Sharpening the Pencils: Kristín Ómarsdóttir Challenges the Structure of the World

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Given her prolific career as a novelist, poet, and playwright, I feel as if I’m late to arrive at the wonderful work of Kristín Ómarsdóttir via her newly translated novel, Swan Folk. Unfortunately only one other of Ómarsdóttir’s novels—about which she was interviewed here at The Rumpus in 2012—has, as yet, been translated into English. May that change! But those lucky enough to read her in her native Icelandic (or any of the many other languages into which her thirteen novels, poems, and plays have been translated) will find a writer fascinated by and in love with language, whose own enchantment in the act of writing comes through in her ability to enchant the reader.

Part fable, part character study, part fantasy, allegory, ethnography, history, cultural critique, philosophical exploration—Swan Folk takes place in a world that, though recognizable, Ómarsdóttir describes as only “loosely” related to our own. The story centers on Elísabet, member of the Special Unit at the Ministry of the Interior, as her life becomes increasingly deranged during a series of encounters with the novel’s eponymous creatures. The novel’s atmosphere is at once familiar—it is narrated, intimately and anxiously, in first person, by Elísabet whom we join as she is tasked with covering the stand-up comedy beat, tracking the themes and concerns emerging in that community via attending shows, watching YouTube videos, and taking copious notes.

Ómarsdóttir and I conversed via email over several weeks with our exchanges the highlight of many of my days. She had much to say about the beauty and importance of language and writing, especially now.

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The Rumpus: When discussing the possible origins of your voice, style, and interest in storytelling in 2014 with the release of Children in Reindeer Woods, you said “I am against the structure of our world, which seems to be raised by violence.” Swan Folk also seems interested in examining and questioning structures and concepts we often take for granted. I noticed the frequency with which structural, literal, and physical impossibilities, paradoxes, contradictions, or opposites were often brought into close proximity. For example, the weather is “neither cold nor warm, neither sunshine nor rain,” the sea is “neither ruffled nor smooth,” and, later, appears both “oldfangled and newfangled.” Even the opening sentence—“I came from a country that didn’t exist”—tips us off to the interest in contradiction and the seeming impossibility of language to precisely describe experience. Can you talk about how you’re deploying language in relationship to a sense of ordered reality—or in the service of resisting structure—(especially when novels, themselves, are so often conceived of as being such carefully made and ordered things.)

Kristín Ómarsdóttir: The protagonist searches for influences that don’t own a verbal description. Like a settler, she seeks for an expanse beyond words. Everyone has the urge of a settler. Every new parent is the first parent in the world. At the same time her feelings don’t find their name in the vocabulary. People and animals feel in an endlessly colorful way, and humans—with their kind of language skills—stick most often to the primary colors of feelings: glad, sad, anxious, etc. There must be something more—and there is. A language is limited and like you say: It orders reality. In the mouths of control freaks and murderers, it abuses and kills. They use it to control the world. The loudest voice on the top gives orders. I romantically believe that language itself is against its own misuse: Nobody shoots another person with roses. Lately I compare words with flowers and imagine that they have their own will and power. A writer treats language like one grows or maybe cultivates a garden. In writing Swan Folk, the language was fueled by some knightly force. For me it seems that language leads the dance and not me.

Rumpus: You point to a paradox: Language enables breathtaking possibilities yet also introduces profound limitations. Since, as you say, language leads the dance, not you, can you talk about how you enter into that dance? What is your relationship to writing, especially in terms of how it differs from or overlaps with the other forms of art you practice? How do you open your mind to language’s possibilities (or get the soil ready for the flowers, so to speak) when you’re making a novel? And what is the knightly force fueling Swan Folk’s language? Can you say more about that?

Ómarsdóttir: Yes, and I meant to say, a writer or a poet tends language like a garden. Yes, and let’s continue with paradoxes and leave limits to humans and let’s not blame the limits on language. Let’s say language is limitless, such a remarkable and smooth machine—vél, in Icelandic—with endless possibilities, like in mathematics—a vél [or machine] that plays with the mind and the mind plays with and contains endless playgrounds. And when you write a novel you invent a playground.

It seems to me yes, that the language is the dance’s leader. I don´t know if it is because I am not a transparent vél. The words arrange themselves in a force that seems to be kindled by everything you have read, felt, seen, heard, investigated, thought, misunderstood, and understood. I enter this dance by isolating me partly from life among people. And inside of the quietude that I train myself into, the writing starts. And that is partly what writers do: They neglect life among others for a special kind of solitude—that is where to fish. Very often I feel as a pilot when I sit down at the desk. I take off and land a few hours later.

