From Iceland — Navigating Life Through Meaning: Auður Jónsdóttir Writes Her Own Self

Navigating Life Through Meaning: Auður Jónsdóttir Writes Her Own Self

Published October 10, 2022

Navigating Life Through Meaning: Auður Jónsdóttir Writes Her Own Self
Valur Grettisson
Photo by
Art Bicnick

Auður Jónsdóttir established herself as one of Iceland’s best writers of a new generation when her novel, ‘The people in the basement’ (‘Fólkið í kjallaranum’) was published in 2004. Auður uses the idea of family often in her novels and she is always looking for meaning, no matter what she is writing. We talked to her about writing, translations and the burden of being a grandchild of Iceland’s only Nobel Prize winner in literature. And, of course, how she accidentally found herself in neuroscience while navigating her own epilepsy. Auður’s newest book translated into English is the novel ‘Quake’ (2015), which is about a mother with epilepsy who finds herself on the ground after a seizure. She loses her memory and needs to puzzle her life back together. This might seem like a dark and horrific premise, but it used to be Auður’s own reality.

Epilepsy while holding a newborn

“I lived in Berlin for a few years and wrote the book there,” Auður says.“I had also just become a mother, and therefore old concerns crept up on me, like what if I were to have a seizure while holding my own child.” Despite the fact that Auður hasn’t had an episode in a little over two decades, the anxiety was still there, lingering in the back of her mind. “My other thought here was to write a novel from the protagonist’s point of view, which perhaps resulted in a more experimental narrative,” Auður adds. The author was able to draw on her own experiences of having seizures as a child, which often left her fragile and disoriented when she returned to consciousness.

Photo by Art Bicnick

Writing your own self

“It took me a while to find the story though,” Auður explains. “But one day, I was at a newspaper stand in Berlin and I found this odd philosophical article about neuroscience where it was stated that the human brain actually adapts memories to our own psychological state, and somehow makes us the star of our own narrative.” Auður pauses for a moment, laughs quietly, and then adds: “This was just a pure scientific article, about how we write ourselves and how we process adjusted memories to that narrative.” But Auður found an interesting thread in the article, that rhymed with her own thoughts. And what she took out of it was unexpectedly violent. “It was this symbolic idea about the relationship between body and mind, and how your body’s incapacity can be perceived almost as an external attacker.” She explains that when she had these seizures it was not only a violent experience but one that filled her with shame. Whilst seizing she would foam at the mouth, and for a teenage girl to piss herself, well, let’s just say it was mortifying.

The patriarchal shadow

Auður’s past is interesting, to say the least. She worked in Flateyri, in the Westfjords, the year after a devastating avalanche fell on the town in 1995, claiming 14 lives. A devastating toll for a small nation and a tiny village. Auður was working in a fish factory and wrote about the experience in her critically acclaimed novel, ‘Ósjálfrátt,’ almost two decades later. But her novel, ‘The people in the basement is perhaps the most defying book that she has written. There she tackles alcoholism in her own family, and at the same time, the hypocrisy of the ‘68 generation. She has written about her beloved grandmother, Auður Laxness, but never the shadow that has always loomed over her career, her grandfather, Halldór Kiljan Laxness, the author of Independent People.

Photo by Art Bicnick

“I always downplayed his effects on me when I was younger, in interviews like this, but of course I was scared. The world of literature in Iceland was very male-dominated at the time and my grandfather was the epitome of it,” she says. Auður says that what shaped her the most at the time was journalism, something that she still has one foot in, as she has written for media for the longest time besides writing novels. She even wrote a remarkable book about the legal status of journalism in Iceland. The book is brilliantly titled—though difficult to translate. The direct translation into English would be ‘The freedom to suffer’, but in Icelandic, this word (Þjáningafrelsið) rhymes with the word meaning freedom of speech (Tjáningafrelsið)—a cleverly crafted play on words which evokes the challenges journalism faces in Iceland and beyond.

Auður’s work in journalism also freed her from her grandfather’s burden in a way. These days, few Icelanders think of Laxness in the context of Auður, or even try to compare these authors, as Auður has a very unique and different voice from her grandfather.

Rare English translations

Interestingly, Auður’s books have been translated into most languages, but English is not often among them. Her new novel, ‘Quake’ is a rare insight into Auður’s work in English.
“For some reason, it seems that it’s harder to get novels translated into English,” Auður says. But when it comes to Germany or France, it’s very different. When Auður is asked why this is, she guesses that one of the reasons is fairly simple: “For example, in Germany, there is just more interest in the world. You can feel this in many ways in Germany, how the media emphasises global issues for instance,” she says. The literary market in English is also very competitive and publishers are perhaps not always thinking about the artistic value. Publishing a writer from such a small country is not always a chance that publishers are willing to take.

Hooked on meaning

“Icelandic literature is incredibly diverse for how small Iceland is,” Auður says of literature in her home country. “The voices are very different and Icelandic authors are unafraid of experimenting.” But Auður wants more diversity, and says that she is excited about immigrant voices in Icelandic literature. But in the end, Auður is simply looking for meaning. “I have always used writing as a tool to understand myself and the world,” she explains. “Writing isn’t limited like science, there are no rules, and the context is often found in writing. I’m literally hooked on the meaning, it’s my freedom and somewhere there, you can find the essence of the soul.” ‘Quake’ and other novels by Auður are available in our online shop:

Quake – Auður Jónsdóttir

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