritage as well as my English and American heritage into the center of Western thinking, and the center of Western writing,” in exactly the same way that Barack Obama willy nilly is bringing Kenya into the White House, and into the center of traditional power. So that Kenya now can say, “We have our guy in the White House. The most powerful man in the world is from our little tribe.” They can legitimately say it as much as somebody from Kansas can say it. And I think Jamaica now is empowered in that same way. They can say that one of most exciting novelists in the English language, Zadie Smith, is coming from Jamaica, and is channeling Jamaica into, and bringing it together with her English part, and now her American life.

And I think that that’s the excitement: that Jamaica is now a center of the world, and there isn’t the center of the world, there isn’t one center of the world. The center of the world is everywhere.

Pico Iyer in conversation with Chris Lydon, at the Calabash International Literary Festival, Treasure Beach, Jamaica, May 24, 2009.

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