A View From Iceland: An Interview With Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl
By Linh Dinh
17 June, 2016
Linh Dinh and Eirikur Orn Norddahl in Stokkseyri, Iceland, 2007
Born in Reykjavík in 1978, Norðdahl was raised in Ísafjörður, a fishing village of just 2,623 people in northwest Iceland. Its population has been shrinking for several decades. Norðdahl’s father was a fisherman, and his mother a school teacher.
Starting with his first job in a shrimp factory at age 12, Norðdahl has worked as a hotel night watchman, cook at a kindergarten, grade school teacher, the only white man on a cruise ship’s cleaning crew in Finland, handyman at a Danish boarding school, caretaker in a nursing home’s sick ward, caretaker at two homes for the handicapped and journalist. Since 2007, Norðdahl has survived mostly as a translator and writer.
With six books of poems, five novels, two collections of essays and even a cook book with short, meditative essays on food, Norðdahl is in fact one of Iceland’s brightest literary stars. His 2012 novel, Illska, was awarded The Icelandic Literary Prize and The Book Merchant’s Prize, and its French version shortlisted for the Prix Médicis Étranger and the Prix Meilleur Livre Étranger. Norðdahl’s translation credits include a selection of Allen Ginsberg’s poetry, Michael Moore, crime fiction and Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn.
As an organizer of the Reykjavik International Literary Festival, Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl brought me to Iceland in 2007, and we’ve stayed in touch over the years. This interview was conducted via email over eight days.
Iceland is a tiny, island country, with just over 300,000 people. When I visited Reykjavik in 2007, I found it to be surprisingly cosmopolitan, with many international restaurants downtown, including a Vietnamese one. A lovely barista at a hip cafe appeared to be an immigrant from the South Pacific, and Belly's Bar felt so American, I could have been in Columbus, Ohio. English was spoken widely, and there were many tourists. It felt like the world was coming to Iceland, with some people intending on staying. Do Icelanders want their society to become more diverse? Do you?
-I’d like that, but I don’t think that’s generally what Icelanders want. It certainly isn’t public policy. What “we” want is tourists, preferably rich tourists who wish to spend lots of money and then go home. Tourism in Iceland has been growing exponentially—there’s probably three or four times as many now as there were in 2007. In my small hometown (2,700 inhabitants) we get huge cruise ships all summer long—sometimes they have twice as many people as the town and they swarm over it like confused locusts with cameras. It’s really weird. And weird to be exotic in that way, or exoticized, by people who often aren't even coming from very far away. I remember a couple of years ago I was standing outside my house, with my wife and my kids, and we were heading to the next town to go swimming. We’re just standing there putting our swim gear, towels and swimsuits, in the back of the car—and I noticed that across the street was a large group of German tourists photographing us. And I remember thinking if people did this differently in Germany; if I was doing something peculiar.
I can’t say I resent the tourism, but it is certainly strange—there’s a horrible Wild West attitude about it. Lots of hotels are run on cheap Eastern European labor—there are many cases of people literally being slaves—the infrastructure has yet to catch up with the great numbers, meaning for instance that there aren’t enough bathrooms so people are pissing and shitting all over the place, and there aren’t guards at dangerous places so people get killed doing stupid stuff, and there’s also too little surveillance at locations where there’s sensitive nature—so people are going around driving off-road, lighting open fires and tearing up moss at places where you really shouldn’t be doing that.
But at the same time immigration from outside the EU is difficult, we hardly take any refugees and most asylum seekers get sent out. The public policy is very strict—we use any excuse we can find to deport people, whether it's back to slavery in Mauritania, to the violence of Boko Haram in Nigeria or destitution in Albania—that last one is the worst, the Icelandic government views fleeing from poverty and disease as a hate crime against our way of life.
Last year there was an online pledge where thousands of people promised to take in refugees from Syria and assist them, if they’d be allowed to come. At the time the idea was to accept around 50 refugees. The minister “responded” to this huge movement by enlarging the group to about 55.
Globalism is of course present. We got our first Dunkin’ Donuts last year—the queue on the first day was epic, there should be Sagas written about it. But there’s no McDonalds anymore, that closed down after the collapse in 2008. Globalism has brought all these restaurants—we didn’t even have pizza until the eighties and beer was illegal. But now everyone is an international gourmand and every other house is a microbrewery.
