Pico Iyer’s many thoughts spill forth like a graceful swarm of bees. The preternaturally generous inter-culturalist has been branching out from the written word in recent years. His TED Talks garner millions of views and he’s the 2019 Telluride Film Festival guest director. With Autumn Light and A Beginner’s Guide to Japan: Observations and Provocations, Iyer returns to the beautifully worded page. He gets under the surfaces, and has a flair for the striking image. In Japan, Iyer evokes the clean air, the stillness, the self-containment, the enduring Buddhist maxim that “Even the reverse has a reverse.” In conversation — from his mother Nandini’s home in the hills of Santa Barbara, the sun scintillant on the ocean below — Iyer is ever nuanced and engaging.
ALEXANDER BISLEY: You prefer “questions to answers.” What are three of Autumn Light and A Beginner’s Guide to Japan: Observations and Provocations’s notable questions?
PICO IYER: What do we do with the loss of everything we care for?
How can we hold onto the people we love even though we know that they, and we, will not last forever?
What are all the ways in which Japan is no different from anywhere else — and all the ways in which it is radically, determinedly different?
Tell me about a widespread misconception about Japan that you find especially galling?
Those who’ve never been to Japan know that people there tend to be quiet and shy, perhaps even remote. The most common thing I hear from those who’ve visited is how remarkably kind many people they meet in Japan prove to be, and how far out of their way they’ll go to try to help a foreigner.
“Pre-ironic Japan” is one of your sharp/elegant descriptions. I also adore this about Japan!
Japan is the least jaded and cynical, most willfully enchanted culture I’ve ever encountered. For those of us coming from England, it feels very much like home in a different key, but surgically cleansed of all dryness and skepticism.
Irony speaks for being on the outside of things, looking on with amusement and perhaps even estrangement. Of course there is alienation in Japan — a high suicide rate, and even higher rate of shut-ins — but the overall emphasis is always on harmony, community, being part of things and joining in.
“These are simple provocations, opening lines designed to quicken you to better comebacks of your own,” you write, with characteristic humility in A Beginner’s Guide to Japan: Observations and Provocations. How do you hope readers might respond?
I don’t mind if the reader gets enraged, frustrated, riled up by my second book on Japan this year, out in September; I just want her to be engaged. After more than 30 years in Japan, I don’t feel I’m in any position to lay down the law, but I want to throw out some observations and provocations I’ve gathered over my 130 or so seasons so the reader can react, and perhaps come back with better ideas of her own.
Every writer knows that it’s less important to have a reader agree with you than just make her feel alive. If she’s prompted by your book to come up with a passionate rebuttal, it means you’ve succeeded in engaging her in a real conversation.
I should query one of your contentions, on the extraordinary Shinjuku Station. “Many Japanese believe that hundreds remain within its bowels, unable or unwilling to come up to any of its two hundred exits.” Seriously?
Thank you for the challenge. I believe this is well-documented, and Haruki Murakami (of course) writes about this kind of thing in his powerful non-fiction work about the Japanese underground, and the Aum Shinrikyo cult.
At 2007’s Auckland Writers’ Festival, you told me: “I try to bring back little time bombs from my travels so that people think differently, or at least are not so confident that they know everything.” What’s a present Iyer grenade that might shift perspectives?
The imagination is no respecter of walls and boundaries, and each of us individually has the chance to look beyond the divisions our governments insist upon and fashion to advance their own purposes.
I rate your comparison of West Point military academy to Japan. You quote David Lipsky’s writing. Film The End of The tour, about Lipsky and David Foster Wallace, powerfully captured the dance between writer and subject, didn’t it?
It did, though I far prefer David Lipsky’s much less well-known — but disarmed and surprising and soulful — book on West Point, the American military academy he visited for Rolling Stone. He went there perhaps to write a rollicking expose, and was so surprised that he spent four years following various cadets, and found the academy moved, impressed and constantly surprised him.
David Foster Wallace was the single funniest person I’ve ever met in America — though I did not know him well — and often seemed one of the kindest.
Like you, I love the relentless enthusiasm, and beautiful inventive rituals, of Japanese fans at the baseball. Even the Swallows’ baseball supporters, when they are being massacred yet again by the Giants. Sports fans following the Rugby World Cup or the Olympics are in for a treat, aren’t they?
