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Sunday, May 24, 2015

Pico Iyer in Toronto

Pico Iyer redefined travel writing with his Video Nights in Kathmandu. Nearly three decades ago, he was among the first to help us know the evolution of a global culture, its fluidity, its impermanence, and its seeming rootlessness even though the American pop culture appeared to be its fountainhead.

By far, his most influential work, of course, is The Global Soul, which laid the foundations of understanding how immigration was shaping the world, and was shaping its new identity. In this book, Iyer argues, “in the modern world, which I take to be an International Empire, the sense of home is not just divided, but scattered across the planet…I begin to wonder whether a new kind of being might not be coming to light – a citizen of this International Empire – made up of fusions (and confusions) we had not seen before: a “Global Soul” in a less exalted (and more intimate, more vexed) sense than the Emersonian one.”

Iyer came to Toronto early May to deliver the inaugural lecture at the Global Diversity Exchange (GDX), “the think and do tank based at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University and funded by Maytree. Under the leadership of founding Executive Director Ratna Omidvar, GDX identifies and amplifies the links between prosperity, diversity and migration and anchors these in policy, research and practice.”

Iyer expanded upon the themes that are dear to him, and which he has discussed in his works during the last three decades. Migration, he said, has transformed the world gradually, and in the 21st century, in some respects, we are all migrants and we are all minorities. The new reality is that soon migrants would constitute the third largest nation in the world, although they would be dispersed across different countries, and it is these migrants who are shaping global consciousness.

He cautioned that although immigration has changed the world, it is not in a position to bring about an end of some inherent characteristics that determine identity. For instance, tribalism isn’t going to go away. If globalism has made some walls disappear, people have created new ones. He emphasized that it would be simplistic to contend that the new globalism was making the world homogenous and flat; in fact, the world is becoming more complex. Referring to the McLuhan ‘Global Village,’ Iyer contended that it “is a consoling term;” however, “we’re living in a global city…where the sound is gangsta rap.”

Iyer is a self-confessed admirer of Canadian experimentation in globalism. “No country is looking at globalism more honestly than Canada,” he asserted. He reiterated some of the contentions he had originally made in the 2001 lecture he delivered at the University of Toronto (Imagining Canada:An Outsider’s Hope for a Global Future).

I quote two representative passages from the original lecture that captures the essence of his position about the triumph of globalism in Canada, and Toronto.

“Now, as I walked around what seemed to be a concrete, physical version of what Wired magazine, in honour of Marshall McLuhan had called “mosaic thinking,” I felt I was seeing in some respects, a liberated England and an elevated America that seemed ideal for an Indian who came at once from everywhere and nowhere. I recognized the skepticism I heard in many voices, but it seemed free of the bitterness it might have carried in England. I responded to the earnest optimism and hopefulness of the place, but it didn’t feel as heedless of the past, and of grounding realities, as California often did. History was a given here, I suspected, as it was in The English Patient, but it didn’t have to be a confinement. I found myself exhilarated, too, by the quick wittedness and intelligence of a culture that seemed free of the competitive bustle and noise. I might expect to find in New York. Here, I thought, was all Manhattan’s software without so to speak, its hard drive.

I came away with a sense of possibility I hadn’t felt as I’d traveled to other of the globe’s defining multicultures, whether in Singapore or Cape Town or Melbourne, on the one hand, or in Paris and London and Bombay, on the other. On paper, at least the logic was clear: Toronto was the most multicultural city in the world, according to the UN’s official statistics and it was also, statistically, the safest big city in North America and, by general consensus, the best organized. Put the two facts together, and you could believe that a multiculture could go beyond the nation—states we knew and give a new meaning to that outdated term, the “Commonwealth.” Add further my sense that Toronto had the most exciting literary culture in the English-speaking world, and you could believe that it not only offered an example of how a country could be even greater than the sum of its parts, but presented visions of what that post-national future might look like.”

Among the two other observations Iyer made, and which must have resonated with the audience were:

·   I want to be defined by my passion and not by my passport
·   Home is where I’m going, not where I’ve come from

Subsequent to his lecture, Doug Saunders, the eminent Canadian journalist, chatted with Iyer.

Here's Pico Iyer's interview with Ratna Omidvar:

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