Photography: Brigitte Lacombe
Japan has been a subject of fascination for me since the time I saw my first Japanese anime, Naruto, as a kid; and after my first encounter with Murakami as a teenager, my pursuit for any knowledge of the country intensified. It was this very pursuit that led me to travel writer extraordinaire Pico Iyer’s book, The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto, and Iyer’s travel musings on Japan became one of my favourites to reference and revisit. Yet, his new book, Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells, another book on Japan, is not a traveller’s view of the country and the many lives it surmises. It is a book written from the perspective of someone who understands the very fabric the country is made of, after having lived there for many years and being married into a Japanese family.
At some point, during his interview, Iyer says, ‘In Japan, in a traditional room, you see nothing but a vase and a scroll. And because there’s nothing else there, you bring all your attention to that vase and scroll and you find an entire universe there,’ and that is exactly what he manages to do with his book as well. The book explores simple themes, that of family, life, the inevitability of decay and death and yet, at its core is a universally significant truth: in the midst of death, we are in life. With a lucid narrative that is at many places silent and at other places reflects nothingness, Iyer’s book is a beautiful exercise in understanding life in juxtaposition to death, as he writes in his book, ‘it’s in the spaces where nothing is happening that one has to make a life.’
Excerpts from our conversation:
What led you to pursue travel writing?
From the time I was nine years old, I found myself flying, alone, over the North Pole every three months to go to school (in England)—and then flying home again to visit my parents (in hippie California). So I got used to traveling, very early on, especially as I was a bizarre kid in those days, an unusual hybrid child with an Indian face, an English voice and an American green card.
And by the time I was seventeen, I was actually spending every season on a different continent: I devoted the whole of the summer after my seventeenth birthday to travelling around India, meeting my cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents, and then I returned for a last term at school in England. I spent three months working in a Mexican restaurant in California to save some money and then I spent three months bumping by bus across South America, using the money I’d saved to see the world.
So travel has always been my second nature, though I’d never say it’s been much of an interest of mine. Really, it’s more of my setting and a means to the end of writing and thinking through larger themes about cultures crossing and people moving. After I moved to my rented two-room flat in suburban Japan in 1992, I more or less stopped writing about travel, and I don’t think any of my books since 1993 have addressed travel very much (although they have often been preoccupied with the themes of movement and dislocation and exile).
“I wanted to put the radiant blue skies of the Japanese autumn together with the scarlets and golds and lemon-yellows that speak for the passing seasons and the coming of the cold and the dark. Autumn is how we prepare to die, and prepare to lose everyone we care for.”
After all these years, how would you describe you relationship with writing?
Writing is my cabin in the woods, and every morning I leave the chaos and confusion of the world for five hours of stillness inside that cabin, trying to process all I’ve experienced, to find what lies behind my thoughts and beneath my memories and to see what I might have to say back to the world.
I don’t really think—or care—very much about what emerges from my desk; for me all the joy and adventure come in the process of writing, the luxury of getting to sit still and the excitement of seeing how much that comes out of me seems to come from what’s beyond me and outside me.
I often tell friends that publication is the sales-tax that one has to pay for the great privilege of sitting at one’s desk every day.
What inspired the writing of Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells?
I wanted to remind readers of the universal, human component of Japan, and everything that lies beneath the sometimes zany, strange and foreign surfaces of the land. I wanted to show how death and love and anxiety and fun play out there just as they do anywhere else, though in very different forms. In some ways, I wanted to make Japan feel close to us, by seeing how it looks from within a family, a community and a neighbourhood—to give the reader a sense of the culture as it looks to a foreigner who’s been living next to it for 32 years.
I also wanted to put the radiant blue skies of the Japanese autumn together with the scarlets and golds and lemon-yellows that speak for the passing seasons and the coming of the cold and the dark. Autumn is how we prepare to die, and prepare to lose everyone we care for. It’s often said around Kyoto that life is a “joyful participation in a world of sorrows” and in this book I wanted to put the truth of sorrow right next to the possibility of joy (by describing at length for example my daily, antic ping-pong games with my elderly neighbours).
The book begins with the death of your father-in-law and ends with a memory of him where he seems the most alive and happy. What was your writing process like, and how has the writing of it affected you as a person?
