Authors in Conversation
A heartfelt introduction by Björk is a hard act to follow. But when Sjón and Hari Kunzru took the stage at Scandinavia House, The Nordic Center in America, they pulled out all the stops: David Bowie, the Sex Pistols, and the relationship between punk rock and surrealism; the moment the great god Pan stepped into our world at the beginning of the 21st century (not to mention Poseidon); the enviable lives of the “hidden people” of Iceland, who look just like us except they only have one nostril; the joy of the trickster; the value in translation; and, most pressingly, the danger of the furry trout (“The furry trout looks exactly like a normal trout, but it’s got fur.”) Which is a long way of saying, read on, we dare you.
Hari: Sjón is a pen name. I read in various places that it means vision or sight. Is that a family name?
Sjón: Sjón is the name that I took when I was fifteen. I published my first book the summer I turned sixteen. I had discovered Icelandic modernist poetry the winter before. Even though I had seen Modernist surrealist poetry in translation before, it was when I saw it written in Icelandic and written by Icelanders that I realized that you were actually allowed to do those amazing things with words, in Icelandic.
I had also, of course, been introduced to strange words and strange images by David Bowie, whom I was a disciple of for many years. So when I started writing myself, I decided to publish my first book. It first helped to have a little mask or something between myself and the big world. So I made this name, Sjón, from my real name, which is Sigurjón. At the same time, I made this little mask. You can say it was not a very humble one, because Sjón means vision.
Hari: But in a way you’ve been very true to that. As a conception of what it means to be a writer, the writer as visionary and the writer as seer is still very much a part of who you are as a novelist.
Sjón: Yes, I had to stick with that. I had chosen this name.
Hari: It writes you.
Sjón: It writes me. I’m better sticking to being visual when I write. No, but for me, to go in that direction, I actually do think most literature is visual arts.
Hari: You became part of this late-’70s-into-the-’80s punk underground in Reykjavik, but it seems, when you think about punk, you don’t think about the lyricism. You don’t think about flights of fancy and dreaming. It’s about kind of tearing that hippie nonsense down. How did those things fit together for you?
Sjón: I think we were typical second-wave punks. I mean, obviously, the generation that started the punk movement in England, the first punk bands—The Clash and The Sex Pistols and the Buzzcocks and all these bands—these were all kids that were quite a bit older than we were. They were born around 1953, ’55, so they were all about the anger, and they were all about … I think Johnny Rotten said it came from the liver.
We came to it as teenagers, and it’s interesting that while you can clearly see similarities between punk and Dada, this absolute nihilism, and you can say that the punks were actually fulfilling one of Tristan Tzara’s battle cries where he said, “Musicians, break your instruments on the stage.”
Just as Surrealism followed Dada, something happened when you had seen all this raw anger leading to nothing but raw anger, maybe good old Surrealism became the good and right remedy to all that anger. Like Björk said, it really felt like it fit together, and we were really looking for the revolutionary, the rebellious aspect of Surrealism.
Hari: The idea that it’s sort of dreaming and an escape from reality can be rebellious and revolutionary?
Sjón: As a good Surrealist would say, an escape into reality through dreaming. Ah!
Hari: I was thinking about Jonas Palmason in From the Mouth of the Whale. He goes to Copenhagen, and it’s this huge city filled with more things and people than he’s ever seen before. He imagines that he’s in an ancient version of the city, and I was trying to square that kind of dreaming with this revolutionary dreaming. Are they the same thing? Are they different things? Is the visionary Sjón also an escapist dreamer?
Sjón: One of the first things I learned from Surrealism is that it’s not fantasy, that Surrealism makes a very clear distinction between fantasy and the marvelous. You’re always looking for the marvelous in reality, and that’s where poetry happens. It happens when you hit upon these incredible moments in your reality. In Reykjavik, we had a city of rather small size to go walking around, but this idea of walking around, getting into the spirit, surreal spirit, and awaiting the poetic to manifest in a marvelous way in your reality—that’s very much what I’m looking for.
