I was born in Reykjavik on April 4th 1961. Moved with my parents to Saudárkrókur in Northern Iceland when I was two years old and lived there until I was past twenty. However both my mother’s and my father’s family come originally from Borgarfjördur in the east and there I spent a great many summers with my maternal grandparents. Perhaps it’s because of this that my connection with Skagafjördur did not become more decisive. In fact, everything in my childhood was linked with the eastern fjords. I suppose the childhood surroundings are very important to most writers, an in my case the two fjords have played a big role in my writings—this actually happens more or less unconsciously. Perhaps a writer can never really write about anything but what he knows. Another fact which most of those who write have discovered is that it is almost impossible to come up with anything completely fresh. There are always some parts of the writer’s life that pop up.
I graduated from Fjölbrautarskóli Nordurlands Vestra in Saudárkrókur (FNV) in 1982 and then moved south to go to the university comparative literature to be exact. It didn’t last long, only a few weeks in fact, and then I’d had enough of that subject as such. The following year I tried the Iceland University of Education (IUE) and lasted there just over a year. After that I lived for one year in Borgarfjörður Eystri where I pretended to be practising some kind of art education. What I was really doing was to try to write. I had first began, while in FNV, to write poetry for the school paper—which is best forgotten there. I think that I didn’t make a very good start, to be honest. But while I was studying there a man called Geirlaugur Magnússon started working there and he engaged in writing poetry. He had a huge collection of foreign books he allowed me to examine as much as I wanted and I showed him what I was trying to write. He didn’t like it all that much, understandably enough, but I continued. The first collection of poetry came out in the fall of 1983, the year I began my studies at the Iceland University of Education. After the winter I spent there it was pretty clear that teaching was not for me (even though I tried after that to teach at Borgarfjördur) and the idea that I might write for a living started to grow. I don’t know now what caused me to believe it except my stubbornness. Ever since I learned to read I had read a lot but not done much writing until in FNV, with the exception that when I was five I put together a book about a squirrel and used the name of it 22 years later as the title of my first published story.
Since then I have spent my time almost equally writing stories and poetry as well as translating. Translation is a very good school, I think, you approach language differently and learn a lot, both from mistakes and from success. It’s also good to take a break from oneself; to go deeper into another writer’s work in a way that reading, to give an example, does not give full room for. Besides, I feel it to be almost the duty of Icelandic writers to give a hand in translations because, as everybody knows, they are very important in as small a language area as this.
I am married and have three daughters, one from the "first war" as we say! Pétur Gunnarsson once said that he didn't find himself in his writing until after the children were born and I think I can agree with that. But what about H. C. Andersen? someone may ask. Yes, but he was his own child. Children regenerate and keep your vision awake though it may be difficult at times to make this strange job and ordinary family life work together on a day to day basis.
The role of the author in contemporary society is possibly quite a bit different, though perhaps his position has not changed as much as people's position to him. But poets who are also the prophets of society are probably ancient history. And yet its hard to say. But even the most low-spoken poets can have a clear position. The Icelandic poet Thorsteinn Valdimarsson is a good example. All his life's work was marked by a position to life that was, at its core, religious—and for that reason a little poem of his about a flower became highly political in the sense that it condemned almost without words the destruction of nature: the flower was a symbol against war and the intrusion on nature. This is perhaps not given enough attention when contemporary poets are criticized for introversion and apathy for the burning issues of their time. Yet I am not saying that the criticism is without its basis. Poets should not of course get locked up, chew the cud in a stall of specialization, where dealing in words is their only acknowledged area of expertise.
In earlier times art and religion followed the same path. It was not until the last century that ways parted on the surface and art grew towards science, through naturalism and realism. At its core art has still always been closer to faith, the occult, than to science. I think that now, at the end of the 20th century, the so called artists are gradually realizing this and that in the end these two ideologies will come together again. I am not a prophet, however, so this may be just my feeling.
Gyrðir Elíasson, 2000.
Translated by Jóhann Thorarensen.Back