Celebrated writer Pico Iyer spent fifteen days in Singapore last August doing a residency at the newly reopened Raffles Hotel as its first official writer-in-residence. His new book, titled This Could Be Home: Raffles Hotel and the City of Tomorrow, published by Epigram Books, is a reflection on the hotel’s literary legacy, having been host to writers such as Hermann Hesse, Pablo Neruda and Ernest Hemingway in its 132 years of existence.
He also draws on his own encounters with the hotel, which he now dubs “Raffles 3.0”. It was where he spent his first night in Singapore, in March 1984 and he has visited it numerous times over the past three decades. Iyer, who was born in Oxford, England and has been based in Japan for the past 32 years, was also part of the Singapore Writers Festival 2019.
ArtsEquator speaks to Iyer about Singapore’s complex relationship with Raffles, the Singapore writers he’s encountered, and the art of travel writing.
The interview has been edited for length.
AE: You recently did a residency in Raffles Hotel as it was being redeveloped. How did you find that experience?
Pico Iyer: The project gave me the chance to reflect on how Singapore has evolved over the 35 years I’ve been visiting regularly, and to think about how and why certain of us writers are drawn to hotels, as the place where so many stories congregate and we have the privacy at once to observe them and then to try to turn them into art.
A hotel like Raffles, in other words, offers one not just great material, but the space in which to try to turn it into something more. What I most took away from the experience was the way this hotel, unlike most others, is always urging the guest towards privacy, quiet, not racing around sightseeing, but just sitting quietly near some lawn, writing, or sketching, or reading, or sipping a drink.
In the midst of a forest of skyscrapers, it’s human-scaled, and in an age of acceleration and 24/7 busy-ness, it’s inviting us to pause, to make a sketch or send a letter or keep a journal. Or even—great heresy!—to do nothing at all.
AE: You had your residency during Singapore’s Bicentennial, while the country was still reckoning with its colonial past and its complicated feelings about Raffles himself. What do you think about these tensions?
Pico Iyer: I never thought of 2019 as Singapore’s Bicentennial, since there had been so much life and activity there for five hundred years before the British arrived.
As I say in the book, Raffles Hotel has been as wonderfully multicultural as the city around it ever since it was founded by two Armenian brothers born in Iran, who cannily named it after the person who was being celebrated in 1887, Victoria’s Jubilee Year. And as I also mention, William Farquhar is now, rightly, being seen as much more important than was previously realised, staying in Singapore to do the hard work of developing the town while Raffles barely visited as he roamed around the larger region.
But my feeling, as written, is that Raffles Hotel, so cleverly named, would enjoy much the same history if it were called Farquhar Hotel or Sang Nila Utama Hotel or, in fact, the Nowhere Hotel.
AE: Travelling is oftentimes about having serendipitous moments. Did you have such moments during your stay in Singapore?
Pico Iyer: I often think of modern Singapore as my brother, in a sense, since both of us came into the world at almost the same time, and both, while entirely Asian, owe something to a British past and are perhaps defined by our multi-cultural destinies.
I recall standing in an MRT train my first morning in the city, in September 2018, and hearing “Pico,” casually delivered by the man standing next to me, a Western journalist I’d seen in Jaipur eight months earlier. I visited some friends at the ad agency DDB Singapore and found that they had now moved to a building called the “Pico Creative Centre.” Again and again, I’d be hit by moments that reminded me how many of us in some sense belong to Singapore, as a place we’re passing through forever.
AE: Can you tell us more about your book This Could Be Home? What struck you the most about Raffles Hotel this time, compared to your visit in 1984?
Pico Iyer: And what struck me most about Raffles when I stayed there this year, after my book was completed, was how forward-looking it is, in its French restaurants, in its keys (elegant leather tags that activate cutting-edge, high-tech doors), in the two wide-screen TVs in every suite. It’s not a hotel that wants to be a musty and cobwebbed lost-and-found case of Empire, as the Raffles I first met in 1984 was; it’s very much one aimed at the city of tomorrow (which is the title of one of my chapters and had been my first choice as a title for the book).
The Raffles of 1984 seemed very much aimed at nostalgic foreign visitors who wanted a taste of Empire and of the world of Maugham and Kipling; the Raffles of right now seems aimed at locals, at Malaysians, at those who want to visit a place of the 21st century that also can serve up, uniquely, some of the graces of the 19th and the 20th centuries.
That’s one reason why—though not everyone can afford Raffles—it speaks for a Singapore that is inviting much of the world to base itself there.
