SJÓN, a name adapted from the mouthful Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson, means “sight” in Icelandic. Outside of his native country, he is most widely known as the author of three award-winning Nordic folk novels (finally available in English) and as a collaborator of the nation’s creative wunderkind, Björk.
In total, the 51-year-old Sjón has published seven novels, 13 books of poetry, co-written four operas, and written one himself. He has collaborated with Björk for nearly 20 years, including on the song “Oceania,” which she performed at the opening ceremony of the 2004 Summer Olympics, and the song “I’ve Seen It All,” which she sang in the Lars von Trier film Dancer in the Dark (2000). Sjón was nominated for a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for the lyrics of “I’ve Seen It All.”
His novel The Blue Fox (2003) won the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize in 2005 and another, From the Mouth of the Whale (2008), was shortlisted for a 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
Today, Sjón is chairman of the board of Reykjavík UNESCO City of Literature and the president of the Icelandic PEN Centre, an international foundation committed to promoting literature and defending freedom of expression. His latest novel, Moonstone, came out in Iceland in October 2013.
Sjón and I met at Reykjavík’s historic Hótel Borg to piece together his past as a surrealist punkster, folk novelist, and opera librettist.
I. Reykjavík Punks
ALEX BAUMHARDT: Do you mind if we do a very un-surreal thing and go chronologically from your days as a punk in Reykjavík? You were part of the late ’70s, early ’80s neo-surrealist group Medúsa. What did you all do?
SJÓN: Well, it was a collective of poets mostly, and we did our own publishing under the name Medúsa, some poetry and some literature. Part of the group, and there were only six or seven of us, founded a band that became big during Reykjavík’s explosion of garage bands. So we all became a part of that scene too.
Was this right around the time that punk music came to Iceland?
We started being aware of punk music around ’77, some of us in ’76, so right around then punk music really came over from London, like the Sex Pistols and the Clash, and we had magazines like Melody Maker, CREEM, and ZigZag, so there were plenty of opportunities to follow what was going on. In ’80 there was a record shop that opened here called Gram, and it became the meeting place for people interested in this kind of music.
But Medúsa formed in the autumn of ’79, when we realized what excited us most about the modernist poetry that came out of Iceland in the aftermath of the Second World War was surrealism. We knew we wanted to take a better look at it and the revolutionary aspect of surrealism. So we did all sorts of demonstrations and poetry readings, performances with music and sets and masks …
And puppets, right?
Later on I did make dolls for two exhibitions here. Did some puppetry. We did everything to bring poetry out. In ’82 we opened a gallery in a small house of corroded iron just behind the Salvation Army building. It’s not there anymore, but it was a tiny space that we called The House of Lightnings, and we became a part of the music scene and did poetry readings between the songs and experimented with the bands, you know, making sounds while we read or banging the drums while we were reading.
Is that how you came to collaborate with Björk’s first band, The Sugarcubes?
Yeah, one of the guys from Medúsa became the keyboardist in KUKL, which was the precursor to The Sugarcubes, and another one from Medúsa that later joined The Sugarcubes, Þór [Thor] Eldon, was one of my best friends. One day he introduced me to his new girlfriend, Björk, and from that time on she took part in the Medúsa things and some of the performance art stuff. She became the main satellite of that group. She was there for all of our discussions about the surrealist metaphor and the different tools we had to change the world. [Laughs]
Was that kind of the mentality at the time? That you all felt like you were on the cusp of some great, new thing?
We definitely knew that we were challenging a status quo. This is the Reykjavík of the late ’70s, early ’80s, so there’s one radio station, one television station. You really had the opportunity of creating an alternative culture. There had been a hippy culture here, but very minimal, and we really felt that there was an opportunity and possibility of challenging everything.
Do you think people still do that here?
I don’t know. I think we left a legacy that is still encouraging. It’s really something that is still here, that do-it-yourself spirit and the importance of moving outside of established circles. I think with hindsight, we can see that one of our contributions to Icelandic culture is this collaboration between poets and musicians and this breaking down of barriers between what is high art and low art. What is poetry considered? High art? And what is pop music and rock music considered? But for us, there was never any difference. I would never see my poems as something of a higher culture than the lyrics of Einar Benediktsson, the singer of Purrkur Pillnikk, for example. I mean, why? We were doing the same thing, we were the same age, and we were just expressing ourselves and trying to change the world through cultural activities. [Laughs]
Were any of you in academic institutions? Were you all studying in school somewhere at that point?
