Author Gerður Kristný was named International Writer-in-Residence at the University of Iowa
Come August, Gerður Kristný, one of Iceland’s most celebrated contemporary authors, will be leaving the desolate, volcanic landscapes of Iceland for the vast cornfields of Iowa in order to participate in the prestigious International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. This unique ten-week residency programme brings together a diverse group of accomplished writers and poets from around the world for a chance to network, write, collaborate, lecture, and discuss current trends in world literature. This opportunity marks an exciting new chapter in Gerður´s career, especially as her global reputation and commercial success continue to grow. We spoke to Gerður before her departure to learn more about her upcoming journey.
Gerður, tell us a little bit about your residency at the International Writing Program. How long will you be staying in Iowa City, and what will you specifically be doing while you’re there?
I will be staying there for 10 weeks from the end of August until the beginning of November. There will be lectures to attend, but I will also give readings, meet my colleagues from all over the world, and of course write. I have heard that 30–35 authors are invited every autumn, and I am eager to find out if I know any of them already. I was in Finland in June where I met a local writer who was invited to the programme last year. He told me a little bit about his stay, and it all sounded very exciting. We get to travel a little bit, and I am sure it will be great.
Have you ever visited the United States before? How do you feel about living in a place like Iowa City, which is very different, both culturally and geographically, from Iceland?
I find it very interesting. The organisers choose writers who haven’t lived before in the States. I have visited New York, Washington D.C., Boston and Baltimore, but all these trips were only for a few days. I consider this a wonderful opportunity to get to know the United States better.
How did this opportunity come about?
Paul Cunningham, the public affairs officer at the American Embassy in Iceland, contacted me and asked if he could send my CV to the International Writing Program to see if I would get an invitation. Of course I said yes. I already knew about this programme because I once read a short story by the Icelandic author Birgir Sigurðsson about his stay there, and two years ago I met a German poet at a festival in Indonesia who had been there in 1984 and actually met his Indian wife there, who is also a poet. The German poet was one of the organisers of the Indonesian festival, and he invited a Zimbabwean colleague who he had also met during his stay in Iowa. This seems definitely to be a place where people make good connections.
What do you hope to accomplish personally and professionally during your time in America? How are you preparing for this journey?
I am sure it will broaden my mind meeting new people and hearing about their work. I am also looking forward to getting some time to concentrate on my own writing. I have already made up my mind what I will be working on. It is a novel that I have already started. Otherwise I am not going to do any preparations. The rest will come as a surprise.
Will we be seeing more English translations of your works in the future? Do you view this opportunity as a way of promoting not only your work but also Icelandic literature as a whole to the rest of the world?
I hope there will be more English translations of my work. So far ‘Bloodhoof’ is the only book that has been published in English, and it came as a surprise since Icelandic poetry books are hardly ever published in other languages. These days I am finishing my sixth book of poetry. It would of course be lovely if it were published in English. Over the last few years, I have travelled a lot. I have, among other countries, read my works in India, Bangladesh, Columbia, Nicaragua, Finland, England and Poland. I have met a lot of people who seem interested in Icelandic literature. They often know the sagas, the crime writers and a handful of novelists. They want to tell me about why they love these writers or get to know more about them. I am of course eager to answer their questions since I like nothing more than talking about literature.
What book(s) are you reading right now?
The last book I read was a poetry book by the Finnish poet Tua Forsström, who I met for the first time at a festival in China three years back. I bumped into her again in June this year since we were both invited to a poetry festival in her home country. She is a great poet and a wonderful person. The next novel I am going to read is Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch.’ I have heard it is worth reading.
You actively promote your poems and novels at book fairs all across the world. Recount one of the funniest/strangest experiences you’ve had while travelling abroad.
At the end of May, I was invited to the Salisbury festival in England. An hour before the show I was told that I would not be reading with other fellow poets as I am used to. Instead I would have an hour on my own at a local theatre. I would read for 45 minutes and then answer questions about the Icelandic sagas for 15 minutes. I had a friend with me, Gabby Meadows, who works for Poet in the City in London. By coincidence she had brought the English translation of ‘Skírnismál’ (“Skirnir’s Journey” in English) with her. We decided that I would talk about myself, the Eddic poetry and ‘Skírnismál’ before she read the translation. After that I would read a part of ‘Blóðhófnir’ in Icelandic and then Rory McTurk’s English translation. This went very well. The audience asked me some interesting questions and before we knew an hour had passed. I suddenly realised that in high school I once only got a B in Icelandic instead of an A, and that was in the course where we read the Eddic poetry and Njáls saga. Now I travel around the world telling people about this very same literature and people are buying tickets to listen to me. I found it rather funny and ironic.
Aside from this opportunity, you have received a lot of recognition for your work, including an Icelandic Literary Prize and a nomination for the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize. Where do you go from here? What’s next for Gerður Kristný?
My next poetry book will be published in October. It is a crime poem that I have been writing for couple of years now. It will be interesting to see where it will take me. That is what I am focusing on right now.
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