Pico Iyer was born in Oxford, England. He has published 15 books, translated into 23 languages, on subjects ranging from the Dalai Lama to globalism, from the Cuban Revolution to Islamic mysticism. Since 1992 Iyer has spent much of his time at a Benedictine hermitage in Big Sur, California, and most of the rest in Nara, Japan. His most recent book, The Half Known Life, is published by Bloomsbury.
Caryl Phillips was born in St Kitts, brought up in Leeds, and he now lives in New York City. He is the editor of two anthologies, has written for television, radio, theatre and cinema and is the author of three works of non-fiction and eight novels. His most recent book is A View of the Empire at Sunset.
The writers discuss migration, V. S. Naipaul and the meaning of home.
Having known you for thirty years now and having shared with you an ongoing professional interest in migration in the broadest sense, I think it’s surprising that we’ve never actually had a conversation about what this word might mean to us. Migration is intensely personal and familial, and hints at some of the sacrifices involved. I think that’s where I begin when I find myself thinking about migration; the family unit.
It’s interesting that I consider you a kind of brother, even though you come from the West Indies and I from the East. Simply because both of us grew up, as you know, at exactly the same time, in exactly the same country (England), at a moment when there were not many dark-skinned souls around us (I was the only one in all my classrooms), and yet already we were being viewed with suspicion.
I’ve often thought how my parents, growing up in British India, saw London almost as a suburb of Bombay. Whilst agitating constantly for Indian Independence, they did have a love of aspects of the West that had been brought to them in India. But, as Naipaul recorded in his Enigma of Arrival, it was often an unrequited love. They could romanticize England as I never could, and in some ways the best thing their experience gave me was a freedom from ever entertaining expectations or rosy feelings about England. By giving birth to me there, they were in some sense, and maybe inadvertently, giving me the freedom to leave it far behind.
And maybe that’s part of the sacrifice you mention: my parents gave everything they had to get to the center of Empire, but in so doing, they had to watch me head out the door by another exit, perhaps ensuring that I’d always live very differently from the way they did.
I often think, in this regard, of Orhan Pamuk, suggesting, of cultural bifurcation, that two heads are better than one. I have always felt that my parents could go beyond the Brits who had trained them because they were fluent in Shakespeare as well as the Vedas; they knew the Bible inside out, and Western philosophy, even as they never thought of Buddhism as foreign and had grown up with the Upanishads.
Many in that generation made the most of this Janus-facedness: what makes your friend Derek Walcott for me the great poet of my lifetime is the fact that he could draw upon the cadences, the flowers, the beauty of Saint Lucia as well as all the grey and dusty Old World stuff the British had brought to his island. Naipaul, from nearby Trinidad, arguably wrote an English clearer and more dispassionate – more classical – than did any of the Englishmen who taught him (and had more to say besides, because he could bear witness with an outsider’s sharp clarity).
Salman Rushdie, a generation later, realized that he too had this great, rich, multi-cultured treasure-house to draw upon, from South Asia, even as he was remaking the English language and its literature in the process. My guess is that you and I, coming of age a decade after Rushdie, also saw that we might be richer and more various in our perspectives than some of the English people we saw around us who knew nothing but England.
Whenever I think of the word migration, I tend to think of the word ‘expectation’. My parents, who like so many other colonial subjects, had grown up genuflecting before English literature, English history, English geography – believed, to some extent that with their journey to Britain they were, in fact, going to another ‘Home’. The colonial centre. A place where they would be, in fact, recognized. They didn’t expect a red carpet, or any special treatment, but at the very least they anticipated being taken seriously. And, as we know, they were not taken seriously. As a result, whatever ‘hurt’ they were internalizing, they were desperate that it should not be visited on their children. This being the case, they set about arming us with a sense of ‘belonging’, which was their way of trying to compensate for the abandonment they felt in Britain.
Of course, as kids we could see through this. Like you, I was always ‘the only one’ in the classroom. The abuse and taunting I received was not going to be alleviated by my boldly claiming to be British. I think the colonial migrant is very different from the political or economic migrant, in so much as they ‘expect’ to be recognized, and anticipates some kind of kinship with the country to which they are journeying.
However, one further thought. I wonder how you think ‘class’ factors into all of this? I know we both ended up studying at Oxford, but you went to the most elite private school in England, and your parents were highly educated. My parents finished school, but had no university education, and I attended an English comprehensive school. I ask because I think there was, in British society, always an assumption that black or brown immigrants were working class and uneducated. My parents didn’t have the kind of education that your parents possessed, but interestingly enough my mother was not working class at all. She grew up as a privileged young woman, with servants. I think part of the shock of her encounter with the Mother Country was not just the cruder forms of prejudice and discrimination that she was exposed to, but the society’s inability to ascribe to her the class identity (and therefore ‘respect’?) to which she felt entitled.