While drawing and writing do I search for clues from the soul’s depths, search for the soul’s echo of the time I am living? I don’t know. Maybe. Most likely. But maybe not. I read, I watch, I listen, I spy, I wander, I research, I forget, then I close the door for a while and write.

Rumpus: And Elísabet, the Swan Folk protagonist, also wanders, works for a spy/intelligence agency, researches, forgets, and seeks solitude, among other things. Can you say more about the roles research and spying played in the creation of Swan Folk and its world? How do you see these activities functioning within the playground of the novel?

Ómarsdóttir: I did research on intelligence and spying in Western societies, and had been for quite some time obsessed with matters of that sort. But I did not base anything on true events. The novel’s connection with the real world is loose, no direct models or examples, as far as I remember. Underworlds are enchanting and often dangerous. A paranoid spy did motivate the story splendidly: This group of swanladies need Elísabet to reach out. And they seem to have two choices: to be exploited or to vanish—become extinct. They search for a path to survive without victimization, which most likely is impossible to realize. It was favorable for the writing—it energized it—that the protagonist was a part of the power, some elite! Although she is also an outsider on her own home ground—that was also energizing for the writing: an outsider that belongs to the axis of a society, its servant.

Rumpus: So, the novel’s connection to our real world is loose, but the question of how to survive without being victimized and the forced choice of being either exploited or disappeared both do seem to be very timely and important. How do you view your work’s relationship (or the relationship of novels and novelists, generally) to political discourse? Does the strange, surveillance state of the novel take its shape in part because of what you see happening in the world when you watch, listen, spy, and wander?

Ómarsdóttir: Yes, the surveillance state is already here: I live in the utmost organized world where my mailed packet to a friend is registered. I don’t want the post office to own an address list of my friends abroad, but it does. Institutions know secrets that I would not have told my mother. I need secrets. I need unregistered playgrounds. I want to hide my steps. It should be my right to hide my wanderings, don’t you think? Literature has from early days changed the world, it has been literature’s role to open eyes, open senses, broaden, enlarge views. It had power. Maybe this former role of literature doesn’t suit a so well-run society as this one here in the Western hemisphere. Is the control of views meant to be organized? Is there some space for literature in a world like the one I live in daily?

Rumpus: I certainly hope there is some space. And who needs an enlarged view, anyway, when all our heads are already overstuffed with “content”? Everyone seems to know everything already.

What have you noticed as the biggest differences in publishing and in the critical response to your work over the years you’ve been publishing? Have your motivations for creating and your hopes for the reception of your work changed over time?

Ómarsdóttir: Who needs an enlarged view? Yes—and everyone seems to know everything—and I am myself one of those/myself included. Art for some people is like psilocybin or therapy. I don’t want to or need to justify art. Art might be a totally unpractical deed, without any purpose. If I am sick, let’s go to a doctor. If I am lonely, let’s go to a bar. If nothing is wrong, let’s read a book. I don’t have any answers, unfortunately. I wish I had. I would flourish in giving them left and right as sweets and flowers. In the ‘50s of the last century there was a reading-boom, when my parents were teenagers. My grandparents’ idols were poets. Those times have long passed—or have they not? They sang poetry while hard-working because there were no radios or iPhones. In my lifetime, literature has not had this former importance.

Rumpus: Do you see fiction as competing against iPhones, streaming services, and so on for people’s time and attention? Does this affect your writing or your relationship to writing? 

Ómarsdóttir: Yes, and fiction and reading fall under this tsunami of social media, Netflix, Storytell, Audible, podcasts, etc. My friend and writer Vigdís Grímsdóttir says that her fiction and writing is her gift/present, to readers, and I write for the same reasons. [But] what happens if nobody is going to receive your presents? Do you continue sharpening the pencils for only yourself? Perhaps you don’t have this reduction in selling of books, reading, in your country.

Rumpus: The notion of art as a gift reminds me of the egg, gifted by the Swan Folk to Elísabet. The nestling, upon hatching, is immediately measured, tested, and has its vital signs catalogued by researchers in hazmat suits (and so the Swan Folks’ efforts to engage with the larger world—to offer their gifts and their very selves to it—seem somewhat fore-doomed). Is the novel, here, suggesting something about the difficulty and importance of making and offering gifts, and also the importance and difficulty of being willing (and able) to receive them? What do you think about readings of your novel that engage with it in terms of metaphor and/or allegory in this way?