One immigrant Iceland took in was Bobby Fischer, and I’ve always thought this was a very brave gesture. Fischer conducted many interviews with radio stations in the Philippines, Hungary, Iceland, Colombia and Russia. He called the US a “brutal, evil dictatorship” controlled by Jews, whom he characterized endlessly as criminals, parasites, liars and thieves. The Holocaust is “a money-making invention.” As for Israel, “They torture their prisoners in the worst way [...] They don't even deny it hardly. Jews were always bastards throughout history. They are liars, they are the worst pieces of shit in the world. They mutilate their own children.” Fischer celebrated 9/11 and wished for a military coup, “the country will be taken over by the military, they'll close down all the synagogues, arrest all the Jews, execute hundreds of thousands of Jewish ringleaders.” “The United States is an illegitimate country, just like Israel. It has no right to exist.” Thanks to the First Amendment, the US couldn’t go after Fischer for these statements, but it prosecuted him for playing a chess match in Yugoslavia, an enemy country. Japan did arrest Fischer for the US, but didn’t extradite him. Iceland then offered Fischer not just asylum, but citizenship. This, from a country with twice as many American soldiers on its soil as its own. What do you make of this defiance? More broadly, how do Icelanders view the US?
-Icelanders are rather American—half the country is geographically American and the military base had a huge cultural impact through their radio and TV stations. They are, however, also anti-American, but then one has to keep in mind that the most common modern form of anti-Americanism is an American export product—something born out of the resistance to the war in Vietnam and the ‘68 movement. Bob Dylan taught us how to despise the US, how to hate imperialism.
But Icelanders also being Scandinavian, if we were voting for your president Bernie would win it hands down (although we also really like more simpleminded demagoguery, so perhaps Trump would stand a chance).
As for Bobby Fischer, who was a fixture in downtown Reykjavík until he died – particularly at bars or this one cheap Thai restaurant that he loved—I have a hard time imagining the Icelandic government “saving” him in defiance of the US. That government was very pro US and at the time fighting hard to keep the military base in Iceland—which is why Iceland was part of “the coalition of the willing” and why that was decided on in a closed backroom instead of being taken to the parliament (which might have rejected it, the war being very unpopular). The US military left a little under two years later. That being said, Iceland is highly cronyistic, so if you know the right people you may get the craziest things approved—and Bobby had good friends in the country, since the time of his world championship match with Spassky in Reykjavík. Also, the prime minister at the time is a known megalomaniac. My guess, however, is that the US government just wanted Fischer out of the limelight, which also meant out of detention, since political prisoners of his stature usually garner lots of attention. The decision to charge him for having played a game of chess was also out of sync with the “great American narrative” of freedom—it was bad PR. Fischer spent his last years in Iceland ranting harmlessly, as far as I can tell, with few sympathetic ears, causing no harm to anyone (except perhaps the Jews who happened to pass by, which in Iceland is exceedingly rare, globalism has brought us everything but Judaism). Granting him asylum, rather than simple citizenship, might also have implied a greater recognition of his status as a legitimate refugee.
With its vast open spaces and new, mostly smallish buildings, Iceland looks like it’s still being settled. Civilization hasn’t left much of a visible imprint. There are practically no colossal structures, be they churches, factories or mega shopping malls. Outside its one city, there aren’t even many farms, since not much can grow in Iceland. One would be mistaken, however, in concluding that Icelanders are backwoods hicks or wild men. Per capita, Icelanders read and write more books than anyone else. How did Icelanders become so cultured? It can’t just be because there’s not much else to do but read and think during those long, dark hours during each marathon winter. If that’s all it takes, Inuits would also be cranking out novels!
-There’s actually an amazing amount of malls in Reykjavík—the biggest one is apparently of a design that would fit a city of a million people, whereas Reykjavík only has 200,000 inhabitants (and the whole country only 340,000). But Reykjavík is very spread out and there are very few buildings older than 100-150 years. This mostly has to do with the fact that we were not only poor until WWII, but we didn’t really have our own bourgeois class, and no nobility. The Danish and Norwegian functionaries living in the country weren’t very high on the food chain, their status didn’t justify any castles.
As late as 1940 a large part of the Icelandic population was still living in houses made of mud. This had started to change at the beginning of the 20th century, when we finally gave up on farming after a thousand years of stubborn disbelief and started fishing—got the first proper boats. The economy made leaps during the war when fish prices in Europe soared due to the unsafe waters. Also, we proportionally got more Marshall Aid than any other nation, and the British and US military built a lot of infrastructure—roads around the country, as well as the domestic airport in Reykjavík and the international airport in Keflavík.
