Sjón’s Ice-Bitten Landscapes

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Art by Chris Bradley

For author, poet, and lyricist Sjón, writing the great gay Icelandic novel was not his original intention. Indeed, for the Reykjavík native, the impetus was much closer to home: part exploration of the Surrealist fantasies that have come to define his creative work and part eulogy to a gay uncle who died from AIDS in the early ’90s. The result, Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was, is a fantastical tale of sexual discovery heightened by the emergence of cinema’s arrival to the island and set amid the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak that ravaged the tiny nation.

 

Joseph Akel: I want to start by touching upon something you’ve said in prior interviews about your decision to write this novel, and particularly with the perspective of a gay youth. Forgive me if I’m mangling the quote a little bit, but you said, “There’s no tradition of queer literature in Iceland, and this was one of the first instances of it.” Maybe you could expand on that a little bit.

Sjón: Let’s say there is a little tradition, almost nonexistent, of queer literature here in Iceland. So I think with my book, I opened up quite a lot of new possibilities for people to work with from now on. This is a small society, and there somehow was never a place for openly queer literature to be written here or to be championed. Obviously, we have authors who are gay and have in one way or in another touched on this in their works, and I’m definitely building on what little is here.

JA: Another important queer element of the novel comes to the attention of the reader only at the very end of the book. Your relationship, in particular your familial relationship, with a family member who died of AIDS in 1993. Was that part of the impetus in the first place for writing the novel? What was your connection to that historically that felt or left you feeling inspired to include this note within the end of Moonstone?

S: At the beginning, I was just going to write a book where death was the Spanish flu. I had been working on research into that story and situation here in Reykjavík for years, but I had never found the right protagonist for it. And in the end, I thought, “OK, I will run with somebody who is detached from the circumstances, who is possibly all fun, somebody who does not get swept up with it, with the tragedy and the horrible situation.”

So I started exploring that character, and a teenager is always an interesting character when it comes to dramatic events unfolding in a world, because teens just couldn’t care less. They are simply interested in what they are interested in, in dealing with their own lives and interests. And from there I began to build this character: he’s an orphan; he’s uneducated; he’s dyslexic; he’s unemployed. Also, at the time, I was reading a book by Neel Mukherjee, who I actually met in the summer of 2013. Shortly before I finished Moonstone, I read Mukherjee’s A Life Apart, which is a beautiful novel, and the main character in that book is a young gay man, and there was something very interesting and beautiful in how Neel reveals that the character is gay. It comes quite late in the novel, and he does it in a very beautiful way. And just by getting to know Mukherjee’s character, I somehow realized that this is what my character was lacking. In that instant, I knew Mani was gay, and then the whole novel just started coming into place.

Obviously, once I was working with a gay character, I had to build off my own experiences and the people I know. And, of course, my uncle’s story is a story that has stayed with me, and somehow I always knew that I would one day write something that reflected his experience and his story. So you can say that his story provides the emotional fuel, the moral rage, and the drive behind the whole book. 

JA: What’s really interesting to me, in particular with Moonstone, is the influence that Surrealism comes to bear upon the novel itself. I’m thinking very particularly about the way that cinema is so integral to the plot of Moonstone, but also because there seems to be a mirroring in Surrealism’s interest in cinema and the blurring of reality. Cinema in Moonstone becomes this vehicle through which Mani’s existence in Reykjavík extends into this otherworldly experience. Why was cinema so important for you in telling this story? 

S: Let’s say I have this character who is drifting around this small city—really, a town—trying to survive having relationships with the closeted men in Reykjavík at the time. I started looking for other things for him to do and tried to find out what was the reality of a teenager in those days. And I discovered that cinema came very early to Reykjavík, right from the beginning of the feature film in 1913 or thereabouts. Cinema became a big part of life in Reykjavík, and mostly in the life of the lower classes, and I realized that by tying Mani’s story to the story of how cinema was affected by the flu, I would have a way to connect his inner life in an exciting way.

Because here you have a sixteen-year-old living in a tiny town, and he is blessed by the fact that there is a cinema here, and there is a window into another world—a bigger world, a world of fantasy, a highly contemporary world. You know, he is living in a quite traditional, backwards society, but all of a sudden, every day he can go and visit another world, and he can explore himself through that other world. And through the tools of cinema, he can gets a grasp on what’s going on around him. So I think it’s a story of the liberating power of art and, in this case, cinema, which was, of course, so new at the time. And I cherish the fact that it was the kids and the working class of Reykjavík who were taking part in this absolutely new form of innovation, this birth of a new art form. And in a way, that reflects on the birth that he’s experiencing. He’s a new man. He’s one of the new people of the century.

And the story of the cinema also tied so strongly into the story of the flu, because, in the book, the music fades out when the musicians fall ill. They close down the cinema because of the fear of contagion. They fumigate the cinema, and then when the cinemas open again, it’s a part of the whole society’s effort to come together and face the tragedy. So cinema had to be a big part of that story and his story, and for me, it gave me the opportunity of giving him a strong inner life that was informed by his relationship with the movie image. 