AE: Singaporeans often lament a loss of its heritage as the country progresses – you probably encountered a number of them as you did research for your book. On a related note, the subtitle for your book refers to Singapore as the “City of Tomorrow”. Can you elaborate on this?
Pico Iyer: Many of us visitors also miss the colour and charm, even the dilapidation and the shaggy margins, of yesteryear! I used to stay in a very shady sailors’ hotel near Killiney Road in the 1980s, and Singapore seemed very untamed then, and often candlelit, full of the romance (and decay) one might have found in the city that Maugham knew, and very much still a port.
Everywhere I go in Singapore, I ask people two questions: do they worry that their city is losing its soul, and, if so, how do they hope to ensure that it has a soul tomorrow?
It’s only by concentrating on the future that one can make wise and purposeful decisions about how to preserve a sense of identity—and dignity—even as one becomes a global metropolis. At the same time, change is a fact of life, and in the process of gaining certain conveniences and opportunities, every place, from Varanasi to my hometown of Oxford, has to lose something.
As you know, I’ve been spending the past 45 years talking and travelling with the Dalai Lama, the subject of one of my books, and as keen an observer of the modern globe as I have met. And he always congratulates the Japanese, when we travel across Japan together, for concentrating on the future, which we can help to shape and try to make humane and constructive, rather than for dwelling on the past, which we can’t change at all.
AE: You were recently part of the Singapore Writers Festival. What was that experience like for you?
Pico Iyer: The last time I visited Singapore for the Writers Festival, seven years ago, I came away feeling that I had never seen anywhere, outside of India, with such a rich cultural hunger and so excited about books and writers: some people waited two hours to have a book signed! And when I came and launched my book last August, at the Huggs-Epigram Coffee Bookshop and Kinokuniya—two of my favourite places in Singapore, other than BooksActually—I told friends that Singaporeans really do make up the most engaged, responsive, attentive and alive literary audiences I’ve ever encountered, outside of India.
That impression was only confirmed and intensified when I was back at the Festival last November. I couldn’t believe that people would fill the The Arts House on a Saturday morning – and many who were there for an explicitly literary discussion were scientists, workers in finance, people whose daily lives couldn’t have been farther from reading.
Every event I attended was packed – even at 10am on a Sunday morning, when there are so many tempting things to be doing outside on a not too hot or rainy Singaporean weekend. And people listen, ask questions, extend generosity to us aging dinosaurs known as writers as almost nowhere else. It almost gives one hope about the future of reading, writing and thinking!
AE: Did you encounter any Singapore writer’s work that you enjoyed or learned something new from?
Pico Iyer: On this trip I felt very privileged to do an event with Meira Chand, whose novels have instructed me so richly, for decades, on Japan and Singapore and much else. While researching the history of Singapore, I was delighted to be given and to devour The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. And, as a lover and practitioner of fiction, I was bowled over by Justin Ker’s debut work of fiction, The Space Between the Raindrops: years pass without my encountering a work as subtle, as suggestive and as finely stitched as his set of stories.
AE: In a recent interview, you said: “No writer has caught the slow dance of fascination between East and West, the subject of much of my writing (because that dance plays out inside myself), and no one has so captured the longing to escape and be loose among the unknown, as that very English runaway from England, Maugham.” Firstly, that is beautiful. Secondly, can you elaborate more on this East-West dance that plays out inside you?
Pico Iyer: Thank you for the compliment. When I wrote my first book, 34 years ago, called Video Night in Kathmandu, I moved quickly across ten countries in Asia, trying to see how Western culture (baseball, Hollywood, country music, tourism) was affecting different cultures across the East. In those days, when even China had only just begun to open its door, very tentatively, to Coca-Cola and bowling alleys, the dance of East and West was most obviously observed at the level of surfaces—Sylvester Stallone movies in the mountains of Nepal, say, or California surfers on Kuta Beach.
By the time I wrote something of a sequel to that book, one turn of the Chinese calendar later, called The Global Soul, I thought that the dance had moved within and the real story of the new millennium would be how we as individuals negotiate the East and West inside ourselves and try to create something greater than the sum of the parts.
No dance is always steady, of course, but as a kid of Indian origin, brought up in England and California, I thought I’d been given a rare blessing to have three different sets of eyes, three different ways of looking at the world, that I could bring together in fresh combinations or play off against one another. And of course I was part of a privileged minority, which has many cultures inside it and can move between them freely; I wasn’t a refugee, forced out of my home by necessity and economically and politically undefended.