But even when we were living in mud houses, reading was an important activity—it may have been more important than it is now. The cliché goes that you could go to the bishop’s house, meet a man in the garden, and not know from how he spoke whether you were talking to the bishop or the gardener. The state of working class home-libraries has fallen but it’s certainly a legacy to build on—that a home without books is no home at all. Also, public libraries are almost as common as swimming halls (there’s a swimming hall in any town with more than 50 people).
This obsession with reading had to do with the nationalist struggle for independence—not only was “the idea” of the nation, the social imaginary, created by a group of poets but our major claim to historical greatness is the Sagas and the Eddas. We don’t have any wars that we won, any great military figures, we don’t have a history of having been outcasts—and we gained our independence mostly through nagging and writing letters and being patient. Iceland has a kind of colonial trauma, but it’s very different from what you’ll find in Africa, Asia or America. The books that were written in Iceland—as well as the oral traditions of poetry—and the struggle from sovereignty in 1918 to full independence in 1944 coinciding with the rising career of our Nobel laureate, Halldór Laxness (who published his first book in 1919 and won the Nobel in 1955)—literature is how Icelandic people have self-identified, without it the country had no narrative of greatness—no “hero's journey”—and therefore no claim to independence.
This has changed a lot though—today Björk is more famous than the Sagas and Laxness combined, and the nationalism that used to be taken for granted is in constant crisis mode; the left, that used to be very patriotic, has abandoned it and the reactionary right is just foaming. It’s much harder to justify nationalism when you’re rich, powerful and independent. But then a lot of the tourists that come to Iceland are rich and powerful people from big bully nation states like the US and Germany, that have come to Iceland to experience a kind of nationalism by proxy. These tend to be left leaning liberals who are uncomfortable with being nationalists at home, but get a kind of catharsis from the Wagnerian (“sigur rós-ian”) exaltation of Icelandic mountains.
That’s interesting, your observation that nationalism is strongest when one’s very identity is threatened. Thus, there’s a need to assert oneself through literature. One must raise one’s voice, literally. When the French occupied Vietnam, there was a famous saying by an intellectual, Pham Quynh, “Truyen Kieu [a 19th century epic poem] remains, our language remains. Our language remains, our nation remains.” Often, what’s called nationalism is really tribalism, and in the US, the strongest tribal instincts have been found in non-whites, but since many whites are feeling increasingly beleaguered, white nationalism is experiencing a revival, with Trump its most visible indicator. With wealth comes a degree of smugness, you’re saying, and I suppose there is a strong temptation to think of oneself as a citizen of the world. In Reykjavik, there's a very odd sight of a train locomotive, plopped near the ocean. Since Iceland never had a rail system, this is just for show. As a symbol of Iceland’s geographical isolation, this going nowhere locomotive is perfect. The compulsion to see the rest of the world, or at least another country, must be tremendously strong in Iceland. You lived many years in Sweden and have traveled very widely. With your wife and kids, you spent four months in Vietnam recently. Please talk about what you find appealing or appalling in all these countries you’ve visited.
-I think nationalism works differently in different situations—the small country nationalism is probably the plainest type of tribalism, pairing as it does a deep-seated inferiority complex with fleeting moments of absolute and utter megalomania. The nationalism of empires does not require an outside threat to thrive; although the most dangerous empires are of course those that feel truly threatened.
One of Iceland’s greatest writers, Þórbergur Þórðarson, grew up on a farm in eastern Iceland at the end of the 19th century. He wrote that it was the blue of the ocean and the sails of French ships that had driven him to move to Reykjavík (which at the time was a thriving metropolis of about 15,000 people). The sails, nota bene, also represent different kinds of spoils—not just a symbol for traveling—since the French and Spanish sailors would sometimes do business ashore, but they would also sometimes run aground and perish, leaving the shores of poor farmers strewn with exotic wealth. Iceland is nearly only inhabited along the coastline so everybody grows up with the land on one side and the ocean on the other—and the ocean has an acute way of letting you know that there’s something exciting on the other end of it. Which makes people wish to travel. But for a long time that kind of just made people want to go to Reykjavík—or at best, Copenhagen, which used to be our capital, in a sense.
