Iyer, Pico 1957–
Iyer, Pico 1957–
(Siddharth Pico Iyer, Stephen Robert Iyer)
PERSONAL: Given name, Stephen Robert Iyer; born February 11, 1957, in Oxford, England; son of Raghavan Narasimhan (a professor) and Nandini (a professor; maiden name, Mehta) Iyer; partner's name Hiroko. Education: Oxford University, B.A., 1978, M.A., 1982; Harvard University, A.M., 1980.
ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, Random House, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019.
The Recovery of Innocence, Concord Grove (Santa Barbara, CA), 1984.
Cuba and the Night (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1995.
(Author of text) Buddha, the Living Way, photographs by deForest Trimingham, Random House (New York, NY), 1998.
Abandon: A Romance (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 2003.
Author of introduction, Living Faith: Windows into the Sacred Life of India, by Dinesh Khanna, HarperSan-Francisco, 2004. Contributor to magazines, including Time, 1986–, Condé Nast Traveler, 1992–, Tricycle, 1994–, and Civilization, 1995–.
Video Night in Kathmandu: And Other Reports from the Not-So-Far East, Knopf (New York, NY), 1988.
The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto, Knopf (New York, NY), 1991.
Falling off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World, Knopf (New York, NY), 1993.
Tropical Classical: Essays from Several Directions, Knopf (New York, NY), 1997.
The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home, Knopf (New York, NY), 2000.
Sun after Dark: Flights into the Foreign, Knopf (New York, NY), 2004.
(Editor, with Jason Wilson) The Best American Travel Writing 2004, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2004.
Contributor to Travelers' Tales Japan.
SIDELIGHTS: Born in England to Indian parents, educated in England and America, and living much of the time in Japan, Pico Iyer is indeed a man of the world who has become well known for his travel books ruminating on his worldwide treks. Iyer's first full-length travel book, the acclaimed Video Night in Kathmandu: And Other Reports from the Not-So-Far East, has since been followed by many additional volumes about his journeys. He has also written the novels Cuba and the Night and Abandon: A Romance.
Video Night in Kathmandu chronicles Iyer's explorations in Asian countries, including Nepal, India, Burma, Japan, and China, and discusses the way these lands have been affected by the influence of Western culture. The book ventures into such arenas as Japan's Disneyland and India's burgeoning film industry, while providing numerous examples of Third World peoples going about the traditional tasks of their cultures wearing T-shirts that bear slogans for U.S. products and singing songs by Western pop stars. As Wendy Law-Yone remarked in the Washington Post Book World, "In Lhasa airport, Tibetans wear cowboy hats, wrinkled old women straight out of National Geographic carry Sharp radios and Chinese soldiers sit on boxes containing Sony television sets." Law-Yone went on to describe Video Night in Kathmandu as "delightful," and declared that "Iyer's remarkable talent is enough justification for going anywhere in the world he fancies." Sharon Dirlam, critiquing Video Night in Kathmandu in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, concluded that "anyone interested in Bali, Tibet, Nepal, China, the Philippines, Burma, Hong Kong, India, Thailand or Japan will find in these pages a sensual feast of rich impressions."
Iyer, who lives with his partner Hiroko in Japan when he is not traveling, focused on Japan for his second travel book, The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto. The title is taken from Iyer's interest in Japan's traditional literature and art, often the province of Buddhist monks and aristocratic women. In The Lady and the Monk, Iyer tells of his year-long sojourn in Kyoto, Japan, where he traveled to learn more about that country's art and writing, and also about the Zen sect of Buddhism. Additionally, he discusses what he learned about Asian culture from his friendship with a married Japanese woman. Lesley Downer, writing in the New York Times Book Review, described The Lady and the Monk as "an idiosyncratic and lyrical account … full of sharp and accurate insights into the country and the people that will strike fellow Japanophiles with a shock of recognition. But," the reviewer cautioned, "it is not merely a love story or even merely a book about Japan. As the title indicates, it is also a meditation on larger themes."
