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Oddný Eir in a Land of Love and Ruins

Olivia Snaije By Olivia Snaije Published on April 30, 2017
This article was updated on May 12, 2017

Oddný Eir is one of PEN World Voices Festival's speakers for 2017 where she will read passages from works that influenced her alongside passages from her own writing. Her latest book is Land of Love and Ruins.

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© Sigtryggur Ari Johannsson

Your narrator is infallibly honest and contemplative. Is this crafted, or a state of being for you?

This is such an interesting question, and I have never been asked about this. Yes, I guess it's a state of being. I can explain it by saying that when I started writing these some-kind-of-autobiographies of mine, the first one published in 2004, the third one being the Land of Love and Ruins, I understood that I was unable to craft the narrator. She would just need to be whatever came out of my struggling to express some kind of an emotional state - or rather a series of different emotional states. I was writing a story about a state of being rather than about me. I would craft the structure and the rhythm fell into place. I once thought that I could ask someone who had read my books about the narrator, if she was irritating or nice or how she happened to be, but I didn't ask. You mention honesty and contemplation. I'm wondering now if it's possible to make it up, to imitate it or craft it? I don't know.

Iceland seems to perpetually have one foot in ancient culture and another in the modern world—how do you balance this in your life and work?

Well, I very much like to dwell in both the ancient and the modern at the same time and I didn't think of it as specially Icelandic, I thought for example that Icelanders tend to forget that there was a war and just live in the now. But on the other hand we are living on the gap between Europe and America, geographically and culturally and yes we refer a lot to our Viking times. I have looked for this state of being in the countries I have lived in. I love archives and old manuscripts, ruins and other signs of other and nearly disappeared times but then at the same time my nose is constantly searching for what’s new in the air. I love sniffing perfumes and finding out if there is something new in the creation of odors. I'm often disappointed and I have a hard time finding my personal perfume. I used to write with parfums historiques [based on historical characters] on but it became unbearable when I stepped out in the street. For a while I was afraid of getting lost in former times and in archives but now I've come to trust that I have some innate balance in me. I allow myself to get lost and not follow anything in our present times as I whisper to the future: I'll be back. I have this strong conviction that we need to let all times talk if we want to be radical in the future.

What are the subjects that concern you the most today?

It has something to do with your first question about honesty and integrity. I'm very much thinking about sincerity, both on a personal level and a political one. We so much need the truth; we need to be able to distinguish between the truth and a lie, both in our political state and private lives. Studying philosophy, reading and writing about democracy and deconstruction I was never dreaming of one universal truth for all. I just think we need to work on our personal ways of understanding. We need to distinguish between different sources of information. And sometimes we need to follow the words all the way back to the source, if possible. Yes, I'm concerned by the access we have to this source of something true within ourselves and outside ourselves.

You work in several different areas. How does literature differ when it comes to expressing yourself?

I've been collaborating quite a lot in those other areas. I've written texts that needed to resonate with a certain context or project or idea. It has been a very good school for me. But sometimes it is exhausting and I thought I would be a relief to write my own stuff. But as I decided to write those forms of autobiographies I had again to deal with my responsibility towards others; to do justice to others. I've learned to be less exhausted by the task. And I've also allowed myself to play. When I write my own books I write whatever without thinking about the world around me. I think it's necessary for an artist to give oneself this space. Then soon enough you start playing chess with the world. I'm a bad chess player so I cannot even imagine that anyone will read my books. I could not write for an imagined audience. I guess I just write my books as I write my diaries, for myself in the future. And then the "myself" just disappears and what is left is the future.

It has been a shock to find out that people in America are actually reading my book and understanding it so much better than I do. It is a new pleasure.

What are you reading these days?

I've just started to read a long literary work, and also a very old one, The Tales of Genji, by a Japanese woman from the 12th century called Murasaki. I haven't gotten to the core of the work but I understand that it must have been an enormous challenge for the different translators to gain access to this ambiance. I have this plan now to read some contemporary autobiographies, because I'm still interested in autobiography as a genre. And there are authors that some American readers told me I need to read. I'm afraid I'm going to buy many books during my trip to America, even though I have hundreds and thousands of them. Living like a gypsy it's a little bit difficult to carry this printed forest around with me but it's my shelter against the fascist tendencies of our times... 

Olivia is a Paris-based journalist and editor.