Photo credit: Brigitte Lacombe
1. You are famously 'cross-cultural' in that you have strong connections with several different countries (India, Britain, the US, Japan) and have travelled extensively around the world. How has this shaped your ideas about belonging?
I think having ties with many cultures has freed me from the hard-and-fast distinctions of old and allowed me to see that I can learn and gain from anywhere, even those places that make deepest sense to me and feel profoundly familiar although I have no official connection with them.
As a little boy of eight, who had been born and raised in Oxford, England, to parents from British India, and then had moved with his family to California, I was very conscious that I was something of a mongrel, a curious oddity with an Indian face, an English voice and an American green-card. But I also felt that I was very fortunate, because I’d been given three sets of eyes, three perspectives to bring to every situation, and I quickly sensed that I could draw these three heritages into fresh combinations and live in the passageways between fixities.
At the time, as I say, I felt this was a lucky and unusual state of being; I could never have guessed that very quickly, especially in our major cities, it would come to seem the norm. When I step into a classroom in Sydney or Vancouver or San Francisco or Manchester, most of the kids I see are much more international than I am, and enjoy an even more liberated sense of belonging.
This doesn’t come without its shadow side - many may feel neither here nor there, as if they belong nowhere and have no single place where all their selves can come together. But at the very least, for the fortunate among us (which is to say, not the ones forced out of their homes, like our almost 70 million refugees), we have the chance to choose and fashion our own sense of community and tribe and neighborhood, in ways our grandparents couldn’t imagine.
Very early on, therefore, I sensed that I could be defined more by my passions than my passports; that home was less a piece of soil than a piece of soul, you could say, a matter of the values and affections and interests that I carry with me wherever I happened to be; and that the old question, 'Where do you come from?' was much less relevant than the fresh one, 'Where are you going?'
And I realised that I was part of a new community in motion with whom I had much more in common than with anyone solely English or Indian or American.
We’re all very aware of how our meals, our streets, our music, our conversations have grown much the richer for all these minglings; I could never have guessed, as a boy, that the most powerful man on the planet, officially, for eight years, would be a half-Kenyan raised in Indonesia with a Buddhist sister and a Chinese-Canadian brother-in-law.
And this sense of fluidity within does, of course, make for a greater sense of mobility on the physical plane; growing up, I soon found that Bolivia and Burma and Cuba were hardly more foreign than the England or India or America where I partly belonged but that would never contain the whole of me.
So I’m thrilled if more and more of us can be universalists of a kind in the new millennium, able to affiliate ourselves to something larger than our caste, our religion or our physical neighborhood.
2. A relationship between 'outer' and 'inner' worlds is a key theme in your work. How does this relate to your ideas about cultural identity?
We all have private selves and public selves - in Japan there are even different words to capture these very distinctive identities - and I have always thought it’s essential to explore both, if only to keep oneself honest. Our two central obligations in life, as I see it, are to understand the world, so we know what reality we’re working with, and to understand the self, so we can better adjust to the needs of those around us.
So my first five books were very much about the outer world, chronicling the new global order that was forming so quickly around us and travelling everywhere from North Korea to Paraguay and Bhutan to Ethiopia so that I would be steeped in a concrete and detailed sense of where the world was going. And having done that for my first twelve years as a full-time writer, I devoted my next twelve years and five books to trying to map the inner landscape, those places in memory and imagination and emotion where we try to hide from the truth but have the potential to fashion a new destiny.
So I dedicated those works to long discussions with the Fourteenth Dalai Lama and Leonard Cohen and other monks who have looked rigourously and penetratingly at both possibility and reality and tried to work out how to live with clarity and purpose in the world. And in that same breath I spent many years with the Sufi tradition in which all the poems about drunkenness and love, though they work beautifully in an external context, fundamentally address our inner states, and what happens when we give ourselves over to something deeper than our tiny selves.
When people travel, I sense, what they’re looking for are those states of mind and corners of their being and emotions and intimations they seldom find when they’re caught up in the habits and preoccupations of day-to-day life; fundamentally, we travel not in search of movement but in the hope of being moved. So outer journeying and inner journeying are nearly always the same thing, and the best accounts of physical travels - I think here of Peter Matthiessen’s classic work The Snow Leopard - are deep down about metaphysical journeys, and trips into grief and loss and hope.
'Going out is going in', as the great naturalist John Muir said, and in my most recent books, including two I’m bringing out next year set in Japan, I try to do justice to both at once. Hence I deliberately write one book that’s very rooted and inward-looking and domestic, about living in a Japanese neighborhood whose trials - of aging and loss and infirmity - are the same one might encounter anywhere; but at the same time I write another book to go with it that’s very much an outsider’s analytical look at Japan, as seen from the sidelines.
I feel that to concentrate only on the outer world is to forgo what is deepest and most essential in us and to us; but to focus only on the inner can be to lose contact with others and the claims of community and responsibility.
