From Iceland — Autocannibalism For Beginners: Helen Cova Deals With Her Dark Past

Autocannibalism For Beginners: Helen Cova Deals With Her Dark Past
Valur Grettisson
Photo by
Sigurður Grétar Jökulsson

Here’s the odd thing: eating oneself, literally, is not technically illegal in Iceland. Nor is it anywhere else—if you insist to be precise about it. But if you dive into the concept from a poetic stand, things get more complicated.

Therapeutic soul destroying

Venezuelan/Icelandic writer Helen Cova recently published a short story collection ‘AUTOSARCOPHAGY, to eat oneself’ under the umbrella of the fantastic Ós Pressan. First off, don’t worry—it’s safe to say that the book is not literal about self-cannibalism. Rather, it explores the darker forces that can eat one’s soul and mind.

“There is a lot of violence and there is a lot of anger in the book—and this is also part of life. I think it’s important to be able to talk about it.”

Helen’s style resides somewhere in between the endless snowy darkness of the Westfjords and the mild atmosphere of Venezuela. Out of this comes the collection, presenting a reckoning with the writer’s violent upbringing, framed within the framework of magical realism.

“The origin of autosarcophagy is to eat the dead parts of your body,” Helen explains. Writing the book was therapeutic, she explains. “It has a lot of myself in it and my experience and also a lot of my childhood. That was something I needed to address,“ she says. ”I was mistreated as a child, all of these things were a weight on my shoulders.“

Although it can be hard to distil these magical realistic stories as solely a showdown between a grownup and their violent childhood, there is a distinct lack of mercy in them. One tells the story of a woman in love who needs to kill her lover. Another is about a child who ate hair and is beaten for it. Yet another describes the wall between a set of neighbours and their verbal sparring through it. Each short prose has a dark tone that adds up to a confrontation with Helen’s own past.

Helen Cova. Photo by Sigurður Grétar Jökulsson.

Helen Cova v. taboos

“I’m trying to talk about these things and trying to just put it out there and say that they exist,” Helen says. “There is a lot of violence and there is a lot of anger in the book—and this is also part of life. I think it’s important to be able to talk about it. There are many taboos, one of them is a mother or a father, or a family, just harming a child,” she explains.

“This is something that we don’t want to talk about, but I wanted to present this reality in the book,” she continues on. “These stories are not in any sense autobiographical, but they do reach the subject.”

‘AUTOSARCOPHAGY, to eat oneself’ is more than Helen’s gripping prose—it also features the absolutely gorgeous illustrations by Rubén Chumillas.

“We met at the Blue Bank [Blái Bankinn] and I was so lucky to meet him. He is from Spain and he used to work with the biggest publishers when he lived there,” Helen explains. Rubén’s works truly elevate the book, setting the stage and tone for Helen to tell her story. His drawings connect strongly with Iceland, but at the same time, are true to the book’s South American atmosphere.

At the end of the world

Helen came to Iceland five years ago and, like many others who settle here, she found an Icelandic partner. Now she lives in one of the darkest, most rural places in the country: Þingeyri.

“Well, the winter is better this year than the last,” she laughs when asked about her perception of her new home. “This is different. You can see happy children running around with no jackets in the snow, loving mothers following them with the parkas, and it’s just very intriguing,” she concludes softly. “And I would pay just to be able to go back in time, and live as a child here, perhaps not forever, because I love Caracas also, but…” she trails off. “Perhaps just for a moment.“

‘AUTOSARCOPHAGY, to eat oneself’ by Helen Cova is available in all bookstores in Iceland and also you can order in Grapevine Shop for local pick up or get sent. If not in Iceland, you can order it in the Grapevine Shop on Helen Cova’s official website.

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