Kristín Ómarsdóttir was born on September 24, 1962 in Reykjavík, Iceland and studied literature and Spanish at the University of Iceland. She has lived in Copenhagen and Barcelona but currently lives and works in Reykjavík. Her first publication was a book of poetry, Í húsinu okkar er þoka (There is Fog in Our House), in 1987 and her first novel, Svartir brúðarkjólar (Black Wedding Dresses), was published in 1992.
Kristín writes poetry, novels, short stories, and plays. Her poetry book Sjáðu fegurð þína, (See Your Beauty), received The Women’s Literary Award in 2008. In 2005 Kristín received the Icelandic drama award, Gríman, for her play Segðu mér allt (Tell me Everything). Two of her plays, Í speglingum sefur Könguló (A spider Sleeps in the Mirror) and Kuðungarnir (The Conches) were performed by Thjóðleikur theatre group and broadcast by the National Broadcasting Service, RÚV in 2011. The novel Elskan mín ég dey (I’ll Die, My Love) received the DV Cultural Prize for Literature in 1998 and was nominated for The Nordic Council Literary Prize in 1999. Her play, Ástarsaga 3 (Love story 3), (1997), was nominated for the Nordic Council Drama Award. Kristín’s novel Hér (2004) was published in English translation in the U.S. in 2012, titled Children in Reindeer Woods.
Kristín also works within the field of visual arts, has exhibited her drawings and collaborated with various visual artists in exhibitions using different media: video and sculpture.
Kristín Ómarsdóttir lives in Reykavík.
Author photo: Sveinbjörg Bjarnadóttir.
From Kristín Ómarsdóttir
I was made by a man and a woman and how they met is a mystery and they had me unplanned and then had two more children, more or less unplanned. Before this my dad had one child but I am the first child of my mother, who taught me to write and speak and think. Because she knows how to handle words differently, is sweet-tongued, sharp-tongued, with a sharp wit, defends herself with language, entertains others with it, uses it to build fortress walls, build bridges between people and burn bridges, break up a status quo, maintain a status quo, make you laugh and have fun. Feel ashamed and think. Comfort you. My dad taught me mathematics and to use a special pen that he gave me for my birthday and also when I was ill. I was ill a lot as a kid, at least once every winter. I was going to say once a week but that would be a lie. Once in a cold flu my dad came home with the book The Little Prince and a pen.
j’écris parce que je suis une invalide...
People write because there is something wrong. They look different, are mentally unstable, have been abused, cannot answer for themselves, are childish, too serious or vice versa. Lousy in bed. Have little or no libido or are sex addicts. Failed members of society, function badly in a group, have something to hide, are cry-babies. Love their mothers too much, or someone else too much, or cannot love anyone. Dream excessively in their sleep, are either slobs or obsessed with cleanliness or moderately clean. Worship the body, do not worship it. Have a minority complex. Cannot help it. Out of loneliness. Do not know their boundaries. Have something to say about something they want to promote.
j’écris parce que mon amour me désole...
My baby left me and I lost my mind and then I found this beautiful red raincoat – in a dream – and then I wrote this poem:
a red raincoat
would look good on you
if you were here
out in the rain
j’écris parce que je suis une chanteuse sans mélodie...
When I was little I sometimes played a motorcycle boy who sat on a motorcycle which was a pile of junk on top of an orange chest of drawers in the little room and was talking to another boy who was standing by. Then I switched over to the boy who was standing by and spoke for him. We had long conversations, me and this boy who was standing by, me and the motorcycle boy, in a language that didn’t exist. Just sounds and rhythm but no words that had any meaning.
Like shampoo creates the effect that hair becomes clean, wine makes people more cheerful. Chocolate makes people calm. I want to do that, create an effect with words. Even if it seems farfetched, this is my aim. To become a shampoo inventor and wine producer, a chocolatier and a smuggler.
I began to write because I was not good at talking. When I was twenty this was impossible for me. I avoided love because you need to talk so much when you love and to know what you want with words, verbally. What sorts of living standards you choose for instance. Like ticking your priorities in a Gallup poll except nothing is in writing. No wonder love usually ends in disaster. Nothing in writing there.
As the years go by, you are partially cured, and begin to talk a whole lot, and by then writing has become your job and you communicate with the world through messaging. And are about to speak, but few will listen unless you speak incorrectly, like in a shop in a foreign country. Then it is vital to have a good friend to lean on. And readers. I want to use this opportunity and thank everyone who has read my books and seen my plays. Thanks.
j’écris parce que j’aime la langue islandaise et tous les gens qui lisent mes livres. merci pour l’attention. I love your reading eyes...
Kristín Ómarsdóttir, 2001.
Translated by Vera Júlíusdóttir.
Below are two articles about Kristín Ómarsdóttir's work. To read the newer one, click here.
