Singapore Writers Festival: Spiritual travels with Pico Iyer

Having attended the Singapore Writers Festival last year, I decided to head down again this year hoping to discover new authors and reads, and I was not disappointed.

Travel writer Pico Iyer was one of the authors whom I found myself engaging with, and the travel rules he abides by are intriguing. For him, shorter rather than longer trips tend to produce better pieces of literature.

“The longer your stay, the more likely you will form more prejudices that would color your writing,” he said. “Four days is better than two weeks.”

Throughout the talk, Iyer emanates the vibe of a Buddhist Zen master, revealing he goes into monastic retreats at least four times a year. Such inner peace and calmness are reflected when sharing his traveling habits:

(1) Upon arriving, walk around with a notebook to record the sounds, sights and smells of the place.
(2) Leave notes aside. Do not rush to transform these experiences into words.
(3) Sleep on notes for the next two to three months.
(4) Recall the trip and let memory serve as a natural filter to decide over the course of time materials to include in travel writing.

Iyer’s job as a travel writer seems to reflect his personal identity where he was born in Britain, grew up in California, sent to boarding school in England and is currently living in Japan with his wife. His background gave rise to his unique conception about home.

“Home is not a piece of soil or where you were born but where you become yourself,” said Iyer. “It also lies in the things that you carry with you rather than the things that tie you down.”

Traveling is therefore less about leaving home, but more about leaving our habituation to experience new things.Iyer’s words speak to the wanderlust in me for travel is often a way for myself to leave the smaller routines behind to embrace the bigger world outside. And in that vastness, Iyer found the joy of silence when ‘words run out,’ as he wrote in a New York Times article.

“Nothing makes me feel better — calmer, clearer and happier — than being in one place, absorbed in a book, a conversation, a piece of music. It’s actually something deeper than mere happiness: it’s joy, which the monk David Steindl-Rast describes as “that kind of happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens.”

During the talk, he cites haiku, the minimalistic form of Japanese poetry, as an example.

“In Haiku, it is the negative spaces around the poem that matters, saturating the text with silence.” Iyer said.

At the end of the session, I felt like an enlightened being, cleansed of my worldly soul and ready to take on the hustle and bustle outside the room.

Below are snapshots of some of the talks that I attended:

Discussion panel talking about cross-pollination between different literary genres. The panel features (L – R) the moderator, poet Grace Chia-Krakovic, playwright Alfian Sa’at and writer Shirley Geok Lin Lim

Discussion panel talking about preserving food heritage in Singapore. The panel features (L – R) Rita Zahara, Devagi Sanmugam, Chris Tan and Violet Oon.
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3 thoughts on “Singapore Writers Festival: Spiritual travels with Pico Iyer

  1. Oh I love that quote of home not being a place where you are born or a place to stay but a place where you become yourself. I feel myself at home when I am near trees, now it makes sense why. He sounds like an interesting man.

  2. Pico Ayer’s advice about not staying too long is interesting to me, since the one book of his that I have read is The Lady and The Monk about spending a year in Japan. While I enjoyed it, it didn’t grab me as much as I had hoped. Maybe I should try one of his other books!

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