Well we all did the polytechnic, which here is like extended high school; it’s from 16 to 20, and that’s when you get your diploma. Most of us stopped there. I’d just become so much involved in writing and exhibiting and organizing things at 20 that I saw no need to go to university. I mean, there was nothing there. I had no academic aspirations, and I absolutely felt that there was nothing that I could learn at the university. So no, we did not go the academic route.
II. What’s in a Name?
Can you tell me about the development of the name you go by, Sjón? Did that come out with the debut of your first book of poetry?
Yeah, my first book of poetry came out in ’78.
So you were how old?
Fifteen, turning 16. And in Iceland we have a history of people taking on artist names and pen names.
So it wasn’t a surprise when you did that?
No, no. And of course I was completely obsessed with David Bowie and Iggy Pop.
Was this like a Ziggy Stardust thing?
Yeah, and of course David Bowie’s name is not really David Bowie, and Iggy Pop is not actually called Iggy Pop. They were not called that by their parents.
What was the first David Bowie album you had?
The first one I bought was Diamond Dogs. The first album I heard was The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, which I heard at my uncle’s house, and it absolutely blew my mind.
My uncle was working on a freighter ship, and he was bringing back music and magazines from abroad. And I remember we were visiting, and I was let into his room, and I was listening to his records, and I just remember, it was really an illumination when I first heard Ziggy Stardust, and I remember just listening to “Starman” and looking out the window at a blue winter evening and watching the drifting snow and … whew. I had connected with something higher and became an obsessive Bowie fan.
But the name, yeah, I thought, maybe I’ll make my own artist’s name. So I started juggling around the letters of my full name and realized that I just had to take out the middle and then I had “Sjón,” which was “vision”: and I thought, oh, is there a better name for an artist and a poet than “vision”? [Laughs] Ah, yes, the poet is the icing on top of the world, you know. [Laughs] And I stuck with that since!
Were the novels an evolution of the poetry you published? Did you start writing with the intention of ever completing a novel?
No, no. I was really true to the surrealist dogma in rejecting the novel.
Because, you know, André Breton said it was a secondary form, only occupied with descriptions of furniture and people entering living rooms and speaking of banalities. But of course, there were exceptions, but I never intended to write a novel. By ’87 I had really gotten tired of the poetic eye of the first person, that whole element of poetry. So I thought it would be interesting to work with characters, to channel my ideas through characters in different situations, and that’s why I started trying to write a novel, and in ’87 I published my first novel called Night of Steel, which was a very experimental, postapocalyptic, minimalist novel, but with many of the elements I’ve kept working with.
Have any of your novels been made from something that was a poem?
No, no. I have this rule of thumb that if something finds its way to me, if a line of poetry comes to me and I realize that I can employ it in a prose, then it’s not good enough for poetry.
A poem is still the highest form for you?
Well, a more exclusive one in a way. I really think that within all of the different genres of literature, you should explore what is absolutely unique to it and its form. And if a line is comfortable in prose, then it’s not a line for a poem. If it’s a line for a poem, it should be unthinkable except for in that poem.
III. No Man Is an Island
You say you write with the awareness that you and your characters are from an island, and some of your descriptions of Iceland, like describing it as an “Unlovely splat of lava in the North Atlantic,” in From the Mouth of the Whale, are kind of dark. Does that come from a resentment of living on an island or feeling stuck?
Well, I suppose in a way it’s like you would say to your child, “Come here you ugly thing.” [Laughs] You know?
It’s being critical of the things you love the most?
Yes. We grow up with this awareness of living on an island, of being born on an island. But I think the nature of islanders is not a feeling of isolation. I think those not born on islands think that we are always struggling with a feeling of isolation. If there’s an ocean around your island, which is usually the case, you never see that ocean as a wall, you see it as a road. You know that if you can get something floating, you can get off that island. There’s always been that feeling that you can get off this island [Iceland] if you want to.
You never felt stuck?