I’ve lived in all of the Nordic countries—Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway and the Faroe Islands (missing only Greenland)—as well as Berlin, and then the winter before last, like you mention, in Hoi An. I have also traveled a lot, but mostly within Europe—I’ve only once been in the States, for five days, twice in Canada, I once spent a month in Cuba and then two weeks in Brazil. But otherwise it’s just Europe.
I find it interesting to discover the differences in cultures that are otherwise similar—how for instance Denmark and Sweden define themselves so much as being different from each another. The Danes are obsessed with the Swedes being so horribly PC; whereas the Swedes are obsessed with the Danes having no respect for minorities, thinking that just because you can say something, someone needs to be saying it. If a single Swedish librarian removes a book full of golliwogs from the children’s shelf it’s headline news in Denmark. And they are of course both right—they’re more right about each other than they are about themselves.
When I moved to the Faroe Islands—which are this small group of Islands close to Iceland, where the people speak a language very close to Icelandic, and are even fewer than we are (50,000 vs. 340,000)—it wasn’t just to “see them” but also to “see Iceland,” to understand what we might look like to a foreigner, by going to see the closest thing. I’m not sure it worked, but that was the general idea.
Going to Vietnam was of course absolutely the opposite. I went looking for the great difference. Hoi An is, despite its actual size and the tourism, pretty rural and at a time when European towns and cities are mostly turning the same bland shade of Starbucks or clones, H&M or clones and McDonalds and clones—which is obviously also happening in the bigger Vietnamese cities—uniqueness is something to hold on to when you get it. I don’t know if I was satiated with Vietnam being so horribly different though, as different as I’d hoped—a lot of the difference had been packaged in such familiar terms, everybody marketing “authenticity” to the point that just that word made it all fake. The Disney version of authenticity—sailing down the Mekong I see in the same terms as getting in a jeep and driving up a glacier in Iceland. Authenticity—as far as that exists—isn’t for me something so purposeless as simple wandering, you need to have an errand to run down the river for it to be authentic. Authenticity isn’t really compatible with tourism, at all. At least there didn’t seem to be a way of seeking it out, but sometimes when you stayed put authenticity would come to you, just fall in your lap—sometimes it was what our Vietnamese neighbors would be laughing at (they were good people with a nasty sense of humor and laughed very hard when anybody hurt themselves), sometimes it was the confusion of a pizza delivery man, or the drunk ramblings of our landlord about the communists and the French. Or being headbutted by a cow. Or when our neighbors (across the street, people we never got to know) slaughtered a pig on the sidewalk.
When I think of the places where I’ve lived in terms of appalling/appealing, it’s almost as if they become the same thing. The appalling fascinates me too much, and the appealing is too easily kitschy. The fascination of the appalling goes full circle and its appeal turns into something more appalling; similarly kitsch ends up being beautiful.
Many people worldwide, and Americans too, feel that the US must change. American campaign slogans are always about change, even if it’s only a reversion to a former era. How would you like the US to change? And please talk, too, about your actual experience of the United States. What surprised you during your five-day visit?
-I don’t think it’s a matter of the US changing, per se. By now, most of the world is guided by the same faulty principles. While Bernie Sanders points to Denmark and Scandinavia as examples of something different from the US, Danish policies are moving closer and closer to American policies. The world is more dominated by markets than politicians—who are just another tool of the market. In Iceland, after the collapse, we voted in a left-wing government that eventually just did what the IMF told them to do; in Greece they tried their best, with Syriza, to do things differently but they got a gun to the head and ended up complying. The US is of course a lot more powerful than Greece, let alone Iceland, but I don’t see you voting in any change, really. The cynic in me wishes you’d vote in the buffoon Trump—hoping that it would just cause everything to spin out of control and crumble. But I’m pretty sure they’d rein him in too before things went that far. And if they didn’t that would be hell too—I don’t really favor civil war, world war or any other apocalyptic scenarios. Perhaps the best one can hope for is something incremental. For you guys, that might be a tiny bit stricter gun laws, a bit less racism. For the rest of us it might mean a tiny little more political autonomy.
When I came to the US, that was New York—which everyone always says “isn’t representative” of the US, which I find funny, because it implies a uniformity I doubt is present. I’m sure there’s also a huge difference between, I don’t know, San Francisco and Dallas, or Detroit and Los Angeles. Other countries are also not uniform—northern and southern France are totally different. Not that I don’t believe New York is special, everywhere is special—New York happens to have a lot of cultural history. And be an island. And maybe the birthplace of modern day anti-Americanism (which would explain why they want to claim they’re not responsible for whatever the “US” is).