I love that point about the expectation of being recognized: it had never struck me before, but you’re right that your parents, and mine, were coming to a place they had been encouraged all their lives to think of as home, though nobody had told them they were expected to come in through the servants’ entrance.
I relate instantly to your really touching comment about your parents training you to be British, even as they saw that they were not being allowed to be so. I think that probably applies to my father and mother, too. Coming from South India and North India respectively, they had no common language but English; and though my father would tell me stories from The Ramayana at bedtime, though my mother always wore a sari and though both parents were teetotaling vegetarians, still I suspect they were training me, in earnest hopefulness, to fit in to a country that would never be fully theirs, and maybe to learn from their frustrations.
Truthfully, I’m not sure if I’m fully aware of the price my parents paid as migrants, and I don’t think they are aware of how difficult it was for us to grow up in the era of ‘Paki-bashing’ and Enoch Powell. For them to complain about Britain would be to admit a certain type of failure, and where would that leave us in terms of a ‘home’? We did complain about Britain, but we were encouraged to concentrate on our schoolwork and ‘get on with things’. In such circumstances, a huge gap of understanding opened up.
I never ‘settled’ in Britain. Within ten years of graduation, I was traveling and teaching in India for two months, then in Sweden for nearly a year, then to St.Kitts, and then to the U.S. to take up a position as a Visiting Writer. Whatever door they opened up for me with their act of migration, I walked through it and then out the other side through another door and out into the world. Without their initial act of migration, I could not have lived such a life of itinerancy and – dare I say – relative freedom. But what do they think of my absconding in this way? If I had to guess, I would say that they understood that as migrants who were trying to raise their children in a socially and politically hostile country, there was a great chance that they might lose sight of their children.
I wonder if you have read Naipaul’s letters to his father, written while he was a student at Oxford. I found the volume very moving, particularly so as it seemed to me to reveal the whole performative strategy employed by so many migrants in order to try so very hard to belong. In Naipaul’s case it temporarily failed at Oxford, and he suffered a nervous breakdown. I witnessed a couple of colleagues at university suffer similar nervous breakdowns as they tried, and failed, so hard to be accepted. One of the great, often unspoken, consequences of migration is the onset of problems with mental health, something that – to this day – continues to plague migrant communities in Britain.
Earlier in our conversation you mentioned Derek Walcott, who unlike Naipaul, famously never won the scholarship to study at Oxford, and went instead to college in Jamaica. Thereafter, the trajectory of Walcott’s professional life took him to the United States, as opposed to Britain, but the Walcott-Naipaul ‘falling out’ – and subsequent sniping – seems to me to have a lot to do with Walcott’s disdain for Britain’s seemingly full-blooded acceptance of Naipaul – an embrace that Walcott perceived Naipaul to have accepted at the price of rejecting the Caribbean. Walcott was always convinced that behind the patrician ‘English’ Naipaul, was a skinny little Trinidadian Indian boy who had betrayed himself in order to become part of ‘that’; he always thought of ‘Vidia’ as trying to maintain a huge performance, something Walcott regarded as generally infuriating, and occasionally hilarious, but ultimately tragic.
I did read the Naipaul letters back home, which for me turn around that central moment when his beloved father back in Trinidad dies, and Naipaul sends his family a heartbroken tribute, while announcing firmly that he won’t be coming back. In those days – my parents, probably like yours, went to England by boat – every departure could seem final, a real separation for life; of course that remains a reality for millions of desperate refugees today, but you and I were probably saved from a few complications simply by having access to the airplane, which allowed us to commute between our parents’ place and our own.
My friend Richard Rodriguez, born to parents who came to Sacramento from Mexico, has written powerfully about how the very fact he realized his parents’ hopes for him separated him from them forever. Precisely by mastering the texts he was given at school, going to Stanford and becoming an English-language writer, he left them behind, irreparably; he entered a world that perhaps they had fervently wished for him, but to which they had no access.
He even spoke a language they could no longer follow. The immigrant’s dream – that he or she can make a better life for the children – becomes a kind of tragedy when it comes true.
When you mention Walcott and Naipaul, I think of how Walcott referred to his contemporary as ‘V.S. Nightfall,’ reminding us how he, Walcott, made bright and liberating use of both the Caribbean and the European tradition to which he’d been exposed; Naipaul, by disowning the Caribbean while never being accepted as a Brit, ended up a ‘Nowhereian’ of sorts, neither here nor there.
