interview | pico iyer

The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home
Pico Iyer
(Vintage, 303 pages)
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Last summer, I went to Barcelona to visit some friends. I was met at the Sants train station by John, a Toronto-born friend who moved to Spain a decade ago, married a Catalan woman and got a job at the university. “The city’s changed a bit since you were here two years ago,” he told me as soon as I arrived. The Spanish government had relaxed immigration restrictions, he explained, pointing out the other station arrivals: men in flowing djellbas and colourful soccer shirts, north and West Africans greeting friends and family all around us. Working class neighbourhoods in the old town were filling up with halal grocers and Arabic signs. It was looking like couscous and tagine might join paella and patatas bravas on Barcelona cafe menus.

“Of course, some older Spanish are upset about it all, naturally,” John said, with a shrug. “But I like it. It reminds me of what I liked about Toronto.”

It’s a scene that author Pico Iyer would recognize, and it’s moments like this -- in airports and hotels, in cities from Hong Kong to Los Angeles, Atlanta to London, Kyoto to Toronto - that make up his latest book, The Global Soul, a book he describes as being about “globalism moving inwards”. Iyer, a Sri Lankan raised in Oxford and Los Angeles who lives in a Japanese suburb, is probably the archetypical “global soul”, by his own definition, and his book is a meditation on the new, stateless, transnational world he inhabits, a world that he feels we are all, to some extent, living in now, as travel and technology, economics and unstoppable political tides create a world of mongrel identities and miscegenated mindsets.
pico iyer photo by rick mcginnis Pico Iyer 
photo © 2001 
by Rick McGinnis

In person, Iyer is charming, a slight, rumpled man whose recognizably English accent has been mulled by more than just a few million air miles. He gestures toward a chair in a sunny bay window in the Hart House library, an utterly anglophilic spot on a campus, in a city, where the totems and myths of a colonial past have started to seem a bit precious, even exotic. Iyer loves Toronto, and devotes a chapter to it in his book (“The Multiculture”), a celebration of a place where “a mongrel, many-headed exile was surrounded by a mongrel, many-headed city - a community of exiles looking for itself as he was - and so could find himself central to a city as floating as he was.”

“I think a lot of Torontonians are bewildered when someone is so enthusiastic,” Iyer remarks, “because when you live in a place you’re conscious of all the things that go wrong. So I know much less about Toronto than any Torontonian, and there are deficiences that come with that, but I think there are advantages, too. I’ve seen how multicultures don’t work, in Los Angeles or Hong Kong or London, so coming here I’m sure there are lots of things of which I’m not aware, but still it gives me a more positive sense.”

It’s hard to discount Iyer’s optimism, even as I intend to give him grief about some factual inaccuracies that, as a nit-picking, defensive Torontonian, I couldn’t ignore. Illustrating how Toronto has changed from its staid, Anglo-Saxon roots, Iyer informs the reader that, as he writes, the new Anglican archbishop of the city is one Aloyzius Ambrozic, a Croatian. Ambrozic is, alas, Toronto’s Catholic archbishop, and this mistake highlights the proper, British frame of reference that Iyer, perhaps understandably, brings to his survey of the global landscape. The Church of England, an undeniable force in Iyer’s post-colonial upbringing, hasn’t been a force in Toronto for over a century. It was Nonconformist Protestant businessmen - Presbyterians and Methodists and Baptists - who built and ruled Toronto for decades, until new immigrants - and an influx of Catholics from practically every corner of the world - changed the city yet again. While Iyer gets his particulars wrong, his point remains valid, as anyone who lives in the city can see.

While Toronto might be an international, multicultural city, it’s still, in every sense of the word, a provincial one, insecure and given to meaningless sloganeering about being “world class” in every way, from its sports facilities to its restaurants. We are not, and never will be New York or London, but we needn’t regard our provincialism as a bad thing since, after all, most of the world is, in essence, provincial.

Iyer, ever the optimist, seems delighted by my rant about Toronto’s provincialism. “One of the things that appeals to me about Canada, and Toronto in particular, is that they can take words that are nasty and pejorative in England and give them a positive spin. That’s part of what appeals to me about here is they you can actually give hopefulness to the English sensibility. There seems to be both a degree of self-consciousness and of imaginative possibility about how to handle this new notion of an international city that’s taking place in places like Toronto and Vancouver. I think places like New York and London, maybe because they’re older and huger, give the impression of anarchy, that all these different cultures can come but they’re not going to fundamentally change the city, or if they do, the city’s not going to acknowledge it. In that sense, maybe not because it’s provincial, but because it’s smaller, Toronto can actually try and put these pieces together in a new way.”

At Iyer’s reading, the day after we talk, author Austin Clark inadvertently underlines this provincialism by upbraiding Iyer for “a note of colonialism” in his presentation. Iyer counts writers like Michael Ondaatje, Rohinton Mistry, Nino Ricci, Shyam Selvadurai and Kerri Sakamoto as among Toronto’s great assets; residents of the city who may or may not set their novels here, but who nevertheless enhance its collective literary memory. 

Clark scoldingly noted that Iyer didn’t mention poet Dionne Brand nor, it seems, himself, in either his book or his talk. Iyer might, in fact, be unconsciously guilty of residual colonial attitudes that might not seem in line with the brave new world he portrays, but it probably does Clark no great service to treat a visiting writer with the same pique he might evince in the face of a rejected grant application. If Pico Iyer is to be believed, we have a greater opportunity than the maintenance of our cliques and the defense of a spurious elite. I, for one, would like to think my city is worthy of his optimism

©2001, 2002 Rick McGinnis