The year 2011 is a big one for Icelandic literature. In October, the country will be the guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and Reykjavík has just been named UNESCO’s fifth official ‘City of Literature.’ But for many the main event remains the biannual Reykjavík International Literary Festival. It’s staged in early September (September 7–11 this year) and has for 26 years imported many of world literature’s biggest names, as well as featuring most of Iceland’s major authors.
Previous guests include Kurt Vonnegut, Paul Auster, Isabel Allende, Hanif Kureishi, Nick Hornby, Roddy Doyle, Haruki Murakami, Margaret Atwood and Henning Mankell—as well as four Nobel laureates: Seamus Heaney, Günter Grass, Jose Saramago and J.M. Coetzee. Herta Müller will be the fifth—and the first female Nobel laureate to visit the festival. It happened to be Herta Müller’s 58th birthday when we paid a visit to Stella Soffía Jóhannesdóttir, the festival’s manager.
I ask Stella how the festival will interact with the Frankfurt and UNESCO projects. “The festival and Sagenhaftes [Sagenhaftes Island, the organisation that oversees the Frankfurt project] will stage a panel where scholars will discuss new translations of the sagas. Then Icelandic authors will speak of how the sagas have influenced their own work. There will also be many publishers arriving because of the Frankfurt project, as well as a lot of German journalists and other media people. So it’s a very fruitful co-operation. Regarding the UNESCO project, one main criteria for Reykjavík being a UNESCO City of Literature is that we have a proper international literary festival, so that should strengthen the festival. But it’s all quite recent and I don’t know what the next steps will be, whether it will be annual in the future or if some other changes might occur.”
But are there any special themes at this festival? According to Stella, the Nordic literary heritage and modern Nordic literature are the only pre-decided themes but as we go over the schedule other themes appear, even if no one planned them. The first theme I noticed was an emphasis on feminist authors, such as the aforementioned Herta Müller, Egyptian novelist and human rights activist Nawal El Saadawi (who will be interviewed by Ingibjörg Sólrún, former mayor of Reykjavík and later Minister for Foreign Affairs) and Swedish author Sara Stridsberg. Sara wrote a fictional account of Valerie Solanas, author of the militant feminist SCUM manifesto. She also translated the manifesto into Swedish, but the Icelandic translator, poet Kristín Svava Tómasdóttir, is also reading at the festival.
A CITY OF SHELTER
And then there are all the absent writers. Icelandic author Sjón will discuss deceased Russian writer and journalist Anna Politkovskaya with Katharina Narbutovic, who is publishing a book about Politkovskaya this fall (Politkovskaya was mysteriously killed almost five years ago after being very critical of Vladimir Putin and the conflict in Chechnya).
“Later that night there will be a reading from her works. I don’t know whether we pull the empty chair, but I think this is a very fitting event, considering Reykjavík just became a city of shelter.” That shelter being the so-called ICORN program for persecuted authors and the first one will come to Reykjavík this fall. “It’s an international programme. Authors are provided shelter, get a place to stay and work without being prosecuted by an unfriendly government.” So are they in hiding? “Some lay very low, hardly leave the house, but many can be quite visible, it’s simply very different between different cases. Salman Rushdie participated in this programme and was always kept hidden, but that is not necessarily the general rule.”
The idea of the absent author was Sjón’s idea, and Politkovskaya is not the only one at the festival. Irène Némirovsky died in Auschwitz in 1942 but it was only seven years ago that ‘Suite Francaise,’ her novella about life in occupied France, was released and became an international bestseller. It was her daughter, Denise Epstein, who discovered the manuscript and she will read from her mother’s work at the festival. Finally there is the Icelandic novelist Thor Vilhjálmsson, who passed away this year and the festival is dedicated to him. “He was the founder of the festival and was always on the board. He had a big say in which authors were invited, he always had strong opinions on that.”
So how are authors chosen? “We call for ideas from different people. From the publishers too, we ask what they are translating or what they are interested in translating. Those sitting on the board have very clear ideas about how they like the festival to be and we also try to make sure it’s a literary event but not just the most popular authors; we don’t want to be swamped by crime authors, even if they are popular, that’s not the main thing at such a festival.”
PORTRAITS OF THE ARTISTS
But is it easy getting authors to attend? “Yes, it’s usually surprisingly easy. Everybody wants to come to Iceland, people feel it’s exotic, it’s usually not in the way but if they’re invited they are eager to come. The festival is also very special because of the closeness. David Sedaris visited two years ago, he usually reads to between 3.000 to 10.000 people each night, and then he comes here and reads for a hundred people. He absolutely loved it, to be able to talk to and connect to his readers.”
But why a literary festival? Are the books themselves not enough? “To get to meet the author and see him or her read, that’s always something special. To see them read in their own language, in their element … and also the interviews and panels, getting into the writer’s head and learn about their experiences.” It should be noted that simultaneously the text is translated on a screen behind the stage, into Icelandic for the foreign authors and into English for the Icelandic authors. Over half of the foreign authors have been translated into Icelandic or will be translated in the next few months; most of them are available in English as well.
Two photo exhibitions will run during the festival. One about the life of the aforementioned Irène Némirovsky, and the other features portraits of the guests of previous festivals, taken by many of Iceland’s finest photographers. But how has Stella’s picture of previous guests developed? “You usually have a pre-conceived picture of the author—then they come and are totally different,” she says and reminisces about J.M. Coetzee’s 2007 visit. “Everybody told us he was so cold and distant and never willing to do anything. Everybody was a bit shy in the beginning, but then it turned out he wanted to do everything for everybody. It didn’t matter what, he did it. He came to all the parties and cocktail functions, he read, gave lectures and everything.”
However, he didn’t give any interviews and Stella tells me Herta Müller is in the same boat. I can’t help but wonder if Nobel Prize winners dislike journalists. “Then there are always some prima donnas,” she continues and mentions an unnamed author who had high standard for hotels. “He didn’t find Hótel Holt good enough. So we drove all over town, checked on all the rooms … but these are the exceptions, most are very easygoing and helpful.”
Ásgeir H Ingólfsson
Originally published in The Reykjavík Grapevine on September 6th 2011.