#DesiBooks10QA: Pallavi Aiyar on taking a personal and journalistic view of Japan

About the author:

Pallavi Aiyar is an award-winning foreign correspondent and author. Her latest book is, Orienting: An Indian in Japan. She writes a weekly substack newsletter on global culture called The Global Jigsaw.

Pallavi has reported from across China, Europe, Indonesia, and Japan and contributed to publications including The New York Times, Granta, The Monocle, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Sunday Telegraph, The South China Morning Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Caravan, The Hindu, The Indian Express, Nikkei Asian Review, and many more.

Her book on contemporary Europe’s crises, Punjabi Parmesan: Dispatches from a Europe in Crisis, was published in the United States as New Old World: An Indian Journalist Discovers the Changing Face of Europe. It was selected as one of 2016’s best books on Europe by Foreign Affairs magazine.

She is currently the Associate Editor of the online magazine, The Globalist.

About the book:

How is Tokyo, a city of thirty million people, so safe that six-year-old children commute to school on their own? Why are there no trashcans in Japanese cities? Are there really seventy-two seasons in the country? Why are Ganesha idols in Japanese temples hidden from public view?

Globe-trotting journalist, Pallavi Aiyar, moves to Japan and takes an in-depth look at the island country including its culinary, sanitary, and floral idiosyncrasies. Steering through the adventures that come from learning a new language, imbibing new cultural etiquette, and asking difficult questions about race, Aiyar explores why Japan and India find it hard to work together despite sharing a long civilizational history.

Part-travelogue, part-reportage, Orienting answers questions that have long confounded the rest of the world with Aiyar’s trademark humor. Tackling both the significant and the trivial, the quirky and the quotidian, here is an Indian’s account of Japan that is as thought-provoking as it is charming.

Part-travelogue, part-reportage, Orienting: An Indian in Japan by Pallavi Aiyar takes an in-depth look at the island country including its culinary, sanitary, and floral idiosyncrasies. #DesiBooks10QA .@DesiBooks


1. The desi book that made you want to be a writer (or changed your life.)

All About H Hatterr by G.V. Desani for its idiosyncratic use of language that affirmed the possibility of making English into an entirely personal idiom. It was funny, zany, and original.

2. The desi book that your own latest book is most in conversation with and why.

Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo by Anjan Sundaram, perhaps. Because, like my books, it’s a work of reportage by a “desi” writer about a non-desi culture that has nothing to do with immigration or the other more standard preoccupations of desi writings.

3. The desi book that doesn’t exist (to your knowledge) but you’d love to read.

Really high-quality science fiction that isn’t derivative or overly reliant on Hindu mythology.

“All About H Hatterr by G.V. Desani for its idiosyncratic use of language that affirmed the possibility of making English into an entirely personal idiom.” ~Pallavi Aiyar on the book that’s most influenced her #DesiBooks10QA .@desibooks

4. The desi book that you’re currently reading or planning to read soon.

Sonia Faleiro’s The Good Girls. It’s an up-close piece of reportage that reveals so much of the complexity of the sociology of smalltown India. But it does this by allowing the reported story to speak for itself.

5. The desi book that you believe is most under-appreciated and why.

It would have to be All About H Hatterr. The book is largely forgotten and rarely spotted in bookstores. I suspect it’s out of print. It’s bizarre really. I recall Salman Rushdie saying he would place G V Desani alongside R K Narayan as being equal in their enrichment of Indian literature. And yet, Narayan is a household name, whereas Desani is a faded memory at best.

6. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

When you’re stuck while writing, start reading instead.

7. While writing your latest book, how did you keep yourself motivated to keep going despite setbacks (if any)?

I wrote my latest book during the COVID pandemic, shut away at home with two elementary school children and a husband. I made it a point to have at least two hours a day where I could close a door and insist no one disturb me. It worked, to an extent! It must have. The book did get written.

#WritingTip from Pallavi Aiyar: “When you’re stuck while writing, start reading instead.” #DesiBooks10QA .@DesiBooks

8. With this latest book, what does “literary success” mean to you?

Increasingly, it means sales. Good reviews, literary festival invites, etc. are fun. But its impossible to write if you can’t make money from it.

9. How have larger literary citizenship efforts or the writing community helped you with this latest book?

I’ve lived in seven countries over the last twenty years and have never developed much of a stable literary support group. My cats are probably the closest equivalent. I do enjoy hearing from readers who occasionally write in to talk about how my work left a meaningful impression on them. It encourages me to keep at it.

10. What would you most like readers to take away from this latest book?

There is nothing more enriching than an honest, open-minded attempt to learn about and from an unfamiliar culture. It makes you thoroughly rethink your own.

“There is nothing more enriching than an honest, open-minded attempt to learn about and from an unfamiliar culture. It makes you thoroughly rethink your own.” ~Pallavi Aiyar on the main takeaway from her latest book #DesiBooks10QA .@DesiBooks


Pallavi Aiyar’s Orienting: An Indian in Japan is out now. More at her website.

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