“Hi, little monster, I’m back home.” On a Journey With Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s Fiction
It felt like these words from the first poem of the book Inn og út um gluggann / In and Out the Window (2003), by Kristín Ómarsdóttir, had been addressed to me, since I always feel like she has come home when she writes poetry. Inn og út um gluggann,which is in Icelandic and English, is Kristín’s fifth book of poetry and the second book she publishes in cooperation with artists. This book is a collaboration between artists Anna Hallin and Ósk Vilhjálmsdóttir and Kristín, like Sérstakur dagur (A Special Day; 2000) was a collaboration between Kristín and photographer Nanna Bisp Büchert. Thus the book, while not particularly big (neither poetry or pictures appear in much quantity), is full of joy and wonder, partly found in the combination of pictures and words, and then of course also in each seperately. The ambience reminded me a little of the poetry book 27 herbergi (27 Rooms) by Ragna Sigurðardóttir, who writes an introduction to In and Out the Window. The pictures are all about playing with space, they were in fact made for an exhibition mounted in the gallery Ásmundarsafn in Reykjavík. A model of the exhibition hall of this beautiful old house has been created and then that model is played with, it is placed in the most unlikely circumstances, inside a pigpen, out on a field, or being driven into the E.R. And all is photographed.
Kristín’s poetry is as usually a little strange and even a little distorted in the spirit of the model. The same themes are repeated, we are continually located inside a wax museum, and we meet mermaids and walk on broken glass. I could not help connecting the mermaid-theme to the indoor swimming pool Sundhöllin in Reykjavík, as in some of the pictures the model reminded me of that beautiful building. As always in Kristín’s writings, eroticism is close at hand, and is as usually very varied - queer, or perhaps above all grotesque, cutting through all borderlines of sex and gender. One of the poems actually depicts a traditional gender image, the mother who holds the child because she is a woman and the father who has his arm around her because he is a man and then the snapshot is taken “*click // we only take this one photo / never any more.” Here we are shown the perfect nuclear family that only once poses in such a traditional pattern, but it can be said that reflections such as these on the family and internal relations within the family are a kind of a leitmotif in Kristín’s writings.
The poems I enjoyed the most are the poems that play with space in the same way as the pictures do. In the first two poems of the book this appears clearly, both begin as the narrator is climbing up a tiny hill and looks over the country. Already the first line illustrates an amusing discrepancy between smallness and magnificence. In the first poem soldiers with guns intend to shoot the narrator, but she escapes because out of her bum “sprouts or grows a sky-high tail that steches to the moon” and joins her to it. Then she climbs down from the hill and into a hole, saying: “Hi, little monster, I’m back home.”
In the second poem the narrator watches tiny kids rolling around in the grass, playing with tiny balls. Suddenly “Green lizards with red spurting mouths. Old women with reading glasses and old sockless men” appear. Here, the narrator is safe, she cannot be killed and thus the swords are pins and the bullets are like fragments of a hailstorm. But still she dies, felled “by a pathetic bullet the size of a tiny fingernail.”
These poems, in their perfectly absurd way, are strangely powerful and effective, the sudden shifts between size, scenes, and play and seriousness are incredibly compelling and the reader hardly realises that the soldiers have won, until the poem is read again, so sudden is the fall of the narrator. At the end of the book her heart seems to have been put into a wax-museum, sleeping there and not too happy, however, this all seems to be going in the right direction for tomorrow it will get a pin-soup, perhaps.
This peculiar vision of poetry and pictures could be called queering, or even ‘askewing’ (skjönun in Icelandic), a word that Geir Svansson uses and re-cycles in his article on queer fiction in Iceland. He uses the word ‘askewing’ to describe the worldview of queer literature (and other forms of cultural production) and queer theory. According to Orðabók Menningarsjóðs (the Icelandic dictionary) the word “skjönun” (askewing) means to: make fun at, quip or mock. And Geir feels that these meanings suit the ideology behind queer theory nicely, where parody is one of the elements. According to Geir, queer theory has the purpose of undermining gender and thus self-identity and this it does by revealing the inner instability of those concepts. As an example, one might take Judith Butler’s idea (based on the theories of Michel Foucault) that heterosexuality is dependent on the existance of a clear definition of homosexuality, which the heterosexuality can disassociate itself from and point to as its opposite. But the matter is not this simple, for when the opposite has been created, an uncomfortable balance is established; if there is no clearly defined homosexuality, heterosexuality is threatened.
And this is what “askewing” is all about, pointing out that these differentiations into hetero and homo are too narrow, for sexuality does not align itself to such orderly categories. This has also to do with gender itself, since by the same logic it can be put into doubt that the world can be divided into two sexes, assuming that people’s gender is considerably more varied than the traditional binary thought allows for.
These reflections fit very well into Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s fictional world, where sex, sexual orientation and gender are continually in upheaval.
