Words Without Borders’ Earth Day: Iceland ‘On the Edge’

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Guest editor and translator Larissa Kyzer’s curation of Icelandic writings from the past five years describes ‘a harbor both outward- and inward-looking.’

At the Vatnajokull, Iceland’s largest ice cap. Image – iStockphoto: Tiziano Valeno

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘Fated To Watch Their Glaciers Vanish’
Just in time for Earth Day today, Words Without Borders has sent to its subscribers a reading list put together expressly for the occasion by Icelandic writer Andri Snær Magnason, “How To Write a Pro-Glacier Book.”

Magnason’s On Time and Water was published in the States last month in Lytton Smith’s translation to English by Chad Post’s Open Letter and by Serpent’s Tail in the United Kingdom. The book looks at the world’s melting glaciers, rising seas, and changes in acidity—making the news from Washington and many capitals of the world today quite welcome.

Convened by Joe Biden in the States, 40 world leaders have opened a summit, as Ellen Knickmeyer and Aamer Madhani report for the Associated Press, Biden himself setting a challenging pace by committing the United States to a 52-percent cut in fossil fuel emissions by 2030.

In addition, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro is talking of ending deforestation as Canada, Russia, and others are making their own promises, and Oslo, London and Washington are working together in a partnership on tropical forests. We recommend the running series of summit updates The New York Times is publishing as the talks go forward. You’ll find them here.

(As an aside, if you are among the many publishing and book business folks who are suffering “video ‘event’ fatigue,” you might appreciate Coral Davenport’s piece on the tech issues of a 40-leader digital summit. It’s a quick read and a reassuring confirmation, as Davenport puts it, that “even the world’s most powerful people are not immune from the Zoom-induced glitches that have plagued remote workers throughout the pandemic.”)

And Words Without Borders‘ magazine this month sees editorial director Susan Harris welcome guest editor Larissa Kyzer in putting together a major feature on fiction and poetry from eight Icelandic writers. Kyzer’s translation of Kristín Eiríksdóttir’s A Fist or a Heart (Amazon Crossing, 2019) was awarded the American Scandinavian Foundation’s 2019 translation prize. The same year, she was one of Princeton University’s translators in residence. She has co-founded Eth & Thorn, a chapbook publisher of Icelandic poetry and short fiction in translation.

Larissa Kyzer

Kyzer’s introduction to this edition of Words Without Borders is called On the Periphery: New Writing From Iceland. In it, she writes that Icelanders “are a people on the periphery, fated to watch their glaciers vanish.”

And there’s no question that the singular natural setting of the Icelandic culture—and all our cultures—can be found at the heart of her work in this collection of writings. “In late April of 2019,” she writes, “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 30 years.”

And ironically, she points out, while at the center of so many such signals of Earth’s distress, Iceland is a country that is “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.”

There’s even a canny advantage to this, she adds, in that such a diminutive geopolitical player can conceal a few social challenges behind the big landscape of the climate crisis. Her selections help surface such factors as queer rights, intimate partner violence, immigration, and migration.

But “these writings represent but a fraction of the excellent work by Icelandic authors,” she cautions, “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.”

In the April Edition of ‘Words Without Borders’

The April edition of ‘Words Without Borders’ features work by, from left, Bergrún Anna Hallsteinsdóttir; Fríða Ísberg; Björn Halldórsson; Steinnun G. Helgadóttir; Thórdís Helgadóttir; and the artist Hallgerður Hallgrímsdóttir

  • The Sea Gives Us Children” is a short story by Thórdís Helgadóttir, translated from Icelandic by Kyzer. In it, an island community has an absence of adults and an undertow of menace. Helgadóttir is a writer and playwright. Her theatrical work has been staged at the Reykjavík City Theatre, where she was the 2019-2020 resident playwright. She has two books of poetry forthcoming in 2021.
  • At Journey’s End” is an extract from the novel The Strongest Woman in the World by Steinnun G. Helgadóttir, translated from Icelandic by Kyzer. In it, an idealistic young couple volunteer in a Greek refugee camp. Helgadóttir is a visual artist, poet and prose writer. She received the Jón úr Vör Poetry Prize in 2011 and the Icelandic Women’s Literature Prize 2016 for her novel Voices From the Radio Operator’s House.
  • It’s difficult to calculate the influence of the missus of the night” is a poem by Bergrún Anna Hallsteinsdóttir, translated from Icelandic by Meg Matich. In it, a poet considers the need to protect the environment. Hallsteinsdóttir is an artist and writer who grew up in the South Island of New Zealand with Icelandic-New Zealand parents. She completed a BFA at the Icelandic Academy of Arts and has recently concluded an MA in visual and media anthropology at Freie Universitat Berlin.
  • Blue Days” is a short story by Fríða Ísberg, translated from Icelandic by Kyzer. In it, a young woman considers the limitations of ambition in Reykjavik. Ísberg is an author based in Reykjavík. “Blue Days” is from the short story collection Kláði (Itch), which was nominated for the 2020 Nordic Council Literary Prize.
  • Sinkings” is from the poem of that name by Haukur Ingvarsson, translated by Matich. In it, a poet addresses the connection between nature and humankind. Ingvarsson has worked as a writer, a radio journalist, and an independent scholar. He won the Tomas Gudmundsson literary price for his 2018 poetry collection Vistarverur (Ecostentialism). His collection Menn sem elska men (Men Who Love Men) is forthcoming.
  • The Husband and His Brother” is a short story by Björn Halldórsson, translated from Icelandic by Kyzer. In it, a happily married man tries to console his brother, who believes his wife has abandoned him. Halldórsson was born in Reykjavik in 1983. His short stories have been published by literary journals in Iceland and Scotland and have also appeared in translation in English, German, Italian, and Hebrew. His first book, the 2017 short story collection Smáglæpir (Misdemeanors), won the Icelandic Literature Centre’s Grassroots Grant. His second book, Stol (Loss), was published in early 2021.
  • In Human-Made Society” is prose poetry by Eva Rún Snorradóttir, translated from Icelandic by Kyzer. In it, a lesbian couple trying to conceive meet with condescension and mansplaining. Snorradóttir is a theater artist and writer working with independent theater groups since 2009, mostly with a group of three women, called Kviss búmm bang. She published her first poetry book in 2013. Her fourth book, Homo Romantic, will be published in the fall of 2021.
  • Magma” is an extract from the novel of the same title by Thora Hjörleifsdóttir, translated from Icelandic by Matich. In it, a young woman narrates the degeneration of her relationship with her controlling boyfriend. Hjörleifsdóttir has published three poetry collections with her poetry collective, Imposter Poets. She lives in Reykjavik. Magma is her first novel.

The ead artwork on the April issue of ‘Words Without Borders’ is an untitled work of Hallgerður Hallgrímsdóttir from the series ‘The Light of Day,’ 2011. Image: By permission of the artist and provided by Words Without Borders to Publishing Perspectives

A reminder here for fans of translated literature: Ten titles are available free of charge in the annual World Book Day presentation of international work from Amazon Publishing’s Amazon Crossing translation imprint. The collection can be had through 11:59 p.m. Pacific Time on Saturday (April 24).

More from Publishing Perspectives on ‘Words Without Borders’ is here, more from us on translation is here,  and more on the Icelandic market is here.

More on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.