I could never have guessed then, however, that soon this blessing of being able to mix and match the places within me would become so common and pretty much the reality of every other kid I met in London or Toronto or San Francisco, as well as almost everyone I might meet in Singapore or Hong Kong.
Already—and Singapore is a perfect example of this—our books, our classrooms, our meals and our conversations are so much richer for being able to blend English tea with papayas, or Indian spices with roast beef.
AE: A lot of your writing tends to be romantic, spiritual, lyrical. I wonder if these words can apply to Singapore, which is often marketed as modern, efficient, forward-looking. How would you respond to that?
Pico Iyer: When I visit, I’m less taken with Orchard Road, say—which you can find, at some level, in Shanghai or Santa Monica—than with the Orchid Garden, the walks you can take, the nearness of Sentosa, the fact that even in a famous hotel in the heart of downtown, Raffles, you’re amongst bulbuls and golden orioles and mango trees and frangipani, and have seven gardens on all sides of you.
A young Singaporean friend I met in New Jersey this year couldn’t stop, every time we met, listing all the places I had to see, since he is a lover of the outdoors and finds extraordinary birds and flowers and trees wherever he goes in Singapore. And when other Singaporean friends talk about the soul of the city, they seem often to talk about kampungs, a sense of community and the customs that abide even now.
I’ve actually always aspired to address nothing but the real world, the world that I see, and my writing, as in the two books on Japan I bought out this year, aims to bring realism and possibility into the same sentence. So I work hard to observe the human and cross-cultural reality I witness in the glittering malls along Orchard Road, while also recalling that a part of the beauty of the city, to a visitor from elsewhere—and maybe part of its soul—resides in Nature itself.
AE: What makes a good travel writer?
Pico Iyer: It almost goes without saying that the best travel writer is one who has little interest in travel as such, and that a so-called “travel writer” is much more a writer who travels than a traveller who writes. Any book that arises out of a journey will only be as strong as the urgent personal questions that animate it.
V.S. Naipaul, for example, is always trying to sort out the coloniser and the colonised inside himself, Ryzsard Kapusckinski was secretly sending messages back to his native Poland by visiting the oppressed countries of the world, Peter Matthiessen was not really after the snow leopard in his celebrated book, but after the more elusive and shy creature hidden in himself, especially in the wake of his young wife’s death.
Physical movement will seldom be so important as a record of what moves one at the core, and so may move a reader. Emily Dickinson wrote hauntingly, unforgettably, about light and eternity and death and love and terror without leaving her house for 26 years. Someone like Annie Dillard can write more transportingly about the hills of Virginia than the rest of us can about North Korea or Tibet.
If you want to be a travel writer, I’d recommend making your subject as focused and detailed as possible, drawing on some aspect of your passion, your background or your experience that opens a door that would be closed to most of the rest of us. And never make the travel the heart of the matter, especially now that anyone who reads a book can see the remotest corners of Namibia or Cuba online, but rather ask of yourself a question on which you feel your entire life depends.
AE: How has travel writing changed over the years, and how has it changed you?
Pico Iyer: I haven’t written much about travel, alas, since 1993, but in the two books I brought out in 2019 about Japan, I tried to explain how spending 32 years in and around Kyoto, I’ve tried to learn how to listen more attentively, how to speak much less, how to define myself in terms of the community around me rather than in terms of an individual alone. I moved to Japan, from New York City, as one might seek out a wise elder, who has been living with earthquake and warfare and tsunami and loss for 1400 years or more. So in travelling to Japan, I was trying to learn qualities—of quiet, and invisibility, and dissolving of the self—that I didn’t think my British or American universities had trained me in so much.
And I would say, as a reader, that travel writing has grown much more exciting in the course of my lifetime in the same way that the world has grown more exciting: more and more of it is written by women (such as Kate Harris and Kapka Kassabov), or by people of diverse backgrounds, and what used to be a rather imperial pursuit now is best described by the title of the final chapter of my first book: “The Empire Strikes Back.”
When I was a boy, much travel writing was about the men (and it was usually, though not always, men) of Britain travelling around Jamaica and India and Nigeria, surveying the quaint ways of the natives. Though that continues still, of course, now we have more and more writers from Jamaica and India and Nigeria—from Singapore and everywhere—who can travel around Britain, remarking on the quaint ways and customs of the natives.
Travel writing grows ever more alive, electric, as the world moves in that direction, and what used to be a rather one-sided, one-way direction is now as all-over-the-place and multi-directional as a Jackson Pollock painting.
Read more about Pico Iyer and his work at Pico Iyer Journeys.