This is apparent in her first book of poetry, Í húsinu okkar er þoka (There is Fog in Our House; 1987), where the “askewing” appears, perhaps most clearly in the lively eroticism saturating many of the poems. The poems are physical and this physicality is one of the main characteristics of Kristín’s writings, it is within the body that the poetess looks for, and finds, her language and her poetry. “Ég er kræklingur” (I am a mussel), says the girl in “Hlaupastelpa” (Running-girl), “rækja og gella” (a prawn and a chick/fish cheek). The seafood imagery reflects on the sexuality of the girl, by pointedly being aligned to her genitals:
“Munnur minn er kræklingur/Skaut mitt á bragðið eins og rækja//Brjóstin hvít og mjúk/eins og gellur”
(My mouth is a mussel / My genitals taste like a shrimp // Breasts are white and soft / like fish cheeks).
These first poems clearly illustrate the play and the life that characterice Kristín’s poetry; something unexpected always shows up, and nothing is predictable. It is also interesting to look at these first poems in the context of the poetry by other Icelandic poetesses at the time (the latter half of the eighties and the first years of the nineties), where a distinct ironic self-analysis is a discernable theme.
Or, this at least was my conclusion in an article written in 1993 about the poetry of young Icelandic poetesses, where I discussed the poems of Kristín Ómarsdóttir, Linda Vilhjálmsdóttir, Margrét Lóa Jónsdóttir, Steinunn Sigurðardóttir and Vigdís Grímsdóttir.
The poetry from this period offers a new view on the woman; a new view on the woman created by women. This woman is not as much reflecting on her position in society as she is peeking at her reflection in every surface that is willing to yield one, and also in those that are not. Another characteristic of the poetry of the period is the erotic ‘lesbian’ imagery in many of the poems, appearing in the reflections in other women: in the bodies of other women. This multiplicity goes hand in hand with a new discussion of women''s identity - reflecting on identity in general - and expression. Rather than searching for identity as an illusory whole, it is built up of fragments, a kind of collage. Fragmentary bodies offer up unconventional speech, a story in poems, a dissolving between genres, a self-reflective irony, and a new physical language for women about their body. This language can be dangerous and subversive; Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s running girl for example reminds us that her tongue can overthrow our ideas and thoughts and the subtle irony (or sometimes not so subtle) throws everything into doubt.
This type of language might be called gender bender and in Kristín’s next work, the short story collection Í ferðalagi hjá þér (On a Journey With You) from 1989, gender is afloat and becomes floating, so to speak. Although many of the stories describe heterosexual relations, those relations are seldom traditional. Other stories describe askewed relationships of many kinds. A characteristic of many of the stories is the interplay between opposites, beauty and violence, fascination and fear.
In the story “Ein kona” (One Woman) a beautiful woman has a shy admirer and she is not good to him. She says many bad things to him and “stundum ærðist hann úr hræðslu og snerist í hringi. Þá hélt ég á hnífi.” (sometimes he went mad with fear and turned in circles. Then I was holding a knife.)
She says she drinks blood and eyes, and is going to smear him with her blood: “Ég bind þig fastan” (I will tie you up) (32-3).
The poem “Stúlka frá tungli þar sem vaxa tré og margar sólir og kona frá landi” (A Girl from a Moon where Trees grow and Many Suns and a Woman from Land) is about the relationship between two women, one comes from a strange country far away, and the other, who is the narrator, wishes to understand her better and tries to see her dreams. A closer inspections reveals that the distant country of the visiting woman appears to be rather real, there is much hustle there, referring directly to stress. The story can thus be interpreted as a dream, and the distant country is reality. It ends with the narrator running away from the woman; from the distant country, reality, becoming one with the night, the dream: “Nótt haltu áfram að koma við mig, haltu alltaf áfram að koma við mig, komdu við mig og komdu við mig og komdu alltaf við mig nótt. Nótt láttu mig alltaf vera hjá þér” (Night continue to touch me, continue always to touch me and touch me and always touch me night. Night let me be with you). The night is personified and feminised and it is clearly an erotic subject of the narrator.
The askewing does not only appear in Kristín’s subject matter, it is also visible in her approach to form. The stories in the collection Í ferðalagi hjá þér are often short, loosely formed and so laden with dialogue that they sometimes seem like plays. Kristín has in fact also written plays, where she also stretches and askews traditional forms. In 1991 she published the shortshort story collection Einu sinni sögur (Once Upon Stories). The shortshort story is a form that stands between forms, askewing the form of the poem as well as that of the short story (damaging their self-identities?).
As Árni Ibsen discusses in his review on Kristín’s book, there was a certain explosion in shortshort story writing in the first years of the nineties. He also stresses that such shortshort fiction has a long story in the literary history of the twentieth century.
