by Devanshi Khetarpal
There was nothing unusual about the day we met. But I’d left my apartment early to reach Auður’s hotel on time. We were meeting in the lobby and I was hoping for it to be quiet. I stopped at a cafe to grab a cup of coffee on my way and to flip through the pages of her book, Quake. I wanted to be reacquainted with my first contact with the book. It attracted me as soon as I stepped into my favorite bookstore, Three Lives and Co., a few weeks ago. A story about a woman losing her memory sounded interesting. And Auður was an Icelandic writer I knew of, but hadn’t read before. I bought the book without giving it too much thought. But little did I know that the book would be more than that. Like any great book, it starts to show you its true self outside its confines, margins, structures and plots. I felt, as I turned the pages more and more feverishly, that the ground beneath me was shaking. I was thinking about Saga, her name and her being. Who is she or isn’t she? Reading Quake is like gaining pleasure, in slow currents, from feeling estranged in a way. In Meg Matich’s translation, many words were left in the original Icelandic, and I felt as though I was sleeping with a stranger. I felt that kind of pleasure: page after page filled with thrill and risk, pain and doubt, worry and secrecy. I felt good and bad, exposed and enconscened within the safety and structure of the narrative.
And I was all the more fascinated after I attended the book launch at McNally Jackson Seaport a week ago. It was a small audience who knew what they were there for. Everyone listened carefully, attentively, and thoughtfully. Like Meg Matich said during the event, it felt like we were in a living room. And I was in my own head, remembering my time at Siglufjordur when I was eighteen, how Icelandic literature changed me and made me think about translation and literature in translation in ways I never imagined. I asked Auður to sign my copy of Quake, and wondered if I could meet her for an interview. I was excited when she agreed. It’s been a few years since I’ve interviewed a writer in-person, let alone one as important and unique as Auður.
So here is the history and the setting: a hotel lobby in Manhattan, two women on a couch talking. It is 10am and we begin talking. I hope you join us.
You mentioned during the talk that you started writing when your dog died, and I wondered if you could tell us a bit more about the dog and how you started writing after that.
Yeah, I had a dog and I, I really loved my dog. And I was a child when he died. And I just remember it was so soothing to write. It was like, you know, taking some strange medicine or something because I felt much better when I was writing.
And I just remember this as a discovery. Yeah, that it was such a strong tool to have in life, right? Just a pen, it’s just magical, just a tool. So, yeah, these feelings were not so difficult after the writing as before the writing. So this was like discovering some kind of little magic.
And I think when you are writing, you are giving life to some kind of purpose. Or meaning. So it actually gives you some kind of control in life, because you are finding the stories in all the chaos. You know what I mean? It’s so hard to understand but when you are writing, you can understand it with your glasses and your pen.
And it’s striking because your book, in a sense, is about this woman losing control. And that’s what sort of struck me about…like, even when you said that in Iceland, you don’t have control over the landscape. Nature has control over you, and I am not a “nature person” but when I went to Iceland, I felt, for the first time, that there is some greater force that has control…
…that has control, yes, that we are also nature. We tend to forget. So the book is also a bit about that: the nature in our feelings, in ourselves. This piece of music— when the book was published, a composer contacted me and he asked if he could write a piece of music inspired by the book.
And he did so, and it’s called ‘Quake’ and this piece of music started to travel all around the world, and he got a really big prize for this piece. And always when they play it, they have certain sentences from the book with it. And I am talking about this because he is working so much with nature in our soul, or in our being. So that’s the reason he decided to quote this book in his work, and he’s actually making the music for the film, ‘Quake.’ The film is being released now, so he’s also making the music there. And I am also really into these things that we don’t have any control over nature, or… We are just born into this absurd reality.
[Auður laughs lightly]
Yeah, but there is a key sentence in the book where it says something like, “I don’t want to control others and I don’t want others to control me.” So…
…yeah, I remember that sentence. And I also think a lot about the sentence that goes something like, “We are part of our own fictions.” Because it was so fascinating to me, the point in the story, when she goes through her social media, her Facebook to see who she is…
…who she is.
