Skip to content
Submissions are now open for the 2021 Poems in Translation Contest, judged by Airea D. Matthews! Click for guidelines and to submit.
from the April 2021 issue

On the Periphery: New Writing from Iceland

GOTO WARD SENT ROPY

thef utur ecan goto

hell andm eltt here

huma nkin dcan goto

thef utur ethe nrot

 

infa rawa yice land

thet ribe obse rves

asag laci erde cays

thes amea sape rson

 

sinc eice land only

bear ssan dand rock

itca nnot care less

ifli feis thri ving

 

when iwas five isaw

atow erin ggla cier

that late rdro wned

amon gthe drif tice

 
Kári Tulinius

trans. Larissa Kyzer

 

It was about four years ago, during the last summer I spent as a full-time resident of Iceland, that I read the above poem by Kári Tulinius and felt something crystalize in my understanding of the country whose literature inspired me to move across the ocean and keeps me returning to this small, weather-beaten island on the edge of the habitable world. Icelanders, I gathered—reading in between the poignant pauses of each of these lines—are a people on the periphery, fated to watch their glaciers vanish.

Certainly, there’s an underlying metaphor here. As a nation, Iceland is dead center, situated physically and culturally smack-dab between North America and Europe. And yet, in terms of actual agency, it is perpetually on the sidelines. This is a country whose greatest economic missteps ended up playing a key role in a global recession; whose volcanic eruptions have hobbled international travel and turned its tongue-twisting place names into mangled punchlines; whose sometimes topical (if ill-advised), usually savvy and self-deprecating marketing campaigns and Instagram-perfect landscapes have made it a bucket-list destination for travelers aching to experience the kind of “authentic” wilderness that is steadily, stealthily, vanishing. 

when i was five i saw

a towering glacier

that later drowned

among the drift ice

And vanishing it is. Because there’s a more literal context for Kári’s poem as well. (Fun fact: Icelanders typically refer to each other by their first names, even in print; I’ll be abiding by that practice throughout this essay.) In late April of 2019, Icelandic geologists made a shocking prediction: if current climate conditions continue apace, the Snæfellsjökull glacier—a towering, frozen meringue that can be seen from over a hundred miles away on a clear day and has inspired authors from Jules Verne to Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness—will have all but vanished within the next thirty years.

This issue attempts to navigate the space that Iceland occupies, spotlighting Icelandic writing from the last five years that engages with global socio-political issues, contemporary mindsets, and topics of public conversation from the perspective of a nation that is literally and figuratively on the periphery—at once very much impacted by, and participant in, these conversations, but still a minor player, without the stature, or power, to effect real change on, say, the international climate policy that will have everything to do with whether those glaciers melt—or at the very least, how fast.

The issue also looks at the flip side of this marginality—the ways in which being supporting cast on the world stage means avoiding the spotlight when it comes to issues that the country still has work to do on. (Who can bother, after all, with a few soiled socks from a country like Iceland when the US alone generates more than enough dirty laundry for everyone?) The scope of the topics explored in this issue is, therefore, necessarily broad without being comprehensive, running the gamut from environmental issues and queer rights to intimate partner violence, immigration and migration, and participation in international aid efforts.

Climate change and human impact on the natural world are issues of genuinely existential concern for many Icelanders and inform two pieces included here. The first, a selection of three poems from the longer cycle “Sinkings,” is taken from Haukur Ingvarsson’s 2018 collection Ecostentialism, which, in its nascent form, won the Tómas Guðmundsson Prize for an as-yet unpublished collection of poetry. Ecostentialism is Haukur’s own coinage, drawn from the original title Vistarverur, which can be read as “living quarters,” as well as being a portmanteau of the Icelandic words for “ecosystem” and “existentialism.” These parallel connotations—the urban environment, human habitations, the natural world, and spiritual questions of man’s place within these spaces—create the uneasy backdrop for Haukur’s poems, intermixing the corporeal and the spiritual to form, as the prize committee noted, “a continuum between the two.”

Dividing her time between two largely rural island nations in opposite hemispheres, Kiwi-Icelandic author Bergrún Anna Hallsteinsdóttir is acutely aware of the way in which one’s surroundings, natural or otherwise, have a tangible and profoundly physical effect on one’s body, just as they have an emotional or spiritual effect on the psyche. “It’s difficult to calculate the influence of the missus of the night” explores this looming absence—a meditation on the light (pollution) of the city, the darkness of the wilderness, and a reckoning with what it means to protect something you didn’t even realize you had in the first place.

If Iceland tends to be forward-looking when it comes to environmental issues, as a nation, it also has notably progressive attitudes toward gender and sexuality and has made a concerted effort, particularly in recent years, to champion LGBTQIA+ rights, not least in the form of 2019’s Gender Autonomy Act. The country elected Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, the world’s first openly gay head of state in 2009, has resettled queer refugees fleeing persecution for their sexuality, and sees roughly a third of the nation turn out for its annual Pride parade. But the work is far from over: queer youth still report a high rate of verbal harassment and feeling unsafe at school; queer families still face a variety of heteronormative pressures and microaggressions in their daily lives.

