May 22, 2003 Episode 43: He's a Real Nowherian

We spent the better part of the period between August 2000 and November 2001 in a motel somewhere in North America.  This vagabond life created memories and experiences that we carry with us and pull out to contemplate from time to time.  Our reflections of our, albeit limited, travels led us to appreciate the wonderful writings of Pico Iyer.  We connected immediately to being a "nowherian," a term he coined to describe those of us who don't quite fit into cultural categories.  His travelogues carry his readers beyond the places and scenery of where he has been to questions of culture, difference and sameness among human beings.  It is a hopeful voice in a world that seems hell bent on culture clashes.

The Victoria Literary Arts Festival gave us the perfect opportunity to meet and talk with this hopeful voice.  We met Mr. Iyer at the festival office and talked about travel, culture, writing and world tensions.  We found him to be both generous and gentle.  This week's episode contemplates the traveller as a sociological archetype and how the act of travelling and the promotion of tourism affect local cultures.

 

CARL

This year the Victoria Literary Arts Festival celebrated its tenth anniversary with three times the number of authors and nearly twice the number of events as last year. The line-up of 28 authors presented a variety of novelists, poets and non-fiction writers from Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Australia, the US, and Japan. Audiences could attend readings, themed discussions, on-stage interviews and conversations in venues throughout downtown Victoria, including art galleries, heritage sites, gardens and major theatres.

Our interest in culture and cultural production led us to look into the festival. In an age when books are beginning to appear passť and lo-tech, we have found that literature continues to influence culture. Even in high-tech cyberspace, book clubs, quotations from favourite authors, and lists of best reads prevail. Reading is still popular and still a part of what constructs culture. In a way, one could view the World Wide Web as both reproducing literature and creating more varied forms of literature. After all, much of the web is text-based and requires both good reading and writing abilities to make the experience worthwhile.

Festivals, such as the annual event here in Victoria, provide an opportunity for readers to meet their favourite authors and to become apprised of the latest good reads. We were not disappointed. Among the wonderful writers in this year's line-up was Pico Iyer. Ironically, it was surfing the Net that first introduced us to Pico's work. Several quotes by him are popular among bloggers (that is, people who write on-line journals.) The first quote we read by him remains our favourite:

Quote, May we remember, as we log on, that half the world's people have never used a telephone, and recall, as we chatter, that most of those around us have no chance to speak or move as they choose, close quote.

Seeing his name on the Literary Arts Festival list prompted us to investigate his writings further. We were excited by what we found. Like us, Mr. Iyer has spent a great deal of time contemplating culture, power and the global community. His work has a personal flavour, and his insights into the nature of culture within a global community are sensitive and even hopeful at times. He sees commonality even among difference.

Unlike us, he has travelled quite a bit. His writings are most often categorized as "travel writing." Born in Oxford, England to Indian parents, moving to southern California at the age of seven and criss-crossing the world as an adult, Mr. Iyer has called himself a "nowherian," someone who does not quite fit into the pre-conceived cultural categories. This makes him a different kind of travel writer. His writing, like his travels and his cultural background, is hard to contain in just one genre. This year he came to Victoria to highlight his latest book, Abandon, which is his second novel.

After we investigated his work, we knew we wanted to talk to him. We inquired and were excited to have our request for an interview granted. When we met with Mr. Iyer, we were delighted to find a gentle soul whose one-to-one persona did not differ at all from the sensitivity of his words in print. He generously sat and discussed the ins and outs of the future of the global village in troubled times, the place of literature in culture and the ways in which writing, interacting and travelling can make the world a better place to be.

These contemplations seem important in a time when wars, conflicts and disputes seem to be rooted in cultural differences and misunderstandings. In addition, traveling the globe is easier than ever, but it is also more fraught with problems than ever. Attacks on tourists, global health threats such as the recent SARS crisis and environmental concerns regarding fossil fuel usage provide layers of complexity to the idea of travel.

Reminiscent of the archetype of the stranger or the concept of the "other," the traveller occupies a position that is both outside and inside social discourse. More than a voyeur, the traveller changes the destination by visiting it. Today on First Person, Plural we consider the place of the traveller in an episode we call "He's a Real Nowherian"

copyright by Pattie Thomas and Carl Wilkerson 2003

 

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