Literary Hub

Sjón on Storytelling, Travel, and Defying Icelandic Isolation

sjon

In this episode, Paul Holdengraber talks to the poet Sjón about the importance of travel, keeping your audience awake, classical Nordic literature, the Future Library, and articulating the world.

Sjón on defying isolation in Icelandic literary political culture

It’s an age old tradition here to defy the geographical isolation by constantly moving back and forth from the island, bringing back the goods. We are very much aware of how important it is for us to reach out and to pick up whatever gets our attention and we find interesting in cities all over the world and to bring it back home. Once it’s here we read it and then we make from it what we can. So, Icelandic history, both literary history and political history, is about this communication.

Sjón on storytelling as a means of survival
I am a great believer in this idea and in the idea of the human being as a story telling animal and story telling somehow being one of the three most important things for the human being or something. I really believe that telling stories is rooted at the core of what makes us survive. We would have stopped telling stories 100,000 years ago if it hadn’t had a fundamental role in making us survive. Our mind is, from birth, thirsty for stories. We instantly start feeding children stories. With lullaby, we instantly start responding to the child by singing a lullaby and entertaining it. And a lullaby is wonderful because it contains everything—it is poetry, it is music, it is performance. And we realize that this is what the little one enjoys and we keep expanding on that. The only difference between a lullaby and what we do later on as artists or actors or novelists is that we of course try to keep our audience awake, while the lullaby tries to put them to sleep.

Sjón on writing in Icelandic
When I’m writing in Icelandic, I’m of course writing in modern day Icelandic but at the same time, I’m inevitably having a dialogue with the whole tradition of Icelandic literature. I really think an Icelandic author can’t put down a sentence without that sentence, in some way, reflecting on the whole tradition.

Sjón on making sense of reality
For some reason I think it must be the influence of surrealism and the influence of Icelandic folk stories, from the beginning I felt comfortable with working with characters who have a language for those other experiences. Where do they get this language from? They get it from religious texts. They get it from old scientific texts. They get it from folk science and medicine. But, none of this is fantasy. All of this is derived from trying to make sense of the hard and tangible reality, which seems to be shaped by forces they don’t understand or know at any given time. I’m never a fantasist.

Originally published in Literary Hub.

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