Excerpted from Abandon by Pico Iyer. Copyright © 2003 by Pico Iyer. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Pico Iyer has written nonfiction books on globalism, Japan, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, forgotten places, and novels on Revolutionary Cuba and Islamic mysticism. He regularly writes on literature for The New York Review of Books, on travel for the Financial Times, and on global culture and the news for Time, The New York Times, and magazines around the world.
A Conversation with Pico Iyer, Author of ABANDON
Q: This book seems like quite a departure for you--very different from your idiosyncratic travel writing and THE GLOBAL SOUL’s airports and shopping malls.
A: On the surface, perhaps, but underneath, I think this is the book that fills the other one out, its secret complement. In some ways the battle between the blast of images and computers and information on the one hand, and silence and privacy and faith on the other, seems to be the central conflict of our times. In The Global Soul, I wrote about cacophony, MTV and jet lag as a way of addressing all the things we're missing, and crying out for in our lives: stillness and slowness, a center. And this book is about the journey into all those things that restore and ground us.
Q: Did you have to change a lot of the book because of the events of September 11?
A: The opposite. I'd actually written the whole thing long before September 11--not because I'm so clairvoyant, but mostly because if you travel around the globe today--and if you traveled around it over the past few years, as I did--it isn't hard to see violence erupting at the gap between the fast societies and the slow ones, between the past and the future, the sacred and the secular. This is a central dilemma not just across the world, but also in every country, in every household, even in every heart.
As it happens, the New York Times Magazine called me on the morning of September 11th to ask if I could offer a response. And I couldn't--because I was busy proofreading this novel about the clash between Islam and California.
Q: Why Islam and California?
A: I think that the most urgent issue in the world today revolves around the conflict between those committed to faith and those pledged to “Californianism” (as we could call it)--“family values” vs. pluralism. This has become the new across-borders cultural war that corresponds to the age-old battle between Science and Religion (or between what some call "Fundamentalism" and "Faithlessness").
Traveling back and forth between Yemen, say, and California, I've found myself thinking that these countries belong not just to different centuries, but almost to different galaxies--in their lives, their beliefs, their memories and their hopes--even as we may meet more Yemenis in California than ever before, and see people from Santa Monica in Sana'a. Islam has become a kind of shorthand for referring to those with a strong religious commitment, and California shorthand for the post-modern swirl (where everyday life can seem eerily like a movie-script--in development, rewrite, or turnaround).
In Abandon, Sufism becomes a convenient way of writing about surrender and fear, and all the emotional challenges that most of us have to answer constantly as we go about our lives.
Q: Did you do a lot of research in the form of traveling for this book?
A: Part of the fun of it was trying to travel in my imagination, without leaving my small apartment in Japan. I've so often gone to a new country, taken lots of notes and then written them up that I thought it might be more challenging and adventurous to write about places I'd never visited, such as Iran. I did go to Syria twice, and to Jordan, and I did, on an unrelated project, travel all across Arabia in the weeks just before September 11th, but for most of this novel I was trying to let my subconscious lead me, and so to access images I'd gained from poems or paintings, or to follow memories that just happened to bob up to the surface of my mind. I went to the area where Osama Bin Laden was born, I visited Aden just months before the U.S.S. Cole was bombed by terrorists, and I tried to relate what I witnessed there to what I had seen in Central America, Tibet, the Philippines, and other war zones I had visited. But mostly I was sitting in rural Japan, in mid-winter, trying to evoke every detail of the dry brown hills of California in midsummer.
Q: What does the title, ABANDON suggest to you?
A: Part of the excitement of the word "abandon" to me is that it has almost opposite meanings, depending on whether you've been abandoned, or whether you're abandoning yourself. On the one hand, it's one of the central words in therapy (the Californian New Age view of things), and fear of abandonment is something you hear about a lot; on the other, it's the heart of classic mysticism (as in the Sufi view of things), and stands for the letting go of self, through love or drunkenness or vision. In some ways the book is about how one moves from being abandoned in the sad psychological sense to being abandoned in the higher passionate sense.
That's also why so many scenes are set in abandoned houses and abandoned places; and why I use the desert so much (the derivation of "desert" is very close to the derivation of “abandon”, and being deserted has the same double meaning). The deserts one sees in Arabia are in some ways very similar--and, of course, in other ways eerily different--to the deserts one sees in the American West.
I actually had the title for the book long before I had the book itself.
Q: This is also the first time you've written about California.
A: Yes--even though I've been spending time here for more than 35 years! Part of the fascination of California for me is that it's becoming more and more full of all the ghosts and superstitions and holy places of the older cultures of the world, so that you're as likely to find an Iranian restaurant--or, for that matter, a lost manuscript of Rumi's--in Santa Monica as in Tehran. The particular excitement of recent years (and of course it's been a theme for me in all my books) is that everywhere is becoming mixed-up--all kinds of Old Worlds are taking over the New, and vice versa--and so a typical Californian might be someone who has her roots in very different, and much older cultures, while the conflicts of those older cultures get played out on the beaches of Southern California.
In some ways, I wanted to use California and Sufism as a way of getting at what seems like the central issue of the century just dawning: the friction between old cultures and new ones, at a time when both of them are living in one another's backyards. Here is America waging war on radical Islam, after all, at a time when the Islamic poet Rumi is the best-selling poet in America. Iranian clerics shout “Death to America!" at a time when many Iranians hunger for the latest on American popular culture. Traveling back and forth between these older societies and California, I find myself constantly thinking about this dialogue--and wondering how individuals can cross the barriers that their governments and institutions make.
Q: Are you Islamic?
A: No. As a Hindu raised in Christian schools and mostly living in Buddhist lands, I thought Islam was a force and source of wisdom I ought to try to know more about. Hindu by birth, I belong to one of the groups that have been at war with Islam for centuries. And yet, like many people, I have long been moved and transported by the Islamic poems and pictures and people that I've come across--and by the ways in which Islam has elevated the inheritance of so many of us, in Venice and Granada and Agra, among many other places. It seems a shame that Islam, like so many religions, has so often been traduced by a furious minority; I wanted--and again, this was long before recent events--to retrieve and recover a sense of the Islam that lies at the heart of our global culture.
Q: Would you describe ABANDON as a thriller?
A: More of a mystery--the kind of mysteries that all of us face daily in our lives. It starts out like a fast-paced detective story, about trying to find an answer, and then moves on to the kind of riddles that can't so easily be solved: how do you get past your fears, and how do you find a love that won't disappear? Sufism becomes a convenient way of writing about surrender and fear, and all the emotional challenges that most of us have to answer to constantly as we go about our lives. The main character has to learn that the most important questions are the ones that can't be solved, and has to move out of the simple margins of books into the confounding world. And the main female character has to travel right into the heart of her fears in order to pass through them.