A shortshort story is, as already pointed out, a prose positioned in between a poem and a short story. The shortshort story can in fact be either a poem or a short story, and it is completely impossible to try to place borderlines here and there or attempt to make clear definitions.
The shortshort story can contain the elements of poetry, in the way it features figures of speech, furthermore the shortshort story can often be opaque like the poem and thus it offers the reader a similar mental stimulation. However, the shortshort story also has the characteristics of the short story, following the definition of the short story as a short narrative that usually revolves around one event, an event that is often a kind of a revelation, throwing light (at times a new light) on the character’s whole life.
Of course there is not much space for people’s whole lifes in shortshort stories, but on the other hand shortshort stories often focus on a single specific event that is in some way dramatic. The shortshort story fits Edgar Allan Poe’s definition of the short story particularly well; he is considered to be the first to attempt to define the short story as a particular genre. According to Poe, the short story is a prose narrative that can be read in whole in half an hour to an hour, it is limited to a specific and singular effect, and all the details of the story must enhance this effect. The shortshort story is precicely charactericed by this, it is all about bringing about a certain effect, and the entire atmosphere and all details sustain this effect.
Thus it might be assumed that the only thing that separates a shortshort story from a short story is the form, that is, how short the shortshort story is. But then a new problem arises, in its short form the shortshort story is inseparable from the prose poem. Kristín says herself that in her shortshort stories she is playing with stories, that she has tried “to write a love story, a mum story, a tragic story and a happy story, pornographic story, teenage story, children’s story, a fairy tale story, a murder story, evening story, allegory”.
In his article, Árni Ibsen comes to the conclusion that it would appear that Kristín did not specifically intend to write “stories about people, events and fates, but stories that have certain qualities.” Thus the stories are partly stories about stories, and each ‘story’ has a (his)’story’, so to speak. A very interesting and witty interpretation, which appears in many ways in the stories.
Kristín’s stories in Einu sinni sögur are joyful, wriggling with unexpected events, some start like traditional tales with “once upon a time,” like the story about the kid who always waved so much out of the car window to his mother that he was knocked out:
Einu sinni var strákur að vinka mömmu sinni. Hann vinkaði henni og vinkaði henni. Stakk meira að segja höfðinu og öxlunum út um bílgluggann og vinkaði henni og vinkaði henni svo hún sæi nákvæmlega að hann var einmitt staddur á þessum mjög góða bíl úti að keyra. En hann þurfti mjög mikið að láta hana sjá sig og bílinn af því hann hélt hann væri ekki lélegur sonur ef hann væri að keyra á góðum bíl. Mamma hans stóð útá svölum og pírði augun þegar hann rak höfuðið í staur og dó. Síðan hefur þessi mamma verið sár út í fína bíla.
(Once upon a time there was a boy who was waving to his mother. He waved and waved. Even put his head and shoulders out the car window and waved to her and waved so she could see precisely that he was in fact sitting in this very good car, driving around. But he really needed her to see him and the car for he thought that he would not be a bad son if he drove around in a good car. His mother stood on the balcony and was squinting when his head hit a pole and he died. Since then this mother has beeen resentful towards flashy cars.)
The story is called “Jagúar” (Jaguar) and represents clearly the polyphonic vision inherent in Kristín’s texts. Here we have joy and sorrow, humor and black humor, and a certain yearning accompanying the relationships between people, particularly within the same family, but such relations are a recurrent theme in Kristín’s work as already stated.
“Jagúar” is a pure shortshort story, a tiny story about a big event. The story of the calendars and the tears is also ‘epic,’ containing a lot of happenings in a very short narrative:
Dagatöl og tár
Og tárin komu frá Færeyjum og voru sótt þangað. Menn fóru á skipum. Tóku með sér stiga. Og þegar nóttin kom klifruðu þeir uppí trén í kirkjugarðinum og tíndu tárin, sem héngu á perlufestum utanum greinarnar, með hönskum og stundum með töngum.
Sá sem átti tár í hirslum sínum og fórum gat (ef hann vildi) gefið ástinni sinni margt.
Dagatölin voru geymd í skúrum. Þangað steig enginn fæti nema maðurinn sem reif dagana og konan sem tíndi upp póstinn.
Eina nóttina var öllum tárunum og dagatölunum rænt. Maður með gleraugu bauðst þá tilað uppvísa ránin og honum var þá líka rænt.
Þegar hann loksins fannst (mörgum dögum seinna og þá lá hann í gleymsku) gat hann ekki sýnt tárin sem hann hafði komist í kynni við og hann varð mállaus. Sat í skúr. Í stól. Las dagblað. En hann gerðist áskrifandi að því.
Og nú veit enginn lengur hvað varð um dagatölin og tárin.
[Calendars and tears
And the tears came from Venice and were gathered there. Men went on ships. Took a ladder with them. And when the night came they climbed the trees in the graveyard and picked the tears, which where hanging on strings of pearls around the branches, with gloves and sometimes with tongues. The one who had tears in his cupboards and closets could (if he wanted) give much to his love.
