In The Half Known Life (Riverhead, Jan.), essayist Iyer reflects on his visits to sites known as “paradise on earth” in Ethiopia, India, Iran, and Sri Lanka.
You include vivid descriptions of the locations you visit. Can you talk about your approach to taking in and writing those scenes?
Writing has changed a lot during my lifetime, as has travel, because anyone who wants to walk the streets of Varanasi can do so on YouTube much more powerfully than I can do in words. My job as a writer is to take the reader to places in Varanasi that she could never catch on-screen or through listening to its music. Practically speaking, I’ve always taken lots of notes, and I transcribe huge amounts as I’m walking down streets. When I’m back home, I spend a couple of months just sitting in one place so that my emotions can suffuse the physical descriptions—for example, the way the sun might shine through fog. I try to make it something richer and more textured than a series of snapshots. Capturing physical descriptions is something I’ve been doing all my writing life, so that comes relatively easy. I want to push beyond. I believe that when we travel, we’re really trying to get to places inside ourselves and access the moods, emotions, or states of mind that we can’t when we’re at home. When I’m describing a physical scene, I’m working hard to try to have an emotional component so that it affects us beyond just the sensory.
You write about feeling unwelcome at some of the sites you visited. How did you deal with that feeling?
I travel to be unwelcome. I’m lucky to have lived in relatively comfortable and pleasant places. When I travel, I want to get to uncomfortable, unpleasant places and to be sent home a different person from the one who left. Specifically in this book, I sought out places such as North Korea or Belfast that were likely to be unwelcoming to me.
Early in the book, you wonder “what kind of paradise can ever be found in a world of unceasing conflict.” What conclusion have you reached?
That we have to find our sense of paradise within the world of conflict. We’re all living in a state of great uncertainty, fear, and anxiety. I wrote this book during the pandemic, which I found was the perfect time to address the question of how we find joy in a world that’s so difficult, where we’re living so close to mortality. When you enter a temple in Japan, there’s often an entryway sign on the ground that says, “Look beneath your feet.” This is a way of saying that the only paradise you’re going to find is right here, right now.