We like to think of Pico Iyer as a son of Santa Barbara. In fact, if the travel writer, journalist, essayist, and novelist is at home anywhere, it’s Nara, Japan, where he has lived with his wife, Hiroko Takeuchi, for more than two decades. Yet Iyer’s trademark is precisely his lack of rootedness — his global soul — and the unique perspective it gives him on the cultures of the world.
This Wednesday, May 16, Iyer will appear at the Lobero Theatre in conversation with pioneering travel writer and editor Don George. They’ll be discussing Iyer’s latest book, The Man Within My Head, as well as the transcendent joys and the moral conundrums that face the international traveler.
Born to Indian parents in Oxford, England, Iyer moved with his family to Santa Barbara at age 8. It took him a matter of months before he knew with certainty that California was not the place for him — at least not yet. And so, while his parents remained here, young Pico returned to England to complete his schooling, visiting Santa Barbara on his summer breaks. On the phone from Nara last week, he tried to untangle that early choice.
“England was in this absolutely fixed state that hadn’t changed since 1441, and California [in the 1960s] was in a state of constant foment,” he explained. “I was too discombobulated. All my bearings were gone. I was unlearning the things that England had taught me.”
As with all life choices, it’s impossible to know how things might have been different for Iyer had he grown up here; what’s clear is that that early choice made him the writer and the person he is. “I think that commute between innocence and experience, between young and old, between cynicism and dangerous idealism, has been my theme for the rest of my life,” he mused.
Iyer organizes his new book around his vision of Graham Greene, the English novelist known for his humorous and biting portrayals of Americans and Englishmen facing moral and emotional plights in far-flung corners of the world. Iyer, we come to learn, has always felt a kinship with Greene, a writer he never met, whom he refers to as “the patron saint of the foreigner alone.” He examines this affinity in his characteristically meticulous, elegant prose. It’s a loosely structured book — a series of scenes from a life of travel and writing that Iyer himself refers to as “allegorical.” The Man Within My Head isn’t a biography, and Iyer’s quick to explain that it’s not a memoir, though readers curious about Iyer’s inner life will find much here. Instead, it’s a rumination on projection, inspiration, and resonance; the way seemingly unrelated places and events connect; and the way we imbue our heroes with the traits we need them to possess.
Over many years of reading Greene, Iyer says he’s come to the surprising conclusion that his books are actually “manuals of kindness.”
“Greene’s novels for me are about very fallen, cynical characters who in the moment of truth act more selflessly and heroically than one would have imagined,” Iyer explained. “His characters are really about dismantling the whole notion of the enemy.”
It’s no wonder that a boy who chose to shape his life half the world away from his family would become a man fascinated by an author who suggests that otherness isn’t the threat it seems, and that compassion — indeed love — can be found anywhere.
As for Iyer’s real parents, they make an appearance in the book, too, though readers looking to learn more about the late Raghavan Iyer will be largely disappointed; Pico has left him in the shadows intentionally. “I wanted to catch more of that archetypal pattern between a father and a son or a mother and a daughter,” he explained, “that vexed and charged pattern that challenges our notion of self and self-creation.”
Pico Iyer will appear in conversation with Don George on Wednesday, May 16, at 7 p.m. at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.). For tickets, call (805) 963-0761 or visit lobero.com.