Since the days of sagas and skalds, the abundance and international distinction of Icelandic literature has always seemed an anomaly, deeply disproportionate to the nation’s tiny population and geographic isolation. Although the question of why Icelandic literature has achieved its iconicity has long proved a worthwhile topic of discussion, there has been little need to question what constitutes Icelandic literature: that designation, presumably, has something to do with an author’s cultural, national, and linguistic background. Since 2014, however, the publishing collective Ós Pressan has sought to problematize the kneejerk assumption that Icelandic literature needs to be written by Icelanders in the Icelandic language.
Ós Pressan aims to highlight the thriving literary culture of Iceland’s immigrant community—a demographic that now constitutes more than 13% of the nation’s total population. Born in 2014, Ós coalesced around a group of women writers from a variety of national backgrounds who first came together in a workshop hosted by UNESCO City of Literature and facilitated by author Angela Rawlings.
In 2016, Ós released their inaugural literary journal, the primary vehicle for showcasing prose and poetry by authors working in a multitude of languages who nevertheless demonstrate a deep connection to Iceland, whether tacit or manifest. Following the success of their first two journals—both featuring writing in a breadth of languages from Japanese to Kurdish—the third iteration of the journal is slated to hit Eymundsson bookstores nationwide on December 10th of this year. (Full disclosure: the work of this author and other Grapevine writers have appeared in the journals).
From its organisational structure to its mission statement, Ós Pressan maintains a commitment to egalitarianism and inclusivity. Run by the voluntary efforts of a diverse editorial board, Ós lacks any single leader, surviving instead on the individual dedication of its 11 staff members. Board member Lara Wilhelmine Hoffmann characterises their submission policy concisely as ‘radical openness.’ Ós accepts work in any language: should they receive a submission in a language that no board member knows, they’ll go out of their way to find a reader.
“We try to remove any barriers or obstacles,” Lara says. “It’s amazing to see what people come up with when you give them the space.” As a result of this radical inclusivity, much of the work in the journal appears in its original form, untranslated. While Ós welcomes authors to offer English or Icelandic translations of their work, Lara emphasises that this is hardly a requirement. A celebration, chiefly, of multilingualism, Ós entertains the notion that understanding need not be a literal, linguistic phenomenon. “There’s this idea that understanding means lexical understanding,” Lara says. “But you can understand something just from being confronted with an unfamiliar language.”
In the upcoming third volume of the journal, Ós is thinking not only about linguistic barriers, but also about material and generic boundaries: QR-codes peppered throughout the pages of the upcoming journal will allow readers to access unique digital content. This novel feature, funded by a grant from UNESCO City of Literature, suggests that Ós does not simply want to explore the implications of ‘Icelandic literature’ in the twenty-first century; rather, they hope to push the boundaries of what it means to publish at all in the modern era.
Although the journal is the chief endeavor for Ós, the collective have become visible players in the Icelandic literary scene, hosting workshops and readings, and presenting at conferences both domestically and abroad. In October, Lara presented Ós and its mission at a conference in Helsinki on multilingualism and the arts in the Nordic countries. Lara hopes that Ós might prove a useful exemplum for other communities of immigrant writers in the Nordic countries. “Now that we have some experience working with multiculturalism here in Iceland,” she says, “we can perhaps teach a bit about multilingualism and multiculturalism and help bring other communities together.”
Ós – The Journal Issue 3 is out now. Check ospressan.com for more info.