That’s a lovely observation on your part—thank you—and also a beautiful question. I can’t overstate how happy I was writing this book about sadness and things falling away, in part because I was writing about a land, a life and people I’ve come to love so deeply. In my youth, I wrote about places, Japan included, where I was spending a week or two, and it was fun to offer quick and dashing sketches of a culture as it struck a foreigner passing through quickly. But writing about a neighbourhood where one has lived for 26 years becomes a celebration of the people, rites and changes that are one’s daily delight and, perhaps, one’s heart.
I tend to be an optimistic person, always looking at the positive. So I thought it might be useful to look long and hard at the truths of impermanence, and the ways in which one might put some of the sad realities of life up against my natural hopefulness and enthusiasm.
I’ve seldom enjoyed writing a book as much as this one, even though it seemed to eat up so much of my life for sixteen years.
You’ve written in your book, ‘it’s in the spaces where nothing is happening that one has to make a life’. How challenging was it to explore this theme of decay and yet capture life in the midst of it all?
Again, a wonderful question, and it was a challenge constantly to try to set life against death, energy against decay; to be worthy of the autumn.
But my biggest challenge was trying to keep things out and to make the book as spare and short as possible. To omit, as you say, all the bold-type events, all the drama and intensity that has unfolded over the last 26 years of my life in that quiet suburb and concentrate just on the silent, uneventful moments in-between.
I am of entirely Indian ancestry, as you know, so it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that my mind is as overcrowded, over-loud and richly coloured as a Bollywood stage set, full of movement and singing and dancing. Certainly my mind is as overstuffed as my mother’s library.
So it was a great challenge to spend 16 years on a tiny book trying to make it tiny, and true to the Japanese aesthetic of emptiness and silence.
You can imagine how hard it was, in summarising maybe 8000 days, to write only about the changing light, a trip to the post-office, the sound of children singing outside. I wanted to make this book a homage to its setting, and therefore as faint in outline as a haiku or a pen-and-ink drawing. I especially wanted it to catch the clarity and resonance of an empty room. In Japan, in a traditional room, you see nothing but a vase and a scroll. And because there’s nothing else there, you bring all your attention to that vase and scroll and you find an entire universe there. That’s what I was aiming for in this book of silences and absences.
“In Japan, in a traditional room, you see nothing but a vase and a scroll. And because there’s nothing else there, you bring all your attention to that vase and scroll and you find an entire universe there. That’s what I was aiming for in this book of silences and absences.”
Who are the new travel writers you’re observing?
I must admit that I don’t read books of travel much, and devote nearly all my time to fiction. And I do truly believe that we’re living in a golden age of literature, with more fresh and remarkable literature emerging than ever, whether from Esi Edugyan or Dinaw Mengestu or Akhil Sharma.
Of course India is an epicentre of this, and whenever I despair of books, or think that writers are an endangered species—as it’s possible to do in London or New York—I return to India and am invigorated by all the new publishing houses and magazines and, most of all, deeply engaged readers, who care about writing and devour it by the pound.
Twenty years ago we witnessed a great efflorescence of Indian fiction; now it’s thrilling to see the beautiful non-fiction being pronounced in India, often about the larger world, by Samanth Subramanimam and Anjan Sundaram and Aman Sethi, among so many others.
Lastly, what is next for you?
At the end of the summer, I’ll be bringing out another book on japan, written at the same time as Autumn Light and intended to be its exact opposite in every way. In Kyoto they sometimes say that every reverse has a reverse, in much the same way as the physicist Nils Bohr used to say that ‘the opposite of a great truth is also a great truth’. Japan is the spiritual home of the provisional, the sense that everything is changing constantly, the notion, as the wise teacher Shunryu Suzuki said, that all life can be summarised in the phrase, “not always so.” So if Autumn Light is meant to be a view of Japan from within a neighbourhood, my coming book, A Beginner’s Guide to Japan, is meant to be the perspective of an outsider who has just arrived and is throwing out wild generalities about baseball and fashion and religion and history, as they play out in Japan.
If you’ve always wanted to know how Meryl Streep, Oscar Wilde, West point Military Academy and a raked-sand garden explain Japan, this next one might be your book!
Text Nidhi Verma