Assault of the earth
In his latest book, Pico Iyer explores the
disconcerting effects of globalism
interview by Chris Wright
Sitting in the Phoenix offices one recent afternoon, the essayist Pico
Iyer smiles and admits that his new book -- The Global Soul: Jet Lag,
Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home -- might be a bit
TAKE ME IYER:
the author of The Global Soul, who grew up in England and America but now lives mostly in Japan, is worried less about what globalism is doing to cultures than about what it's doing to us as individuals.
No kidding. The literary equivalent of a red-eye flight, the book flits between
Los Angeles and Atlanta, Hong Kong and Toronto, England and Japan in an attempt
to fathom the human cost of globalism.
As Iyer sees it, our shrinking planet -- with its drop-of-a-hat
intercontinental travel -- has led to a new breed: the Global Soul, a
"full-time citizen of nowhere" who dashes around the planet in a sort of
cultural limbo. "His memories might be set in airports that looked more and
more like transnational cities," Iyer writes, "in cities that looked more and
more like transnational airports. Lacking a binding sense of `we,' he might
nonetheless remain fiercely loyal to a single airline."
For the Global Soul -- who scarfs Big Macs in Bangkok, risotto in
Reykjavík, and pho in Philadelphia -- home and abroad have become
indistinguishable. Age-old national identities crumble, geographic boundaries
blur, and the world becomes a hyperkinetic, multicultural swirl.
Though Iyer is happy to acknowledge the benefits that globalism may yet bring,
he's concerned about the effect this furious movement is having on the human
psyche. Words like "rootlessness" crop up throughout the book.
The son of Indian parents, brought up in England and America, Iyer divides his
time between California and Japan, and logs hundreds of thousands of air miles
a year in his role as a travel writer. In this sense, he is the consummate
Global Soul -- and in person has an appropriate air of departure-lounge
"The only home that the Global Soul can find these days," Iyer writes, "is in
the midst of the alien and indecipherable."
Q: Your book left me a little unsettled. I think that's probably a
A: Yes. I get a headache reading the first couple of chapters. I
spent most of the last two weeks in a Benedictine monastery -- having read the
book, you can understand why.
Q: I read somewhere that you travel a million miles a year. Can that
A: No. I think that's probably wrong. I have one and a half million
miles with one airline, but that's over quite a few years. I don't travel that
much these days. I spend seven months of the year in this neighborhood in Japan
where I don't even have a bicycle. I think the one thing about moving around so
much is that it quickens a hunger for stillness.
Q: So you celebrate the global culture and then rush off to Japan to
hide from it.
A: Yes, well, I think this [book] is as much a warning about the
global world as it is a celebration. In the past I have always rejoiced in the
new opportunities and possibilities available to us with the mingling of
cultures, but I think sometimes we embrace it before thinking through the
consequences. It's like a sort of dashing multicultural blind date that appears
on our doorstep.
Q: You're not alone in your experience. This is a growing
A: It is. I remember when I was a kid in England, I was pretty
much the only child of Indian origin in most of my classes. I thought it was a
rare and privileged position to be in. When you walk around the streets of
London or Boston or Los Angeles nowadays, half the kids are 10 times more
mongrel than I am. They have so many different cultures inside them. When our
grandparents were born they often had a very precise sense of where they
belonged, how they would define themselves. And if they were asked "Where do
you come from?" the answers would probably be relatively straightforward.
Q: And we lose something, don't we, when we're not able to say, "This
is where I'm from"? You lose not only a sense of place, but a sense of
A: Exactly. I think this book is largely about the challenge to
identity. I think of it in some ways as a liberation. We're liberated from
those old categories, and we're liberated from the past. But that is in itself
a challenge, because we have to devise new answers.
Q: Where do our values come from in a global society? I wonder if we
can mix and match from what we see around us.
A: I'm skeptical of that. For example, in the book I quote the
Dalai Lama, who in some ways is one of the great evangelists for a borderless
world. But he advises Westerners not to embrace Buddhism. He says if you're
just grabbing a little cultural piece from here and another from there, it's
going to be superficial, it's going to be fragmented, and it's probably going
to be misunderstood.
Q: America is a country that's traditionally talked about a "melting
pot," but isn't that model of multiculturalism an outdated one? Nowadays we
talk more about mosaics than we do about melting pots.
A: Exactly. And as you know from this book, I'm particularly
interested in the Canadian model, because it seems to me that the old world is
much too fixed to change, and that the US is perhaps too big and too unruly to
change. But Canada is small and malleable enough to actually try to make itself
a new kind of multicultural entity.
Q: A less successful example of multiculturalism in your book is
Atlanta. Where has that city gone wrong?
