Sunday, September 1, 1996

Q&A Pico Iyer: Closet Japanese


Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review.

     "Someone's got to go out there, and give up the easy chair and the two cars  in the  garage,  and actually bring back reports from the world. Otherwise, there'd be no  artists, no newspapers, no  explorers.  Some people are made to stay at home; some are made to wander."
     "And you're one of the ones who are made to wander?"
     "Yeah, I think so. And now  I'm on the  course, it's harder to get out than to just keep going."
     Cuba and the Night

HB: How do you feel about the fact that your books are sometimes listed as fiction, sometimes as nonfiction?

PI: After taking great pains to write a book that does justice to the truth of an occasion, it's distressing to go into a bookstore and find it classified as fiction. But more and more travel writing is dancing on the borders. I noticed, for example, that VS. Naipul's last book came out as nonfiction in England and as fiction in this country. And one never knows how to categorize Bruce Chatwin's books.

HB: Could be the whole classification system is cracking up.

PI: Just at a time when other boundaries are dissolving, too, in a new post-national world where there are no barriers. The same is happening in writing. All post-national writing is so ventriloqual, whether it's Ishiguru or Caryl Phillips or even Rushdie. People with many homes can write in many voices and see through many different kinds of eyes. It's a new literary form affecting a new kind of person, I think. Look at Mukerjee: Every one of her stories is from a different nationality.
HB: What made you a traveler and then a travel writer?

PI: I think I had the advantage that more and more people have now of being a traveler, in some sense, at birth. I was born of Indian parents in England. When I was three years old going to the candy store, I walked through a neighborhood where nobody looked quite like me, and the assumptions were different from mine. That was a good qualification for displacement, which is a condition of writing. Everywhere in the world is foreign to me and everywhere a matter for travel writing.

HB: So it was that trip to the candy store that inclined you for a career of travel writing.

PI: Then, when I was seven, we moved to California so I was doubly displaced.

HB: As someone of Indian background with British education living in California, you must have been close to indecipherable.

PI: Quite, falling between all the cracks, which is now is a fairly common condition but at the time seemed unusual. I began going to school by plane, commuting from the age of nine. I'd fly to this Dickensian English boarding school, and come back on vacations to sixties California -- black light, Grateful Dead California -- the kind of disjunction what wasn't conceivable in our parent's generation because planes weren't making that kind of trip.

HB: What is not travel? What is off-limits to travel writing? What is home?

PI: Home has to be defined internally. People like me who haven't inherited a home have to fashion one inside from one's loyalties and attachments and loves. I make my residence partly in Japan and a little bit in California. Part of the attraction of Japan is it's inviolably alien. I'm more a foreigner there than anywhere. Yet it's a place I always felt a mysterious affinity for; I've always conceived of myself as a closet Japanese.

I guess what I'm saying is I thrive under the conditions of being a foreigner. The only place that has no glamour for me is England. If home is defined as a place that holds no fascination because it seems as close to me as my back yard or my arm, then England is home.

HB: From the Empire on, Brits are great travelers,

PI: Absolutely so. English boarding schools provide perfect training for travel writers. The food's horrible, the conditions very Spartan. Having gone through those schools for ten years, I realize now that we were being trained to take over the Empire, except when we graduated we realized the Empire was gone. But the idea was you go to far-flung corners of the world and to some degree feel at home there. If you go to an English boarding school, you have a year off between high school and college and the assumption has always been that you spend that year traveling or going off to work in the Third World.

HB: There's irony in the way your new novel, Cuba and the Night, ends. After all the passion, sunlight, and sexual energy of Cuba, the book winds up in what you portray as dull, gray England.

PI: Part of the fascination of writing fiction was trying to see the world through radically different eyes than my own -- that of Richard, the photographer, but, even more, that of Lourdes, the Cuban woman -- and attempting to see a place that is second nature to me through the eyes of someone to whom it could actually be exotic. Winchester, for Lourdes, might as exciting as Havana for me.

HB: But you don't portray England as exotic, only as muted and asexual. And that brings me to the one problem I had with The Lady and The Monk, my favorite of your books because you are involved in it in a way you never seem to be in your other writings. You have a lot at stake in The Lady and The Monk. You are implicated, and that's what makes it matter more to the reader.

