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Travel Writer Pico Iyer Explores Aging, Death In ‘Autumn Light’

 February 17, 2020 at 8:31 AM PST

Speaker 1: 00:00 The 25th annual writer's symposium by the sea. We'll get underway later this month at point Loma Nazarene university. Among the featured writers is Pico iron. I is the author of more than a dozen books and he's given four Ted talks that have garnered more than 9 million views. His latest book, autumn lied, finds the author returning to his home in Japan following the sudden death of his father in law. He joins us now from his Hellman Japan Pico. Welcome. Speaker 2: 00:27 Thank you so much. Delighted to be here. Speaker 1: 00:29 Outside magazine says you're arguably the greatest living travel writer. Uh, your new book, autumn light. Veers from that a bit and dives into grief. Tell us why you decided to write about that. Speaker 2: 00:41 Well, I think even living in Japan, as I've been doing for 32 years, it's still a foreign country to me. So I still feel that I'm a traveler here. I walked down the street and I never know what I'm going to see, but at the same time, emotionally, of course Japan is the same as San Diego or anywhere else. And so I think I wanted to remind readers that the surfaces of Japan remained very exotic. But the, the feelings of Japan, when you lose a father or when you're worried about how long your spice spouse will be around, um, uh, just the same as you'd find anywhere else. Speaker 1: 01:14 Is this the first time you've written about grief, especially of someone so close to you? And, um, did you find the subject particularly challenging? Speaker 2: 01:22 Uh, I, I think I, what's interesting to me about grief in Japan is that in Japan, happiness and sorrow are seen as aspects of the same thing. People sometimes say here that life is about a joyful participation in a world of sorrow. In other words, we all die. We all get older, things fall away. But that's not a reason to feel unhappy. And I thought that was a very interesting way of approaching grief. I've, I've written a little bit about grief before I lost my house in a forest fire in Southern California and I've been through, you know, the usual kinds of sufferings that people have been through. But I thought Japan is like an wise elder. That's been around for 1400 years thinking about how to deal with grief and loss and that maybe I could learn from, from their approach to it. So when, when my father in law died at the beginning of this book, uh, my wife and her family was sad. Of course they were crying at times, but they also thought we just moved into the next room. It's not as if we've lost him for good. The best parts of him is still alive in us and we don't have to feel only sorrow. Speaker 1: 02:29 [inaudible] and you've lived in Japan for decades now as you mentioned. And in your book you really paint a picture of the Japan. You've come to know another reason book of yours is called the beginner's guide to Japan. Tell us what you hope the reader takes away from both books when it comes to Japan and what it's like to live there. Speaker 2: 02:48 Well, it's interesting to two books I wrote at the same time and that almost contradictions of each other. So the book autumn light about my neighborhood is, as I was saying, a reminder that when you live in a family, in a community, as I've done for 32 years, you see the people are very much the same as you'd find anywhere else. The beginner's guide to Japan is almost about how foreign and different than other Japan remains. You go to a ballpark here and the game ends off the 12 innings. If it's a tie, uh, you need to call. And for an emergency here, you don't dial nine one one, you dial one, one nine, uh, you'd get into a plane and the seats are numbered. K J H instead of H J K said everything in an interesting way. It's kind of reversed on the surface in Japan. And so one book is almost about living inside Japan as I have done and the other is aimed at people who just arriving for the first time tomorrow at the airport in Tokyo and seeing how different it is. Speaker 1: 03:44 Very interesting. You know, when we last spoke to you in 2014, the focus was on how to find balance in the digital age. Um, six years later. How are you doing with that and how do you think society in general is doing? Speaker 2: 03:58 I think society is really suffering [inaudible] it's suffering from a kind of collapse of consciousness because there's more and more stuff coming in on us and we don't know how to make sense of it. Um, so you're talking to me, as you mentioned in my little apartment in Japan, and we don't have a car here. I don't really have much internet access. I don't have any media and I've never actually used a cell phone. And so in some ways it seems like my days in Japan last for $1,000. I wake up in the morning and I have five hours to write and I go and play ping pong and I take some walks around the neighborhood and I still have six hours left. So for me, coming to Japan with my way to try to get more sanity and balance in my life, I know when I'm visiting my mother in Santa Barbara, I'm racing from place to place and appointment to appointment and it seems like I'm always harried and always rushed. And when I come to Japan I take my watch off and I um, I feel I have all the time in the world. Speaker 1: 04:53 You know, a theme that runs through your work is the transformative power of travel. Can you explain that to me? Speaker 2: 05:00 Yes. I travel to become a different person. I think when I'm at home, I'm stuck in my routines. I, I sort of feel I'm on top of the world and suddenly put me in the middle of North Korea or Jerusalem or Tibet and I don't know what's coming next. And I think that's healthy because it, it humbles me and it sends me home a slightly different person from the person who left him. I think sometimes when I'm at home I can be a little complacent and a little shielded from reality. And as soon as I'm traveling, I reminded how everyone else in the world is living. And I think that's a good, um, wake up call. Speaker 1: 05:37 You appear in all sorts of events having to do with literature. Tell us about what makes the point Loma writer's symposium special. Speaker 2: 05:44 Well, everybody loves the San Diego area. Of course. It's one of the sunniest in the world. And in fact, when my Japanese wife was celebrating her 60th anniversary, their 60th birthday and I was thinking, where should I take her? I brought her to San Diego and um, I, I think, uh, I like the, I know that the person who invited me to the festival was just visiting Japan three months ago. And so one of the things I'm looking forward to is contrasting his, uh, impressions as I think a first time visitor with mine. Um, so I think a conversation in a sunny place with openhearted people is about as good as it can get. Speaker 1: 06:22 And, you know, do you ever tire of travel all the time spent in airports and in airplanes and other forms of transportation? Speaker 2: 06:29 I do a light like everybody. And I think at this point in life, my great luxury is, is staying in one place and now that you're talking to me, when I come back from point lemme I'll be the next five weeks just sitting at my little desk in this quad neighborhood. And that's going to seem really wonderful. Speaker 1: 06:46 And finally, uh, you know, it's easy to look around today with what's going on politically in the United States and around the world with climate change, the spread of disease and so forth and really become depressed. How do you stay centered and deal with all the bad news the world has to offer? Speaker 2: 07:01 Well, I think travel is a great way to do that. As you say, when I'm visiting my mother in California as I was last month and I pick up the newspaper and I'm reminded of all the divisions in the world. And then I fly to India, which is where my parents came from. And the lives of 300 million people in India have gotten better in the last 10 years. So I go to Africa or China where more and more people are enjoying opportunities they never had before. And I think if you put the world in a global perspective, um, things are getting better for lots of people. I think climate change, as you said, is a terrifying challenge that we all have to face, but the only way we can address it is globally. And I'm sort of excited that the world is a global neighborhood now in the way it wasn't, um, when I was a young kid. And I think the world in those ways is moving in very positive directions. When I visit a classroom today, a typical student, I think has a much more global sense of responsibility and, and fascination than when I was a kid myself. And so I'm excited about the possibilities of the world. Speaker 1: 08:06 I've been speaking with author Pico iron. It will be part of the 25th annual writer's symposium by the sea taking place at point Loma Nazarene university later this month. Pico, thank you so much for joining us. Speaker 2: 08:17 Thank you very much.

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Pico Iyer will be one of the featured presenters at the 25th annual Writer’s Symposium By The Sea to be held later this month at Point Loma Nazarene University.
KPBS Midday Edition Segments