“What if the trees were looking at us instead of as human beings in the Anthropocene looking at the environment?” asks Chantal Ringuet. She is the first Reykjavík UNESCO City of Literature writer-in-residence and spent the month of October in Gröndalshús.
Chantal’s question situates her well for a stay in the vaunted historical home of Benedikt Gröndals, whose own literature about the Icelandic environment positioned him as a canonical writer. Benedikt lived in Gröndalshús from 1888 to 1907. It was opened as a writer’s museum in 2017 after extensive renovations, including an apartment for short-stay residencies.
The Reykjavík UNESCO City of Literature Residency is an annual, fully funded opportunity for an international writer to produce work in Iceland. Reykjavík UNESCO City of Literature advertised their residency call to other Cities of Literature, intending to attract applicants with strong ties to those cities. Chantal, who was born and raised in Québec City, Canada, was selected out of 60 applicants.
The write stuff
Reykjavík UNESCO City of Literature project manager Kristín Viðarsdóttir explains, “We had a lot of great applications so it was a tough decision for the panel. Chantal is working on a project on what she calls ‘treelessness.’ We found what she is working on very current in today’s environmental discussions.”
“Chantal has also been a translator from Yiddish to English and French,” Kristín continues, “which is a literary landscape that we haven’t seen here in Iceland. She is an expert on Leonard Cohen. There were many angles that made her application stand out.”
During Chantal’s residency, she developed the third part of a poetic odyssey. Her first book, ‘Le sang des ruines’ (‘Blood of the ruins’), focused on Holocaust survivors and landscapes in ruins after the Second World War.
Her second poetry book, ‘Under the skin of war’, was inspired by the photography of photojournalist Don McCullin. “I thought that’s so interesting to give voice to civilians trapped in war zones who cannot speak for themselves,” Chantal comments. “There is a kind of ethical dimension in Don’s work that I found striking and important.”
The writer’s residency provided Chantal with time to develop the next stage of the odyssey. She explains, “The narrative raises important questions about hospitality, the sense of exile, and belonging in our 21st century world. We have arrived to another kind of disaster caused by climate changes. My idea is to rewrite some founding narratives about treeless landscapes.”
Chantal’s approach considers the non-human perspective as central to the next book’s development. “It raises important questions about ecological issues, about giving a voice to the trees and forests and lakes who are also the victims of disasters that we created as humans.”
She, tree, story
“Chantal has been very interested in getting to know Icelandic literature,” Kristín says. “She has now had contact with several Icelandic writers. Hopefully this sparks something in this odyssey she is on.”
“Gröndalshús is a very interesting environment,” Chantal concurs. “There is a community of poets and singers. Some people started telling me their tree stories. Now I have a few and I thought it might be interesting to include a few tree stories from people living here.”
Chantal has been particularly interested in gathering tree stories from women. “There is a very strong presence of women everywhere here in Iceland, so I want to have the presence of women poets in the book.”
In October 2020, the residency will be in connection with the International Children’s Literary Festival in Reykjavík. In April 2021, it will connect with the biannual Reykjavík International Literary Festival.
Beyond the Reykjavík UNESCO City of Literature residency, the apartment in Gröndalshús is also available to rent for a fee. It has been an attractive location for self-directed writer and artist residencies since it opened.
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