They are indeed in for a surprise. As quiet, shy and undemonstrative as the Japanese are in the street — and even sometimes at rock concerts — they’re boisterous and welcoming and warm in the sports stadium. More raucous, in fact, than many I’ve met in Yankee stadium in New York, and more eager to throw their arms around foreigners, since in the ballpark you’re part of the team. Go to a sports match in Japan, and you’ll see passion at its loudest.
You pen a hilarious account of trying to replace a defective apple keyboard. In 1999, you sought out the man said to have invented karaoke, informing him that your Time editors had chosen him as one of the “100 Asians of the century.” “He handed me in response a business card advertising his services as a dog trainer.” The Japanese sense of humor is underrated isn’t it?
The Japanese sense of humor is still impenetrable to me, alas, after all my years there. But I’ve never known a country more rich in surprises, and in passionate hobbyists. Precisely because the Japanese are so orderly and self-contained in the public realm, they’re wild, extreme and constantly unexpected in their private lives.
And can you explain why French Empire of Signs is a ludicrous book?
I read Roland Barthes’s book on Japan when first I visited the country in 1985, and I thought it must be good because the author was a celebrated French intellectual then at the height of fashion. But when I reread it two years ago, I realized that everything he said was absurd, and that coming at Japan through French analysis and intellect was as beside the point as eating noodles with a knife and fork.
To understand Japan, you have to approach it on its own terms, and then assess them… To approach a place of delicacy and nuance with a jackhammer kind of cerebration is like watching a ballet while blindfolded.
You rate Zadie Smith. Do you have a riff off her Hay Cartagena festival riff?
I feel she’s a kindred spirit, insofar as she has intuited and deepened the awareness that black-and-white thinking won’t get us very far in an age when she, and Malcolm Gladwell, and President Obama, and more and more of the children around us, are black and white, belong to many classes all at once and can’t be pushed into a single category. I think her essay “speaking in tongues,” in which she threads together her own story, crossing classes and worlds, with President Obama’s and Shakespeare’s, all in not so many words, is the essay of the century, and her book Changing My Mind is one of the essential, humbling books, starting with its title.
One thing I deeply admire about her is her omnidirectional openness, her humility and her readiness to take on high and low, far and near, classical and contemporary. How many other writers can go so deep into Jay-Z and E. M. Forster in the same year?
Your books capture how Japan resists binary thinking?
Exactly. In the US, there’s an ever stronger tendency to think in terms of black-and-white, to reduce things to either/ors, to say, “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” Japan is much more likely to live in the thousand shades of nuance between the extremes.
To see that not speaking is not the same thing as being silent, and that not being lively is a long way from being dead. What we see as contradiction, the Japanese see as complementarity.
In Japan, on the last week of the year, famously, people head into Christian churches to hear Beethoven and Bach. They go to the Buddhist temple to year a ceremonial ringing of a huge bronze bell, purging the sins of the year just past. They then flock into a Shinto shrine to receive fortunes and to set an auspicious note for the year to come.
In our simple way of seeing things, it’s hard to be Christian and Buddhist at once. To the Japanese it makes as much sense as going to see your mother for one reason and your father. For another, everything has its own purpose, and where we see conflict, my neighbors around Nara are more inclined to see a variety of non-competing contexts.
You copped some flak on Twitter for saying that you don’t choose to learn more than a dash of Japanese because you need mystery and “a sense of open space in life, something to offset the sense of the familiar.” What’s your response to this reaction?
As Lafcadio Hearn noted, more than a century ago, it’s no good to speak Japanese if you can’t feel Japanese. More than anywhere I know, Japan works through silence, body language, non-verbal communication and implication. The finest foreign writer on japan, Donald Richie, was not as fluent as many in the language, but it didn’t matter; he knew how to read Japanese hearts, and silences and nuances. He caught the spirit of the place even when he couldn’t catch the letter.
Of course a fluent Japanese speaker could see many things in Japan that I could never apprehend. But whenever I hear foreign friends tell me — over and over, and loudly — what great Japanese I speak, I wonder how much they remember that Japan, more than anywhere, is a culture of modesty, reticence, and the absence of self-advertisement.
