The Boston Phoenix
May 25 - June 1, 2000

[Book Reviews]

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Assault of the earth

In his latest book, Pico Iyer explores the
dizzying, disconcerting effects of globalism

interview by Chris Wright

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.

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 "discombobulating."

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 bewilderment.

"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 fair response.

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 be right?

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 population.

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 identity.

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 consequences.

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 pieces.

Q: On a more mundane level, do you follow English football at all?

A: Yeah.

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]