Good evening everyone.
I cannot overstate how special it is for me to be here with you all tonight, and what an honour it is to attend this wonderful festival.
Twenty years ago I arrived in this country as an exchange student. To say it was a formative year of my life is an understatement. Iceland entered my heart in a way that I, two decades later, am still struggling to articulate. Its hold on me, and my imagination, has not faltered. And the older I become, the more I believe that Iceland changed the trajectory of my life. Iceland conjured the writer from me.
One of the reasons I applied for an exchange after high school was because I was reluctant to go to university. I had reached a crossroads in my education, and I didn’t want to embark on further study without a clear sense of direction. My hope was that, by taking a year off, I would learn what it was I ought to dedicate my life to. When I was younger I had hoped to be a writer, but many people in my life (teachers particularly), had dissuaded me from pursuing such ambitions, pushing me instead towards ‘safer’ careers, and by the time I arrived in Iceland, on the cusp of adulthood, I was deeply unsure as to what constituted a worthy vocation.
Despite having finished high school in Australia, my exchange program required me to attend Fjölbrautaskóli Norðurlands Vestra in Sauðárkrókur, where I had been placed. Taking classes in a language I had never encountered before proved difficult, and in the first few months I would often stray off task, day dreaming, or writing letters home.
One day, inspired by the strange winter halflight outside the window, I started writing a poem in the margin of my notebook. So absorbed was I, in my writing, that I didn’t notice my Icelandic teacher standing in front of me until he cleared his throat. He was a tall and intimidating man, and he frowned at me as he tapped the page of my neglected exercises.
‘What is so important that it stops you from working, hm?’ He picked up my notebook and squinted at my scribbles.
I stammered out an apology.
‘Hmm.’ He put the notebook back on the table and gave me a dark look, before returning to his desk. I, embarrassed, returned to work.
A few days later I had another class with this teacher, and after giving his Icelandic students their assignment, he summoned me to his desk with a curt nod. I thought I was in for it again, but, to my surprise, he handed me a book of poetry.
‘This is for you,’ he said.
I opened the cover and saw that he had inscribed the title page. ‘To Hannah, from one poet to another.’ From that moment onwards, this Icelandic teacher let me write as much poetry as I wanted in his class.
It was a small gesture, perhaps, to him, but this was a powerful act of validation for me, and the first of many that came during that year. In Iceland, I found a society that was very serious about its celebration of literature. It was with absolute wonder and joy that I encountered not only the sagas themselves, but a contemporary people’s familiarity, passion and reverence for them. From the stuffed bookcases I saw in remote farmhouses, to the high ratio of bookshops to people, learning about the tradition of recitation during nineteenth-century kvöldvaka and the gleeful joy of Jólabókafloðið, to the astonishing, galvanising encouragement with which my own muttered literary ambitions were met, I realised, with time, that I had arrived in a kind of homeland for writers and readers. A Nobel prizewinner who wrote perhaps one of the few, perfect novels in the world in Independent People. More books published per capita than anywhere else on earth. Most books read. Poets everywhere and bookshops bigger than those back hom, despite the difference in population. Storytelling had a centrality to Icelandic culture and identity that I had not seen elsewhere, and it was witnessing this centrality, this deep respect and love and hunger for language and its power, that eventually gave me what I had hoped to find on exchange: conviction and direction.
A year living in Iceland unspooled ten years of dissuasion and doubt. I wrote so much during my time here, I filled a portfolio and was able to apply to a university creative writing program. When I left Iceland, it felt like I had over 300,000 people in my corner, backing me in my literary ambitions.
My gratitude to Iceland does not end, however, at its great nurturing of and faith in writers. This country, too, is a wellspring of story.
I have wondered, for many years now, how such a remote island offer up so many narratives that represent the local and yet speak to the universal? Why is it that, in my local bookshop in the Adelaide Hills, across the other side of the world, Icelandic writers pop up on the shelves time and time again, or are pressed into my hands by booksellers adamant that I read their work? I know many Australian readers who are evangelical about the work of Sjón. Only one week ago I listened to a bookseller extol Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s Animal Life for over ten minutes. Many, many Icelandic authors are known and celebrated across the world, all deservedly, all for singular voices. Two weeks ago I reviewed a novel set in Reykjavík written by an Australian, and in it the narrator – a visitor – remarks, “For such a small, solitary land, Iceland had a strong magic.” It is true. It does. But what is this magic, and why does it lend itself to writers? Why is it so readily wielded?
I don’t have a ready answer, but I do wonder if it has something to do with the nature here. The exquisite and singular beauty of this land, its cruelties and its benevolence. A country where you can often see for great distances, where the sky is astonishing in the quality of its light or its lack of it, and where nature is not cordoned off, separate, controlled. Is it simply because winters are dark and long, or is it because it is easy to feel vulnerable here, aware of life as precious and precarious, human existence as both insignificant and full of meaning? Both? I cannot speak for every writer but, surrounded by the almost unbearable beauty of your country, I often feel raw with the need to somehow press something of life to paper. Even the memory of Iceland sustains me as muse. Burial Rites, an account of Agnes Magnúsdóttir’s life, was written as much for the possibility of returning to the Icelandic landscape in prose and mind, as it was for my abiding fascination with this country’s rich history, its many enduring ghosts.
Or does it, perhaps, have something to do with Iceland’s history as an island of immigrants – Scandinavian farmers, Irish slaves – or the fact that, despite its relative isolation, it has always been connected with the wider world? Has always produced people who have travelled across the seas, sometimes willingly, sometimes not, some returning again, some not, but nonetheless opening channels of exchange? I am not Icelandic, but I feel that, for a long time now, I have swam in its currents of story.
This is the ninth time I have come to Iceland, and the potency of the landscape and a culture intent on nourishing its literary bones has not diminished. In a world where it is increasingly difficult to find the rare and the wild, Iceland offers both rarity and wilderness. In a world where so many are dissuaded from using their voice, how fortunate are we to now to come together in such a place, to celebrate stories and those who tell them, words and those who wield them.
Thank you so much for having me, for having all of us here together.