Hildur Knútsdóttir meets me in Te & Kaffi Aðalstræti, pram in tow. For an hour, Hildur juggles my questions of feminism, social justice, and contemporary Icelandic literature while cheerfully keeping her infant daughter Örk entertained. In the span of a conversation, I witness an impressive balance between literary commitment and engaged parenthood. “Mothers deserve so much more credit,” I tell Hildur, and she laughs.
I encountered Hildur’s writing through online feminist articles, which fueled my curiosity about the state of women’s literature in Iceland. The following conversation reveals that—in spite of its reputation for gender equality—Iceland still has much work to do in terms of representation.
Your latest novel, Vetrarfrí, is a bloody thriller about an alien invasion. It also won the 2016 Icelandic Women’s Literature Prize in the Children and Young Adult Books category. What inspired you to write a horror novel geared towards young adults?
I didn’t decide to write a Young Adult novel—that genre was the decision of my marketing department and my editor. I’m against these simplistic categorizations. When I was younger, I read a lot of novels for adults, but now around 70 or 80 percent of what I read is classified as Young Adult. I also read some statistics that showed that middle-aged women make up the biggest readership of Young Adult novels. So I was just writing a novel that I wanted to read, and then I found out later that it was a “Young Adult novel.”
I had a dream about the story, or the beginning of it. The dream was almost like a movie: I was just looking at some characters. I woke up abruptly and wanted to know how the story ended, so I decided to write it. A version of this story was actually the final project for my creative writing studies, and Rúnar [Helgi Vignisson] was actually the one who went “no, this is a Young Adult novel.” And everybody agreed with him. But I was pretty adamant from the beginning that the cover design shouldn’t be too kid-oriented. I was thinking of a 15+ audience, but my editor argued that it was for 11+ readers. Again, I actually didn’t decide to write a Young Adult novel—it just kind of happened that way.
I read your article about “chick lit” in the Reykjavík Grapevine. You talk about how this category often diminishes serious issues that female authors are trying to bring to light. Do you think that the Young Adult label is also a way of reducing women’s writing?
When you’re labeling a book for a specific audience, you’re eliminating another part of your audience. Some people don’t have a problem with reading across genres, but some people think [that certain genres] are beneath them. But I feel that the “chick lit” label is more alienating for men than is the Young Adult label. The Young Adult label might eliminate some part of the readership, but I also understand that you need some guidelines.
You may also say that I come from a generation of writers doing similar things. I don’t think you can say that my books are classified as Young Adult just because I’m a woman, since male writers like Gunnar Theodór Eggertsson are around my age and are also writing fantasy novels for young readers.
I’ve also been thinking about what the criteria should be for the Young Adult genre. I think that if the protagonist is a teenager, then at least in Iceland, the novel is classified as Young Adult. There are a few exceptions, but they come from established authors who are well-respected. And women do tend to write more young Adult Novels than do men. I have issues with labeling books in general.
Does that extend to the label of “feminist writing”? Do you believe that this category exists in Iceland?
We definitely have a category of “women’s writing,” but I don’t think there’s a feminist category. We have works that are feminist, but we don’t have a category—not a very big one, anyways.
Why do you think that is?
I think that feminism has just recently been gaining momentum—and of course, there has been backlash. Women in Iceland have also been saying “I’m not a female writer; I’m just a writer.” I also think that a lot of the time, authors want to be above politics in their work because they want to focus on “artistry.” They don’t want people to pin their work down as ideological.
In a 2013 article for Knúz, you argued that the Icelandic language privileges masculinity. Could you expand on this and its implications for writing literature? Is it ever possible to write a “feminine” novel in Icelandic?
I know that a lot of people don’t agree with me, but I think that as a woman, you can never escape the oppression of writing in Icelandic. The best thing you can do is be aware of the language’s origins and try to raise questions. I constantly find myself using “masculine” vocabulary or a language that privileges male aspects. You can’t get away from it when you’re speaking or writing in Icelandic. So no, I don’t think you can have completely “feminist” texts.
But there’s been a big feminist movement with Swedish, which typically uses [the male pronoun] han or [the female pronoun] hon. People have started to use hen, which refers to a middle gender. And some people have been experimenting with Icelandic: we do have a gender-neutral form, so some are speaking with that in mind. Transgender communities are also identifying with the gender-neutral hán pronoun.
It’s also a conflict for me because I’m quite conservative with language when I write prose. Another part of me doesn’t want to be. But Icelanders put a lot of pride in their language, and I’ve been brought up that way: to speak and write “correctly.” It’s definitely an issue.
What are your thoughts on the Icelandic literary canon? Do you believe it reinforces normative social attitudes?
Yes, a friend of mine posted a related photo to Facebook this morning. This is a textbook from the 70’s depicting Icelandic writers—and there’s only one woman.
I think that the idea that a lot of Icelanders have of a writer is male. Even the word for “writer,” rithöfundur, is masculine. I’ve also been looking into the accolades that male and female writers get. Male writers seem to get more air time and easier access. I don’t think there’s been a study specifically about writers, but there have been studies of how often women are represented in the media. Iceland is worse than all the other Nordic countries, which represent women 23-31 percent of the time: women are represented 20 percent, while men are represented 80 percent. And I think it’s been getting worse these past few years. The majority of writers in Iceland are male—at least the ones who write for adults—and a lot of mainstream media is not talking about literature for children, so it automatically excludes a big part of the women who are writing.
