This month, a new collection of Icelandic short fiction entitled ‘Out of the Blue’ was published by the University of Minnesota Press. The collection gathers together short stories in translation by twenty modern Icelandic authors, with a foreword by Sjón. An event was held at Scandinavia House in New York to celebrate the publication, with four of the writers reading their stories before being interviewed by Helen Mitsios, the collection’s editor, as well as taking questions from the crowd.
The book is the first of its kind in English, but for Helen the pressures of composing a collection to represent a nation’s culture is a part of the process. “My entire education and academic career has been devoted to literature,” she explains, “so putting together the anthology was an organic experience; a natural progression that was quite joyful because of the excellent stories.”
Helen is on familiar ground in these matters as she has previous experience introducing foreign figures into the American literary landscape. “When I introduced Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto to the Western reader in my first Japanese anthology many years ago,” she says, “an American reader didn’t know much beyond Mishima, Tanizaki, or Kawabata, because the Japanese undervalued their own contemporary authors at that time. Of course, this perspective has changed since then.” She has high hopes for how this new collection will be received. “I think American readers, who might not know any Icelandic writers, will be surprised by international scope and vibe of the stories,” she says. “Most, if not all, of the writers are particularly well-read and well-travelled folks.”
Her infatuation with Iceland started with a trip in the 1980s that has led to many more since; she will appear at Gunnarshús, the residence of the Icelandic Writers’ Union, alongside local poet Didda this September. The main difference she sees in the country since her first visit is that there are more trees and SUVs, but it’s plainly visible to her, as an outsider, that the Icelandic language and culture must be safeguarded if they are to survive in the new millennium.
“The future of Iceland’s cultural identity will be linked to how much the Icelandic language is nudged out of the way by English speakers,” she remarks, “whether it’s in terms of tourists, people moving to the island, the use of English in technology and so on.”
This viewpoint was echoed by the visiting authors at the Scandinavia House event, which featured a lively discussion about the risk of Icelandic becoming extinct due to the increased use of English online, especially among young people. At the same time, the authors expressed their excitement and eagerness for the future of Icelandic fiction, pointing towards the new generations of immigrants who have settled in the country in the last few decades, who’ll presumably begin to produce their own unique take on Icelandic-language fiction.