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The Queer Canon Of Iceland: Ásta Kristín Benediktsdóttir Explores An Oft-Ignored Topic

The Queer Canon Of Iceland: Ásta Kristín Benediktsdóttir Explores An Oft-Ignored Topic

Hannah Jane Cohen
Photos by
Bettina Vass
Benson Kua

Published July 26, 2018

The roster for Reykjavík Pride is full of engaging and thought-provoking events. From stand up shows by gay comedians to queer choir concerts to lectures on masculinity, the programme is designed to push the envelope and fascinate both newbies to queer culture and experienced veterans.

One of the most interesting offerings of this year’s festival is a walking tour of Reykjavík focusing on the history of an oft-unexplored topic—Icelandic queer literature.

Undocumented interests

The tour is hosted by Ásta Kristín Benediktsdóttir, a literary scholar with an MA degree in Icelandic modern literature. She was first drawn to queer theory and queer Icelandic literature when selecting a subject for her PhD research.

“The topic came to me automatically, I guess, because I came out as a lesbian a few years before that and became very invested and interested in LGBTIQ+ culture and activism,” she says. “One of the things that hit me, when I started thinking about queer literature in Iceland, was how little research had been done and how few books I had read in Icelandic on the topic.”

“This is a part of our history and culture that has not really, with some very important exceptions, been documented or studied thoroughly.”

The importance of the subject quickly became apparent to Ásta. “This is a part of our history and culture that has not really, with some very important exceptions, been documented or studied thoroughly,” she says.

What is queer?

Trying to distill the history of Icelandic queer literature into an article—or a walking tour—is impossible, of course. Even defining what exactly queer literature is can be problematic. Some scholars in the subject study specific queer works, while others look for nuggets of queer representation in non-explicitly queer texts. The Icelandic literature canon, meanwhile, is most prominently defined by the sagas. Is there queerness in them?

“If we understand ‘queer’ as lives or behaviour that is somehow against the norm at any given time, then yes, of course, the sagas are full of people who are different,” Ásta says. “The sagas are not stories about homosexuality, per se, but there are texts, like ‘Fóstbræðra saga,’ that focus on close and intimate male friendships.” She describes how many other sagas deal with a trait called ‘ergi,’ which refers to effeminacy or the desire to be penetrated by other men.

For Ásta though, her focus is primarily on works that, as she says, “deal with or represent, overtly or covertly, sexuality, gender expression, gender identity, et cetera, which does not conform with the norm.” She emphasises that the idea of the ‘norm’ must be considered within its respective cultural context.

Growing representation

Some of the earliest formative works of Icelandic queer literature were written by Elías Mar in the 1940s. “Elías was queer himself and expressed queer feelings and experiences in his books in times when Icelanders were still figuring out what homosexuality was and starting to condemn it harshly,” Ásta says. Unfortunately, none of his works have been translated into English yet.

From then on, books like ‘Sú kvalda ást sem hugarfylgsnin geyma’ (‘Tormented Love’) by Guðbergur Bergsson, ‘Z — Ástarsaga’ (‘Z – Love Story’) by Vigdís Grímsdóttir, and ‘Þriðja ástin’ (‘Third Love’) by Nína Björk Árnadóttir continued Elías’s legacy. Kristín Ómarsdóttir is another important pillar. Many of these books have been translated into English and can be found at the Reykjavík City Library.

While Iceland might have a reputation of being socially progressive, Ásta says this has not always been the case, but that the changes in the societal value of LGBTIQ+ lives in the last 20-30 years have been mirrored in Icelandic literature. “There are definitely more queer characters in books now, especially gay characters,” she says. “They often appear in the background and play rather small roles.” There are notable exceptions, she emphasises, such as Lilja Sigurðardóttir’s crime trilogy, which has lesbian protagonists.

Expect the unexpected

Ásta’s current recommendation for those wanting to enter the discourse is ‘Mánasteinn’ (‘Moonstone’) by Sjón. “It’s a wonderfully queer, playful and radical novel in so many ways. It challenges ideas about Icelandic national identity and nationalism and our ideas about the past, and the protagonist, Máni, just does not give a shit about what other people think of him,” Ásta says. “Also his story ends well, which is a nice change when it comes to novels about queer characters, especially in the past.”

Ásta stays mum about any specific locations or topics she’ll explore on her walking tour. “I will not say anything about the content beforehand,” she says. “Other than that it will be fun.”

Info: The tour is on August 8th at 19:00. It starts at the Reykjavík City Library and takes approximately one hour. Admission is free!


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