Hari: Not everyone is going to share this visionary’s quest for this inner reality. We’ve already heard about you haranguing the police force of Reykjavik with a surrealist manifesto, and the visionary artist is also, as far as the bourgeoisie are concerned, something of a bore . . . Do you ever fear you’re a bore?
Sjón: No. [Pause.] I’m really interested in how people become obsessed with ideas and how they become obsessed with certain cosmologies, and how the obsessed mind starts finding proofs of its truths. How it looks for the manifestation of these truths all around it in reality. This happens all the time—that things start to manifest if you’ve got them on your brain. They start manifesting all around you.
Hari: That’s there in all your fiction, this sense that a certain kind of attention is repaid by this. You start seeing the visionary aspect of the world.
Hari: You’re fond of mythic explanations for things that maybe other people wouldn’t use that for. I saw an interview where you started riffing on the idea that maybe 9-11 was something to do with the power of the great god Pan.
Sjón: I am actually absolutely sure that the great god Pan slipped through some sort of a gateway into our world, on that day.
We’ve been living in panic ever since. Actually, when we were in Athens for Björk’s performance of our song at the Olympics in 2004, I had direct experience of one of the gods there: One day, I was in a group that went down to the peninsula south of Athens, and there is a great Poseidon temple sitting there on a rock. As we came closer to the temple, we saw better and better what a sad state it was in. Obviously, this used to be the place of great sacrifices, 500 bulls sacrificed and burned in one day and all that, and the crowds coming to bow in front of the image of Poseidon.
I thought as we got closer, “Oh, look at you, great Poseidon. Look at the sad state you’re in.” This is how the Icelandic poet’s mind works. That’s how we think when we’re traveling.
We came to the temple and started walking around and looking at these sad ruins, but then I walked to the edge of the cliff. Who was there, who hadn’t moved and left his temple, but Poseidon? The whole ocean stretched out from the cliffs. Poseidon was still there, even though man had stopped sacrificing to Poseidon, Poseidon was still there. Then, Poseidon, of course, feeling a little bit annoyed that people were forgetting him, he moved just a little finger, his little finger a tiny bit, and we had the tsunami in Indonesia.
The myths are really about man confronting the fact that nature is always bigger and stronger.
Hari: It seems that in Iceland, there’s this particular kind of negotiation with nature that has to go on, because it’s a very unstable place, geologically if in no other way. I always think of the island of Surtsey coming out of the sea in the 1960s, and suddenly, you’ve got a new southernmost tip of Iceland that’s been generated by an undersea volcano. Is this sense that things are capable of shifting and that even the ground under your feet could potentially change, do you think this has any link to Iceland’s notorious belief in hidden folk and that sense that the landscape is actually populated with forces that are beyond our immediate understanding?
Sjón: Yes, I think we experience nature as a living thing, and a part of it is to go to the extremes of actually believing that nature has a character, or if not character, that it can manifest itself in different forms. We have folk stories about the hidden people, Huldufólk, who live in rocks and fields and cliffs, and they look exactly like us except they’ve only got one nostril. Apart from having only one nostril, they always lead a much richer and better life than those of us who have to survive above ground. They’re having musical parties all the time. They dress in silk, and whenever an Icelander gives a person from that nation a helping hand, he is rewarded with a cloth of silver or a goblet of gold. We know that the earth is rich, and we know that it’s more powerful than here, so I think when you live in a place that is obviously alive, you tend to populate it with different creatures.
For example, Katla, is this great volcano that possibly will explode fairly soon, and Katla is a woman’s name. It’s the name of a giantess. It’s more than likely that it will wipe out all the habitat that is sitting there on the beach. Man’s existence is—
Sjón: Precarious, yes.
Hari: In your work, and in a lot of Icelandic work more generally, it’s not just the geology that’s imbued with a kind of human agency. It’s animal life as well, and in your fiction, there’s the blue fox and the sandpiper, the bird that is the companion to this poor isolated Jonas Palmason in his exile. Is the blue fox a thing that you invented out of whole cloth, or is that something that has a kind of traditional origin?