No, we’ve always felt very free to leave and return. I mean we really feel that we [Icelanders] can go to whatever cultural center in the world, and we can pick out the things that we like, and we return with them and reuse them to renew our own culture. And because you’re on the outside — this is the benefit of being provincial, of being on the periphery — you don’t have any duty to the big culture. You don’t have any of the responsibility or the burden. For example, a poet of the atomic generation, the poets who really changed Icelandic poetry after the Second World War, really caused a pure paradigm shift. You had the sons of poor workers from a tiny village outside of Reykjavík discovering the poetry of Baudelaire and Rimbaud and engaging with that poetry to create their own. So we really feel that if it’s there, we can take advantage of it and make it our own. And in France, you would have been full of doubts about experimenting like this.
I actually think that people in the States are closer to the mentality that we have here in Iceland when it comes to making yourself. I mean we really believe that you can make yourself, and you can be the son of a milkman or the son of a farmer or a cleaning lady or whatever, and you can become an author. I think you feel that freedom in the States, but I don’t think that’s a freedom that is granted easily in cultural centers of Europe.
What was the first major city you visited outside of Reykjavík, and does it in any way compare to the character of Jonas “the Learned” and his grand descriptions of seeing Copenhagen for the first time in From the Mouth of the Whale?
I think my most significant journey abroad was probably the second journey I took away from Iceland when I went to Moscow in 1977, which took me to Copenhagen, and from Copenhagen to Moscow, and from Moscow to a summer resort on the Black Sea. It was like a summer resort for the privileged kids, the boss’s kids, of the Communist Party. And like every second year they had a world gallery for kids affiliated with communist parties in different parts of the world, but here in Iceland there is no communist party, but there was this youth movement, and they were asked to assemble a group of six kids to send abroad.
And you were one of those kids.
And I was one of those kids, but I didn’t have any political affiliations or anything — it’s Iceland. So things happened because of connections and my father, whom I didn’t grow up with and didn’t have much connection with as a child. He worked for this youth organization. I think he was convinced that I was going to be radical, so he thought it would teach me a lesson to go. So that’s why I was put on this trip. I was in no danger of becoming a communist, but it was good that he had this apprehension of me.
But it was amazing, I mean, some of my most vivid memories are of the train journey from Moscow to the Black Sea. We were in a coach with kids from Benin, and we were all talking to each other in whatever English we had at the time, and then when we reached the Black Sea we were put into the same dormitory as kids from Palestine. That was the first time in my life that I heard about the other side of that, which was amazing, and really made me realize that you should take all the global news with a pinch of salt.
It was a life-changing trip, and I had a crush on one of the Palestinian girls, so, everything was there and then, of course, just to be in Russia at that time and to be inside the mechanism of the Soviet State. We were being taken care of 24 hours a day, and we saw great parades and demonstrations of, like, synchronized gymnastics in the sport fields.
IV. Don’t Mistake the Mythic for the Fantastic
What is the distinction between the mythological, the folkloric, and the fantastic in your books? Would you put your books in any one of those categories?
I think it is important to see a difference especially between myths and folklore. I really try to avoid the world of the fantastic, because the fantastic implies something that is not real, something made up, and I really believe that in all of my books, I am dealing with reality or different aspects of reality, and different ways of describing that reality.
Folk stories are always about the little guy: things that take place in the lives of ordinary people, how ordinary people deal with different hardships and different social structures, where you’re placed in a social structure and what that does to you. So they’re really dealing with everyday life.
The myths are dealing with the grand themes of human existence. In myths, man is cut down to size. Man is dealing with — number one that he is going to die, and two, he’s trying to understand his place in the grand scheme of things, and that’s why it’s very comforting to, like, be created by a God, you know?
What is the difference between the language of religion and the language of myth to you?
The minute you start to have taboos, “dos and don’ts,” you have a religion. There you have myth implemented as religion.
Man in myths is similar to man in polytheistic religions though. Man is very humble in those religions; man knows his place, and he’s not at the top of creation as he is in the monotheistic religions, where man is made by God and is given the earth. That’s definitely not how it is in the myths. In the myths, man is just a part of a whole system.
How do you visit antiquated or narrow ideas and traditions without mocking them?
I never mock them. I think that it’s a part of this folkloric thinking. If somebody tells you that she went into a lava field, and an elf came out of one of the stones and spoke to her and told her she would have three children, and the fourth would fail or something like that, I’d just believe that person.
