Poles Apart No Longer

New book released for Iceland’s largest minority
18.9.2012
Words by Mark O'Brien
A new book about the landscape and mythology of Iceland—the first to be published in the Polish language in this country—marks a new chapter in the story of a people which remains Iceland’s largest ethnic minority. Islandia jak z bajki (“Iceland as a fairy-tale”) tells the story of a fantastical journey around the country. Written as a guide to Iceland, albeit in fictional form, it introduces a new wave of Polish immigrants and visitors to the heritage of an island that has long welcomed them.

“There are many Icelanders who write—it’s a national habit here,” explains author Janina Ryszarda Szymkiewicz, who settled in the country having spent most of her life working on ships at sea the world over. “But for me it’s quite different. I was born in Poland where there are 38 million people and my book is in Polish. To be able to publish it on the Icelandic market I had to ask a Polish type-setting company to produce it.”

Icelandic tales

The landscape that she fell for when she arrived was unsurprisingly part of the inspiration for the book: every story woven into the narrative is situated precisely in a particular location on the island. Janina’s favourite stories include a mystical trip around the Westfjords, a journey through Svarfaðardalur valley; one of the most captivating she tells is based on the true story of Guðlaugur Friðþórsson, who survived six hours in freezing cold water off the coast of Heimaey (the largest of the Westmann Islands) when his fishing vessel capsized on a spring day in the eighties.

Janina is already working on a sequel, telling stories of Iceland from a different vantage point. But first she is bringing the book to Reykjavík, with plans this month to meet locals and share her work with the city’s Polish-speaking residents.

Marta Niebieszczańska, who manages Iceland’s foremost online news and information resource for Polish speakers Informacje.is, is looking forward to helping share the book with a wider audience: “I read it in one day. Now I dip in and out to remind myself of the emotions, thinking of all the different places.”

“It talks about Icelandic society, the people, even the smell of the water,” Marta explains. “We don’t have the Icelandic sagas in Polish, so telling some of those stories here makes the book a huge opportunity for Polish readers to learn so much about Icelandic life.”

Polish Icelanders

The Polish immigrants who have come to settle in Iceland over the decades arrived largely to work in the fishing and construction industries, explains Marta, but now spread their influence throughout Icelandic society—aided by the arrival of the wider families of those early émigrés, and the ease nowadays by which a visa can be obtained. “I know children of Polish people who have been born here. Their heritage will always be Polish, but they already feel it’s like a foreign country—Iceland is now their home.”

It is much easier to live in Iceland, Marta says. “You don’t have to worry as much. It’s much safer too.” Yet, Marta adds, it remains difficult for newly-arrived Poles to learn the language: “They work hard, and lead busy lives, so finding the time to learn to speak Icelandic is hard.”

Marta is now helping Janina to promote the book around the country. “Janina is like a volcano of energy,” she says—a proudly Icelandic metaphor for two Polish-born migrants who, like thousands of others, have made the country their home.

For Janina herself it remains a mission to share more of Iceland’s culture and heritage with her own people: “I hope it will be a pleasure for the big population of Poles living in Iceland to read the book and to get to know Iceland better.”

Janina’s planned talks in Reykjavík this month will be publicised on www.informacje.is

Check out the book's Facebook page too.



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