The calendars were kept in shackles. Nobody went in there except the man who tore of the days and the woman who collected the mail.
One night all the tears and the calendars were stolen. A man with glasses then offered to solve the robberies and then he was also kidnapped.
When he finally was found (many days later and then he had been forgotten) he could not show the tears he had met with and he became speechless. Sitting in a shackle. On a chair. Reading a newspaper. But he started to subscribe to it.
And now nobody knows any more what became of the calendars and the tears.]
In the beginning there is the tone of a historical narrative, when it is explained where the tears came from, then the story turns into a fairy tale when it becomes clear how the tears are gathered and what role they play. Then the calendars enter the narrative, and suddenly we have two different narrative threads, which connect when everything is stolen, the calendars and the tears. And then the story turns into a crime story, for the man who tries to solve the crimes is also being kidnapped. Finally he is found, but by then he has been forgotten and again the fairy tale appears, as his meeting with the tears has made him speechless and thus nobody knows what happened to the calendars and the tears. The story ends like a kind of a folk tale, for nobody knows the fates of the two things told about in the story.
Some stories are more like reflections, standing closer to the poem as “Blómin á pilsum kvenna” (The Flowers on Women’s Skirt’s), which is probably the best-known story of the collection:
Blómin á pilsum kvenna
Úr þokulúðrum skipanna fljúga blóm og lenda á pilsum kvennanna og festast. Ef kona er skapstór fljúga til hennar skærlita blóm. Ef róleg mild jarðleit. Ef hún er skemmtileg risastór og opin blóm. Ef hljóð og fer ekki útúr húsi laumast gleymméreiarnar að henni meðan hún sefur. Og hún vaknar í náttkjól með bláum blómum. Glatíjólur þegar kona er brjáluð. Peningablóm ef hún er nísk og gáfuð. Allar konur fá sinn rósartíma ef þær bíða. Og flugublóm ef þær skoða vel sig og sína. Ásttrylltar fá þær eldliljur um sig allar en ef kona er stelpa sem er kona sem er stelpa sem er alltaf að hugsa um kynlíf í fyrsta sinn setjast baldursbrár á pilsið hennar, hugg''ana/hræð''ana, hugg''ana/hræð''ana, hugg''ana/hræð''ana. Flamingóblóm koma þegar kona er að verða gömul.
Úr þokulúðrum skipanna fljúga blóm.
[The Flowers on Women’s Skirts
Flowers fly from ships’ foghorns and land on women’s skirts and stick to them. If a woman is strong-tempered, loud-colored flowers fly to her. If she is calm, mild and earth-colored. If she is fun, giant open flowers. If she is quiet and stay-at-home, the forget-me-nots sneak up to her while she is asleep. And she wakes up wearing a nightdress with blue flowers. Gladiolas when a woman is mad. Pennywort if she is mean and clever. Every woman’s time for roses will come if she waits. And flytraps if she keeps a close watch on herself and her nearest. Wildly in love, women are covered with orange lilies, but if a woman is a girl who is a woman who is a girl who is always thinking about sex for the first time, mayweed settle on her skirt, comfort her/scare her, comfort her/scare her, comfort her/scare her. Flamingo plants come when a woman is growing old.
Flowers fly from ships’ foghorns.]
Here we see a particularly beautiful image, which reflects on my earlier discussion on the composite self-identities of women. The women reflect themselves in the flowers, or, the flowers reflect the women, and thus each woman is put together from many flowers. This manifold female-image is reminiscent of another story about women in the collection Í ferðalagi hjá þér. The story “Margar konur” (Many Women) contains a manifold mother-image, many women/mothers with one girl-child, which they raise, scold and pamper. The story ends with them flying away, and the girl is alone:
Ég kveð þær. Vinka þeim lengi. Stend í grænum garði með mörgum trjám, sólstól, lítilli tjörn og einni önd. Ég á garðinn.
Ég á hann ein. (27-8)
[I say goodbye to them. Wave them for a long time. Standing in the garden with many trees, a sun chair, small pond and one duck. The garden is mine.
The garden is all mine.]
Woman is, according to Freud, the great mystery. Kristín writes a lot about women. She is preoccupied with femininity, and while she does not generally ‘examine the woman’s position’ in a traditional feminist way, she is continually examining the position of the woman, her role and existence, focusing in particular on inner tension and conflict between emotions and roles. This play with femininity is closely linked to the play with sexuality, and the aformentioned ‘askewing’ of female-roles and sexuality goes together with the play on form.
