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The City and the Writer: In Reykjavik with Kristín Ómarsdóttir

By Nathalie Handal

Special Series / Iceland 2014

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Reykjavik as you feel/see it?

Different kind of birds divide the neighborhoods of Reykjavík, mine is the territory of the singing thrush, þröstur in Icelandic, also a common male name. The bird is rather silent in the surrounding gardens, except in autumn. The seashore is the home, the kingdom, of the ravens, the ducks; the seagull reigns over the downtown and midtown area, the lake, and the harbor.

If one travels by car in my city, day in and day out, week after week, one gets the feeling of being an important person. If one bikes to and from work, one gets the feeling of being blessed, by gods and nature. The walker is always alone, in her or his careless mood, with or without a dime. Reykjavík´s shadow is carefree. And one cannot stay in a bad mood for long after walking down Laugavegur, even if one entered the street crying, with a high fever or an allergy. This street makes you want to laugh, tell a joke, and run toward the sunset; it distances you from the ultimate Truth.

The landscape, human- and nature-made, and the weather of Reykjavík, have a strange sense of humor, which takes decades to understand, if understandable, only in the moment of one’s death, at the downtown hospital.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Being young and a teenager, walking in the middle of the day from one empty neighborhood to another empty neighborhood—no passersby, silent birds, blind cats, no dogs barking, nobody singing in a bathtub, no one wishing another a good day, silence reigned at the bus stops, silence reigned inside the buses. Escaping to the swimming pools to be touched by water to get an existential confirmation. Living as a young person and a ghost in the smallest of cities inhabited by snow-white people—but of course, a lot of punk music bands engaged by poets did play in dark cellars on weekends. Darkness saves the light.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

The backyards of the old houses, very rusty, dirty, unorganized places in midtown. You can visit someone there by going from the main street of Laugavegur, down an alley, down another alley, and then another alley and around that house, and find a very old second-second hand staircase and a beat-up door behind it, and behind the door, glowing darkness and lively conversations between friends, acquaintances, and strangers.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

The list of writers I admire is long and the key to the literature of my island is the language: Icelandic. Many more male writers have been translated into other languages than female writers. Recently, a translator listed for me the books he has to translate. He listed seven books by seven male writers. No women included. Women poets and women writers from here are very good and have greatly influenced Icelandic literature. They are experimental, they clear the path, they are brimming with resources.

White men emptied the white man’s well long ago. A story of a boy growing up to become a young man has been told so many more times than that of the story of a girl. The songs of the muses—women, people of color, LGBTQ people—are well-hidden but so beautiful. These songs echo within our ears. But oblivion is attracted to women, immortality is a fan of men.

But I don’t judge the heart and feelings of white men. What I say is also a cliché: this cliché about the white man. I welcome all writing, every book. Writers step into all kinds of worlds, not only the worlds they are the registered members of. I only want to point out the privileges and benefits that the first sex seemingly has automatic access to. Part of being a poet and a writer is being somebody else.

My language is spoken by very few, some prophets predict it will have disappeared in a hundred years. Writers here are active and work hard, due to post colonial syndrome, a very fine system of literary fellowships from the state, and the long dark days of winter and the lack of entertainment which makes them need to record their own lives and others’, due to a feeling of being part of a fog, being a fog, and wanting to locate oneself in the universe, due to the talkative wind, to the greed of the language itself—its need to be used, due to ambition and the need to end up as more than two sentences in an obituary—due to the parents and grandfathers and grandmothers and grand-grandmothers who kept diaries and wrote a lot of letters, due to love, to depression, to a lack of self confidence.

Is there a place here you return to often?

Mokka Café at Skólavörðurstígur. My mother was around when this café opened in the 1950s. She often took me to this café when I was a little girl. It is the only café whose fixtures and furniture have remained unchanged. They also hold fine exhibitions there.

I also go a lot to the seaside. There is a walking path by the Reykjavík seashore which leads to the neighboring towns. When you go for a walk by the sea, the weather changes in accordance with your wishes: if you wish for rain, it will rain, if you need a storm in your life, after 10-50 steps, the wind will begin to blow your hair.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

There are only statues of male poets in Reykjavík, and one is of Jónas Hallgrímsson. He was a poet living in Copenhagen in the nineteenth century, a naturalist and a follower of romanticism. He died young, his leg broken and infected. There he stands, his statue, in Hljómskálagarðurinn, a communal park which is almost always empty. But the arctic tern, krían in Icelandic, has the park under its spell from early spring to late summer. Poets are perhaps not considered people. Under this statue, in a flowerbed, one finds the feet of poets. The poets of Reykjavík offer the moon their left or right foot in an annual ceremony where young poets are baptized into the society. Ravens fly over their heads while the coronation takes place in late autumn.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Yes, the narrow and small kitchens, especially those inside the old houses in midtown, which are lined with bulletproof wave iron or corrugated iron. Late at night, and also in the evenings, and early mornings, these kitchens can get crowded with (young) people drinking coffee or tea or whiskey, talking. They have low-hanging lights because seventy years ago small women worked there from morning to midnight.

Where does passion live here?

One of these days these kitchens will be gone and only remembered by few, until they become totally forgotten. That is why I write and talk so much about these kitchens. And my words fall on deaf ears because the locations are doomed to disappear very soon. Passion lives there. Passion flourishes there.

What is the title of one of your works about Reykjavik and what inspired it exactly?

Milla, and it is a Reykjavík-novel, inspired by friends, acquaintances, and strangers, and these aforementioned kitchens, and the streets of my city, which wake up from blind darkness in April, and stay insomniac during May and June. The weather inspired the book as well; the sudden changes in the weather—we have maybe five kinds of weather in one dawn. And the novel was especially inspired by the rain, the moment a sunbeam traverses the rainy skies.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Reykjavik does an outside exist?”

I haven’t lived away from Reykjavík for longer than thirty months at a time. After eighteen to twenty months abroad, I start to miss Reykjavík and the language very much. Humor has a place and a year of birth. I sense a very strange humor in the older generation of people who were brought up here, and people who were born thirty years later in the same neighborhood inherit it, as they change and evolve this midtown humor. I was not born and raised here so I can admire it and enjoy it like a foreigner who enjoys champagne from Champagne.

Kristín Ómarsdóttir was born in 1962 in Iceland. She has published over seventeen books: six novels, three books of short stories, some include her drawings, seven books of poetry, and half a dozen of her plays have been produced. Her novels have been translated into many languages including Swedish, French, and English. She has won numerous awards including the Gríman-Icelandic Drama Award, the DV Literature Prize, the Icelandic Female Literature Prize. Her novel Elskan mín ég dey (I’ll Die My Love) was nominated for The Nordic Council Literary Prize. Her most recent book Eilífar speglanir (Eternal Reflections), a colection of poetry and prose was published in 2013. Ómarsdóttir lives in Reykjavik.

Published May 6, 2014   Copyright 2014 Nathalie Handal

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