So I want to do both in the same breath--as we all do, I think.
3. You write travel books and also emphasise a need for stillness. Are the two more related than at first they seem?
They certainly are, as much as breathing in and breathing out are part of the same process. Again, I don’t think you can have one without the other.
My rhythm - and I’m sure many people can relate to this, especially if they write - is that, for forty four years now, ever since I was in my teens, I’ve gone out into the world to absorb as many experiences and challenges and emotions and alien perceptions as possible, as described above; and then to retreat to the monastic quiet of my desk to spend many long months making sense of all that and putting it into a kind of perspective.
I sometimes think that travel for me has been akin to going to a market in the streets to collect the ingredients for dinner; stillness is how I take all those disparate vegetables and turn them into a meal. Stillness is how I collect the sights I’ve gathered on the road and try to turn them into insights, how I take a jumble of experience and try to refine it into meaning. Without travel, I’d have nothing to work with other than my own solipsistic circlings; without stillness, I’d never have a chance to make sense of what I’ve seen, to process experience and to see the larger picture, the priorities that get lost too often in the details.
So indeed I think we need both sides of experience to be balanced, and to be able to hear other people’s visions of the world while trying to develop our own. And I’ve always juxtaposed often quite intense periods of movement - it’s not so rare for me, like more and more businesspeople today, to be in three continents in a week - with long, long periods either at my desk, or, quite literally, in the Californian monastery where I’ve been staying for twenty seven years now.
Ultimately, I think it’s very hard to be moved unless one sits still; so long as we’re racing around, we can only collect impressions, but can’t be transformed. Stillness is the state without which we can’t know sanity or balance. But I’m glad that our generation, at least for the fortunate, has the chance to see the rest of the world as no generation has had before us; and when I go to Iran or Namibia or Tibet, I’m not only given material that enriches and deepens my stillness, but also reminded at every second how much I don’t know and how much I’ll never know.
At heart perhaps both travel and stillness are ways of surrendering to something wiser than ourselves that has to be found within ourselves.
4. Could you give examples of personal cross-fertilisations between the various cultural traditions you are connected to?
The one that instantly comes to mind derives from the fact that the best-selling poet in the U.S., for more than twenty years now, has been the 13th century Sufi, Rumi, born in what is today Afghanistan, even as the Islamic countries I visit in the Middle East, from Lebanon and Syria to Oman and Iran, seem fascinated by many of the products of the West. So at the same time as the governments of Washington and Tehran, say, are semi-permanently at loggerheads, the people and cultures of those places are reaching past all boundaries to touch and hold and learn from one another.
So I’ve come to feel that individuals are much wiser than our governments or corporations - or much more able, at least, to see past binary divisions to some of the values, instincts, fears and longings we all share. As solitary beings we’re less defined by a sense of 'either/or,' and more alert to the ways that nothing we value can be pressed into a single box or definition.
With that in mind, I once published a 350-page novel called Abandon about the ways in which the West was reaching out for the particular wisdom the Sufi tradition had to offer, even as those from the traditionally Sufi parts of the world might have reasons to turn to the West. For four years, I traveled back and forth, as my novel did, between California (where Rumi is everywhere and much of Los Angeles looks like Tehran) and Syria, Jordan, Yemen, Oman and elsewhere.
My longing, which came out of my experience, was to remind any reader that what we share is more fundamental to us than the names and categories that divide us. Whenever I’m in my mother’s house in Santa Barbara, and think of the Middle East, I think of all the ways in which it differs from the world I know; as soon as I touch down in Damascus - or Isfahan or Sana’a - I hear the taxi-driver complain about the economy, express worries for his children and distinguish himself from his government just as most of my friends do back home.
I love the fact that Americans are ready to learn from Hafez or Attar and that the people I meet in Shiraz are devouring Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs and are definitive on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. As someone who is keenly aware that I can never be defined as Indian or English or American or Japanese - only as some shifting collage made up of all those traditions, and a hundred others - I delight in the fact that our cities and countries are ever more mongrel and that the average person you meet in London today is what used to be called a 'foreigner,' someone born in another country.
The world is moving so quickly in this direction - there will soon be 450 million people with many homes, equivalent to the third largest nation on Earth - that all talk of East and West, of here and there and then and now is dissolving. Inevitably, there will be some who are threatened by this, and we’ve witnessed a rise of brutal tribalism and fundamentalisms in recent years, across the planet.
But on an individual level, our planet is moving, one being at a time, towards a world where boundaries are less clear than they used to be. Every time a Californian woman marries a man of Iranian descent - and this is happening every day, more and more often - the little girl who arises out of their union can’t be placed in any single category, and the grandparents of both traditions will likely find themselves newly sympathetic to a world that previously seemed an 'Other'.
The best thing about crossing cultures is that it makes it harder to pass judgment on any single culture--or, in fact, to distinguish it from the ones it prides itself in opposing.