From Iceland — Immigrant Poets Rethinking The North

Immigrant Poets Rethinking The North

Published December 8, 2021

Immigrant Poets Rethinking The North
Valur Grettisson
Photo by
Patrik Ontkovic
Art Bicnick

Icelanders are famous for their writings, for their old Edda poems and tales of our Viking history. This small island even has a literary Nobel Prize winner to boast of. Our rich history of literature is long and complicated, but Iceland today is changing in many ways. One of the most interesting changes when it comes to this cold island in the north is that immigration has never been higher. Around 55,000 immigrants live in Iceland, a nation of 370,000, but literature remains shielded from changing with the times by one of the toughest languages out there. It’s safe to say that the language barrier makes it difficult for immigrants to be a part in the literary side of the culture.

The Brave Poets

But there will always be brave poets, and a collection of first-generation immigrant writers in Iceland have composed a remarkably diverse and well-written book that breaks the toughest cultural wall there is in Iceland: the old tradition of poetry that Icelanders have dominated for centuries.

The mind behind the book “Pólífónía af erlendum uppruna” (Polyphonia of Foreign Descent), published by Una publishing house, is Russian born poet Natasha Stolyrova. Fittingly enough, she speaks Icelandic when interviewed, and says that it was the work of a Danish poet that encouraged her to break the wall.

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“I was inspired by Yahya Hassan’s poetry,” says Natasha. The Danish/Palestinian poet became a literature star overnight around a decade ago when he published his first book, simply named after his own name. The poetry of Hassan is incredibly powerful. Sadly he died last year, still only a young man.

No frustration

“I realised that the voices of immigrants were not heard in Icelandic literature. This is in some ways understandable,” she adds, since it’s in relatively recent years that immigration to Iceland has increased. But the second generation is knocking on the door of Icelandic society, and immigrants are taking more space than ever in Icelandic arts. One writer in the book also wrote and performed in the incredibly enjoyable play, Polishing Iceland, which was performed in one of Iceland’s biggest theatres a few years ago. Another writer, Juan Camilo Roman Estrada, played a role in the hit movie, “Woman At War” (Kona fer í stríð), which received the Nordic Council Prize in 2018.

“This book is not fueled by frustration or anything like that,” Natasha explains, “it just feels like it’s time.”

And she is absolutely correct. The immigrant generation is emerging with a fresh understanding of Iceland, both when it comes to the Icelandic nation, as well as the contradistinctive national soul of Icelanders, which still relies heavily on the heritage of the romantic poets from the 18th century, when more or less all Icelandic tradition was invented.

Photo by Art Bicnick

What is the North?

Natasha met with the writers in Gröndalshús in Reykjavík, a fitting place for literature, as the famous writer Benedikt Gröndal used to live there at the end of the 18th century.
She wrote down questions and placed them into a hat, which the writers pulled out and used as prompts for discussion and, ultimately, their writing.

Although they think and write about the language, they are still writing about universal feelings of love, regret, sense of loss and violence

“These questions were about our experience in Iceland, what we miss in our homelands, how we experience the Icelandic language, the society and its prejudices,” Natasha says. The result is that the reader can now find these experiences, interpreted through poetic form, in the book. But it doesn’t focus on the negative elements of being an immigrant such as the frustration of learning Icelandic. One of the most powerful poems in the book is called My North, written by the Colombian born Juan Camilo Roman Estrada. It’s eye-opening for Icelanders to read such a poem, and he hits hard in the beginning, reminding one that in the north, we worry about the weather, not war. Perhaps, the idea of north doesn’t really belong to the north alone after all.

Odd experience for Icelanders

The book itself is aimed at Icelandic markets, Natasha says, although the poems are also translated to English. One poet, Elías Knörr, offers a unique experience for Icelandic readers. At first, he seems to be writing in Icelandic, but the reader, if Icelandic, quickly finds that he cannot understand a word – yet, the words truly feel like Icelandic. It can be frustrating reading these poems but the reader quickly realises that they themselves have been put into the shoes of a person learning the Icelandic language, not understanding much, if anything. A truly astonishing experience that works perfectly for Icelandic readers.

Big step for new poets

Overall, the book presents a diverse choir or immigrant voices and perhaps reminds us that there are no fundamental differences between them and any other poets, although they have a fresher way of approaching many themes. Although they think and write about the language, they are still writing about universal feelings of love, regret, sense of loss and violence.

“I believe that this is a big step for immigrants when it comes to Icelandic literature,” says Natasha, and explains that she at first wanted the book only to be in Icelandic, but that her ideas changed through the process. She has also seen a lot of interest within the Icelandic cultural scene to draw these voices out.

“Tímarit Máls og Menningar [(Iceland’ biggest and most influential literary magazine) wanted to republish these poets, so there is clearly an interest in these voices,” says Natasha. And she just might be right.

You can buy Polyphonia of Foreign Descent directly from the Grapevine Shop and other locations.

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