Just as Kristín plays with the form of the shortshort story, the form of the novel starts sliding in the writer’s struggle with it. Her first novel, Svartir brúðarkjólar (Black Wedding Dresses) from 1992, is characterized by some kind of a carnivalesque atmosphere, where a seemingly ordinary little township turns out to contain the most incredible variations in human relationships. The story starts like a fairy tale: “Það gengur stúlka í hvítum kjól eftir göngustíg. Í fótspor hennar spretta samstundis blóm.” (A girl in a white dress walks down a path. Flowers bloom instantly in her path.)
But the traditional fairy-tale is immediately rejected in the next sentence, for it is not a prince or any such heroic figure that is watching the girl, it is another girl, also dressed in white, walking a few steps behind her, picking up the flowers.
The fairy tale princess is called Selma and has many talents, she is, however, extremely suicidal and continually throws herself into the sea. The one who follows, full of love, is Fjóla; she has regular sex with men in cinemas. Fjóla’s mother, Sólveig, intends Selma for her son Jóhann, she is married to a man who is more interested in men then women and has only married her to have children. They manage to have four before he takes off sailing, three girls and one boy, and he is Sólveig’s favorite. One of the daughters, Signý, has a husband who has also gone sailing and she yearns for him, however, she finds a new husband when the father returns with his lover, Samúel, and marries him to Signý, for Samúel also longs for children.
And now I ask, like the voice-over in the old TV-show Soap: “Confused?”
Fjóla and Selma start a steaming love-affair after Fjóla saves Selma from drowning and kisses her to keep her alive, and Jóhann is hurt, not too hurt though for he runs off with his friend, Ton. The third sister has had quite enough of the whole mess and makes her escape as well, with Selma’s grandmother, Karlotta, who is a fortune-teller and has been reading Ingibjörg’s dreams.
The confusion does not end here - but I do not wish to give the end away.
The unusual relations between the people goes together with the way the story is told through a variety of texts where the narrator’s voice becomes more and more pronounced.
In one place he calls upon his characters, warning them about an imminent threat, but fails to reach them. Poetry and songs are prominent and that particular textual weaving is reminiscent of Steinunn Sigurðardóttir’s and Vigdís Grímsdóttir’s usage of poetry in novels from the late eighties. Also, we are presented with dreams and narratives, as well as letters, some have been mailed, some not. The carnivalesque aura appears for instance in the story’s physicality, appearing in various descriptions of bodies and sex. The songs also give the story a kind of a swing, and in addition to that the novel takes on an exotic ambience through the sailings of the father and the lover and stories thereof.
The town, seemingly at first a typical Icelandic fishing village, thus becomes a fantastic stage - something that the reader should actually suspect from the start, for early in the story it is stated that two city halls stand in the main square. This fantastic view is a characteristic of all of Kristín’s work, poetry as well as prose. At times it is pure fantasy, but usually it appears as imagery, a point of view, perhaps a kind of major askewing, which not only includes gender and sexual orientation, but also spans the mise-en-scène as well as ideas about reality.
Thus Kristín’s fantasy is always harnessed in the service of seeing things anew, overthrowing accepted outlooks; creating new paths to follow. The fantasy is at its strongest in the novel, Dyrnar þröngu (The Narrow Door, 1995). The novel garnered some attention; this is the story that Geir Svansson analysis in particular in his article on queer fiction, and Eiríkur Guðmundsson also focuses on it in his paper on some of the novels published in Iceland that year. It is in fact interesting to note that Kristín is an author who has received considerable critical attention. However, she is a writer who is situated at the fringe, her works are not much read by the general public. This is countered by the fact that her writings are clearly an inspiration for scholarly and critical writings, which, according to the tradition, gives them considerable literary weight.
Dyrnar þröngu goes furthest in crossing boundaries of forms and traditions in narrative fiction. The story is rather inaccessible at first, but is well worth the struggle. It describes the journey of Þórunn Björnsdóttir to the city of The Narrow Door, where she finds herself in, and causes, a considerable gender bender. Geir Svansson describes the novel thus: “despite murders and failed love makings” the text rings with “positivity, thrill of the play, freedom from the past and fearlessness concerning the future.” And he places an emphasis on the fantastical side, saying that “the narrative space is admittedly not “realistic”, it is rather a dream or a fantasy, a land of adventures of some kind.”
This land of adventures is also a kind of wonderland. The story refers in many ways to the story of Alice in Wonderland, and most of the people Þórunn meets are two-dimensional symbols. Two of them, Ágúst and Miss Sonja Lísa Hrís, seem to stand for traditional gender-types, both desire Þórunn intensively. However, it eventually appears that “these stereotypes, which Þórunn meets in the beginning of the book, the guy and the bachelorise, do not have a stable gender.”
