An Interview with Sjón

K. T. Billey

Photograph by Dagur Gunnarsson

Sjón has been a mainstay in Icelandic culture since publishing his first poetry collection at the age of 15. A founding member of Medúsa, a neo-surrealist group of poets and musicians, he wrote and performed under the alias Johnny Triumph—most conspicuously with The Sugarcubes (the band that first launched Björk to international attention).

Writing poetry all the while, Sjón next tried his hand at fiction. His novel
Skugga-Baldur (The Blue Fox, first published in English by Telegram in 2008) was awarded the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2005. Slim but powerful, composed in a poet’s prose and structured with a musician’s knack for counterbalance, the book exemplifies Sjón’s ability to weave the human and the natural world into a web of history and magic. His deft combinations of myth, folklore, and the strange-but-true echo the land he writes about. Invariably grounded in Iceland, Sjón’s novels send his country’s ancient storytelling tradition into a surreal, global spin.

His books continue to be celebrated both in Iceland and abroad:
Argóarflísin (The Whispering Muse, Telegram, 2012) was the 2005 Icelandic Novel of the Year; From the Mouth of the Whale (Telegram, 2011), the English translation of Rökkurbýsnir (Bjartur, 2008), was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. All were translated by Victoria Cribb, Sjón’s longtime English translator.

Despite Sjón’s novels having been translated into thirty-five languages, English access to his work came relatively late, especially west of the Atlantic. In 2013, Farrar, Straus and Giroux made up for lost time, publishing
The Blue Fox, From the Mouth of the Whale, and The Whispering Muse in the same year. The fourth to be made available in English, also translated by Cribb, is Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was (Mánasteinn—Drengurinn sem aldrei var til, 2013). Moonstone follows Máni, a sixteen-year-old gay boy in 1918 Reykjavík, a city rocked by the Spanish flu and exposed to unprecedented foreign influence. The book won the 2013 Icelandic Literature Prize and will be published in English by FSG (US) and Sceptre (UK) in Summer 2016.

While identifying chiefly as a novelist focused on a small island’s interaction with the great wide world—
Moonstone is no exception—Sjón remains an active jack-of-all-trades. In addition to plays, librettos, lyrics, and children’s books, he frequently collaborates with other artists—most notably his friend Björk. He was nominated for an Academy Award for the song “I’ve Seen It All” from Dancer in the Dark—co-writing the lyrics with director Lars von Trier. He also wrote much of the poetic biographical narrative that accompanied Björk’s recent MoMA retrospective. His twelfth collection of poetry, Gráspörvar og Ígulker (House Sparrows and Sea Urchins) will be published in late 2015. Former chairman of the board of Reykjavík, UNESCO city of Literature, he now serves as president of the Icelandic PEN Centre.

A few weeks ago I began an email exchange with this Scandinavian trickster, discussing his work, the evolution of Icelandic art in a global context, and the uncertain future of the Icelandic language.

–K. T. Billey

Icelanders often go by nicknames that are derived from longer given names. Did Sjón begin as a pen name or a nickname from childhood?

I was quite young when I started writing poetry and drawing pictures with the idea that they were something I had to share with the world—I can’t remember ever doubting if I should publish or exhibit them. As many of my heroes/models in culture had artists’ names, I thought I should maybe do so as well.

Among those name changers were the Icelanders Kjarval (Jóhannes Sveinsson), our Nobel laureate Halldór Kiljan Laxness (Halldór Guðjónsson), Erró (Guðmundur Guðmundsson), and the foreigners David Bowie (David Robert Jones), Nico (Christa Päffgen), and Iggy Pop (James Newell Osterberg), plus all the punks after Andy Warhol’s superstars who took on various monikers.

By exploring my given name, Sigurjón, I discovered that it concealed a word that could work as my nom de plume. By taking out the middle “igur” I became Sjón. As the word sjón means sight or vision, I felt that aside from serving as a mask, it put forward my mission statement that the poet should be the eyes of the world. Yes, that was how a fifteen-year-old kid in the suburbs of Reykjavík made it possible for himself to start playing the role of poet. And it also wasn’t far from one of my nicknames as a kid: Sjonni.

For me it was a part of the game. Artist names often help bring the creative persona into action. They allow you to take a step away from yourself and see where you are placed in the world. Then you interact from there, looking from behind, over your own shoulder.

You've mentioned that Bowie had a lot to do with your learning English. Which languages were around you, growing up?

My early influences were the Icelandic folk tales, the Belgian pulp series about Bob Morane, bad films, weird Donald Duck comics, and stacks of weekly magazines that covered everything from local current affairs to world history, from beauty contests to tales from the darker corners of the world (e.g. Chicago and Glasgow), and from Surrealist art to shocking news about the first transsexuals. Apart from the Donald Duck comics, which I read in Danish, I read all the rest in Icelandic. So it was, until I became a David Bowie fan and had to bring my English up to speed to better understand his lyrics and read the interviews in the imported UK music papers—Melody Maker, New Musical Express, and Sounds.