Ómarsdóttir: Yes, if you say so, the novel does that. I hope there is a findable magical formula which can be put into novels and stories, one that makes the text shapeable and almost shapeshifting in the arms of different readers. I wish her–this formula–to discover me. And not in a way that the formula is only here to personally please anyone like sweets. Reading doesn’t classify with consumption. That the text somehow breathes.

Rumpus: When publishing, do you find tension between your ideas about literature as a living, breathing gift and the publishing industry’s ideas about marketing novels to readers? What has the process of having your books made available in the world been like for you? 

Ómarsdóttir: The tension is not on my part. I am aware that crime novels sell best and books that are advertised the most, books which covers are put on display in big sizes in train stations [for instance]. I don´t know how promoting people work and make decisions. In Iceland there is the jólabókaflóð, or “Christmas-Books-Flood.” Books here tend to come out in the late autumn and people give each other books for Christmas presents. On Christmas night, people used to read books in clean pajamas, clean bedsheets, eating tangerines. My books have come out in the jólabókaflóð and I do my best to read aloud from them at different literary events and take part in the promotion, so more gift-buyers will buy my books. That is the process. The writers here in Iceland are friends, and together in friendship, they take part in this competition. It is a game, which one takes seriously for three to four weeks, then punctually, right before the holidays, it vanishes into some haze and one has sold a lot or less or little. Publishers claim this game kindles the book industry. Maybe.

Rumpus: On the subject of introducing your books overseas: What’s your experience with translation and with reading and writing across languages? Given the centrality of language to Swan Folk, do you feel something is lost, altered, gained, changed, or otherwise transformed by translation?

Ómarsdóttir: English is a beautiful language with a big vocabulary, and I love the sound of it, but it is not my mother tongue. There remains a distance between me and the English language. I am proud and happy of the translations of my books. Thanks to translations, I have gotten to read literature from all over the world. I don´t have time and space to get to know a lot of people, but through reading I get to know so many more copies of my fellow human beings worldwide. I think that it is thanks to all the books I have read that I myself write books—like a pay-back.  Iceland is my garden. And it is great and joyful if seeds from my flowerbed are being exported.

Rumpus: Do you have thoughts on how the programmatization of fiction and of the arts might affect young writers? Do you have advice—beyond, of course, reading widely—for those seeking to learn? 

Ómarsdóttir: It doesn´t matter from where a writer comes—from which formal or which informal universities. A fine connection to life is very important.

The times of the male geniuses has passed. Nowadays the writers serve themselves; they have to cook and clean their mess. And in fact, cleaning is very inspiring for one’s imagination—my mind is free while sweeping floors. Writers should not depend on a partner to do the housework and serve them. For a young person who wants to become a writer it is good to visit and work at different places, practice the curiosity, go around, meet different people. It is natural for young people to oppose everything and they are naturally vaccinated against programmatization. The older might castrate the young ones, so the latter has to resist. Please resist. Fiction and poetry have to take care not to become industrialized.

Rumpus: What forms do you see this resistance taking? Is trusting one’s self and voice a form of resistance? What about taking risks? Embracing experimentation? Do you see Swan Folk, in its willingness to embrace strangeness and to veer away from convention, as a form of resistance, too?

Ómarsdóttir: I have to think deeply to be able to trust myself. If I live auto-piloting, I trust the authorities and my society for my wellbeing. One cannot put a complete trust in authorities. Let’s remember Chernobyl. Let’s not forget the history of the second World War. There exist forces inside oneself which object to oneself, for example, dreams. I love how different a person can be from the art she makes: There can be found an unbelievable and incredible difference between the artist’s person and the artist’s art. Your writings, your poetry, can so easily contradict yourself. Art streams from a different source than the speech of a politician. Convention and tradition are solid like rocks, like rocky mountains. One has to tend to the source inside of oneself, and that is not a difficult task. But yet I don’t know any recipe other than: Wake up in the morning and slip away from depression.

Rumpus: What are you working on currently?

Ómarsdóttir: Currently I do research for my next novel. I have a load of books to read, and [during the] next many months ahead I will solely work on research, until the reading has hypnotized me into a different era.

 

 

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Author photo by Sveinbjorg Bjarnadottir


Eric recently finished his PhD in creative writing in the University of Cincinnati’s fiction program, where he served as an editorial assistant at the Cincinnati Review. His fiction has appeared in CutBank, Sycamore Review, Tahoma Literary Review, Bat City Review, Bluestem, and elsewhere. More from this author →