The UNESCO City of Literature program is part of UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network which was launched in 2004. The Network was born out of a Global Alliance for Cultural Diversity initiative which basically celebrates and promotes social, economic and cultural development. It was with this in mind that I set off for a nosey around Reykjavik, Iceland which became the fifth city to collect this title in 2011.
Reykjavik is the world’s northernmost capital of a sovereign state with a population of around 120,000. If you include the combined population of the region it accounts for just over two thirds of the population. The entire country has a population roughly the same as Nottinghamshire.
At the core of Reykjavik’s literary heritage are the medieval Sagas of the Icelanders and the Poetic Edda which represent the key to Nordic mythology. If this is your thing then I’d recommend visiting the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies or The Culture House which includes in its exhibits the Codex Regius from 1270AD. If you fancy something a bit more contemporary then visit The House of Halldór Laxness, Gljúfrasteinn. Halldór was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955 for “vivid epic power which has renewed the great narrative art of Iceland”.
Iceland offers compelling evidence that books are still a valued commodity by publishing more titles per capita than anywhere else in the world. Traditionally these books are published in the period known as the Book-Flood-Before-Christmas, or “jólabokaflód” to use the Icelandic. Books are the number one present over Christmas and a constant focal point due to collective readings and events throughout the city. To a large extent we are all products of our environment and so the long dark winter nights are conducive to reading in front of a fire. It may go some way to explaining Reykjavik’s claims to have 100% literacy levels.
Books seem to be sold just about everywhere in the capital, from coffee shops to cafes. And there’s a few libraries to choose from too. The National Library of Iceland is on the University of Iceland campus and naturally helps stimulate research whereas the Nordic House Library offers more particular literature in the native tongue. The House itself operates as the hub of various cultural functions and is home of the Reykjavik International Literary Festival which has been held biannully since 1985 and has featured authors such as A.S. Byatt, Kurt Vonnegut and Günter Grass. For the young-uns there’s the Reykjavik International Children’s Literature Festival. There’s also the Icelandic Library for the Blind in the municipality of Kópavogur. Run by the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture it does exactly what it says on the packet and has become increasingly useful for the elderly in providing audio books as sight slowly starts to diminish.
Although there are several public libraries in the capital area at Bókasafn Garðabæjar, Bókasafn Hafnarfjarðar, Bókasafn Mosfellsbæjar and Bókasafn Seltjarnarness I visited the Reykjavik City Library which is the largest public library in Iceland. In 2009 they had 1.2million book loans and received 700.000 visitors. The library also has a bookmobile named ‘The Chief’ which visits 40 locations and a storymobile called ‘Jester’ which takes care of the preschools and after-school daycare centers.
The exterior of the library is constructed out of what appears to be metal panels and could easily be mistaken for a hotel. But inside the gentle edges surface, with an open plan café area used for art exhibitions and more personal touches in the form of drawings stuck to the side of bookcases from a local art group.
The library is also the starting point for a literary walk that runs every Thursday in June, July and August at 3pm. I managed to catch the very last one which lasted for one and a half hours and was themed around ghost stories and crime fiction. Prior to the walk the library had a screening of Spirits of Iceland: Living With Elves, Trolls and Ghosts, in the library’s 5th floor screening room, Kamesið from 2pm.
It was an interesting walk and consisted of small readings at each stop to give you a general flavour of the diversity of Icelandic literature. It’s a different approach to the Streets of Stories walk that Michael Eaton and I occasionally do in Nottingham which tends to focus more on the historical context of locations and the lives of literary figures.
The other purpose for my visit was to meet the City of Literature team and I was welcomed by Kristín Viðarsdóttir (Projects and Events; International Relations) and Lára Aðalsteinsdóttir (Projects and Events; Marketing). I’m one of the directors of Nottingham’s UNESCO City of Literature bidding team (we find out on 11 December if we’ve been successful) and so it was great to talk to someone else about the process and expectations should we be accredited.
Arriving in the city it was really reassuring to be met by someone and to seek advice on what to do during my stay and so we really need to think about a similar role in Nottingham and where this location should be. Currently we are in the very able hands of Pippa Hennessy (project manager) and our office is in the Nottingham Writers’ Studio, but there is a definite requirement for at least one full time role to facilitate the needs of an increase in tourism that would be generated by any accreditation.
But my main motivation was to discuss the possibility of a partnership with Reykjavik for Untold Stories, which is a follow on to Dawn of the Unread (using the same format and structure) but this time will give voice to those unable to speak due to persecution, prejudice or censorship. My aim is to involve each of the 11 UNESCO cities to create a global dialogue about the current issues facing humanity.
It was a productive talk and Kristin in principle is keen to fund one Icelandic writer for the project although this has to be approved by the Board. These kind of partnerships are vital for two reasons. Firstly, match funding is essential for anyone pursuing large digital projects funded by the Arts Council. Secondly, a global audience in key literary cities means the marketing takes care of itself and you draw in a more varied audience.
Iceland sits below the Arctic Circle and therefore there is not the same rigidity of days and nights as you have in Europe. The Winter Sun, for example, brings about an incredibly short day. It’s also a volcanic island that has the potential to blow at any time, as it did in 2010. I’m particularly interested in how this may have an impact on identity and seems to me as if their chapter for Untold Stories lends itself to a gay writer, in that this is an identity that does not fall simply into binary categories. Also, given the stunning landscape and the sheer beauty of the Northern Lights, I can see a graphic novel drawn with neon colours or rough charcoals (similar, perhaps, to Carol Swain’s work in my Sillitoe story).
The theme for the next Reykjavík International Literature Festival looks as if it will be around graphics, so this would be the perfect time to kickstart Untold Stories. It would also give me an excuse to visit this beautiful country again.
If you decide to visit Reykjavik I would strongly recommend reading Love Star by Andri Snær Magnason, Gnarr by Jon Gnarr and if you fancy a film, try Of Horses and Men.
Dawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.
- Review: Of Horses and Men
- Andri Magnason’s website
- Reykjavík City of Literature
- Sagas of Icelanders Database
- David Belbin on Nottingham’s UNESCO bid