In the sixties and seventies, Iceland was very much exposed to Anglo-Saxon/US cultural products. Seventy-five percent of films came from the US or the UK and ninety percent of popular music. The films were subtitled, so we grew accustomed to hearing English from both sides of the Atlantic. When television arrived in 1966, it mostly showed programs and films from these countries, also subtitled instead of dubbed. On top of that you could tune into the American Forces Radio Service for popular music programs, and in certain places people could watch the television broadcasts from the military base as well. But there was strong opposition to this US infusion into Icelandic culture from the left side of the political spectrum—the Cold War in Iceland was fought quite fiercely in our culture. I grew up in a home that was more to the left, so I grew up with a critical stance towards foreign influences, and with respect for the importance of our own language and arts.

From the beginning I read poetry in translation—I even think I first came across modernist/avant-garde poetry in translation—and as my English got better by the day I began buying books and collections in that language, as well as borrowing from the city library. We have a long history of good English bookstores in Reykjavík and I benefited from that. The long-term effect of all this on me must be my interest in exploring what happens when a small society like Iceland is exposed to world culture (high and low) and historical events beyond its control.

Cultural infusion is a crucial concept for Icelanders, whose distinct linguistic and cultural identity was an important part of their successful struggle for national independence. Do you think the internet, with all its English, poses a threat to the Icelandic language?

For all societies with a language spoken by few, this is a great challenge. A whole generation has now been brought up with the internet as a given reality. We can already see a tendency among young writers to write in English. I guess this is because it’s the language they’ve been using from an early age to engage with the wider world and the world of ideas and creativity, and the step into that big market seems smaller than before. But these are mostly authors of genre fiction, possibly because they started honing their writing skills on fan-sites etc. They might be thinking: “Well, all the bands sing in English and go abroad, why not writers?”

The broader and more serious implications are for the language as it is used in daily life. Technology is moving towards AI and speech-controlled applications, and the companies developing it do not see preserving languages spoken by few as their responsibility. When the day comes that we have to speak to our refrigerators in English (which I believe is not far in the future), Icelandic will retreat very fast.

I use the term “languages spoken by few” instead of “small languages.” It’s a term suggested by our former president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, a great champion of linguistic diversity. She says there are no big or small languages and that translation proves it. If the Divine Comedy can be translated into Faroese, then the Faroese language is big enough to accommodate it—proving to be as big as Dante’s Italian.

On the other hand, technology has allowed Icelandic art to reach a much wider audience. This interview is an online exchange, for an online journal . . .

Yes, there are many examples of Icelandic culture finding a wider audience through the web. The band Sigur Rós is a good example. Their music traveled fast in the early days of Napster and other P2P file-exchange applications. But before the internet, Icelandic artists, musicians, and authors had already started traveling to try their luck abroad. The country was becoming known for its cultural output. So people were quick to take advantage of the new technologies to build on that growing reputation.

The mid-nineties also saw the rise of low-budget airlines, so contacts made via the internet could fairly easily be put to use organizing tours, readings, or bringing exciting collaborators to Iceland. All of a sudden Icelandic music, literature, film, dance, and art seemed to be everywhere.

How do these concerns of influence and identity shape the art you produce, and the avenues it finds to the world?

Most of my novels deal with Iceland’s relationship with the wider world, on both the political and cultural level, as witnessed and experienced by individuals who are not part of the powers shaping their world for better or worse. As the stories are placed in different historical settings—the seventeenth or nineteenth century, early 20th century, WWII—I like to engage with the language of the period. The result is a style that is shaped by a mixture of the dated and formal language of past and contemporary Icelandic. The same goes for the form of the novels; it is always dictated by experimentation that brings together the old and the new. For example, in From the Mouth of the Whale I opted for a stream of consciousness. It went very well with a seventeenth-century scholarly style that used constant digression to be able to put everything that was known about a given subject into the same text. It is very clear to me that I wouldn’t have been able to write my novels in any other language than Icelandic—so many of the ideas, scenes, and sentences spring from my dialogue with the Icelandic archival material I use to put them together. But, for sure, similar books could be written in other languages. And my amazing translators support President Finnbogadóttir’s argument by beautifully translating the novels into the thirty-plus languages that have accommodated them so far.

In the last fifteen years I have taken part in various projects outside Iceland: films, theatre, opera—this has led to more writing in English than I expected to do. I have written lyrics, librettos, interviews, and essays, but I always feel like a guest in the English language. The distance between the language and myself has produced surprising results.