Eiríkur Guðmundsson also discusses the novel in view of theories of gender, particularly in relation to Michel Foucault’s on the discourse that creates our ideas on sex, sexuality, sexual orientation and gender. While his interpretation of the novel is somewhat different from Geir’s discussion, their readings agree on examining how the fantasy (and/or surrealism according to Eiríkur) breaks down traditions and referents, offering more freedom in expression and approach to events and action. “On the one hand Kristín’s novel is firmly rooted in reality,” says Eiríkur, “and on the other the author gives reality the finger by concerning herself with the world of the utopia, which in this case is saturated with the discourse of sexuality.”
Þórunn’s husband is introduced at the beginning of the novel. The couple is travelling around Sicily when the husband falls ill. He encourages his wife to continue the journey and to visit the interesting city, which they have read so much about and thus it happens that Þórunn goes alone to The Narrow Door. As already stated, the family and the interactions within the family, particularly between married couples and between parents and children, are a regular theme in Kristín’s work, being the subject of the two long short stories in Hamingjan hjálpi mér I og II (My Goodness I and II) where difficult and unusual family patterns are being described. This theme is less obvious in Dyrnar þröngu, as the woman is travelling alone, but still the reader keeps being reminded about Þórunn being “a responsible wife and mother who is worried about her ill and absent husband and her eleven years old daughter”.
The family theme is, however, all embracing in Kristín’s next novel, Elskan mín ég dey (I’m Dying, My Love), which describes, similarly to Svartir Brúðarkjólar, a family in a small fishing village. The family seems fated to die and move into heaven. When the story begins, the mother is already dead, as well as the oldest sister, and then the younger sister, Jóhanna, commits suicide. The only surviving members of the family are the men; their fate seems clear when the father dies.
Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s narrative technique is, as before, unusual and fraught with fantasy, instead of a traditional narrative or a chain of events the text is driven forward by a myriad of small happenings and colourful descriptions which take on an independent life, while simultaneously being weaved into the narrative thread, drawing it onwards.
An example of these colourful descriptions is that of heaven, which the novel depicts as a bar managed by God. God is startled each time his name is used in vain, that is, used as an exclamation, such as in: ‘Oh my God.’ God’s assistants are flying angels, and he maintains a registry over his guests where he notes credits and debits and marks grades for behaviour. Those who misbehave have to polish glasses, those who do well get to choose songs in the jukebox and drink for free at the bar.
At one of the tables there is a looking-glass and a complicated modern gadget which makes it possible for the dead to track the lives of the ones still alive down on earth. At another table an angel sits and writes continually, probably a family-story about a fishing village.
The gap between fantasy and reality is little to none, this is largely due to how language is used, as the style often takes on a surrealistic feel in the many unexpected and perennial metaphors. The intelligence of the August-heaven is gauged by the fact that he plays around with small wads of clouds. The darkness of the month of August has recently come back from the summer holiday and reality has teeth, which grow fewer when thing become more fuzzy, as the main narrator, Högni, points out early in the story: “Ég gerði ráð fyrir að um það bil tíu tennur vantaði í þrjátíuogsex tennur veruleikans. Þær lægju grafnar og faldar í skúmaskotum víðsvegar í sýnilegu og sýndarlegu rými hússins” (57) (I assumed that about ten teeth were missing from the thirty-six teeth of reality. They were buried and hidden in dark corners here and there in the visible and virtual space of the house).
This question of the visible and virtual space is exactly the crux of the matter where the author plays with opposites, making them overlap and converge in the visible and virtual space of the novel. The uncannyness, which lies like a red thread through the whole story due to the imminent erasure of the whole family, is always mixed with bittersweet yearning and sly humour. In the same way, love is always threatened with obsession that then stands on the border of incest in the continual conflict between the siblings about the parents’ love. The eroticism that always characterises Kristín’s texts is rather unusual here as it appears mainly in the detailed and graceful descriptions of washing and the remarkable preparation of the bodies of the family-members, and thus the eroticism converges seamlessly with uncannyness.
This interplay between uncannyness and play is also a characteristic of Kristín’s poetry. Six years after the publication of the first book of poetry, the next one appeared, named Þerna á gömlu veitingahúsi (A Waitress at an Old Restaurant, 1993). As before the poems are characterized by play, together with the themes of death and pain, which Kristín continues to examine. This interplay appears immediately in the first poem, “Dúfurnar hvítu” (The White Doves), describing how the doves in the narrator’s house are white as sail, they pretend to be curtains, both when she sleeps and is awake, and her love if she dies. Here, we witness a strange kind of a yearning, the traditional significance of the white dove is divine, as a symbol of reconciliation. These doves, however, rather seem to serve the role of hiding the narrator - behind curtains - cover her with a veil that is transformed into a shroud at the end, and the final words contain both sadness and joy: love does not appear until after death, which she seems to survive. And what are we to think about the poem “á heitum degi” (“on a hot day”) which describes how a myriad of white rabbits sucks up the words left by the narrator on a table in the garden, while she approaches “berfætt/með eyrnahlíf/og loðinn riffil” (“barefoot / with a earmuff / and a furry rifle”). It is clear that the narrator identifies with the rabbits to some extent (the earmuffs and the furry rifle), but still she threatens them. Yet again the fantasy is flying, overturning everything, this poem will hardly be unravelled.
