For Pico Iyer, home is a quality of the soul, not just an address

The acclaimed chronicler of distant places offered a personal vision of globalization as Golo Mann Distinguished Lecturer

Home isn’t simply the place where you were born. It’s more than that, Pico Iyer told students Tuesday night at the Athenaeum.

Home, Iyer said with his trademark pithy style, is “about soul, not soil.”

The author of acclaimed works including The Open Road (on his friendship with the 14th Dalai Lama) and The Global Soul (a look at globalization and its discontents that considered life in an airport well before Tom Hanks’ film The Terminal appeared on big screens), Iyer gave his remarks as Golo Mann Distinguished Lecturer.

Iyer’s week-long visit to campus, which included several workshops with students, was made possible by the Family of Benjamin Z. Gould Center for Humanistic Studies and its director, Professor Robert Faggen. Iyer also participated in a Monday night conversation with Pomona College’s Jonathan Lethem titled “The Writers Within Our Heads: A Conversation about Graham Greene, Raymond Chandler and Others.”

“Globalization is unavoidable. It is our reality,” Iyer told Tuesday night’s audience, “and we need to bring a soul to it.”

“Bringing a soul” to today’s global realities—Iyer continually returned to this theme as he moved between metaphysics and memoir and gently encouraged listeners to share in his wonder at the world’s mix of cultures and identities.

pico_iyer2Such a mixture challenges our notion’s of what “home” means. In Iyer’s case, his understanding of that word also changed dramatically after a wildfire destroyed his parents’ house in Santa Barbara.

“It really came to me then that ‘home’ wasn’t a physical construction,” he said, “but something I carried around inside me.”

That notion of carrying home inside us was once a special condition that once belonged only to prisoners or exiles—and yet today it applies to so many people, Iyer explained.

Like himself.

Iyer was born in England to Indian parents who soon moved their family to California. Iyer returned to England for his education—shuttling between Santa Barbara and Oxford—and also spent several years in New England, teaching at Harvard. Today, he lives in Japan with his wife Hiroko, and when he’s asked the question “Who are you?” he smiles and says it is difficult to supply an answer.

“I haven’t lived a day in India, nor do I resemble your typical Englishman. And yet, I think my background is far more straightforward than many of yours,” he said, addressing students in the audience. “When I visit a place like Claremont, I find that so many of the students are far more multiculturally aware than I am.”

Iyer also discussed several of his heroes, like the Dalai Lama, who turned his exile from Tibet into an advantage.

“He teaches us an important lesson,” he said. “Every loss can become an opportunity.”

Another hero of Iyer’s isn’t a person, but a book: the novel The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (whose own background—a Sri Lankan-born Canadian novelist—reflect Iyer’s theme of globalized identities).

Iyer told the audience how this novel—and those by  Chinua Achebe, Salman Rushdie, Anne Michaels, and many others—have “blown to smithereens” our old, traditional assumptions about English literature.

“At every point,” Iyer said of Ondaatje’s novel, “the story reverses the kind of literature that we grew up with. A new world is sung into being.”

Such singing—and celebrating—of the realities and displacements of globalization is not just an important aspect of contemporary English literature. It’s vital, he said, to our souls.

“The beauty of the modern moment,” Iyer said, nearing the end  of his lecture, “is that we have so many different voices, so many different experiences, around us. The challenge of the modern moment is to embrace them, and not to be daunted but inspired by them.”

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