Icelandic Literature Featured in Words Without Borders’ Latest Issue Skip to content

Icelandic Literature Featured in Words Without Borders’ Latest Issue

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.

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