Icelandic Literature Featured in Words Without Borders’ Latest Issue

icelandic books

Icelandic fiction and poetry in English translation are the focus of literary magazine Words Without Borders’ April issue. Guest edited by translator Larissa Kyzer, the issue features contemporary Icelandic authors such as Fríða Ísberg and Björn Halldórsson. The authors subject matter ranges from the climate crisis to intimate partnerships, providing a “revealing portrait of a country in a time of global and local upheaval,” according to the magazine.

Features Shorter Works of Fiction and Poetry

“I’m an avid reader of Words Without Borders – it’s a wonderful outlet for international literature in translation – and it had been a number of years since there had been an issue dedicated to Icelandic literature,” Larissa told Iceland Review. “The last was a 2015 spotlight on four Icelandic poets, guest-edited by my frequent collaborator and co-translator for this issue, Meg Matich. There’s so much exciting writing being done in Iceland today, but most of this work doesn’t get much of an audience in English because it’s shorter in form – short stories, poetry – or simply because there are a limited number of Icelandic novels published in English each year. So I decided to pitch a special issue that would bring together Icelandic writing across genres (novel excerpts, short stories, and poetry) that had all come out within the last five years, focusing on authors who are lesser-known to English-language readers. I was lucky – and delighted – that WWB was just as excited about this prospect as I was.

A Nation on the Global Fringe

As Larissa states in her introduction to the issue, Iceland is “literally and figuratively on the periphery – at once very much impacted by, and participant in, [global] conversations, but still a minor player, without the stature, or power, to effect real change on, say, the international climate policy.” This makes it particularly interesting to follow how its writers respond to global issues. “We’re living in strange times, to state the obvious, but something I find particularly interesting right now is the way in which conversations or social movements that start locally – #MeToo, for instance, or Black Lives Matter – become, almost immediately, international in scope,” Larissa explains. “Nations all over the world are grappling with many, if not most of the same big questions, and I’m fascinated by the ways in which Iceland is responding to these questions within its literature.”

“As it happens, I actually got the idea for the issue’s theme from a piece by Kári Tulinius, GOTO WARD SENT ROPY, an experimental poem which captures, quite concisely and poignantly, the experience of these immense global forces acting on one’s life and immediate surroundings without being able to really do anything about it. In it, we see the poet, as a child, gazing at an immense glacier that, by the time he reaches adulthood, has melted away.”

Literature A Powerful Force in Icelandic Society

Larissa says there are many surprising and exciting things about Icelandic literature. “Something that continues to capture my own imagination is the way literature functions in Icelandic society – literature is a genuine site of social engagement and critique in Iceland, and, I’d argue, the preeminent medium through which Icelanders explore some of their most pressing social issues. I can’t speak for other countries, but you don’t really see this in the US – literature isn’t central to our public debates in anything close to the same way. So it’s exciting to see a country take literature so seriously, to not even question that it remains, even in our digital era, an incredibly relevant, meaningful, and useful medium that we can turn to for bigger answers.”

Read the issue in full here.

Homemade Bomb Used in North Iceland Tunnel Explosion

Fjallabyggð Ólafsfjörður

Police continue to investigate an incident involving a homemade bomb set off in Ólafsfjarðargöng tunnel, North Iceland, in March, RÚV reports. The bomb was the largest of its kind that has been used in Iceland for the purpose of causing damage. The act of vandalism could be punished by up to six years in prison.

The one-lane Ólafsfjarðargöng tunnel, also known as Múlagöng, connects Dalvík and Ólafsfjörður in North Iceland. It opened on March 1991, making it one of Iceland’s oldest tunnels. The bomb exploded in an alcove of the tunnel around noon on March 18. Though the damage has been cleaned up, traces of the explosion remain.

Four Arrested

Four people between 30-50 years of age were arrested in connection with the crime in Northeast and Southwest Iceland. All were released from custody after being questioned. Bergur Jónsson, Police Superintendent in the Northeast Region told reporters that the investigation is going well. Authorities are now determining each suspect’s role in the event, in part using data from mobile phones. Iceland’s Penal Code allows for sentencing of up to six years in prison for anyone who compromises the safety of transport vehicles or traffic on public roads.

“We are still determining how powerful it was, but we know that this is the largest IED [improvised explosive device] that has been used for this purpose in this country,” Bergur stated.

Iceland Officially Recognises Jewish Community as Religious Organisation

Iceland’s Jewish community reached a historic milestone last month when Judaism was officially registered as a religion in the country. Though Jewish people have been living in Iceland since the late 1800s, the group had not been registered as an official religious community until this year. Iceland’s only Rabbi, Avi Feldman, says although the recognition comes with some practical benefits, it doesn’t necessarily change much for the community, which has been active for decades.

“On the one hand, there is no change, because Jewish life has been active here for a long time,” Rabbi Feldman told Iceland Review. “I can speak for the past few years since we’ve come here, there’s been all sorts of wonderful things happening. The community was here, it just wasn’t registered and it’s more of a formal thing. But at the same time people feel, and I feel very strongly, that it’s also a historic step and something that is a wonderful accomplishment.”