For me Walcott is a perfect example of how our cultures have been enriched by the Age of Migration, with people from everywhere bringing their stories, their histories, even their fresh ways of telling stories into our midst. So I have to ask you: how has your writing been shaped by not just movement but by that unmoored sense you must have had as a boy, of not quite belonging anywhere? As you suggest, you would have been a very different being, and novelist, had you stayed in St. Kitts, or perhaps in England.
I think it was Graham Greene who noted that most writers are formed (and acquire their ‘subject matter’) by their late teens. I believe that in a great number of cases there is some early discord that provides a life-long itch that needs to be scratched. In my own case, the act of migration provided me with that disruption to self. Crossing the Atlantic, and migrating along a colonial axis gave to me a subject-matter.
I very seldom use the word ‘home’ – I used to think of this as a price I have paid. This implies that feeling a sense of ‘home’ is something that one ought to strive towards. However, these days, I don’t feel this way. Is this the true price of migration? A loss of ‘home’. Not a loss of home that might only be measured geographically, but perhaps more importantly a loss of ‘home’ that might be seen in terms of people. With the act of migration gaps begin to open up – gaps of misunderstanding and confusion, that we’ve spoken of, and these fissures and cracks often cause divisions in families. Particularly between parents and children. Perhaps this is the real price that migrants pay; what they often lose sight of is not a place – a territory, a town, a country – they lose sight of people, including people who are living under the same roof with them. What exactly do you mean when you use the word, ‘home’?
You’ve really thrown open a Pandora’s box! Growing up, as you did, in a place that would never feel like home – and that would never be delighted if I never thought of it as home – left me spending much of my life turning the term over in my head, wondering how home could be defined more expansively, and inclusively.
I instinctively felt, growing up, that the English language was my home; it was the one thing that would keep me company with every breath, wherever I happened to be sitting. And when I accompanied my parents to California, at the age of seven, I realized that home would have to be an anthology, a collection of places; as a little boy with an Indian face, an English voice and an American green card, I sensed that my home could exist only in the mixing and mingling of cultures, even though I could never belong to any one of them.
And then, early in my writing life, our family home in California burned to the ground in a forest fire, with me beside it, and all the fancy abstract ideas became a powerful reality: lacking a physical structure that I could call home – and having lost all my possessions (even the handwritten notes that would make up my next three books) – I realized that home would have to be a piece of soul, as it were, more than a piece of soil.
In some ways losing the physical structure which I’d always considered to be ‘home’ emboldened me to seek out the place in which I’d always had a mysterious sense of familiarity and, to that extent, belonging: Japan.
A funny choice insofar as no culture is less inclusive; the customs officers in that homogeneous land used to strip-search me every time I returned to the country, three or four times a year. I looked like exactly what they didn’t want to see coming into their country, whether I was (as they seemed to suspect) a cousin of Saddam Hussein, an illegal Iranian immigrant or, worst of all, what I was, an itinerant soul of Indian descent.
To this day I speak limited Japanese, don’t love Japanese food, haven’t worked or studied a day of my life in the place I think of as my secret, deepest home. Yet I feel a kinship with it I’ll never feel with India or Britain or America. And I can gladly call it home in part because I’ll always be a foreigner there, outside the system – by which I mean I’d love to spend all my days there, but I’d never want to be Japanese.
I suppose this is one of the curious phenomena to which the likes of you and me are heir: I never expected to find an entire culture to which I’d belong, and came to feel at home with the very state of feeling foreign. Indeed, if I felt too much at home anywhere, I suspect I might flee it.
I think I once wrote, in the context of Japan, that home is the place, for me, where, when you arrive, they don’t want to take you in. I’m often grateful that my upbringing has made me comfortable with being a foreigner, whether I’m in Paraguay or Ethiopia or Laos. Of course you and I are among the 1 per cent of the very fortunate when it comes to moving between cultures; but to some extent, as our writing has explored, even the most undefended refugee shares many of the questions that we carry with us, the tugs and ambiguities and divisions.
This seems to me the community of the coming century. I once gave a talk for TED on this new society of people who belong to many places, a group that is growing so quickly that soon there will be more such than there are Americans; already there are by some counts 280 million who live outside the old definitions. When TED released my talk, its curators gave it the title, ‘What is home?’
Photograph of Pico Iyer (left) © Derek Shapton
Photograph of Caryl Phillips courtesy of the author