Despite the rich literary history of Iceland, anyone will tell you that Icelandic publishing is a risky business. It’s no wonder: by nature, any book published in a language spoken by only around 350,000 people already caters to a niche market. To survive, Icelandic publishers are, by and large, forced to address as large a percentage as possible of those who can read Icelandic—meaning they’re unwilling or unable to take chances on new literary genres or cultural products.
So, authors who want to push the envelope of Icelandic fiction are often forced to band together and self-publish to be heard among the mass of popular Icelandic writing. One such group is Ós Press, a nonprofit writing collective that will be publishing the second volume of their literary journal this coming October.
Challenging the status quo of the publishing industry in Iceland is one of the major driving forces behind Ós Press, which is named after the Icelandic word for a river delta: the point at which several streams run together before entering the ocean.
“The subject of otherness in the industry is now out in the open, and being more widely discussed,” the members of the board of directors (who prefer to be interviewed as a unified entity) explain. “But in practice, this change doesn’t amount to much. There was a 2016 issue of Tímarit Máls og Menningar [Iceland’s second longest-running literary journal] that focused, in Icelandic, on foreign writing, and writing about foreign people and places, which featured Ós members Ewa Marcinek, Beatriz Portugal, and Angela Rawlings. Still, it’s very difficult for a foreign-born author or one who does not write in Icelandic to find a space in the Icelandic publishing industry.”
Ós Press aims to shift this underrepresentation. The group has been well-received, and have managed to showcase their work through exhibitions and readings, but are still seen as outsiders. “It’s difficult to get grants for translations and to publish work that lies outside the norm,” they say. “We’re trying to create a space for ourselves, but there are not many doors open to us.”
What is Icelandic literature?
Most of the collective’s founders were born outside of Iceland. Their categorisation as “the foreign group” is then an understandable, but frustrating, misnomer.
“In this day and age, it seems limiting to try and define Icelandic literature,” the members say. “Especially when there are so many authors trying new styles and bringing different influences into their writing. That said, it is a fascinating topic because there are so many variables and possible connotations. Does a story necessarily have to be written in Icelandic, or by an Icelander, to be considered Icelandic literature? Does it have to have an Icelandic setting or protagonist or an Icelandic theme, discourse and style? If an established Icelandic author wrote a poem that had nothing to do with Iceland and was not written in Icelandic, would it still be considered Icelandic literature?”
“These questions are not up to Ós but to the larger community,” they continue. “Ós strives to push back at how Icelandic literature is defined—and who gets to define it—by publishing marginalised authors, having multilingual readings, and creating a space for questions to be asked without having to come to definitive answers.”
The multilingual Icelandic society
The journals that Ós puts out are unique in that they contain a variety of languages. They will accept and publish work in any language, which gives rise to some interesting connotations.
“A text’s context shifts to represent its relationship within diverse cultural locators,” the members explain. “We live in a society where multiple languages circulate. Publishing writings in different languages side by side emphasizes linguistic heritage, unexpected sonorities, visual similarities, and transformational differences of opinion, vision, and voice. It also highlights diversity. A specific text does not change its essence just because it is surrounded by writing in other languages. However, when you get diverse authors working alongside each other there can occur a natural stimulation from the different cultural and language backgrounds, and you might find some mutations in the work.”
Live and on the page
Beyond publishing, Ós has hosted events and live readings to invite people into their community. At these events, the audience has a chance to interact directly with the authors, and other readers, to enhance their understanding of the material. However, letting the work stand on its own, without exposition or translation, is an integral part of what Ós does.
“We believe the writing we put forward exists both on the page and in live readings,” the members say. “There are varied styles, so some might fit better in writing, while others come alive if performing. It depends on each audience member and what they take from the texts or readings. Furthermore, native-born, relatively monolingual Icelanders are not necessarily the composition of modern Icelandic society. Around 10% of people living in Iceland are foreign-born, and most Icelanders are at least bilingual.”
Letting go of gatekeeping
The next edition of the Ós Press journal will be published online and will showcase 28 authors, seven languages, and at least 36 individual pieces of writing that span poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction and screenplays.
“We have been asked before–each time by a native-born Icelander: ‘What about those who don’t understand all these foreign languages?’” they say. “Putting arbitrary limitations on the possible audience is not up to Ós—we leave questions of audience and language in the hands of our authors. There are people out there who do understand these languages, and sometimes it’s not even necessary to understand the text itself. Sometimes it can be about how it looks in print, the sound it makes when read aloud, and the emotions it can create within a reader or a listener.”
With this in mind, Ós strives not to pre-exclude authors based on nationality or their chosen language. “Perhaps that’s what differentiates us from other literary groups and journals in Iceland,” they say. “We try to include a broad range of writers, both established ones and those from marginalised groups, whether they’re marginalised due to gender, identity, race, nationality or geography. No one organisation is right for all people at all times, but Ós strives to be inviting to members of as many groups as it can, by trying to let go of the gatekeeping frame of mind. And because we try to include as many groups as possible, it’s likely that there’s something for everyone to enjoy and be surprised by, be it through writing, visual work, or live performance.”