And it was just two or three years ago that the Íslensku bókmenntaverðlaunin (Icelandic Literary Prize) decided to include a category for children’s literature. This is important because we have a writers’ salary that is from the government, and when the committee is deciding who gets funding, it looks at how many awards you’ve been nominated for and how many you’ve received. If there isn’t an award for children’s literature, it’s very difficult for children’s authors to compete with other writers. Now we have this category, but writers who write for children also don’t get as much support. Children’s writers usually get fewer months of funding, which again disadvantages a large population of female writers. So it all ties together.
I’ve been lucky—I’ve gotten a writers’ salary two times now. But this salary has also been criticized because young authors don’t get as much funding. The problem, of course, is that the committee doesn’t have that much to give, so it has to divide the money somehow. It’s not very good if the established writers don’t get funding, but it’s also difficult for young writers to focus on writing because they can’t afford it.
So basically: we need more funding for writers.
There’s this perception that Nordic countries are quite egalitarian. It’s disheartening to hear that the publishing industry is still not very equitable in Iceland.
A lot of feminists are very frustrated. Foreigners often say that Iceland is one of the most feminist countries, but things are not good enough here—far from it. I’ve just been proofreading for Kvenréttindafélag Íslands, an organization founded by Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir. This organization publishes a magazine called 19. júní every year, and I was just reading an article about violence against women. Men also still get paid 11.7% more than women, and the pay gap has actually been increasing in past years [from 9.4% in 2014]. Of course, when compared to other countries… but women in Iceland shouldn’t compare themselves to women in other countries. They should compare themselves to men in Iceland. And we’re still struggling, unfortunately.
When politicians see that Iceland is getting good marks in comparison to other countries, it can lead to complacency. I’m writing part-time, but I’m also working a lot on climate issues. I work for the Iceland Nature Conservation Association, and we face the same issues there. We have hydroelectric and geothermal power, and politicians are usually thinking “yeah, we have this covered.” But among the Nordic countries, we actually have the highest emissions for transport. I don’t think that [our natural resources] are an excuse for not caring about the environment. There’s always work to be done. We can’t get complacent.
Why did you gravitate towards writing as the medium for your ideas? How influential do you think that literature is in enacting social change in Iceland?
I’ve always wanted to be a writer—I think that my political convictions probably came later. I always read a lot, and when I was eighteen, I started writing a lot and have been doing so ever since. And then I started to get really mad about the woman’s “place” in Iceland. What really got me was how women were portrayed in the media.
I was waiting for my first novel to come out—it was ready, but my publisher decided to wait a year—and I thought it was weird to start another novel while I was in a limbo. One day, I was on the Internet and got into a fashion blog black hole. This community basically involved women with blogs writing about things they bought and how they arranged them together. Creative consumerism. I was really appalled by the “buy, buy, buy” attitude. At the same time, it was really easy to make fun of it.
So I decided to start my own satirical fashion blog. It was really easy to mimic the style, so I just took it a step further. The blog was really fun and a way for me to vent my frustrations about that aspect of consumerism and women’s culture. Then I started looking into how women are portrayed in the media, and a lot of the time, they are portrayed as consumers. I was flipping through newspapers and noticed that men were there because they were doing something. Women were asked “what’s your favorite store,” “what did you buy last,” “how is your home”? So [media outlets] were asking women about their consumerist habits, while men were being valued for their actions.
So I worked on this blog, and it got really popular quite quickly. Then I realized that I could both write and be political. My fashion blogger alter-ego even published her own lifestyle book on how to be thin, please men, and be better than other women. However, my first novel wasn’t intended to be political at all. And I’ve been thinking about whether my fiction is political—I don’t know. My latest book is just a thriller, but I’m always conscious of how I portray women. I also think it’s especially important when you know that a younger audience is reading your work. I don’t know if anybody notices but me, but I have the dad washing the dishes, while the mom is a lawyer working outside the home. Small stuff.
Again, I was also talking about how Icelandic authors are afraid of writing overtly political works, because then someone can pin them down as being propagandist. I’m also worried about that, because I don’t want to write something that’s just propaganda. When I read books, what I look for is a really good story. And if there’s something else—something political—that’s a plus a lot of the time. But I don’t think it’s necessary. Politics can be a good spice to a good story, but it’s not enough to drive the story. And if you don’t have a good story, it’s not worth the read.
What issues do you think the Icelandic publishing world is currently facing? What other voices is it failing to represent?
We have almost no immigrant writing. I was talking to a friend who wanted to write a story about a girl of Asian descent growing up in Reykjavik, and she can do magic. But then my friend said: “who am I, a white guy, to write about an Asian immigrant girl?” So you have to think about cultural appropriation. But we’re not even there yet, because Icelandic writers are not writing about young Asian immigrant girls even though there are a lot of them in Iceland. And it seems like immigrants are not writing their stories themselves. So we were discussing which is worse: potential cultural appropriation or complete lack of representation? I think this is an issue that is probably going to come up.
People are always talking about the purity of the Icelandic language and the Sagas. I hope this question comes up: Who can write what? There are some foreign poets writing in Icelandic, like Elías Knörr, a writer from Galicia. But there aren’t many novelists. They are probably writing, but I don’t know if they get published. Or maybe they’re also intimidated about this idea about the stereotypical Icelandic “writer.”
This interview was conducted by Ariel Chu at Te & Kaffi Aðalstræti on July 05, 2016. It has been edited for concision and clarity.
Hildur Knútsdóttir was born in 1984 and received a B.A. degree from the University of Iceland in 2010. Her works include Sláttur, Hola lovers, Spádómurinn, and Vetrarfrí, the last of which won the 2016 Icelandic Women’s Literature Prize in the Children and YA Books category. She is currently working on the sequel to Vetrarfrí and a new series with co-author Þórdís Gísladóttir.