Formal recognition of a religious group comes with some practical benefits in Iceland. “First of all, there are the life cycle events starting with baby namings, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, and funerals: all of these things can now be done within the community and recognised,” Rabbi Feldman explains. In Iceland, all taxpayers can participate in a religious tax and choose which religious organisation their funds are directed to. “So now there’s the option that they can direct these funds to the Jewish community.”

The registration should also make it easier for the Jewish community to eventually acquire a plot of land. “In the future we would love to see some type of Jewish community centre that could house all sorts of things. It could house a synagogue, some type of Jewish museum for people to learn about Jewish life and values and history so there’s all kinds of possibilities.”

Aim to Build a Welcoming Community

According to the Rabbi, the community’s ultimate goal is not to have as many registered members as possible, rather to create a welcoming environment for Jews and others. “To us, the most important thing is not people registering and having a certain membership. Our belief is that anyone who is Jewish is part of the Jewish community, everyone has a place here. We have people of different backgrounds, different levels of observance, different customs: we try to give all of these people the feeling that the community is a place for them and they are welcome there.”

The Rabbi acknowledges that not all Jewish people in Iceland would necessarily want to become registered members either. “Jewish people might understandably think twice about actually registering with the community – they may want privacy. We’ve had a difficult history, even recent history in the last century. We don’t put any pressure on anyone to register themselves, so I don’t think the number of registered people will ever reflect the actual size of the community, and that’s OK.”

When he moved to Iceland with his family a few years ago, Rabbi Feldman expected to find fewer than 100 Jewish people living in the country. “But actually every single week, sometimes every single day, we’re meeting people. People are reaching out, friends bring friends, we’re constantly meeting new people who we didn’t know about before who are living in Iceland. So I would say that just after living here for a few years, we know a few hundred Jews, and I don’t think we know everyone, so it could be double or triple that number.”

Rabbi Feldman speaks positively about his experience living in Iceland. “Iceland is a wonderful place, we’ve had excellent experiences here, people are so nice and we feel so welcome and accepted. The registration is a continuation of that effort of making it clear that every community has a place.”

The Jewish Center of Iceland will hold a Holocaust Memorial today in collaboration with the Polish, German, and US Embassies in Iceland at this link.

Reykjanes Eruption: Lava From Three Sources Merges Into One Field

geldingadalir eruption Reykjanes

The lava fields from the three active eruption sites on Iceland’s Reykjanes peninsula have now become connected. Lava spewing from the three sources has joined to form a single unbroken field that fills Geldingadalir valley (where the eruption began) and stretches into Meradalir valley to the east. The map below shows the eruption sites (red) and lava fields (purple and black).

A map of the lava flow. The eruption sites are marked in red and lava flow as of April 7 is marked in purple and black. The flow from the most recently-opened eruption site, centre, is an estimate, marked with black stripes.

The eruption began on March 19 in Geldingadalir, where two vents continue to erupt. Two other fissures opened on Monday, April 5, to the northeast of the first vents, and a third fissure opened between the two sites around midnight on the night of April 6. All three eruption sites remain active.

The eruption currently poses no threat to inhabited areas or aviation. Toxic gas can be harmful to humans at the eruption site as well as in nearby areas.

Read more about the geology of the Reykjanes peninsula or watch the eruption live.

COVID-19 in Iceland: Focus on Border Restrictions for “Final Stretch” of Pandemic

keflavik airport COVID-19 testing

In a briefing in Reykjavík today, Iceland’s health authorities emphasised the importance of continued solidarity among the public to keep domestic infections at bay. As vaccination efforts ramp up in the country, Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason expressed his hope that the coming months were in the final kilometres of a pandemic “marathon.”

The Chief Epidemiologist has submitted updated recommendations to the Health Minister regarding border restrictions. While courts ruled this week that Icelandic authorities do not have legal grounds to require certain travellers to quarantine in government-run facilities, Þórólfur stated there were other ways to tighten border regulations in order to ensure active infections from travellers do not spread into the community, such as increased monitoring of those in quarantine.

While a link has been found between rare instances of blood clots and the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, such instances are limited to women under 60, the Chief Epidemiologist stated. Iceland will thus continue administering the vaccine to those over 70 and will possibly add the 65-70 age group as vaccination efforts progress.

The following is a lightly-edited transcription of Iceland Review’s live-tweeting of the briefing.


On the panel: Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason, Assistant to the Director of Civil Protection Rögnvaldur Ólafsson, and Jóhann B. Skúlason, Director of the Contact Tracing Team.

Yesterday’s numbers have been updated on Iceland reported 4 new domestic cases, all in quarantine, and 3 at the border. Total active cases have dropped to 110. 27,092 are fully vaccinated, 7.4% of the population.

The briefing has begun. Rögnvaldur begins: “I think it’s safe to say we’re all sick of this pandemic by now but let’s remind ourselves what our goals are.” They are: protect the healthcare system, protect vulnerable groups, keep border infections at bay and keep domestic infection rates low. We’re on the way to COVID-19 being part of history but we’re not there yet. Our most important tools to fight the pandemic are contact tracing and quarantine. We isolate those who are sick and quarantine those who have been exposed.

