‘Being the first lady isn’t a job’

Puja Changoiwala | Updated on: May 25, 2018

The write move: Reid has years of journalistic writing experience, but is yet to début as an author | Photo Credit: Eliza Reid

Co-founder of Iceland Writers Retreat, Eliza Reid dwells on the homegrown sagas and other influences on her country’s literature, as well as keeping her work separate from her husband’s office

Iceland is celebrating its 100th year as a free and sovereign state. In 1918, Iceland signed a Union Treaty with Denmark, effectively freeing itself from the latter, in a culmination of a nearly century-long campaign for self-determination. Eliza Reid, the first lady of Iceland, shares her thoughts on the occasion, in an interview with BL ink . The co-founder of Iceland Writers Retreat (IWR), Reid also speaks about the literary scene in her country, and how, despite a popular Icelandic saying, she does not hold a book in her belly, not yet.

Edited excerpts:

What has changed in Iceland over the past century?

A lot. We have gone from being one of the poorest nations in Western Europe to a country with one of the highest standards of living in the world. We still maintain many traditions, such as a strong fisheries sector, but we are a modern welfare state along the Nordic model, and we celebrate progressiveness, inclusiveness, and support for our citizens.

Do you think literature, which is a strong part of Iceland’s national identity, has progressed in the last 100 years?

Yes, literature has progressed as well, as it has elsewhere. Perhaps, the biggest shift is that more works are now translated from Icelandic into other languages. Many more people now have an opportunity to get to know our country through books.

Do you think it is only now that Icelandic literature is finding its way into the rest of the world?

In some sense, people have known about Icelandic sagas, and have been inspired by them for a long time. In 1955, Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness won the Nobel Prize for literature. Icelandic writing has been on the horizon, but I think, in a mainstream way, people are more aware of it now.

Is it because of the growing popularity of Nordic noir?

Broadly, that’s a little because of the rise of Nordic noir. But it’s also because Iceland is more on people’s maps now — there is a huge increase in tourism lately. People are more aware of the country, and I think that’s great for Icelandic literature.

Is contemporary Icelandic writing still inspired by medieval literature — the folklores and the sagas?

In many ways, yes. And certainly, the environment. It’s a unique natural environment. When you think about how isolated this nation was from other places, you can see how that permeates more thinking into creativity.

Tell us about IWR, your professional child.

IWR is a literary event held in Reykjavik in April each year, which combines writing workshops with cultural tours. This year, we hosted 110 participants from 17 countries, while the faculty, comprising world-famous authors, were from the US, UK, Canada, Palestine, Sweden, et al.

The culture tours take participants to the countryside, so they get to see some of the natural wonders that Iceland is famous for, but with a literary bent. We talk about the sagas, and conduct readings from local, prominent Icelandic authors. We want people to go home with a sense of Iceland’s literary traditions.

Iceland is said to have the highest number of books published per capita in the world. What is IWR’s role in this?

This is a unique event in Iceland, and people have been extremely supportive. During one of our receptions, the previous President gave a wonderful speech about how there are more statues of writers in Reykjavik than those of politicians.

IWR is a product of passion. We host free readings from our authors for the public, and last year, we also offered screenwriting workshops. We have volunteers, who are mostly locals and creative writing students. They get the opportunity to attend the workshops and cultural tours. We also raise funds for scholarships through alumni who’ve had the IWR experience. This year, we had 750 applications from all over the world, and we were able to offer three full scholarships and two partial.

Do you think having the first lady of Iceland as a founder adds to the popularity of IWR?

I’m very conscious of this title enhancing or affecting the image of IWR. I started IWR when I wasn’t the first lady, and when Guðni [Thorlacius Jóhannesson] became President, I didn’t want to give up my job. I’m grateful for the title, but being the first lady isn’t really a job. It was important for me to continue with IWR. But I would never want someone to think my position as the first lady has promoted my small business.

Are you writing anything?

There’s this Icelandic phrase, which means every person is walking with a book in their belly. Everybody says that. I don’t think I have a book in my belly, but I’ve worked for a couple of years with Iceland Review magazine, and I was also the editor of Icelandair’s inflight magazine. I have years of journalistic writing, and you never know what happens in life.

How did you end up in Iceland from Canada?

I grew up in Canada. I have a degree in international relations, and I moved to England to attend graduate school at Oxford University. During those years, I met my husband, who was pursuing his doctorate at Oxford. He was a professor of history before he became President in 2016. It’s a very simple love story, may be with a quirkier twist.

Puja Changoiwala is a Mumbai-based independent journalist and author

Published on May 25, 2018
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