Iceland: Giving new eyes to an old language
Icelanders see themselves as a nation of poets and readers. The rocky North-Atlantic island of 360,000 inhabitants has a literary tradition stretching from the 13th century and such a resistant language that the classic viking Sagas can still be read without much difficulty. Books are the most common Christmas present and the number of new Icelandic titles published each year is impressive for such a small linguistic group. However, seclusion and linguistic protectionism have long kept immigrant writers away from the literary scene.
“When I first moved to Iceland, people of foreign origin didn't have much room as writers. The few of us here tended to be tokenized”, explains Canadian-born poet and interdisciplinary artist Angela Rawlings who moved to Reykjavík early last decade. Yet the environment is changing rapidly, partially due to a multilingual writing lab facilitated by her.
“The first plant that colonizes a bare rock is moss”, says Angela and pulls up a notebook to sketch out her botanical allegory for the literary scene. “I think better when I write and draw at the same time”, she says, drafting a rock and threads of moss. “It takes a lot of moss to form good soil, in which primary succession plants can then take root.”
In 2015 Angela facilitated a five-month writing workshop, free and open to all women, regardless of their mother tongue. The organization of this multilingual writing laboratory was one of the initiatives taken by Reykjavik as a UNESCO Creative City of Literature. The capital of Iceland received this designation in 2011 for its active involvement in preserving and promoting literature, and as a result, also joined the UNESCO Creative Cities Network. One of the city's ambitions is to reach a more diverse audience by developing the literary scene.
Even though Iceland is still a relatively homogenous nation, its population has changed drastically in the past few decades. In the late 1990s only two per cent of the inhabitants were first or second generation immigrants. The inhabitants were still almost exclusively white, had traditional patronymic surnames ending with -son or -dóttir, and spoke Icelandic. A quarter of a century later the number of immigrants has risen to sixteen per cent. In terms of integration and representation in politics and culture, this rapid change has posed various challenges.
The multilingual writing lab was held at a library in Breiðholt, which is the most ethnically and linguistically diverse neighbourhood in Reykjavik. Women from all walks of life attended the event. Some were experienced writers, some were total beginners, some dreamed of publishing books, and others joined just for the fun of it. These 15 women speaking 22 different languages met weekly and shared their writing with each other. Angela admits that this linguistic diversity called for an untraditional approach to listening, reading and giving feedback. “There are ways of dealing with the sensorial materiality of text, where the focus isn't on semantics or meaning-making.”
One of the participants was Ewa Marcinek, originally from the city of Wroclaw in Poland. Following a breakup, she moved abroad and eventually settled in Reykjavík, where she found work in the service sector and struggled to learn the language. “I saw the workshop as an opportunity to be around like-minded women, and I felt welcome because I knew I could participate without speaking Icelandic”, she says.
Multilingual literary journal
In the end, the workshop was more than just a one-time event; it became a movement that still continues today. A strong community was created during the semester and many of the women kept meeting regularly after it ended. The collective soon started hosting poetry events under the name Ós ("river mouth" in Icelandic). Because they struggled to understand the local literary journals, all published in Icelandic, they simply founded their own, Ós – The Journal. “We asked ourselves: who will be interested in publishing texts in English or Polish or Spanish? And who is interested in the voices of female immigrants? We just felt that nothing would happen unless we'd do it ourselves”, says Ewa. Around 30 authors are published in each issue, so today, up to 180 writers have had their texts published in different languages.
Ós completely changed the literary scene for international newcomers in Iceland. Now they had a place to publish their work no matter their language. This was already the case when Venezuelan-born Helen Cova arrived. She had fallen in love while on a holiday in Iceland, and decided to move to the small Nordic island and get married. Being a writer had been a dream of hers in Caracas, but she had never considered it as a viable career option. When she told some Icelandic friends about her idea for a children's book she was immediately pointed towards Ós, this multilingual platform and community of foreign immigrant writers.
“This made things a lot easier for me. Ós Pressan was already there, I didn't have to create it”, Helen reflects through a webcam from her home in Flateyri, a fishing village of around 250 inhabitants located in the Western fjords. Thanks to Ós, she heard about a multilingual writing lab facilitated by Angela in 2019. It was a revelation to her to realize that mixing and exploring different languages, even broken Icelandic, was permitted. “As an immigrant you naturally tend to do this mixing, but it is important to realize that this is actually OK in literature. This is why these workshops are so valuable: they make you feel confident.” Her surrealistic microstories were released last year under the title Autosarcophagy, to eat oneself. This was the first book published under the umbrella of Ós, written in English but also available translated in Icelandic.
Opening doors for the next generation
The face of Icelandic literature is changing. Books and collections by foreign-born writers without the traditional surnames are now published. More broadly, Icelandic music, theater, cinema and visual arts are becoming more diverse, more accents are being heard and people of colour can now make their voices heard. Angela says this is something to be celebrated: “It can give new eyes to a language that has such a long history, and it can extend its usage. More people are using Icelandic – and loving it.”
Ewa goes further and says that the vitality of the culture is dependent on the inclusion of immigrants. “Culture and arts should reflect reality. A culture that ignores 15 per cent of its population cannot thrive. Immigration should be seen as an opportunity: it is not a threat to the culture but an enrichment of it.” Her first poetry book, Iceland Polished, mixes English, Polish and Icelandic to describe the immigrant experience. Iceland's largest publishing house published the book earlier this year – making it one of the first books written by a Polish-Icelandic author in the country, despite the fact that Poles are the biggest minority in Iceland. Ewa hopes that her example will inspire others. “If there is a Polish teenager out there who reads in the newspaper that a Polish author has been published, this can give them hope. That's why it is so important that these different texts and names are present in the cultural life.”