But is the acceptance of that as literal distinctly Icelandic? Because I think many people hearing that story wouldn’t take it seriously. A writer might even poke fun at it.
It’s tempting to make fun of it, but you should allow somebody the benefit of your not truly knowing the truth. If they say they’ve been abducted by aliens or seen Bigfoot, why should we not believe them?
Do you have any sort of threshold for that? Like if someone genuinely came to you and said they saw a three-headed beast in the forest …
You just try to understand. I mean if someone said that, I would believe it. That’s how you deal with strange ideas from the past. Because only the future knows how strange our ideas are today. Can you imagine how weird we will seem to future writers?
So then, would you call what you’re doing now “surrealist folklore”?
I connected surrealism and the folkloric from the beginning. I saw them as two things that existed together, because the only thing in Icelandic culture that could compare with surrealism in its weirdness was folk stories. And these folk stories had elements of the real that were also elements of the surreal. They’re not fantasies; they’re not pretending to be tall tales or lies.
What I like to do, and I feel I have to do, is to take advantage of all of the tools literature has made available to me. I think there are, in all of my books, passages of extreme reality, where I don’t flinch from describing the horrors of life or the mundane or the worrying parts of life. But I think the surrealist lesson is that you cannot describe man only by his acts and by the things he says and does. You have to somehow give a picture of his inner life. One of the first things that I realized about surrealism, which I liked, was how it demonstrates the conflict between the desire principle and the reality principle, and how man is always stuck between the two.
So what is happening within man? You have such wonderful tools to tell this, like poetry and lyrical poetry and rippled poetry and the wonderful grand narratives of the myths, and you have all of the tricks of the avant-garde, the cut-up technique of William Burroughs — all of that is at my disposal; why shouldn’t it be?
Your writing actually reminds me a bit of the lyricism of Burroughs’s Beat writing and even his surrealist book The Soft Machine. Do you think this is a fair observation, or do you think of your books as coming from a more punk, neo-surrealist direction?
I see punk music as folk music, rock ’n’ roll as folk music. Why should these be considered anything other than folk music? Isn’t punk just English folk music?
Can you think of any other authors that are employing these different techniques to write surrealist folklore?
I think you see traces of this, of using surrealism and folklore to lift the narrative of a nonacademic culture in many places. I actually taught a course on this at the Freie Universität in Berlin in the winter semester of 2007-’08, and the course was called Small Worlds/World Literature, and we were exploring how novelists, Nordic novelists in this case, use their tiny communities as platforms for universal stories. And one of the elements that most of the stories [from these communities] have in common is they have an underlying theme based on a worldview or a cosmology that exists outside the establishment. And when I was preparing for the course I was looking for this, and a good example is in the novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It begins with a folktale about a curse that they [the characters] bring with them from the Dominican Republic to New Jersey, and the book is about that curse.
That book felt folkloric to you?
Yes, I think it is a very good example of a contemporary writer using this surrealist, folkloric element.
You told me that you are really interested in obsessed people and where you find them and how they act in light of those obsessions. Do you have any sort of obsessions that manifest themselves in these novels?
Yes, I think we live in the age of obsessed people who can display their obsessions on the internet. All of a sudden you have all of these obscure groups out in the open. Before you had things that could legitimately be called “underground cultures,” and the only thing an obsessive anywhere could do was to subscribe to a magazine published in Winnipeg or Trieste or something, because there was someone there publishing a magazine on a very obscure topic or thing.
But all of a sudden, it’s all out in the open. Most of us can just become members of the craziest message boards, no matter the topic or how crazy weird it is.
And interact immediately with other obsessed people.
Yes, and interact with other obsessives. So I think obsession is becoming an acceptable behavior.
Do you try to construct meaning from obsessions? Like Valdimar’s obsession with the relationship between fish consumption and Nordic racial superiority in The Whispering Muse?
I think obsessive people are using obsession as a method of discovering something, or to delay discovering something about themselves. Obsessed people are always trying to change things.
They’re not just stuck on something?
Oh yeah, they’re absolutely stuck on changing things through something they’re stuck on.