But you exile sexuality from the book, or make it terribly uncertain. Is it a love story or isn't? Sachiko is extraordinary and your portrait of her marvelous. Why don't you return her love? Maybe you do. You won't say. Or are you relegating Sachiko, as you did Lourdes, to a place without sexuality?

PI: The reason that I exiled sexuality, as you put it, in the Japanese book, is that for me the fascination of Japan is that it's a land of veils, silences and understatement. Everything is delicate. The sensual excitement of Japan is that on the surface it's so demure with a frisson of suggestion just beneath. That's how the Japanese eroticize and sensualize the public domain. The way someone will very demurely lift a cup of tea is very exciting.

I try to be colored and inflected by the cultures I visit. Writing about Japan, I was trying very hard to write a Japanese book, all suggestion, understatement, reticence, even evasion. In Cuba, everything was the opposite -- top volume, out in the street, flamboyant, gregarious, sexuality at center stage.

HB: The core of The Lady and The Monk is Sachiko. All of your observations about Japan become acute and poignant because of her.

PI: Yes, Sachiko is the heart of The Lady and The Monk. And I live with her now. Eight years after that book, we're eight years closer than we were at that time, largely as a testament to her patience, perseverance and bravery. I wrote the book to put her center stage. And yes, for the reader it is frustrating. The narrator's found a wonderful woman. He spends a year with her, brings her out a bit, then leaves her dangling and goes back to his regular life. That's one example of bringing a fictional element to a basically nonfiction book. In reality, I kept visiting her in Kyoto. We got closer and closer to the point where I live in Japan with her now.

The Cuban book was a way of addressing those same issues, looking at a man who, presented with a similar possibility, blows it, does what the narrator in The Lady and The Monk seems to be doing.

HB: As much I was moved by Sachiko, I was outraged at you. I thought you were standing back, studying the working of the Japanese character through her, waiting to catch her in generic flaws. And that was very troubling.

PI: That would be. That is a flaw in my writing -- and in me. You're absolutely right, I can't challenge that, except I am wise to that flaw and, in the Cuba book, I wanted to admonish it and show somebody who pays the price for looking at the world through a lens.

HB: And now you're with Sachiko. Congratulations.

PI: Thank you. It's not an opportunity to squander. Even I couldn't squander it. After the book ended she walked out on her husband, got a divorce, and began working as a tour guide leading equally bewildered Japanese around the world. She returned, set up home with her kids alone, which is very difficult in Japan, a multiple stigma. To be a single mother is terrible. Even worse to be living with me. Even worse that I should be an Indian -- Indians are the lowest of the low in Japan. Very brave, a fearless set of moves on her part all around.

HB: You're not a Don Juan in the ordinary sense in your travels. Or if you are, you keep it to yourself. But perhaps you can be accused of being a Don Juan of place. You have a love for place but you also have a need to conquer it, get to the bottom of it, and when you're done and it's yours you move on to the next challenge.

PI: That certainly can be said, and that's Richard's problem. He's trying to get images of Cuba back for a variety of motives, some of them good, some of them mixed, but, yes, that's his goal, to conquer it. And Lourdes fears he's after her for access to Cuba. She's his keyhole.

It struck me that in both Cuba and the Night and The Lady and The Monk the male characters are all very weak and the female characters quite strong and compelling.

HB: But the male figures have the power of position and privilege, the power to leave. They have the powers of a lord.

PI: And they're interacting with women who are in very sheltered circumstances, with little mobility and opportunity. Maybe this is an English side of me, coming from all the irony and distance England trains you in. You're taught always to put your worst foot forward. I wonder if that comes through. To me, the virtue of writing about any figure even slightly like yourself is to chastise yourself, to be pitiless in showing the flaws to which you tend. I would want to say compassionate and sympathetic things about Sachiko, for example, and terrible things about the narrator. It would go against the grain to say anything good about him, because although he's not me, he's close enough. It would feel like self-pity or self-aggrandizement to be nice to him.

In Cuba and the Night, Richard seems very different from me, but even if he overlapped a bit, that would be reason for me to try to bring forth only his weaknesses, which itself makes for a weakness in the novel, I think.