…yeah, and it makes you realize the surreal, artificial, and kind of scary aspect of how we’re archiving and documenting or creating our lives and lies…
…and creating some kind of image of our being. Yeah, so it is strange we are always going outside to seek information about who we are. And, for example, now there is another book about the “like” culture [Auður chuckles], about seeking approval from others. But also, I read this in a German science magazine. It was an article by some -ologist and he was writing about this, and it’s just science that we are our own fiction because we remember things as it suits our personality. So, in a way, suddenly she just can’t do it the way she has done it anymore. Her body collapses in a seizure, an epilepsy seizure. And then, suddenly, all the memories that suit her personality vanish and new ones come up. Just like when you have an earthquake and the earth starts to break but you have a new landscape at the same time.
[We pause. I look down, my gaze towards the ground. I sort my thoughts]
And I think… um, I was also wondering how you managed that balancing act in a sense, because you were writing about things losing control and this woman trying to figure herself out again. And I think, in writing, we have immense control as writers [I laugh nervously]over what we write…
…Yes, yes, we have some kind of power…
…we have some kind of power! We can manipulate words…and um, so how did the process of writing this go about?
It was a bit difficult. I’ve written several books but it was maybe more difficult and, in a way, dark to write this book. It’s also a story about violence and trauma, how you become your childhood trauma later in life. So I had to dig deep, and I remember listening to a lot of Philip Glass while I was writing it, because it was like classical meditation music but it was like… I just always write. First, I start writing from all kinds of ideas then, you know, in the end, I am writing ten hours a day or something just to finish for a deadline. But I just knew when I started that I wanted to tell a story about a person waking up from an epilepsy seizure. Like, she’s born again and in a way, starts again from this seizure. Also, because I had epilepsy seizures as a teenager, so I always remembered this strange feeling. I didn’t even remember my name when I woke up, so it was like being recently born.
[Music plays outside]
And it’s interesting you use that word, “born,” because it’s also a book about motherhood and, you know…
[Two men enter the hotel lobby. They are loud and exchange a brief word with the receptionist before going to the elevator]
…yeah, and the fears we have in life. Maybe we always have this fear but it becomes so strong and you have no control. You have to somehow just agree with this, that everything can happen every day and you know, that’s just life. It’s different when you have a child and you have no control sometimes.
Hmm…I think what also fascinated me at the talk was how you mentioned that you didn’t grow up around conversations about literature and culture all the time, as people like me would assume. Because your grandfather won the Nobel Prize and I think, from what I understand given my conversations and experience in Iceland, is that he sort of revived Icelandic literature on the global stage again for so many. So do you think of yourself as an “Icelandic writer”?
Of course, I work with this strange language that only 350,000 people talk. And that’s my tool in life. But as a person, no, I don’t think so much about myself as an Icelandic writer because I’ve lived in four countries. I lived in Spain– Barcelona, Copenhagen in Denmark, Berlin in Germany and then in England when I was small, a kid.
So I always, you know— I am always the same wherever I am. And I have also been an immigrant in other countries, so that changes a lot. But it’s, like I said, the Icelandic is very Icelandic.
Of course, I’m working with Icelandic society, I am telling stories about people living there. Once, actually, I wrote a book that happened somewhere in Europe, in some big city and all the main characters were, you know, immigrants. It was like an allegory, so I also like to play with that. But you can’t escape it, to be an Icelandic writer…
…like you can’t escape being a woman writer, even though you just want to be a writer.
And, um, I wondered if you work with translators. Like, did you work with Meg Matich on this translation, or did you work on the film adaptation?
It’s different when you’re making a film or a play of the book, and that has been done with some of my books. And in a way, you’re making a new piece of art. So, the person doing it— you know, if it’s some director in theater or filmmaker— has to have, you know, their own glasses and be able to create because you have another kind of narrative in a film, and another kind of narrative in the theater. But that is not what you do in translation. I work as a translator also, and then you’re giving this piece the true outcome in your own language, you know? And in that way, like a writer, because you have to be creative in your language to be capable of bringing the right feeling. But you’re not rewriting, like into a film or play. But yes, I met Meg several times and she was a creative translator and coworking with my publisher. And it’s the first time I published a book in the United States so it was a different procedure from it being published in Germany or Denmark, but my work has also been published in Arabic so I have no control over the text, or anything.
[We laugh in spasmodic bursts]
But it’s always an interesting procedure. Like, in Germany, my translator is my friend who has translated other books but he’s also a writer, and then we can have a very interesting debate when we’re meeting over the scripts. Sometimes, in translations, you have things that are not working. People just don’t know what you’re talking about or their sense of humor is just not going to grab something. There is a difference between nations regarding many things.