Sjón: We have tales of foxes in Iceland. The fox is the biggest land mammal in Iceland, the original land mammal in Iceland. When man came to Iceland, the fox was there and had been there for 300,000 years, and fox was not very happy to see man. Man started putting up farms and tried to eke out existence despite the fox, so the fox became an almost demonic creature, threatening the human habitat. We have stories of foxes, but especially, we have stories of fox hunters who go out into the wild and try to capture and kill those wicked animals.
Nature is obviously very important… In my case, I really discovered the link between what the Surrealists were doing and the world of Icelandic folk stories. I realized that these were two different attempts at trying to tell stories of man’s life on this sometimes hostile earth.
As a child, I read the folk stories and became absolutely obsessed with them. I like to tell the story of the strangest animal I came across in the Icelandic folk stories, and it might explain why I was late to propel toward Surrealism.
There is an animal called the furry trout. The furry trout looks exactly like a normal trout, but it’s got fur. It swims with a flock, or a school, of trout. When you’re fishing trout and you’re catching it in nets, it can get there in between the normal trout. You’ve got to be very careful, because if a man eats a furry trout, he falls pregnant. The real difficulty arises in the ninth month because then the man has to deliver.
When I was nine years old, I read this, and it was described quite vividly: You laid a man on a table, you spread his legs, you take the sharpest knife in the house, and you cut open his scrotum, and then you go in and fetch the child. This was quite interesting for a nine-year-old.
Right from the beginning, when I started seeing surrealist art and reading surrealist texts, I got the same thrill. It told me, yes, strange things can happen. We can talk about this world in strange terms.
Hari: Surrealism is about crossing the line between the conscious and the unconscious, but there is this sort of line between faith and reason that you seem to tread very deliberately. You seem to try and maintain a writing life on the very edge of this. Can you say anything more about faith, for example?
Sjón: I’m interested in the language of faith, and I’m interested in the literature of faith. In Iceland, like in so many Lutheran countries, the translation of the New Testament into the local language was a big moment. The church defined charity and love and all these terms.
I’ve always been interested in religious texts, not only because of the language but because I see religions as cosmologies, and I’m interested in cosmologies, and I’m interested in obsessed people and where to look for obsessed people. The best place is in religion. I think I’ve really taken advantage of the language of religion just in the same way that I’ve taken advantage of the language of myths and the world of myths.
For me, these are all attempts at explaining the same thing, which is to try to answer the question, “Is it possible that in the beginning there was nothing, and now we’re here sitting on these two nice chairs here in this Scandinavia House?”
We know that our cosmology will become obsolete, and it’s really amazing that the biggest given fact of our time is that cosmology, which is the hard science, is so unstable. I love it.
Hari: You take a real aesthetic pleasure in cosmologies, don’t you? What’s the joy of a big system, a big complicated system with lots of moving, whizzing, parts?
Sjón: My joy is the joy of the Trickster. It’s the joy of Loki. It’s the joy of the Coyote, because I know it’s an unstable system, and it will be overthrown, no matter how majestic it is. With the right little tricks, you will have an apocalypse. You will have the twilight of the gods. The gods will fight the last battle, and there will be a new world that rises up from it, and the Trickster can start thinking of new dirty tricks to topple that system.
• • •
Hari: Do you always write first in Icelandic and then translate into English?
Sjón: Well, I write in Icelandic. The lyrics that I have written with Björk I have written directly into English because otherwise you just have to rewrite them. It’s important for me to write in Icelandic because I like to work with old text. I like the fact that you can have a dialogue with somebody from the seventeenth century, like in From the Mouth of the Whale, through the texts that were written by the character.
But then of course English is the great language of popular music. I was brought up with mostly English pop music. I remember when I was five I saw the album cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. One of my relatives brought that to her place and I was amazed. I listened to it and I loved it of course.
I became a big Beatles fan and then I became a big David Bowie fan. I think today most young people are introduced to culture through popular culture, comic books, films, music. That’s where it all starts. Nobody starts with high culture unless you consider lullabies high culture (which I think we should). The lullaby is the origin of all of our participation in culture because in the lullaby you have poetry, you have music, you have performance. Even though the result of the lullaby should be to put the one you are performing for to sleep, I think we are all aiming for something like lullabies when we are writing. To captivate in the same way.