Tropical Classical: Essays from Several Directions brings together twelve years of Iyer's essays that feature his thoughts on Ethiopia, Lhasa, Tibet, and other far-flung locales. He is "an undaunted and philosophical traveler … at his keenly observant and zestfully descriptive best" in this volume, according to Booklist reviewer Donna Seaman. Irony is a key element in his observations, as in his account of the making of a multimillion dollar film in a poverty-stricken area. "Whatever his focus may be, Iyer's forte is chronicling the intermingling of cultures, an infinitely significant and fascinating reality," concluded Seaman. A Publishers Weekly writer reserved high praise for Iyer's prose style, which is "a juxtaposition of ancient and modern, of cool classical education and warm tropical sensuality. Iyer is an outsider in the best sense, blending ironic distances with an open-hearted yearning to find something greater behind appearances."
Iyer considers the concept of "home" in a shrinking, multicultural world in The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home. "This is not ordinary travel reportage," advised Ali Houissa in Library Journal. "Iyer delves pointedly into cultural and social criticism and political and philosophical analyses with a refreshing sense of curiosity and very little cultural stereotyping." The author allows many definitions for the term "global soul": it might be a person with a multicultural background like himself, or someone who travels constantly and so calls the road home. He considers "a swirl of locations, time zones, and cultures" in this "breathless look at today's world," commented a Publishers Weekly writer, who added: "As he does in his magazine pieces, Iyer brings a fine spiritual current to his writing, and his descriptive talents are unsurpassed, even if he lets his mouth hang open a little too wide marveling at the postmodernism of it all."
In his more recent travel selection Sun after Dark: Flights into the Foreign, Iyer takes a desultory cultural voyage across the globe. He touches on a wide array of unrelated topics, including a time when he was imprisoned in Bolivia and a reflective essay about Cambodia's killing fields. Although ostensibly a travel book, the work is actually "a lyrical and affecting consideration of what it is to be foreign," observed Sandy Balfour in a Spectator review. Balfour pointed out that, in addition to his essays about foreign places, Iyer includes two pieces about authors Kazuo Ishiguro and W.G. Sebald, who, like himself, have felt themselves strangers in even familiar lands. However, as Iyer told Bethanne Kelly Patrick in an interview for Writer, he considers his chronic feeling of being foreign an advantage: "Being at home is a state that can be too comfortable, too confining. The experience of being uprooted or being alien is a good thing in anyone's life." He added: "In my recent books, I've been trying to stress physical travel as the gateway to inner travel."
In this tradition of making oneself deliberately uncomfortable, Iyer has occasionally departed from his familiar success with travel writing to venture into fiction. His Abandon, for example, concerns John Macmillan, a student working on his graduate thesis on the Sufi poet Rumi. While investigating rumors of a series of missing manuscripts by the poet, he encounters a woman named Camilla through her sister, who is a fellow Rumi scholar. A romance begins to bloom as John and Camilla find they share a common desire to find a place in their lives to call home. While World Literature Today critic James Knudson found some of the symbolism in the book to be "rather heavy-handed," as well as some dialogue that suffers from "a kind of questionnaire stiffness," the reviewer conceded that the book contains "some lovely writing and vivid insights." However, Marc Kloszewski stated in his Library Journal assessment that Iyer "expertly creates characters who effectively embody his ideas without making them stiff," and a Publishers Weekly contributor praised the author for rendering the story's romance "with grace and psychological acuity."
Iyer once told CA: "Writing should be an act of communication more than of mere self-expression—a telling of a story rather than a flourishing of skills. The less conscious one is of being 'a writer,' the better the writing. And though reading is the best school of writing, school is the worst place for reading. Writing, in fact, should, ideally, be as spontaneous and urgent as a letter to a lover, or a message to a friend who has just lost a parent. And because of the ways a writer is obliged to tap in private the selves that even those closest to him never see, writing is, in the end, that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Notable Asian Americans, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1995.
Asian Wall Street Journal Weekly, October 28, 1991, Ai Leng Choo, review of The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto, p. 17.
Booklist, May 1, 1993, Donna Seaman, review of Falling Off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World, p. 1566; April 15, 1995, Raul Nino, review of Cuba and the Night, p. 1479; April 1, 1997, Donna Seaman, review of Tropical Classical: Essays from Several Directions, p. 1276; January 1, 2000, Veronica Scrol, review of The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home, p. 864; September 15, 2004, Alan Moorers, review of The Best American Travel Writing 2004, p. 200.