Poet and playwright Eva Rún Snorradóttir explores the latter in her ruminative “In Human-Made Society,” a poem from the deeply personal Seeds that Impregnate the Darkness, which won the 2018 Maístjarnan, the national award for the year’s best book of poetry. The collection illuminates the experience of being a lesbian parent, wife, and woman, the feeling of always needing to explain oneself within those contexts, and the external forces and authorities that dictate the parameters of one’s daily life.

The Imposter Poets formed in part as a response to such strictures; three members of the all-woman collective—Fríða Ísberg, Thora Hjörleifsdóttir, and Thórdís Helgadóttir—are included in this issue.

Societal pressure and the corrosive effect of empty ambition are at the heart of Fríða Ísberg’s short story “Blue Days,” taken from the author’s Nordic Council Literature Prize-nominated collection, Itch. The collection paints an evocative portrait of millennial life in today’s Reykjavik, a capital city that’s more like a very large village where the only new faces are those of the tourists who visit in droves every year and where one’s accomplishments (or lack thereof) are always subject to public critique and comment. Each of Fríða’s characters grapples with a different “itch,” an underlying and unshakable anxiety—the obsession with positive reinforcement, for instance, or, as she has termed it, the “anxiety of making it.”

An excerpt from Thora Hjörleifsdóttir’s searing debut novel, Magma, paints a visceral portrait of an abusive relationship from the almost suffocatingly interior perspective of its narrator, a young woman who has experienced profound trauma but is still bold enough to go on extended, solitary backpacking trips across the world, sexually voracious and unapologetic about it, and surrounded by close family and friends. But an unexpected relationship turns her life and personality upside down, as her new boyfriend chips away at her confidence, gaslights her, isolates her, cajoles her into increasingly rough sexual acts that she doesn’t enjoy, and more—all while mocking her outside relationships and sexual past, dictating the terms of her appearance, and openly sleeping with other women. In its simple, unvarnished language, Magma poses an unflinching answer to the question “why does she stay?” And for a nation that is routinely celebrated as the “Best Place in the World to be a Woman,” performing best globally in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index, it’s a difficult question to grapple with. But the stark reality is that gender-based violence and sexual assault have been, and remain, shockingly common in Iceland; the nation also has a startling low rate of reporting and prosecution of rapists and perpetrators of domestic violence. Magma was timely when it was published in 2019, but it’s become all the more relevant during the COVID pandemic. Reports of intimate partner and domestic violence increased as much as 14% during the virus’s first wave in Iceland and two women were killed by intimate partners in the first weeks of the nation’s lockdown, reigniting a national conversation that is far from finished.

At turns magical and menacing, “The Sea Gives Us Children,” by poet and playwright Thórdís Helgadóttir, is a masterclass in atmosphere, a sort of capsized and condensed Lord of the Flies with profound heart, and an allegory that eschews easy interpretation. There are no boats on Thórdis’s unnamed island and no adults, but an almost constant sense of unarticulated danger. It’s a story that speaks to the position that children growing up today often find themselves in: raising themselves in a world that is dangerous and threatening and absurd and that they didn't have a hand in creating but nonetheless have no choice but to adapt to.

An excerpt from visual artist, poet, and novelist Steinunn G. Helgadóttir’s 2019 novel The Strongest Woman in the World takes us to a different island—this time Lesbos during the ongoing refugee crisis. Eiður, the narrator, is the reluctant leader of a ragtag group of activists whose passion and commitment to social change he envies but lacks himself. The piece is an empathetic exploration of liberal, white, Northern European guilt and the limits of good intentions; how ethical, really, is a worldview that isn’t put into practice? And then again, how ethical is a worldview that is driven by a sense of obligation and the idea that one is in a position to save the world?

Complicity and inaction are at the heart of Björn Halldórsson’s “The Husband and His Brother,” taken from the literary critic and author’s 2017 Grassroots Grant-funded debut short story collection, Misdemeanors. In it, Jóhann, a happily married father of two young children, receives a call from his brother Böddi, who believes his wife Marion has just left him. Filipinos make up one of the largest immigrant populations in Iceland, and couples who, like Böddi and Marion, met on internet dating sites intended to connect older Icelandic men with younger Filipino women, are not uncommon. Over a cup of instant coffee, Jóhann listens to his brother talk about his relationship with his wife—all the while fighting to suppress the feeling that there’s something ominous about her sudden departure. It’s a story that explores regret, fractured familial relationships, things left unsaid, interventions left undone, and the seemingly small (in)decisions that can’t be gone back from.

These writings represent but a fraction of the excellent work by Icelandic authors, emerging and established, that could have been included in this issue. Together, however, I hope they give a sense of the breadth of the Icelandic literary scene and the way in which, for Icelanders, literature continues to be a vibrant site of social engagement and critique, a harbor both outward and inward-looking, on the margins of daily life and yet still, crucially, not.

 

“GOTO WARD SENT ROPY” was published in Exchanges in 2017 and appears here by permission of the author.

 

© 2021 by Larissa Kyzer. All rights reserved.  

Read more from the April 2021 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.