11 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Another thing I want to do this week (in addition to a special post about Icelandic cuisine) is highlight some of the as-yet-untranslated authors featured on the wonderful Fabulous Iceland site.

First up is Gerður Kristný, who I had the honor of meeting last time I was in Iceland. (Facebook friends go first! Besides, Gerður and her husband, Kristján Jónasson, are two of the nicest people ever.) She’s the author of 18 books, mostly poetry, but also novels, short story collections, and children’s books.

As mentioned on the Fabulous Iceland site, 2010 was a kick-ass year for Gerður. Over the course of 2010 she won three prizes: the Jón úr Vör Poetry Prize, the Guðmundur Böðvarsson Poetry Prize, and West Nordic Children’s Literature Prize. She has a new book of poetry out—Blóðhófnir (Bloodhoof)—which is based on an ancient Eddic poem and has been receiving a lot of praise. And that comment about being one of the nicest people ever? She also spent some time in Uganda recently working with the Icelandic branch of Save the Children.

Fabulous Iceland has a very nice interview with Gerður, which is where the following is pulled from:

Your newest book draws on ancient Nordic literature: The Lay of Skírnir in the Poetic Edda. Sixteen years before that, you dealt with the exact same work in the poem “Til Skírnis” (“To Skírnir”), which appeared in your debut. Did the material for Bloodhoof stay with you for all those years?

As a child, I fell in love with Norse mythology. I thought the stories were terrific. The tale of my namesake, Gerður, the daughter of Gymir, was an early favorite, so I lent her a voice in my first work, the poetry book Ísfrétt (Ice Report, 1994). Later, after turning in the manuscript of my first novel, Regnbogi í póstinum (A Rainbow in the Mail, 1996), I decided to celebrate by getting a tattoo. I had an old friend, the late tattoo-artist Helgi, tattoo Freyr’s sword on me. I’ve gone around armed ever since. I would later write a poem about Helgi, which appeared in Höggstaður (Weak Point, 2007).

The new book undermines the traditional reading of The Lay of Skírnir as a love poem. Instead, it highlights the coercion brought to bear on the giantess Gerður. Tellingly, equal rights have been a persistent theme in your work. There is a special kind of impact in subverting old traditions like this, isn’t there?

Equal rights are often mentioned in the pieces I’ve written for the newspaper Fréttablaðið during the past five years, but not in the poetry you are referring to. Scholars have covered The Lay of Skírni_r very well in the past few years, and no wonder – it’s a captivating poem that lends itself readily to interpretation. I find the coercion in _The Lay of Skírnir to be plain as day. Gerður Gymisdóttir has no more choice than the young girls I recently met in Uganda. Just like her, they were snatched from their homes and forced into the service of men. Skírnir bullied Gerður with threats, the worst of which was the threat of eternal loneliness, that she will only have death to look forward to. It’s understandable that this threat sways her. When I was little, I read that Gerður was counted among the Æsir – the Norse Gods – after arriving in their midst. At the time I thought that this must have been a great honor to her. However, if you read the poem you’ll see that she doesn’t want to leave her home and only gives in under extreme duress. The lay comes to a close when Skírnir informs the god Freyr that Gerður is on her way. I wanted to continue the story and relate what happened when Freyr and Gerður meet. And that’s what I did in Bloodhoof.

There is a strong element of horror in your poetry. Does fear fascinate you?

My world of poetry has always had very strict border patrols. However, fear was an early settler, settling into its deepest crevices. It’s stayed there ever since; I don’t think I’ll be evicting it by now. In any case, there has to be room for the whole spectrum of emotions. [. . .]

18 works in 16 years. Is more on the way?

There sure is! In late January, my musical Ballið á Bessastöðum (The Bessastaðir Ball) will premier on the main stage of the National Theater. It’s adapted from two of my books: The Bessastaðir Ball (2007) and Prinsessan á Bessastöðum (The Bessastaðir Princess, 2009). After that, there are at least two novels waiting to be finished, and I have quite a bit of unpublished poetry. In December, I’ll be heading off to a poetry festival in Bangladesh, and no doubt some of the things I’ll see there will find their way into poetry. I’ll bring a notepad along, sketch down ideas, and when I get home I’ll see if they’re worth anything.