VI. Postcolonial Iceland
Your three most well-known, widely read novels were published during the beginning, height, and crash of the economic boom that took place in Iceland during the last decade. Did your lifestyle during that time, or your perception of the lifestyles of Icelanders at that time, have any sort of weight in these novels? Were they affected by it?
I think if I agree to this I am simplifying them. I think you can definitely say in The Blue Fox that I was concerned about how society was moving away from the principle of caring for the weak, which was definitely one of the symptoms of the greedy society we were becoming. I would definitely say that is one of the elements of that book.
In The Whispering Muse, which was published in 2005, I am definitely having a go at the ideas of self-importance of the Icelanders. It was so easy during this bubble to start seeing Iceland as this special race, with unique, good qualities, and whenever you start trying to justify such claims, you can be sure your reasoning is going to look silly. As silly as Vladimar saying the Nordic race is great because of fish consumption. So I’m definitely having a go at the self-importance that fueled the megalomania growing here.
And I think From the Mouth of the Whale is very obviously dealing with what happens when a society is relieved of its moral and social obligations, which is the thing that happens in Mouth of the Whale when the ruling class doesn’t have to take care of the poor anymore.
This obviously simplifies the books a bit, but in all three cases, there is a threat there that is a response to what was happening in society.
When we talked previously you said that you thought modern Iceland should be considered and studied as a postcolonial society, having been a Danish colony until June 17, 1944. How would that be reflected in literature here?
I don’t think it is so much reflected in the literature here because I don’t think the people here really see society this way. We live with the myth that we were never truly colonized, because they didn’t colonize our minds. So we are still in denial that we were actually a colony and that we’ve fallen into all of the traps of a postcolonial state, which for example is diminished responsibility towards the big world; we feel that we should always be allowed special privileges because of how small we are. At the same time, we don’t want to share the burden of being part of the big world. We have a big problem with showing compassion to nations who are suffering. We have a political system that was founded while we were still a colony and still suffers from the same rules that were established by the Danish at that time. You have all of these postcolonial elements, and it’s not written about like this, and I think I’m trying to write it in a way.
You write novels, poetry, songs, children’s books, librettos, and draw — do you think all of these stand to strengthen one another or do they detract from one another? Would you be a better writer if you didn’t do so many other things?
I feel my strength is in the novel-writing, actually. The poetry comes slowly. But I definitely benefit from all of these collaborations. I really feel that they enrich the novels. When I’m doing different collaborations, I’m picking up new tricks and learning new things that might, or might not, show up when I write the next novel.
How did you make the transition into writing librettos? Your wife is an opera singer, right?
Yes, I was introduced to the world of opera through my wife, and I realized there were so many interesting opportunities there. It’s a very interesting form, and I think the world of opera exists at a very special level of reality where you can deal with things that you wouldn’t deal with so easily in other forms. You can make transitions from the mundane to the celestial very easily.
So I was interested in doing something in the operatic form, but the opportunity didn’t come until Björk asked me to come meet with her and Lars von Trier when she had her first meetings with him [for Dancer in the Dark], because she wanted to propose me as the librettist for the film. I had worked with Björk on lyrics before, but that was the first time I was using poetry and lyrics within a dramatic context, and I really enjoyed it. It was exciting.
VII. Modern Folk
Do you think there is a place for folktales in modern, globalized society?
I think stories repeat themselves, and there are some basic stories that are repeating themselves all the time that are being fed by centuries-old stories, and that is because there is truth in these stories. They are about real conditions and real human situations. There was an amazing story recently coming from the United States, a domestic disturbance case, and the police come to the house and there is this 107-year-old guy in the house, and he doesn’t want to come out. The police know that he has guns, but they go for him and he dies — goes out in a gun battle. For Icelanders, this instantly speaks of a hero’s death, like the old Vikings who had to die in a battle. If they wanted to go to Valhalla and have fun forever after, they had to die in a battle.
So for me, instantly, there is this connection; these folktales actually keep happening.
Do you think you’re preserving Icelandic culture or tradition in your writing?
I think I’m doing it a favor by challenging it and, by some standards, abusing it.
If you were to tell your own story, the story of you, would it be poem, novel, song, or libretto?
Ah. I think I would like puppetry. I think that would be the best form for me.
Your life would be acted out in a puppet show?
Yes, and somehow connected to water. Maybe a puppet show in a swimming pool