Topping a season that included Roshi Joan Halifax, George Saunders, Susan Orlean, and Andrew Solomon won’t be easy, but the 2019-20 Speaking with Pico series is primed for the challenge. “Our aim,” Pico Iyer told me when we spoke by phone recently, “is to bring to the Arts & Lectures stage people with vision who can offer us possibilities to which we can aspire. The format of the series allows me to ask things I might not otherwise have a chance to ask, and, strangely enough, it’s sometimes easier to have an intimate conversation in public than it is in private.”
In October, Iyer will sit down with the legendary composer Philip Glass, now 82, whom he knows slightly from their association with Tricycle, the Buddhist magazine. “I know more about Philip’s life and writing than I do about his music,” Iyer said, “and I am interested in talking with him about the art of collaboration.”
Elaine Pagels returns to her native California from Princeton, New Jersey, in January. Known as a radical religious scholar, author of the Gnostic Gospels, Beyond Belief, and Revelations, Pagels’ most recent work is Why Religion?, an intimate and intensely personal memoir about loss and faith. Iyer taught at Princeton in 2019 and one evening over dinner he and Pagels talked for three hours about religion and how it can help us cope with loss and suffering.
“We were really fortunate to book Moshin Hamid on the one day he was free before returning to Pakistan,” Iyer said of the man he will host in April. Moshin Hamid is a keen observer of the intersection between America and the Islamic world, the author of several novels including Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and his latest, Exit West, an allegorical tale about refugees. “Moshin is always fresh, clear and sharp, “Iyer said, “his intellect is startling, and he never answers a question the same way twice.”
His final guest of the season is, Iyer admitted, almost a kind of private indulgence. Elizabeth Strout is known to be shy and she doesn’t travel much, but she will be on the Campbell Hall stage in May. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Olive Kitteridge and My Name is Lucy Barton, among other books, Strout is an undisputed master at bringing small-town characters to life and illuminating the limitless follies of the human heart. “Strout,” said Iyer, “strikes me as a wise elder, which makes her an ideal guest for this series.”
Pico Iyer is one of Santa Barbara’s most beloved literary sons, a brilliant writer in his own right, and one of the most engaging, insightful interlocutors to be found anywhere. His latest book is Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells.
411: UCSB Arts & Lecture’s Speaking with Pico series begins with guest Phillip Glass Thursday, October 3, at Campbell Hall. See ucsbartsandlectures.edu.com.