17 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

The article I wrote for Publishing Perspectives about the Iceland Literary Festival (along with a video interview with Kristjan B. Jonasson, the head of the Icelandic Publishers Association) will go live tomorrow morning, but in the meantime, I thought I’d put together a short write-up of some of the interesting contemporary Icelandic writers I met at the festival last week. This is obviously an incomplete list, but if you’re at all interested in finding out about Icelandic literature, it will hopefully serve as a good starting point:

  • Kristín Ómarsdóttir has been a guest at the Ledig House and participated in the PEN World Voices Festival. So she’s not completely unknown in the States, although she has yet to have a book published in English . . . I think that’s going to change pretty soon though. Anna Stein is representing this poet, playwright, novelist, and art performer, and recently received an amazing sample translation of Kristin’s recent book Hér (Here) that is creepy and unnerving in a very compelling way. It opens with a soldier killing a family and his fellow soldiers in hopes of escaping the war and living a more peaceful life as a farmer. But it’s the scene with the eleven-year-old-girl and her barbies that’s really disturbing . . .
  • Steinar Bragi also hasn’t made his way into English yet, but his novel Konur (Woman) was a huge success, and quite controversial. It’s also supposed to be rather disturbing (the short sample I read hinted at some of the creepiness in this book), but in a much different way. From talking to others, it sounds like the sort of novel that pisses off a lot of its readers, but these same readers tend to praise the book in the end for having the power to piss them off so thoroughly. (Intriguing, no?)
  • Sjón is the author of a number of novels (including The Blue Fox, which was published in English by Telegram last year) and collections of poetry. But he’s probably most well known for writing the lyrics to a few Bjork songs, including “I’ve Seen it All” from Dancer in the Dark, which was nominated for an Academy Award. Phil Witte reviewed The Blue Fox for us a few months back, and called it “a pretty, touching, funny little book.” (Although he did have some issues with the translation.)
  • Gyrðir Elíasson has been published in English by Comma Press in the UK. I received a copy of his short story collection Stone Tree when I was in Reykjavik, but haven’t had a chance to read it yet. Bragi Olafsson gave it some high praise though, and said that Gyrðir’s writing was very quiet and subtle, and that his most recent novel was amazing.
  • Bragi Olafsson is one of Iceland’s most talented authors, and I’m not just saying that because he’s an Open Letter author. We published The Pets last fall to great acclaim, and will be bringing out The Ambassador next year. But it’s his novel that’s coming out in Iceland later this fall that has a lot of people excited. . . . A much longer work than his previous novels, the section I’ve read from this is incredible. Reminds me a bit of Flann O’Brien’s work, with a number of digressions and a somewhat absurd plot revolving around a guy who inherits a bunch of shoes. Hopefully we’ll be able to run a full review of the Icelandic edition in the near future.
  • Andri Snær Magnason works in a number of genres and mediums and is a really nice, really funny guy. He wrote a kids book that was going to be translated into English, but the Canadian publisher wanted him to remove a) the reference to eating seals and b) all the mentions of friends hugging. Totally mental, and we assume it’s because they were afraid of what Midwesterners would think. (And yes, I’m from the Midwest, so I know you’re not all crazy.) But Andri’s big work is Dreamland: A Self-Help Manual for a Frightened Nation, a book about the crazy free market economics that severely damaged Iceland and the impact these political and business deals have had on the environment of this beautiful, peaceful nation. Dreamland was recently made into a full-length documentary (I have a DVD copy and will write a review next week), a trailer for which can be found here. Andri also deserves a special shout-out for taking me on a tour of the totally abandoned “Financial District.” (And really, those aren’t unnecessary quotes—on a map of Reykjavik, there are various areas that are labeled. Places like Down Town, Up Town, Skyline, and “Financial District.” When I asked people about the quotes around this one particular part of town, they told me that it was intentionally ironic and due in part to the fact that the largest glass building in Reykjavik—a building that was supposed to serve as the HQ for the banking sector—is completely empty. It’s beyond spooky.)
  • Yrsa Sigurðardóttir is a crime writer with two titles available in the U.S.: Last Rituals and My Soul to Take. As most everyone knows, Scandinavian crime fiction is a hot commodity, what with writers like Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, etc., etc. During Kristjan B. Jonasson’s speech about the future of publishing in Iceland, he pointed out that Icelandic crime fiction didn’t even exist until 1997 or so. And that when he first read an Icelandic crime novel, he thought it was “total bullshit,” since there is no crime in Iceland . . .

More information about these and other Icelandic authors can be found at the Icelandic Literature Fund website (Agla at bok at bok.is is the person to contact for sample translations, etc.) and the Fabulous Iceland site that was set up to promote Iceland culture in advance of their being Guest of Honor at the 2011 Frankfurt Book Fair.

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