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Pico Ayer's two latest books return readers to Japan.

Stefanie Wong/The Globe and Mail

When Pico Iyer first began writing about travel in the mid-eighties, few people had access to the places his words took them. Today’s travellers face a different dilemma: having more information than they know what to do with. Issues such as climate change, local politics and virtual reality options are new factors in people’s decision to travel. Still, Iyer says, travel is as important as ever.

Over the years, the author of more than a dozen books and essay collections has transported readers to Kathmandu, Cuba, North Korea and more. His two latest books, Autumn Light and A Beginner’s Guide to Japan, return readers to Japan. He has called the island nation home for the past 32 years and resides there with with his wife and children. The author, who refuses to swap his visitor’s visa for citizenship, spoke to The Globe and Mail about the complicated roles of foreigner, traveller and tourist.

You’ve talked in the past about the idea of being a foreigner or being an outsider. Do you still feel that in Japan?

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I do, and I’m delighted to feel that. As a foreigner in Japan, I feel I can enjoy the best of that culture without being subjected to some of the pressures that, for example, my Japanese wife is. Japan’s a rare country where if a foreigner, you or I, spoke really good Japanese, the local people wouldn't be happy. They'd be unsettled. They’d feel trespassed upon or intruded upon, and I think my Japanese neighbours are more comfortable with someone who speaks terrible Japanese, as I do, then someone who speaks it fluently, because that assures them that I know my place on the other side of the world.

That’s interesting because there’s a popular idea that more of us should be “travelling like a local.” What do you make of that concept? Do you believe that? Is it even possible?

I’ve never really felt 100-per-cent local anywhere. If I were in India, where my ancestry is from, I don’t speak a word of any Indian language. If I’m in England, I don’t look like any traditional English person, although I spent my first 21 years there. If I’m in the United States, where I’m an official resident, it’s a very welcoming country, but I would never feel at home in America. So, I think where you feel at home and where you belong, in some ways, are very different things, and so I’m not even sure what it is to be a local. I travel because I want to gather as many perspectives as possible, but I don’t want to be stuck in any one of them.

What’s the purpose of a traveller these days, do you think?

One of the happiest developments of my life is that so many travellers are going now to give something rather than to get something, and I think when I was a little boy, if I got on a plane, my assumption was people are going to Spain or Thailand or whatever to enjoy themselves, to bring back an experience. If I’m on the same plane now, I think many people are going to help countries all around the world with very serious problems.

I’m very touched by that, though, of course, you really need a lot of knowledge of the culture to know how best to help it and what they will best appreciate. I don’t think there are so many rules or “shoulds” of travel, but the main one is to try to find out what the locals would most want and appreciate, which speaks to the very point of, should we visit certain countries? And I think the question is, would the people there rather see us or not? In fact, if you were to ask me which is the country I’d most want to visit, it might well be Saudi Arabia.


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Yes, I don’t seek out pleasant places. I seek out interesting places that will give me a different perspective on the world.

There’s a lot of discussion around cultural appropriation lately.

As a writer and a reader, I think my job is cultural appropriation. As somebody with dark skin who grew up in England, where people with dark skin were the target of not such friendly treatment, I want to be able to write and try to see the world through the eyes of people who are dark skinned, white skinned, black skinned. However, I think travel is about an expansion of the imagination and liberation from our prejudices, which means being freed from our own very narrow eyes. So maybe it’s a generational thing, but maybe I’m less concerned about cultural appropriation than the fear of being too fixed in my own prejudices, and that’s my fear, and that’s why I write, and that’s why I travel, so that I don’t assume my way is right or the only way.

So, I don’t assume that the only way I can see the world is through the eyes of an Indian kid from England who grew up in California. I don’t wish to be imprisoned in that, and so I love the fact that Toni Morrison will see the world through the eyes of the white person or male. I love the way that Shakespeare in Othello will try, as best as he can, to see the world through the eyes of a woman, Desdemona; a Moor, Othello; and a devil, Iago.

Do you think that the abundance of digital access that we have affects our travels?

The more we’re getting through images and secondhand reports, which is what the digital world is, the more necessary it is to get the firsthand account. Partly because I think seeing the world through little tiny screens, it’s very hard to get the larger picture. Every traveller knows that what you experience on a trip, by definition, is precisely what you could never get in a YouTube video, which is the silence as you’re sitting on a hill in Iceland, the smell of frankincense as you step into a lobby in Oman, the taste of sushi as you enter a little bar in Hiroshima. I think one reason food has become such a big part of travel is you can’t get it digitally.

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