Yeah, I think that’s what surprised me about Meg’s translation of your book because, for someone who doesn’t know Icelandic, she retained a lot of words from the original. You know, even words for “yes” were retained in Icelandic and it got me thinking because I am not used to seeing that on paper. You know, I am used to seeing, maybe “yes” in French, or “yes” in Spanish and Italian…
[The phone rings. The receptionist answers. His greeting is rehearsed, lively but restrained]
…but not in Icelandic…
…yeah, not in Icelandic.
I remember this from books, like reading something in Jamaican English and suddenly there’s a Jamaican phrase and I like that a lot. You can feel it.
[It sounds like the receptionist has answered someone’s question. He says “All right. See you soon” and puts down the phone]
And I think it’s a pleasure to know that you’re reading a book in translation through the way in which language is preserved.
Yes, it’s like a ticket to a new country when you read in translation.
[Two men walk into the hotel and head confidently towards the elevator]
You know, it’s your first time being published in America, like you said. Have you heard from readers so far?
Yes, very positive and nice things. So I am really glad. And, yeah, I had some good reviews in Publisher’s Weekly and so on, and European Literature Network. So I am just really happy to hear from people, and it’s always nice when you’re telling a story and you have the feeling that people living in another environment are mirroring this or they can find themselves in the story somehow.
And is this your first time in New York, or…
I’ve been here once before, four years ago, when there was a book published of short stories by Icelandic writers. And then we were reading in the Scandinavia House and I was there.
Hmm, do you like this city?
I love it!
What do you like about it?
I love most just to stroll around and see people from all over the world. That’s like— I love to live in other countries and meet people from the whole planet [more guests pass by, talking. It seems like a busy day]and see all kinds of people. So this is like heaven.
[We laugh. This is the best review New York has received]
And I also wondered if there’s something maybe in the Icelandic language or with writing that, you know, you’re still trying to explore, or you don’t know enough about or that you’re trying to answer, or that escapes you in some way.
You can really use a language to explore. And we’re living in a world where all our ideas and ideologies and techniques are constantly changing our vocabulary and at the same time, our way of thinking. And words are the tools that change our thinking. So when I am constantly working with the language, I have to create new words in Icelandic from foreign words, or find new words, or find something that grabs [more conversation in the background. I can’t make out what they’re saying though I could, if I tried]this part of the new reality at the moment. So when I teach creative writing, I often say that we can use the pen as a tool to understand, to write to understand and to, you know, create this complicated reality in our way.
[We pause for a few seconds. Someone shouts “thank you”]
And we lack a lot of words in Icelandic. Like, English is spoken by so many people and maybe you use one word here, but in Icelandic, you have to use four words to describe. Like, when Saga wakes up from an epilepsy attack, she doesn’t remember how to phrase some things.
[Another group of people leave the hotel, yelling “thank you.” “See you soon,” the receptionist replies]
And I remember this since I had epilepsy attacks, you know, seizures. So she always has to find within this lack of words, in this condition. So it’s also a bit like sometimes how an Icelandic writer has to work, because you want to use this word, but you don’t have a name for it in Icelandic, so you have to create a new word or say that thing in translation.
Has your experience in translation helped you with that?
Yes, especially with languages related to Icelandic– Danish and German. And I sometimes find words and then try to rewrite them the Icelandic way.
I wanted to ask if there are any writers that influence you or that are writing currently, or that you grew up reading?
In Iceland or abroad, or both?
There are many writers. I was really fond of writers from South America, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabelle Allende, and so on. I was always into, you know, big, fat novels, like Günter Grass. And also the Russian writers like Bulgakov and Gogol. A bit absurd, those writers. I just read everything I could find when I was a kid. Also, some writers from Japan like Haruki Murakami and Yoko Tawada. I really like her. But in terms of recent books, I was really fond of The Vegetarian.
Oh, yes! Yeah!
I don’t know if I mentioned it, but it’s a book that inspired me in recent years. I’ve mentioned The Vegetarian and a book by Yoko Tawada about a female polar bear writing herself, her story as a refugee in Berlin [Memoirs of a Polar Bear]. I don’t know the name in English but I read that one in Icelandic from German, but I would like to mention these.
And Zadie Smith. I’ve always been really fond of Zadie Smith, and also the book Americanah…
Yeah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie…
…yeah, by the Nigerian writer. I remember I was really inspired by that.
…yeah, Zadie Smith teaches at NYU, where I study.
Oh, that must be great!
Yeah, so she’s frequently in the writers’ house or around campus.