I remember getting the feeling on the plane that I was finally on my way to Rome; heading to the center, where 90% of all contemporary culture comes from. And that it was strange I’d never made my way there. That was 2008, and I’ve not been back, and I find that strange. I spent most of those five days just roaming around on foot, sometimes with a guide who would explain to me that “this used to be that place” and “that’s where that guy used to live” and “here’s where that thing happened”. It seemed like it had all been in the past. I’ve lived in Berlin, a place with a lot of history, but it’s also a place that’s continually booming—you don’t feel like you’re passing through a cultural graveyard. Or maybe I should say, a cultural Disneyland, a simulacra. Somebody theorized to me recently that, in terms of the poetry scene at least, it had all deteriorated after Allen Ginsberg died—that without a clear figurehead, and a kind, loving one at that, everybody just started eating each other. But I was also just there for a few days, it may take longer to find the actual life—I may have been in all the wrong places.
The city felt strangely—and naturally—familiar. I’ve probably seen every street in Manhattan and large parts of Brooklyn on film. I remember waiting to cross the street when a car swerved in front of another, whose driver braked abruptly, got out of the car and started shouting something about fucking motherfuckers; and I remember thinking that you can’t actually be like that, I felt like they were acting New Yorky for my sake. Similar things kept happening—all that was missing was the high speed car chases, King Kong and spaceships. And Woody Allen, but I’m told he’s around.
Mostly I remember every conversation being about housing. How much do you pay, where do you live, and is it up for grabs? That is also very different from Berlin, which is still cheap—the wannabe artists and slacker hipsters living there aren’t working five day jobs to make ends meet, they’re living from scraps and getting arty-hipster-things done. There's less networking. There’s less posing and everything feels a bit more real. (Although last time I was in Berlin, a few weeks ago, I accidentally drank somebody else’s date rape drug and ended up roaming the city, totally blacked out, until nine in the morning; which was a bit too real for my taste—I like safe backwoods Iceland). Paris is also like this, with the housing and the posing—you don’t get the feeling anybody lives in New York or Paris because they want to, they just live there because all the other cool kids live there. They just get stuck.
During my stay in Reykjavik, I had quite a few hot dogs, not just because Icelandic hot dogs were excellent, but because they were the cheapest food available. I also tried hákarl, your chewy fermented shark that smells and tastes like ammonia. A Finn even warned me it would taste like “dry vomit.” Swallowing it, I had to conclude that Icelanders are an extremely resourceful and stoic people. To me, hákarl also embodies Iceland’s isolation. If you had to be in just one country for the rest of your life, would it be Iceland? If not, then where?
-Ha ha. I actually like hákarl. But there’s a right and a wrong way of enjoying it. It should be eaten in small bits along with shots of brennivín (caraway liquor). Preferably in good company. Most food worth eating is an acquired taste—although there are different levels. I’m still a long way off from “getting” stinky tofu and I was almost 30 before started enjoying nasty French cheeses.
Icelandic hot dogs are good—and sausages in Iceland have gotten so much better in the last years, due to an influx of Polish immigrants. Danish hot dogs are also good, but the rest of Scandinavia can’t really pass muster.
I’ve generally had a problem with staying still—although it is also a dream of mine, that one day I’ll calm down enough to be able to stay put. What’s it called again, mindfulness? Maybe that’s what I’m looking for, enough mindfulness to not need to continually shift things around. I’m married to a Swede and if it came to it we’d have to take that decision together; but theoretically, if it was just my decision, I’d probably choose either Iceland or some huge place I’ve not really been to before. The US, Russia, China. As for Iceland, it wouldn’t really be the country, per se, it’d be my tiny hometown. My affinity for the country is limited but when it comes to Ísafjörður I’m a rambling, incoherent Nazi whose patriotic emotions are unrivaled in any hemisphere. It’s the place from where I come, and the place from where I leave, it’s where I land when I return. Out on the waterfront, squeezed between the steep mountains on all sides, not more than a minute’s walk from anything one would ever need; grocery stores, bars, restaurants, the culture house, the cinema, the library, the swimming hall, etc. When a town of that size works and is dynamic, living there is “just amazing,” as you would say in the US. :-) It truly is.
Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, Postcards from the End of America.