On the matter of “getting over” 9.11, what would it take to “see oursels as ithers see us,” in Robert Burns’ prayer? Yesterday we spoke with the writer Pico Iyer. I think of him as our eyes and ears on the global culture. He had Indian parents, an English boyhood, American university education and now citizenship; he’s married to a Japanese woman, and his home base now is rural Japan, but his career is traveling to the far places – Somalia, Iran, Latin America on recent assignments. We put the question to him: How are we Americans looking to the rest of the world in this long post-traumatic time?
Podcast • May 27, 2009
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.
Podcast • April 11, 2008
In Tibet the Dalai Lama was an embodiment of an old culture that, cut off from the world, spoke for an ancient, even lost traditionalism; now, in exile, he is an avatar of the new, as if having traveled eight centuries in just five decades, he is increasingly, with characteristic directness, leaning in, toward tomorrow.
Pico Iyer, The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, page 203.
Pico Iyer:’open road’ Transcendentalism
The Dalai Lama becomes the best sort of New England Transcendentalist in Pico Iyer’s crystalline meditation on the family friend he’s been watching and interviewing for 40 years — that is, almost all his life. The book opens with an epigraph from Henry David Thoreau (“So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real…), closes with Ralph Waldo Emerson (“Nothing is secure but life, transition, the energizing spirit…”) and is brim-full of William James’s wisdom on science, psychology and religion. The title comes from D. H. Lawrence’s paraphrase of Emerson’s child, Walt Whitman: “The great home of the Soul is the open road. Not heaven, not paradise. Not ‘above.'”
Pico Iyer is himself a man of that open road — born of Hindu parents, both from Bombay; schooled at Oxford; long an American citizen; now based at TIME magazine and in Nara, the ancient capital of Japan. In journalism’s upper reaches these days Pico Iyer’s pieces from Havana, Phnom Penh, Damascus and Delhi set the standard of global curiosity and confidence — of the child-like eye and Old Masterly prose. But there is a home inside this traveler. The joy of our conversation was finding that he has vital roots not far from my own, in those beloved New Englanders. “I would like to call myself a Transcendentalist,” he says. “The higher form of globalism, I’ve always thought, is Emerson. That’s why I chose to write a book about the Dalai Lama: because he’s talking globalism but not at the level of Microsoft, McDonalds or Britney Spears, but at the level of conscience, imagination and the heart.”
Take this conversation with Pico Iyer as a first crack at the Tibet questions that will not go away in this year of the Chinese Olympics. This book, The Open Road, is a brief for the Dalai Lama’s brand of urgent patience (“Speak out, not lash out,” as Pico Iyer puts it) which many Tibetans and others find hard to hear. The hope in the Dalai Lama’s circle seems to be that under constant world pressure the Chinese leadership would deign finally to meet with the exiled holy man. “He doesn’t expect the Chinese leadership to come to its senses overnight,” says Pico Iyer, but neither does he see fruits in militancy. “He knows that to prick their pride is to bring down even greater hardships on Tibet.”
Tell us, Open Sourcerers: who has a better take on responsibility, compassion and possibility with respect to Tibet?
Podcast • September 14, 2007
They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles. Fuku americanus, or more colloquially, fuku — generally a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and Doom of the New World…
No matter what it’s name or provenance, it is believed that the arrival of the Europeans on Hispaniola unleashed the fuku on the world, and we’ve all been in the shit ever since. Santo Domingo might be fuku’s Kilometer Zero, its port of entry, but we are all of us its children, whether we know it or not.
Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
For people who feed on fiction for tastes of truth in our time, Junot Diaz is a treasure.
A double-visioned outsider in two languages, two cultures and two countries, he begins to look like the anointed prince of a generation of young immigrants writing “global” fiction inside the US. Could Juno Diaz be our Joseph Conrad?
The roaring liftoff of his first novel,The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao may even be an omen. Are we prepared to hear upstart fictionists tell us, as Junot Diaz does, at the outset: “Santo Domingo was Iraq before Iraq was Iraq.” Diaz’s young Dominican narrator decries the erasure of public memory: “You didn’t know we were occupied twice in the twentieth century? Don’t worry, when you have kids they won’t know the U.S. occupied Iraq either.”
Underlying what reviewers are calling a comic novel, these are the tough themes: the interplay of political and sexual brutality, the suppression of national and family histories, and an inter-generational repetition compulsion around ancient cruelties that are suffered and re-suffered if not exactly remembered.
Junot Diaz makes you wonder, among other things: where were the eminent post-imperial writers (in the class of Salman Rushdie, Michael Ondatje, Zadie Smith) as the U.S. staggered backward into our own neo-imperial misadventure? Might somebody have warned us?
In the next few weeks, we’re reading and interviewing also Ha Jin, the Chinese exile who has just published his first “American” novel, and the novelist and memoirist Edwidge Danticat, who speaks for Haiti and Brooklyn much as Junot Diaz voices Dominican lives from the New Jersey corridor to Santo Domingo, and often back, and back again.
The premise, of course, is that fiction writers may tell us a lot more than we learned from Congressional struggles with immigration reform about the new diasporas and hybrid identities; what seems a permanent floating migration culture; such things as Junot Diaz calls “a peculiarly Jersey malaise — the inextinguishable longing for elsewheres.”
Michiko Kakutani’s celebration in the New York Times noted the “madcap, magpie voice” of Diaz’s “funny, street-smart” narrator, in the “comic portrait of a second-generation Dominican geek,” the eponymous Oscar Wao. But as she, too, noted, the story and the history behind it are harrowing.
My conversation with Juno Diaz began with the American reader’s shock of non-recognition in his Dominican Republic, Siamese-twinned with Haiti on the eastern portion of Hispaniola, Europe’s original prize sugar colony. We Red Sox and Mets fans know next to nothing of the homeland of Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, and it feels a little scandalous. We call the D. R. the “Republic of Baseball” and know it as Rush Limbaugh’s Viagra-charged Fantasy Island. But the social history and the present poverty? The Hitlerian dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo from 1930 to 1961? The official massacre of many thousands of Haitians in 1937?
Junot Diaz says that the kids wearing MLB caps in Santo Domingo today might have as hard a time profiling Trujillo as I did. “We seem to be built to forget,” Diaz says. We seem to insist on “illusions of purity… coherence… goodness… of the pure present without the shadow of history.” But when we cannot summon our history, neither can we imagine consequences of the present. “This book’s central preoccupation is: consequences.”
Click to listen to Part I of the conversation with Junot Diaz( MB MP3)
Continue the conversation with Junot Diaz in Part II and Part III. Thank you, Junot. We are up for Edwidge Danticat at Brown University next Tuesday. Help me out, Open Sorcerers, with angles and questions, please.