From Iceland — Here We Go Again: Reykjavík's Literary Festival Returns

Here We Go Again: Reykjavík’s Literary Festival Returns

Published September 5, 2017

Björn Halldórsson
Photo by
Art Bicnick

The Reykjavík International Literary Festival will be held for the thirteenth time this year, from September 6th—9th at venues all around Reykjavík. The festival has previously hosted big names such as Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami and Günter Grass, along with a selection of Icelandic writers, and a multitude of lesser known authors and poets from across the globe.

The festival is a biennial affair, which comes with a unique set of challenges. “You have to remind everyone in time: Hey, we’re on this year!” says festival director Stella Soffía Jóhannesdóttir. “During the first year after a festival, it’s all packed in a shoebox somewhere, but then you pop it open and everything starts up again. The last couple of months are always utter chaos—you’re ploughing through everything that needs to be done like a bulldozer. This is the fifth year that I’m running this thing so you’d think I’d be used to it by now but still every year I go, ‘Wow! Was it this crazy last time?’”

Selecting the authors

A benefit of the two-year break between festivals is having the time to carefully pick who’ll participate the year after. Stella explains, “We keep our eyes open for anything promising, and also try to eavesdrop on what’s coming down the pike from the Icelandic publishing houses, although, not nearly all of the visiting authors are published in Icelandic. Sometimes authors also get in touch with us directly, like with the cricket team.” She laughs. “Yes, this year we have a cricket team. It’s a cricket club that was founded a hundred years ago and has included people like Arthur Conan Doyle, JM Barrie and PG Wodehouse. To get in you must be a published author, and you have to really like cricket. They’ll play cricket as a part of the festival, and will also play against an Icelandic team while they’re here. Who knew that Iceland had a cricket team?”

Magic in the air

One of the joys of the festival is the uniquely open and accessible atmosphere that surrounds its events and its participants. “All the authors we’ve ever hosted have been an absolute delight!” Stella exclaims. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s Nobel prize winners like Hertha Müller and Svetlana Alexievich, or bestselling authors like David Sedaris, Dave Eggers and Coetzee, or lesser known poets and authors who are at their first festival. They’re all just so nice and so grateful to be able to take part.” She continues, laughing, “Seriously, no joke, there’s a kind of magic in the air during the festival. It probably has something to do with the size of it. It doesn’t have to grow any bigger than it is now—if it did, we might lose some of that magic.”

Crossing forms and genres

Although there are traditional readings, a big part of the festival revolves around panel discussions with two to three authors speaking together on a unified theme.

“It’s fun puzzling over which authors to pair up for the events, finding some kind of mutual basis through which they can discuss their work,” Stella says. “We try to make room for everything during the festival: literary fiction and poetry as well as genre fiction. We want to appeal to as many readers as possible. That’s why I particularly like it when we cross forms and pair together a poet and a novelist, or a poet and a non-fiction author. We pick themes or titles for the talks but by and large the authors are free to do as they please. If you’re an artistic director, you can’t put too many restrictions on the artists. You have to let them do their thing.”

Free entry

Another aspect of the openness of the festival is the fact that it’s free entry, with no need for reserving seats online beforehand. “Charging admission for literary events is just not really done in Iceland,” Stella says. “People can just come and go as they please as long as there is room. It’s also a perfect setting for non-Icelandic speakers, as the discussions all take place in English, this being an international festival.”

But despite the discussions being held in English, another unique feature of the Reykjavík Literary Festival is the insistence that the authors read in their native language or any other language of their choosing.

“Han Kang, who is attending this year, will be reading in Korean, for example,” Stella says. “As usual, we will provide listeners with printouts containing the English translation during her reading, as well as having the Icelandic translation on an overhead projector. It requires tremendous amounts of planning to gather and synchronize all these translations and it can get pretty complicated accommodating everyone, but it’s always fun.”

In the past, the festival has used onstage interpreters for authors who wanted to perform their writing, rather than read it from a page. “I remember an author who read in Arabic, which was very challenging for the person working the overhead projector, who had no means of following the text because he couldn’t read the words,” says Stella. “Yet still, everything worked out perfectly. We also had a cartoonist from Greenland who read in Greenlandic while we threw his drawings up on the wall behind him. Quite often, the works of literature that we’re translating have never appeared in English before, with both Icelandic and international authors. This year, for example, we have the poetry of Maja Lee Langvad, a Danish-Korean poet whose work has never appeared in English before.”

The Book Ball

The festival closes with the famed Book Ball, where the participants and organizers can blow off some steam after the week’s hectic schedule. It’s the only part of the festival that requires a paid admission, but Stella is adamant that the ball is just as open to everyone as the other events.

“Everyone should buy a ticket and go to the Book Ball, simple as that,” she says. “Anyone is welcome, and it’s a real ball, with a band and everything. It’s such a great way to end the festival, and underlines the fact that nobody here is taking themselves too seriously. Everybody just shows up ready to dance—especially the authors. The festival is almost entirely run with the help of volunteers and donated work, so it’s crucial for us that people have fun.”

The Reykjavík International Literary Festival Kicks Off on the 6th of September. Find out more here.

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