Okay, you can’t speak significant Japanese. But, modesty be damned, you’ve got better at thinking in Japanese, right?
I’d much rather, in the Japanese way, stress how little I know of Japanese than how much. In my experience, the Japanese excel at being under-estimated and like it that way.
In Autumn Light you write about your friend (and Open Road study) the Dalai Lama’s belief that “suffering is the central fact of life, from his Buddhist viewpoint; it’s what we do with it that defines our lives.” Has Japan made you better at coping with suffering?
I certainly went to Japan as one might go to a wise elder to learn how to deal with reality, which often includes suffering and loss.
America is still committed, willy-nilly, to the pursuit of happiness. In Japan I always feel that the central doctrine is the Buddhist one of the reality of suffering. What the tsunami swept away 18,500 lives in my adopted home eight years ago, of course there was terrible grief and mourning, undiminished to this day. But at the same time there was a larger perspective, honed over fourteen centuries of difficulty and based on the understanding that life is never easy.
Congratulation on being a guest director of the Telluride Film Festival. There are, as ever, striking and lapidary images in your new books. How has film influenced your writing?
I have been a passionate film-goer all my life, and anyone who reads my books can see how much Terrence Malick and Ozu, for example, have guided them. The title of my Autumn Light book is a gentle hint to any reader to treat it as a latter-day Ozu movie in prose; and I’ve always loved the way two of my boyhood heroes, Graham Greene and Raymond Chandler, became better novelists after they spent time writing movies.
They learned economy, dialogue as a form of action and structural complexity. I’ve worked with film festivals, written film scripts and had films sold to Hollywood, and in all those cases, I hope movies can send me back to the page with a keener sense of how to tell a story using words instead of images.
Indeed, Autumn Light has Ozu-esque qualities. I imagine, like most things, your appreciations of Ozu’s films have changed over your many years in Japan?
When I first arrived in Japan, all I wanted to do — as with so many foreigners — is to watch the films of Kurosawa, those grand, colorful pageants out of Shakespeare and samurai culture so rich in action and conflict. The films of Yasujiro Ozu, in which the camera never moves and nothing seems to happen, could not have been less appealing to me.
But the longer I’ve been in Japan, the more I find Ozu’s still, silent lives explosive and moving beyond words. I see how much feeling there can be in a room when someone isn’t there, or has just left. I notice how piercing it can be to hear the sounds of a boisterous festival outside while someone is weeping in a room next door. And I realize that life is what happens under and behind all the dramas and events in bold capitals. Nothing seems to be happening — in an Ozu movie, in my Ozu-like book — and yet everything is happening.
It’s in the spaces between dramas, in the silences between our inadequate words, that real life takes place.
Can you tell me about any future projects?
I’m burning with new projects I want to write; I feel I’ve never been so eager to be at my desk and so aflame with works that are building up inside me, on movies, on writing, on monasticism.
I do believe this is a golden age of writing, if not of reading, and I’m constantly invigorated by the novels and works of reportage that come my way. If I can be part of that conversation in any way, I’ll consider myself very fortunate.
In my younger days, I was very keen to see the world, so as to put it into perspective and understand what life was like everywhere from North Korea to Easter Island. Now I hunger for explorations on the page, and a chance to put the many places in my life into a fresh kind of pattern in my writing.
Anything else you hope people might take away from the books, or would like to say?
It was hard indeed to compress 32 years — more than half a lifetime of emotions, encounters, exchanges — into two tiny books. But I spent sixteen years taking things out, paring down and trying to create, in Autumn Light, a work about absences and silences.
The setting is Japanese, but I hope the stories it tells — parents die, children scatter, we all get older — are universal. In a sense, my thought was that this was a book for anyone who has a mother or father, anyone who feels she’s getting older and anyone who doesn’t know what the future will bring.
In Japan it’s sometimes said that life is a “joyful participation in a world of sorrows.” In the brilliant blue days of late autumn, when the leaves are rusting, and one feels a piercing sense of radiance and melancholy all at once, I feel that joy and that sorrow more penetratingly than ever.
And that’s the dance, the interplay, I want to share with the reader. Nothing lasts, which means that everything matters.