JA: You had mentioned originally that you wanted to write this with the idea of examining and playing with the Spanish flu pandemic in Iceland at the time. Why was that period in particular so interesting to you?

 S: Well those eight weeks of history, particularly for Iceland, are simply amazing. When I realized that the only novel that had been written in Iceland about the days of the Spanish flu had been published in 1919, a year after the flu epidemic took place, I was just astonished that no one had worked with this material and used this historical period as a setting for a story to tell.

My personal interest in Surrealism appears in many different forms and in my work for an extended period of time, examining the same themes that you can see in the book. The disintegration of the body—indeed, the body as a state where history plays out is something I’m very interested in.

It is also, then, a story of how society here is manifesting in Mani’s body, because his is a body that is denied pleasure; his body is a body that is a playground for desires and pleasures that are refused by that society. 

JA: Coincidentally, I think we are living in a period like that right now—that we haven’t fully entered yet but that we’re on the cusp of—in very important ways that relate to perception of the body and experience. How has the cultural and social landscape of Iceland changed since the time of Mani? In Moonstone, you have this sense of a very conservative nation emerging, and at this same time, as you said, there’s this vanguard of individuals who are going to the cinema, who are embracing the new. How does that parallel with your own experience as being Icelandic?

S: I was definitely born into a very traditional, conservative society. We really had the sense that we were living at the edge of the civilized world on this small island up in the North Atlantic. But things were changing. The music revolution that came with punk, the whole do-it-yourself movement—not waiting for any authority if you could publish a book or open a gallery or shoot a film or make a record. We were really inspired by all that.

I was born in 1962. I will be 54 this year, so I can look back and claim some things for myself and my generation. And I think actually what we did was break up the cultural hierarchy here in Iceland. In the ’70s and into the ’80s, we were still in the grip of the Cold War. Artists were supposed to be either on the left or on the right, and you had to choose. And if you went to the left, the left would take care of you. Your books would be reviewed in their newspapers and magazines, and you would get access to the publishing house. And the same for the right. It was very politicized in terms of the left and right, and politics and your stance on, for example, the presence of the American military here in Iceland, the Vietnam war, and all of that. But somehow, with punk and the spirit of the late avant-garde that came with it, we refused to take part in that game. And instead of going to the left or the right, we staked out our own territory and started doing things by ourselves.

And then, of course, we are a generation where the LGBT movement came into being, the campaigning for equal rights. The LGBT organization started in 1978, and they were quite underground and in the shadow for years, but they ran an incredibly successful campaign here, and Iceland changed from being one of the most homophobic countries in Europe to one of the most embracing countries.

Before then there was no question of “Are you straight or gay?” We were all descended from Vikings; we were all straight and macho. But all of sudden, some of my classmates started coming out, and it became a reality for my generation. This was a much more colorful world than that we had been brought up in. And then AIDS hit, and many of the young men who had come out and started living their lives as gay men started falling horribly ill, and that became a part of the narrative of my generation—men started dying. And like I’ve said in other interviews—and I think it’s worth repeating—they were, in the beginning, denied sympathy and denied charity from society. They were blamed for their illness, and it was proof of their degenerate lifestyle.

JA: When your novel came out in Iceland, what was the reaction to it, particularly in terms of an audience which had come to know you from your earlier works, like The Blue Fox, The Whispering Muse and From the Mouth of the Whale? Was there a reaction you had anticipated? Did you find that it was very welcome, or were people who had come to know your tales taken aback? How did you feel it was received by the Icelandic community?

 S: My big surprise was actually how well received it was. Of course, I had hoped it would be received well by the literary community, that people would see that it is a well written book, that it is a good literary work. Writers always hope for that. But I had definitely not anticipated the immense kindness that the book would receive. Because, you know, gay sex, silent cinema, the Spanish flu, with a little bit of leprosy thrown into the mix—I definitely did not think that was the formula, the recipe for a best seller. I thought, “OK, it’s going to go out there. It’s going to be hopefully well received by my colleagues in the literary community and, hopefully, by the hard-core fans I have to imagine are out there.”

The book was, at the beginning, spoken of very much by word of mouth, but then in Iceland it became the most talked-about book of the season, and people started stopping me in the street. Many people from the LGBT community started coming to me or e-mailing me and thanking me for the book. I was obviously very touched by that, and it meant very much to me. Most surprising, however, was that people from all sides of society started praising the book, and my biggest surprise was the huge number of elderly ladies that started stopping me on the street and thanking me for the book. So it touched on something here, and I think people felt it was a story that had been waiting there, somewhere in the ether, for somebody to notice and bring into our world.

But obviously, it also built on the great work of the LGBT community here. I think that a novel with graphic gay sex scenes would not have even been published ten, fifteen years ago—it would have been a scandal. And now, somehow people were just ready for it. Obviously, I heard stories of respectable citizens who got the book as a Christmas present and sat by their Christmas trees and opened the book, and the first page­—you know, and were quite shocked. But somehow, people were ready for this book, and felt that, yes, that Icelandic literature had a new and exciting citizen called Mani Steinn.

Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was is available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($22).

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