Audience Question: Do you approach writing poetry in the same way that you approach writing music?
Sjón: I think lyrics and poetry will always be fundamentally different, simply because lyrics are to be sung. The performance brings so much with it. I approach it completely differently. For example when I’m writing lyrics, and in many of the lyrics I have written with Björk, I have used rhyming which I generally never do in poetry. It works with music and I enjoy doing it with music.
Audience Question: Where do you start writing a song or a story?
Sjón: It can come from everywhere. Sometimes a very small image or a very small thought or an idea brings with it the demand for a big form. I am working on an idea now—I don’t know what will come out of it. It’s a photograph of a 69-year-old Icelander sitting on a bench in Galápagos in 1948. I just know that there is a big story to be told about how that guy ended up barefoot on that bench and it’s a novel. Then you can have a grand idea, a big idea, something that sounds big and it will become one line in a poem. I usually just start with something that excites me.
Audience Question: How do you feel about your work being translated?
Sjón: Of course there is a joy of being translated simply because you’ve got more readers and you’ve got different kinds of readers than in your home country. You are excited about the possibility that your book will be read in a different manner in another culture.
I’m relaxed about it. I was brought up on translated literature, because in Iceland that’s how we read the Russians for example, that’s how we read the French. I know that even though not everything comes over, enough comes over in a good book. The Master and Margarita for me is the biggest book written in the twentieth century. But I know of course that when I read that book that I’m not getting all of it, there is a street corner in Moscow that has a significance to a reader in 1938 Moscow. Or there is a figure in the book that everybody knows instantly as a caricature of the doorman in this hotel there. I know I’m missing out on all that, but I’m getting this wonderful story nevertheless.
Audience Question: Can you talk about what it’s like to collaborate with Björk?
Sjón: One of the great gifts of Surrealism to the arts is the idea of collaboration. It takes away this idea of a single genius producing a work of art. As kids we were doing Surrealist games, we were doing word games, we were doing picture games. Through this you realize that three brains are better than one. You challenge yourself through the collaborations. I really enjoy collaborations because they bring a whole new set of benchmarks, they bring a whole new set of challenges..
This idea of taking away some of your will and your set of rules in collaborations—I really enjoy that.
Audience Question: You were talking about how you enjoy cosmology and I wondered how you reconcile that with science and with your own art.
Sjón: Well of course it’s the scientists who are destroying each others’ cosmologies all the time. It’s very interesting that most people today live with a cosmology that absolutely ignores the theory of relativity, for example. Most people live as if the theory of relativity never happened because nobody understands it really.
It’s amazing how unaffected we are by these wonderful amazing things. We just continue. That’s one of the ways of overturning cosmologies: just keep brushing your teeth no matter how they say the universe was made.
Related: Björk introduces Sjón
Sjón was born in Reykjavik in 1962. He is an award-winning novelist, poet, and playwright, and his novels have been translated into twenty-five languages. Sjón is the president of the Icelandic PEN Centre and the chairman of the board of Reykjavik UNESCO City of Literature. Also a lyricist, he has written songs for Björk, including for her most recent project, Biophilia, and was nominated for an Oscar for the lyrics he cowrote (with Lars von Trier) for Dancer in the Dark. He lives in Reykjavik, and can be found online @sjonorama.
Hari Kunzru is the author of the novels The Impressionist (2002), Transmission (2004) My Revolutions (2007) and Gods Without Men (2011) as well as a short story collection, Noise (2006). His work has been translated into twenty languages and won him prizes including the Somerset Maugham award, the Betty Trask prize of the Society of Authors and a British Book Award. In 2003 Granta named him one of its twenty best young British novelists. Lire magazine named him one of its 50 “écrivains pour demain”. His short stories and journalism have appeared in diverse publications including The New York Times, Guardian, New Yorker, Washington Post, Times of India, Wired and New Statesman. In 2008 he was awarded a fellowship at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for scholars and writers at the New York Public library. He has yet to make it back from New York, but can be found online @harikunzru.