We want to trust people to do this together with us but we’ve seen that not everyone follows the rules. People break the rules for different reasons. Some do it intentionally, while for others, it’s a result of wishful thinking: no one expects to get sick. We have to take quarantine and isolation seriously, that’s how we beat this.

Þórólfur takes over. Five people tested positive in South Iceland the day before yesterday with a new variant of the virus. The group outbreak was traced back to an individual who had entered the country with an antibody certificate. They were most likely infected again. Such instances are very rare and at this point, it’s not reason enough for us to change our approach.

Three active cases were diagnosed at the border yesterday. All cases in the last few weeks both domestically and at the border are of the British variant. The people testing positive at the border are not all tourists, they are also people who live and work here.

Three group infections are largely responsible for the current wave of infection. Most have been traced back to people arriving from abroad who broke quarantine. It’s clear that group infections can be caused by just a few individuals who don’t follow the rules. Such group infections can easily start a new wave of the pandemic, Þórólfur says.

Courts have ruled that authorities cannot require travellers arriving in Iceland to spend their five-day quarantine in government-run quarantine hotels. Þórólfur has sent new recommendations for border restrictions to the Ministry of Health. They are not as effective, in his opinion, as the previous restrictions, but he hopes they will be successful in preventing border infections from leaking into the community.

Þórólfur goes over news of the AstraZeneca vaccine. The serious side effects are only linked to women under 60 so there will be no changes to Iceland’s policy of vaccinating people over the age of 70 with that vaccine. As vaccination efforts progress, that age limit might be moved down to 65 (for the AstraZeneca vaccine).

There have been arguments in the community about the border restrictions and Þórólfur fears that disagreement over infection prevention restrictions might negatively affect the solidarity that has been the key to keeping infections in Iceland at bay. Þórólfur: “Hopefully we’re on the last kilometres of a marathon. We need to stick together to get through this and reach the finish line safely.”

Jóhann, the head of the contact tracing team takes over. He starts by thanking his staff and complimenting their communication with the people they contact. The most important prat of the contact tracing team’s work is to get all the information necessary. The information the team gathers is confidential and can’t be turned over to the police. Information given to the contact tracing team will not lead to punishment, Jóhann states.

Registered nurses conduct the calls with everyone who has to go into quarantine, and explain the rules. Following these rules is vital for keeping the pandemic at bay. Quarantining possibly-infected individuals has proven successful in keeping the pandemic contained. All samples are sequenced by deCODE and mapping the virus variants also helps with tracing the spread of the virus.

Get tested as soon as possible, don’t wait until mild symptoms get more serious, Jóhann reminds the public. It can make a big difference. We’ve had success with our methods before, but only thanks to the participation and solidarity of the community, Jóhann states. Jóhann encourages the public to continue to co-operate with infection prevention regulations.

The panel opens for questions. Þórólfur is asked about his comments that he was disappointed with the verdict that authorities did not have a legal basis for requiring travellers to quarantine in government facilities when they had access to adequate facilities at home. He confirms that it was a disappointment, and also disappointing that Icelandic law did not support the regulations that were implemented. There are plenty of alternative possibilities to help ensure that infections don’t cross the borders, such as making regulations on at-home quarantine clearer and clarifying what type of housing is necessary for those in quarantine. Authorities could possibly require people to quarantine in government-run hotels if their homes don’t fulfil the requirements. They could also monitor arriving travellers more closely.

Asked if luck has played a part in things not being worse than they are, Þórólfur replies that luck is one thing but it’s also down to people’s solidarity and the public’s willingness to follow the rules.

When asked if domestic restrictions are still necessary now that most people in older demographics have been vaccinated, Þóróflur replies that the British variant is more likely to lead to hospitalisations among young people. That hasn’t happened in Iceland yet as the spread has been much less than in other countries thanks to restrictions. That could still happen however and the spread of the British variant likely wouldn’t spare Icelanders any more than it has young people in other countries. It’s too late to act when the virus has already spread, says Þórólfur.

Jóhann is asked if wrong information given to the contact tracing team has affected authorities ability to react to situations. He replies that yes, there were cases where correct information would have made it possible to act sooner and prevent infections.

Þórólfur is wary of relaxing restrictions at the borders too soon but states that authorities are taking precautions and if infections start crossing the borders, they will reconsider regulations. All authorities’ efforts have focused on implementing restrictions that are as effective as possible while being as uncumbersome as possible.

People with vaccination certificates or antibody certificates will be tested once at the border but there’s no reason according to the data at hand to require these people to be quarantined, says Þórólfur.

When asked about political disagreement over infection prevention measures, Þórólfur compliments the communication and co-operation he has had with the government. He won’t’ be demanding more authority over how infection prevention restrictions are implemented as “that’s not how he likes to work.” Political unrest can lead to cracks in the public’s solidarity but he’s happy that polls show 90% support for infection prevention measures among the public. While he has the support of the government and good co-operation with the Minister of Health, he feels secure in their efforts.

Rögnvaldur closes the briefing by encouraging the public to continue to show solidarity in infection prevention methods. The briefing has ended.