He's been called the poet laureate of wanderlust, having set a high-water mark with 1989's Video Night in Kathmandu that travel writers have striven vainly to meet ever since. His latest work, The Global Soul (Vintage, $13), examines displacement: an intriguing premise from a British-born writer of Indian heritage who lives in California and Japan. But a few years ago, after spending more time on the road and accruing more critical acclaim for his half-dozen books than most people see in a lifetime, Pico Iyer told himself he ought to cut down on traveling. Then came September 11.
"Travel seems to me more important than it's ever been -- the one way in which we can begin to bridge the distances between us,¨ Iyer told the Express this month, "and actually get to know a world that seems to me more diverse and often less connected than ever before."
In a time when the exotic names of faraway places keep popping up on the nightly news with lists of casualties attached, travel is "the one way in which we can begin to see past abstractions and pet theories to the human, not-always-so-different reality of that man in the skullcap down the street, or that woman with the Stars and Stripes on her truck. And since most people on the planet don't have the resources to travel," Iyer muses, "I think it's the obligation of those of us in the privileged world actually to go out and make the effort.
"Since September, therefore, I've been moving around more than ever." The week after the attack "found me in California, Chicago, and Ottawa, where I was taken to be an Islamic troublemaker myself." Lately, he's been in Vietnam, Thailand, and India, where what it costs to spend a single month in California can last over a year.
"Best of all, though, I got to spend much of last August traveling around Arabia -- Oman and southern Yemen in particular, and felt that in a small way just getting to see and smell and talk to that part of the world helped me understand something of what it fears and dreams about," says Iyer. "On September 12, by chance -- and not by chance -- I actually sent my next novel to my agent, about Islam, California, and the dialogue between them."
Called Abandon, it's due out from Knopf next winter.
"To some extent, many of us can travel now just by walking down the street. But doing so can never help one get into the heart and soul of `the Other' the way actually flinging oneself into her culture can. To me, the point of writing is the point of traveling: to see what the world looks like from the perspective of someone radically different from oneself, and so to see how limited and often misguided one's own perspective is.
"I have to stop now -- I'm going to Osaka Airport in ten minutes."