A: I think my image of the global world we're entering is in some
ways that of downtown Atlanta, the typical American downtown where you have
this small shiny huddle of high rises that are plugged into this great global
economy. Everything around them is wasteland and nothingness and anarchy and
disenfranchised people and people living in conditions worse than [in] the
Bible. There's just a handful, a very visible few, who are able to enjoy the
bounty of all this. And I think one of the dangers is that it has been that
visible few who've been telling us what globalism is, what a shining, redeeming
thing it is. The voiceless ones are the ones who are suffering the
Q: What does Emerson's phrase "global soul" mean as you use it?
A: I think "global soul," for me, speaks to the private life of
globalism. Usually when we hear this new catch phrase -- "globalization" --
it's nearly always construed in a political or economic way, or in terms of
technology -- all the forces telling us it's a small world, telling us how we
can send data and goods across the world in a matter of seconds. But we don't
think about what happens when you do that to people. We're also quick to cite
phrases about the global marketplace but not to think about what it means to
have global conscience or global heart or global identity.
In a way this book is a contrast between Emerson and Nike, you could say. The
people who sing the gospel of globalism are multinationals who have a vested
interest, literally, in telling us the world is one.
Q: If we all wore the same sneakers, then we would become one.
A: Yes. I think the book is about the tension between those two
ideas, which is why the first chapter is set in an airport. The airport is
where you see these age-old, ancestral, very human encounters: people shouting,
sobbing, kissing, sending loved ones off to war, going off on a honeymoon, but
they're ringed by a Body Shop, a Sharper Image. And that is a particularly new
phenomenon: these very human encounters in this very inhuman environment.
I suppose part of the sense of the [book's] title is that so much that we talk
of as "global" is actually soulless. It's shopping malls and airports and hotel
lobbies. And so the question that we haven't addressed as we embrace globalism
is: how do you construct a soul in the midst of it?
Q: In a world where everywhere is made up of everywhere else,
eventually we'll reach a point where everywhere is the same. Won't that
inevitably take the joy out of travel?
A: In terms of culture, I'm not so worried, because every culture
sings Madonna in a different accent. All the world may be ringed by McDonald's,
but if you go to McDonald's in Thailand -- where it's a status symbol, with
people spending a lot of money to get in -- it has a very different value from
what McDonald's has here. When people are watching The Sixth Sense in
Japan, what's most terrifying to them is the notion of the single mother. They
are more at home with the ghosts than [with] the psychiatrists and therapists.
So I don't see the world's sensibilities converging -- it's only on the level
of surface that places resemble one another. I'm more concerned with
individuals. If you are spending your time in airports and hotels, I think your
identity is much more fragmented.
Q: And cultures are becoming fragmented.
A: Tibet is an interesting example of that. So many of us can listen to
Tibetan teachers, hear Tibetan music, we can go and see Tibetan movies. In my
parents' generation, Tibet was another planet. And yet, at the same time, the
fact is the real Tibet has been wiped out. The only way that Tibet can be
enjoyed is up on the screen, re-
created in Argentina or Morocco. There's a
whole culture that has been torn up from its roots and scattered in little
Q: On a more mundane level, do you follow English football at
Q: My mother and her mother and so on lived in Chelsea, West London,
and we've always supported Chelsea. It's almost a tribal thing. When I was a
kid, the team was terrible, awful. Recently it became this very cosmopolitan
team. A few months ago, for the first time ever in English football, Chelsea
put out a team that was made up entirely of foreigners. We're winning a lot
now, and that's great, but there's a part of me that's wondering if this team
can really represent my neighborhood.
A: In some ways the team does speak for the new Chelsea, because
the constituency of London is as multinational as the team. Chelsea is
reflecting those changes, and I, having grown up with the all-white teams in
England, rejoice when I see that. English soccer is a good example. It took an
infusion of foreign energy to revitalize it. I cite in my book Derek Walcott
saying that "a vase pieced together out of fragments is pieced together out of
love." If you've got this scattered collection of things and you want to make
it into a whole, it's got to be very attentive and deliberate, and the final
product bears the beauty of all that attention.
Q: But people coming together doesn't guarantee we'll overcome
entrenched ethnic divisions. Isn't this one of the perils of globalism?
A: I think it's a natural human longing to affiliate yourself
with a group or make a tribe. And that's why I'd say Atlanta and Toronto are
two poles for me. Atlanta because on some level it's so global, and yet it
doesn't seem like a multinational or cosmopolitan place. It's still rooted in
the old black and white divisions. But Toronto -- by UN statistics, it's the
most multicultural society in the world, and also it's supposed to be the
safest, cleanest, nicest city in [North] America. When you put those two facts
together, that's a very exciting prospect.
Chris Wright can be reached at cwright[a]phx.com.