By Rock Wheeler, NG Live
Writer and world traveler Pico Iyer, whose own biography frequently reads like a novel, will be returning to National Geographic Live in Washington, D.C. on February 10 for a conversation with Don George from NG’s Traveler magazine. Part of our Assignment: Travel series—which brings the world’s best travel writers to our stage—the evening will offer a great chance to catch up with one of the first people to write about globalization and its street-level impact around the world, in bestsellers like Video Night in Kathmandu.
Born in England and raised—simultaneously—in the UK and in the US, Iyer is himself the son of emigrants from yet a third homeland, India. (And as if that weren’t enough cultural diversity in his life, he met his wife and settled down in Kyoto, Japan.) Commuting between Eton and Santa Barbara, he grew up taking a global view of culture—and spending a lot of time in airports. “Everywhere I was,” he once told World Hum, “whether it was in England or California or India, it was a foreign place to me.” Much of the reading public met him as a roving correspondent for Time magazine for which he filed dispatches from one formerly ignored hotspot after another.
For Iyer, traveling and writing seem as necessary as breathing. His voice is that of a sympathetic, observant outsider, bringing to his writing a deep knowledge of world literature as well as a comfortable familiarity with popular culture. Iyer manages to stay open to the new and unexpected. In Video Night in Kathmandu, Iyer is surprised at every turn by the ripple effects of American culture across Asia—or at least, American culture Asian-style.
His latest book, The Man Within My Head, published last month is a travel book masquerading as a literary biography. The “man” of the title is the famed British writer Graham Greene, author of The Quiet American and the screenplay for the espionage film The Third Man. Iyer finds in Greene a kindred spirit; they share an English boarding-school background, and the experience of finding themselves, again and again, outsiders in a foreign land. He follows Greene’s trail around the world, from England to Vietnam, Cuba, France—and other places never visited by Greene, but where Iyer finds echoes of his work. “I might…have been walking through a plot he’d dreamed up years before,” writes Iyer.
I’m looking forward to the evening. While I don’t have a great deal in common with Pico Iyer, I did have the experience of moving frequently as a child. Like him I lack roots in any one particular place. Iyer has turned what for many people would be a disadvantage—the disruption of frequent change and moving back and forth—into a strength. That’s intriguing and even kind of inspiring to me.