The passports carried by Pico Iyer and Andrew Solomon are surely well-worn, the pages full of entry and exit stamps. Between them, these two writers have logged a mind-boggling number of miles and recounted their journeys in numerous books and articles. Solomon’s most recent work is the acclaimed Far and Away: How Travel Can Change the World, a prodigious, elegantly written, and insightful collection of dispatches from Russia, China, Libya, and Mongolia, among other places. Travel, Solomon writes, makes us humble and allows us to not only see differences in others without fear, but to also appreciate those differences. Andrew Solomon was working in Rome when he spoke with the Santa Barbara Independent. What follows is an edited version of the conversation.
In Far and Away you wrote that we find our boundaries both through encounters with otherness and through being that otherness. I wrote that in the Afterword in response to the shifting politics I saw happening. It’s unbelievably dangerous to assume that everyone who is different from you is the enemy and everyone who is like you is your friend. The problem with building a fortress is that it can become a prison for the people inside as much as a defense against the people outside.
The Trump administration seems intent on dismantling or crippling the global institutions that have contributed to American prosperity and peace in the world. A world riven with division and war doesn’t serve the advantage of anyone. The mix of bluster and bullying, even with our traditional allies, seems to me incredibly short-sighted. It’s irresponsible for the United States to abrogate its obligations to maintaining peace and stability. The Trump administration seems to view our participation in global institutions as a charitable effort. The truth is that American aid has contributed to keeping peace in the world.
You wrote about artists in Russia and China who often tell the truth as if the truth is a joke. Can you explain? This was especially true in Russia, but in other places as well. I was interested in the idea that art could serve a moral purpose, that art could influence and change a society. In countries that deliberately try to destroy truth, as happened in Russia and China, art can also keep the truth alive and keep the moral conversation alive. The art produced in Russia and China at the time I was there had a purpose beyond beauty.
Is there a country or region that you haven’t visited but are keen to visit? Because so much that goes on globally revolves around the Middle East, I’d like to get to know Israel, Iran, and Saudi Arabia better.
Returning to the idea of otherness and differences, you wrote that the Trump administration finds differences threatening rather than beautiful, and therefore disavows our shared humanity. I think most Americans are very welcoming. My grandparents fled persecution in Europe and came to America, not because they didn’t like their home country but because they felt they had no other choice in order to survive. I never thought I’d see the United States treat asylum seekers as we now do, separating children from their parents. When your circumstances are so desperate that you flee to someplace foreign and unknown, it’s hard enough, but to then have your children taken from you is simply cruel.
4•1•1 | UCSB Arts & Lectures presents Andrew Solomon in conversation with Pico Iyer Thursday, May 16, at 7:30 p.m., at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. Call 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.