As an artist, are you deliberate in choosing the cultures and languages that you expose yourself to? Reading habits, for example—not to get too mathematical, but are you intentional with your ratios?

I am of a generation that took pride in being aware of culture from the four corners of the globe, as well as the four cardinal points. A person of culture read South African poetry and Latin American novels, watched Japanese films and Indonesian theatre, discussed art trends in the US and knew the names of the latest industrial music bands in the UK. At the same time, we were quite knowledgeable about Icelandic culture and had strong opinions about what it had to offer to us. I and other aspiring poets refused the established canon and ignored the Sagas in favor of the folk stories, favored Halldór Laxness’s poetry over his novels, looked to the modernist Atom poets instead of the social realists in fashion at the time, and so on. And then, of course, everything started cross-pollinating, and my infatuation with French Surrealism helped me appreciate certain elements of the folk culture. I realized that just as I could use Surrealism to connect with poets from other countries where Surrealism had had an impact, I could also use Icelandic folk culture to connect with the traditional roots of non-Icelandic poetry.

Today I follow more or less the same formula. I tend to read more older Icelandic texts than new ones, and at the same time I read literature from across the globe. I mostly read foreign literature in English as it is the only foreign language I am really comfortable with, though I try to read in Danish and Swedish as well. My reading has very much benefited from the recent upsurge in foreign literature translated into English. This translation renaissance is mostly thanks to smaller publishers. I follow a number of websites that cover literature in translation and through them I have discovered writers I wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. One of the authors that I discovered this way is the Peruvian novelist Mario Bellatin, whose novels continue to amaze me.

The Icelandic:English ratio is around 75:25, partly due to the fact that in contemporary Icelandic literature, I am mainly interested in what is happening in poetry. In the last five years there has been a remarkable growth in poetry written by young people, with a great number of readings and happenings.

Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was is the story of Máni Steinn, a gay teenager in 1918 Reykjavík. The city is struck by the Spanish flu epidemic and exposed to unprecedented foreign culture through cinema. Your books often depict Icelanders interacting with their own land or the world at large. Moonstone has the world come to them. Was that intentional?

I’d been researching its three main threads—the Spanish flu, the history of queerness in Iceland, and the history of Reykjavík cinema during the silent-film era—for almost fifteen years before I wrote the book. Looking at the material, I realized that one character could carry all the themes. He is queer, he loves cinema, and he is a witness to the Spanish flu. When Máni Steinn proved to be the person who could take us through the autumn of 1918, everything fell into place. His obsession with cinema was affected by the flu, as the cinemas were closed once it became an epidemic. His male clients disappeared when touching strangers became dangerous due to contagion. The material started interacting in a very organic way and I wrote the book remarkably fast. How fast I can’t tell you because my publisher has forbidden me from telling anybody. Another thing that was different for me was writing the story from the beginning to the end in one stretch. Usually I write novels in pieces, dipping into the story wherever I like on any given day.

What surprised me was the same thing that surprised most readers—that is, how cosmopolitan tiny Reykjavík was in 1918. After the country attained its sovereignty, it became much more closed off. When I grew up there were three cafés and four restaurants in Reykjavík. In 1918 there were up to twenty.

Another surprise was how early the town became addicted to cinema and how many good films were shown during the early years of the full-length feature film. During the very harsh year of 1918, ninety films were imported. That means that every three days a new film premiered in a town with two cinemas and only fifteen thousand inhabitants.

You've spoken on the encyclopedic nature of novels and their ability to contain different manners of expression. Considering that and the diversity of your work, what's next?

I have slowly been moving towards a more obvious realist approach in my novels and I think I will continue to drift in that direction. But of course my idea of "realism" will stay informed by the major and lesser Icelandic Sagas where human life is always presented on all of its different levels at the same time. While the characters of the Sagas are uniquely revealed through their words and deeds, their interactions are true to the customs and values of the society the stories are set in, and dreams are used to show the workings of powers beyond the control of mortals. Poetry reveals emotions, desires, and fears in a poetic language that ties together the world of man, nature, and the gods. There is still inspiration to be had in those old sources, elements I still haven’t mined. In my next two novels I will also work with stories closer to our times and even venture into our distant future.

Is there a medium you've yet to try your hand at? New tricks up your sleeve?

I must confess that I love puppet theatre and would accept a commission for a puppet play without hesitation. I have some new tricks at my disposal, yes, but I am not giving them away before I’ve used them!

One thing I will not do is write a thick book. I have always admired stories that cut to the bone without much ceremony. My stories are really boiled-down epics—they usually take place in times of great upheaval, and they always acknowledge the size of the world even though they happen to take place on the smallest of stages. So that is what I will continue to offer my readers. I think of the novel as a whale you can put in your pocket or handbag. In some cases, it is a blue whale.