Economist, July 16, 1988, review of Video Night in Kathmandu: And Other Reports from the Not-So-Far East, p. 84.
Far Eastern Economic Review, September 1, 1988, Freddie Balfour, review of The Lady and the Monk, p. 44; January 16, 1992, Jonathan Friedland, review of Falling off the Map, p. 33; November 13, 1997, review of Tropical Classical, p. 52.
Focus, summer, 1990, Jill Yesko, review of Video Night in Kathmandu, p. 25.
Harper's, September, 1994, Pico Iyer, "Strangers in a Small World," p. 13; February, 1996, "A New Kind of Travel Writer," p. 30.
Library Journal, September 1, 1991, Susan Canby, review of The Lady and the Monk, p. 217; May 1, 1993, review of Falling off the Map, p. 105; April 1, 1995, David W. Henderson, review of Cuba and the Night, p. 123; February 1, 1996, William R. Smith, "Travelers' Tales," p. 90; April 15, 1997, David Schau, review of Tropical Classical, p. 104; January, 2000, Ali Houissa, review of The Global Soul, p. 139; January, 2003, Marc Kloszewski, review of Abandon: A Romance, p. 156; April 1, 2004, Sheila Kasperek, review of Sun after Dark: Flights into the Foreign, p. 113; September 1, 2004, Harold M. Otness, review of The Best American Travel Writing 2004, p. 174.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 8, 1988, Sharon Dirlam, review of Video Night in Kathmandu, p. 5.
Maclean's, August 15, 1988, Geoffrey James, review of The Lady and the Monk, p. 50.
Nation, June 18, 1988, Jennifer Howard, review of Video Night In Kathmandu, p. 872.
New Republic, May 23, 1988, James Fallows, review of Video Night in Kathmandu, p. 38.
New Statesman & Society, August 18, 1989, Zoe Heller, review of The Lady and the Monk, p. 30.
New Yorker, November 18, 1991, review of The Lady and the Monk, p. 137.
New York Times Book Review, September 29, 1991, Lesley Downer, review of The Lady and the Monk, p. 13; June 6, 1993, review of Falling off the Map, p. 29; April 30, 1995, David Haward Bain, review of Cuba and the Night, p. 26; May 4, 1997, review of Tropical Classical, p. 20; March 5, 2000, Luc Sante, review of The Global Soul, p. 9.
Publishers Weekly, February 26, 1988, Genevieve Stuttaford, review of Video Night in Kathmandu, p. 184; April 12, 1993, review of Falling off the Map, p. 51; March 6, 1995, review of Cuba and the Night, p. 57; March 4, 1996, Paul Nathan, "Not So Casual," p. 21; February 17, 1997, review of Tropical Classical, p. 201; January 3, 2000, review of The Global Soul, p. 69; November 25, 2002, review of Abandon, p. 41.
Reader's Digest, December, 1990, Pico Iyer, "Engulfed by the Inferno," p. 9.
Smithsonian, August, 1992, Fergus Bordewich, review of The Lady and the Monk, p. 116.
Spectator, January 22, 2005, Sandy Balfour, review of Sun after Dark, p. 38.
Time, April 18, 1988, Stefan Kanfer, review of Video Night in Kathmandu, p. 86; June 13, 1988, "Time's Pico Iyer's Journalism in Asia," p. 4; September 23, 1991, Stefan Kanfer, review of The Lady and the Monk, p. 70; May 8, 1995, William Boyd, review of Cuba and the Night, p. 90; April 7, 1997, review of Tropical Classical, p. 89.
Time International, March 8, 1999, Morris Dye, review of Travelers' Tales Japan, p. 8.
Travel-Holiday, May, 1993, review of Falling off the Map, p. 92.
Washington Post Book World, June 5, 1988, Wendy Law-Yone, review of Video Night in Kathmandu, p. 3.
Whole Earth Review, winter, 1989, Richard Kadrey, review of The Lady and the Monk, p. 78.
World Literature Today, September-December, 2004, James Knudsen, review of Abandon, p. 93.
Writer, September, 2004, Bethanne Kelly Patrick, "Pico Iyer Writing across Boundaries: A Travel Writer Finds the Best Journeys Are Often Internal," interview with Pico Iyer, p. 20.