Yeah, that’s so funny because my friend lives in Manhattan. She’s lived here for ten years. And we’ve written a book together and a short film, and so on. And we had this book club and she was here, and I was in Iceland. And we decided to read a book by Zadie Smith. So I went to a bookstore in Iceland and bought the book and then, I sent her a message and said, “I have Zadie Smith now” and she said, “yes, me as well.” And I said, “Did you already buy the book?” And she said, “No, I am in Central Park and she’s just sitting beside me.”
[We both laugh]
Is it different for you working with friends who are translators, or when you collaborate?
Yes, there’s an understanding. Mostly I’ve worked with Christa who has translated two books into German, and then my Danish publisher, he’s a brilliant and an experienced editor. And when you have this trust and you know that the person really is experienced, then it can be a really creative and good procedure. And you always learn something new working with a new person, you know. You always gain some new information and insight.
There’s one more theme, also, in this book about the body as an attacker. How the body attacks. As like, you know, some crazy person you meet in the dark, following you in the street and trying to rape you, or something like that. Our body is capable of attacking us, so I’m playing with this a bit.
I think that that theme really…I think when I picked up your book, I thought it was about memory. And I didn’t anticipate the body, really, to play such a huge role. And it was also, of course, a woman’s body which is always different because women’s bodies always occupy and play such complex places or roles in history and society. And I came to the book after going through a period of illness and, sort of, wondering about the body. When you mentioned at the event, that phrase about a body attacking itself, it really resonated with me.
Ah, was it something serious?
Yeah, I am recovering from anorexia. So I think I was sort, of like— and my body’s changing and my body image– I am gaining weight, there were medical complications earlier.
And then, there is such a strong connection between the mind and the body. So that is a bit like epilepsy. You can actually write the same story with anorexia.
And it is also like that, that our trauma or the things we experience, they are in our veins and in our body and muscles and reflexes. And sometimes we even become ill because we have some kind of trauma. So I think it’s really interesting to explore this.
Mhm, and I was wondering, because you got published with Dottir Press, which is a feminist publishing house. Did that feel good to be published by them? I mean, I imagine it did…
…Yes, it does feel good. We have really strong feminist voices in Iceland and a really strong and colorful debate in many perspectives. And it has been so for many years. So I think that we have a very good feminist discourses, so yeah, that’s really something I am just happy with.
…yeah, I really loved that too. Because you were writing about a woman, you were also writing about motherhood— and there has actually been a renewed conversation around motherhood because we had the movies The Lost Daughter and Parallel Mothers this past year and a lot more contemporary writing about motherhood recently.
Yeah, and also, I’ve written a lot about motherhood, but also in a new book published in Iceland several months ago. That is a lot about the body’s shame, or how women carry this body-shame feeling. And that is about a woman and her, her relationship with her body through life and she has some personal relationships, but it’s also like Quake, like conversations with her body because there is…there is always so…everybody is so opinionated about the female body.
Oh, yes! It’s really tiring… [we chuckle]
…it’s really tiring. But so, yeah, I am playing and exploring the female body.
Right, I hope more of your books are translated and available for us here. I really loved this one. But I wondered if you have any advice for young, emerging writers?
That is to write and write. And also, to believe.
I think people are often afraid or stuck because they start to write and then it’s not perfect right away. And then, they just stop. So I always tell people not to stop, but to continue and to write a lot of chaos. And then, you have to somehow find your way out of the chaos. But you can always come back so very often in the rewriting. But if you’re too perfect in the beginning and never get into the chaos and the crazy ideas, you have to be able to flow. And if you flow, and if you’re not thinking too much or writing, then we get all that juicy stuff. So it’s really necessary not to think too much.
[I laugh nervously as if I’ve been exposed]
That’s really good advice, yes. Gosh, that’s going to be helpful for me. But thank you so much for this.
Thank you so much. This was really nice.
Auður Jónsdóttir is one of the most accomplished authors writing in Icelandic today. Her novels have aroused interest in Iceland, as well as abroad, for their rare blend of incisive candor and humor. She won the Icelandic Literary Prize for The People in the Basement and the Icelandic Women’s Literature Prize for Secretaries to the Spirits. Both of these novels were nominated for the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize. Auður’s latest novel, Quake (Stóri skjálfti), became her most successful publication to date and gathered a huge following among Icelandic readers of all ages, strengthening her position as an important writer of her generation.
(Photo by Saga Sigurðardóttir)