HB: Your writing made me think of Star Trek's Prime Directive: Go everywhere, change nothing. Do you feel something comparable?

PI: I would interfere a lot with cultures but wouldn't write about it. That's where I would maintain privacy. In other words, I would support Sachiko's family but it would seem immoral to write about that because that would seem like it reflects well on me, and I wouldn't have that.

But I want say I think travel is interpreted too literally. My favorite travel writers are Emerson and Thoreau. The most interesting kind of travel writing is when you're staying in one place. The great luxury for me, at any rate, is not to move. I go to Japan and for three, four months at a time I'm just in a small apartment with Sachiko and her kids, and I rarely even go fifteen minutes away from them. At other times, I stay in California monasteries.

If one travels a lot, which I've done all my life, the most important thing is to have a still point within. Otherwise you just go crazy and become dispersed, diffuse. There's really a necessity for staying in place, very intensely, for weeks and months at a time. I don't think of movement as a very healthy way to live. The reason I was interested in Zen is that it's about stillness. I've found it both by living with Sachiko and by living in a Catholic hermitage. And one reason for writing fiction is actually to get out of travel and travel writing, of which I'm quite tired. Fiction forces one to ask the same questions but to answer with a different part of oneself.

HB: Cuba and the Night became fiction by accident, did it not?

PI: Yes. It was going to be a book of nonfiction but my house burnt down and I lost all the notes.

HB: So you were compelled to make it up.

PI: And the bits I completely made up were the best bits.

HB: In that book, as in so many of your others, there's the sense of people wanting to leave their skin to enter someone else's. You have the exchange between Jose and the German students, for example: They yearn to be Cuban, he yearns to be German.

Are we interchangeable? Can we so easily exchange identities? At the end of Video Night in Kathmandu you conclude that while it may appear that Asia is becoming like America, some things are too deeply rooted to enter into the postmodern collage in quite the way you assumed at first.

PI: Exactly so. I don't think cultures are really going to change fundamentally. You're also talking about fascination with the other, which I think all cultures share. The dialogue in the Japan book is between Westerners who really do go to Japan in search of discipline, because it's what we don't have here, and the Japanese, who are desperate for freedom. Zen would be as attractive to the narrator and his friends, say, as California would be to Sachiko. We all need to compensate for the deficiencies of our culture.

HB: You depict American pop culture as a kind of fractured internationalism. The sensitive and refined Sachiko, for example, finds Rocky profoundly moving; it speaks to her longing for a personal dream.

PI: When I go to China, what's interesting to me is the Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet as a status symbol where people go to spend a whole week's wages. It never could be mistaken for a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet in Cambridge, Massachusetts because of all the expectations people bring to it.

HB: And the nationalism just below the surface? Sachiko, for instance, becoming very defensive about Japan?

PI: Indeed, many people say, and I think persuasively, that as borders dissolve, there's more building of walls. A fifteenth century Arab said, "Only tribes can live in a desert." When you're in this area without borders, everyone is actually forming groups. So we've seen more tribalism, more nationalism.

I enjoy foreignness and dislocation, multicultures setting up in hearts as well as countries. But the hazards are obvious, especially in the assumption of understanding. Almost every company has a slogan about bringing the world together. That seems to me very dangerous because when we turn on our CD-ROM, or whatever, and watch The Killing Fields, say, we believe we know Cambodia, which our grandparents never could believe they knew. But it's not true. We don't know any more about Cambodia from watching The Killing Fields than Cambodians know about us from watching Santa Barbara or Dallas. We're still remote to another. The world is one hundred cultures divided by a common language, from MacDonald's to Madonna. It's easy to delude ourselves we share more than we do.

HB: If you are so acutely aware of the limitations, what keeps you on the road, or in the air, as the case may be?

PI: I travel, a little bit at least, because of what I see as a moral obligation. I can give imaginative escape, say, to the people I meet in Cuba. I can take their letters to their friends here. I can bring them news of America. I can actually provide things to which they otherwise don't have access. And I can bring my friends back here some sense of what Cuba's really like.

The only way you can really justify traveling is if you feel you're doing some good to the people you visit. It's so easily undertaken as a diversion, it has to have that component.

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