Similarly unsolvable fogs of poetry greet the reader in Kristín’s next book of poetry Lokaðu augunum og hugsaðu um mig (Close Your Eyes and Think About Me; 1998). As before, the reader is stuck to strange and funny images such as a description of a garden, where the “rifsið dreyfir sér um allt eins og ölvuð ljósker” (redcurrant spreads around like tipsy lanterns). The tipsy redcurrant is from the poem “Afskiptir hnífar” (Deprived Knives), one of the many poems of the book that describes love and food and bodies. It is hardly new to draw similarities between food and love, but Kristín squeezes fresh blood out of this imagery, for her blood is, after all, ketchup, as one of the poems explains. In this poem we witness the particular physical aura which follows upon Kristín’s usage of the metaphors of sex and food. In her poetry, food literally becomes body and the body becomes food. The metaphor of lemon breasts is given a whole new meaning in the poem “Sítrónubrjóst” (Lemon Breasts), each fluid has its moment and its physical symptoms in “Stund vökvans” (The Moment of the Fluid) and in the poem “Prótein” (Protein) women cook food for their husbands so they can make proteins to squirt into their bodies.
That particular poem is related to the poem about the deprived knives, which are deprived due to the absence of the protein-producer. The poem is a kind of an encouragement to knives, which are not being whetted because their owners use a lot of take-away food and therefore do a limited amount of cooking. At first the encouragement seems innocent; the knifes must be whetted so the lover can make food for her love, then the knifes are connected to the male who can return the proteins back into the belly of the kitchen-owner, that act becomes rapidly parallel to making food where vegetables are being cut with a sharp knife into the stomach of the loved one. It is like the threat indistinctly caused by the knifes in the beginning blossoms in the idea of the uncomfortably straight and unmediated access of the vegetables into the stomach. This image of canny horror is familiar from Kristín’s earlier works, she flashes images that are all in one, beautiful, uncanny, funny and tragic. The first poem, “Kveðja” (A Farewell), contains an image of a dead Christmas tree in a child’s coffin; without a duvet, pillow or decoration this idea of the little dead Christmas tree in a coffin appears both funny and tragic, or perhaps above all beautiful in its simplicity.
In the poem “Þula” (Rhyme) the title gives the tone, although the poem is not particularly rhyme-like. This poem illustrates well the interesting and enjoyable approach to language and imagery, fantastic and strange, which characterizes Kristín’s fiction and turns it into an unforgettable experience. “Þula” is a poem about figures of speech, where each layer is peeled off the original image, the image of steps in water. The water is a disguise and when it is peeled away a fly appears which swallowed the steps, this changes it into a tiny girl the size of a nail that cries in your palm.
The aforementioned book of poetry, Sérstakur dagur, followed upon Lokaðu augunum og hugsaðu um mig and is, as already stated, also a picture book with photographs. The book contains a collection of published and unpublished new poetry and sometimes the poems are written for the pictures or the poems are selected to go with the pictures. This book proves what has been clear for a long time, that Kristín is one of our best writers and poetry is like putty in her hands. One unforgettable poem is about “Rúmið mitt” (My Bed): the pillow is full of unborn dreams, which die at birth if an unexpected sound is heard, such as a scream out on the street. Powder covers the duvet, and it catches fire at the slightest touch of the enemy. The sheet is a tablecloth, so if god becomes hungry “I” am lying here like a fish on a plate. And the mattress is alternately full of money and hey.
Similarly, Kristín reminds us in another poem, “Varúð” (Careful), that cameras and sleep do not go well together, if someone sleeps in a room with a camera it should be well covered, and one should not sleep in a photographer’s studio, a camera shop, a film studio, an elevator, a shop of mirrors, a cash automat and cover the eye contacts carefully as well. The photograph accompanying the poem shows fish-heads with staring eyes. These poems play on emotions that everybody can recognise, on the one hand there is the safety of the bed and the bedroom, and on the other this feeling, of lying on a taut sheet in the bed is a little like lying on a tablecloth on a table as a feast. Then this safety of bed and sleep is broken up by the feeling that you are being watched as you sleep, something which is intolerable. Sleep should be safe and should not be a state where you can be watched, and have your dreams peeped at. Here we also have this wonderful idea bout falling asleep here and there, as for example in a live broadcast. A before, Kristín’s poetry is funny, while being no joke, for there is always a deadly serious undertone. This polyphony reflects in the photographs, which are also brimming with surprising imagery, uncannyness and yearning. The usage of language and figures of speech is, however, always unexpected and happy, Kristín’s talent not only appears in how she brings about unusual circumstances and opens a new view on the mundane, she also has a singular talent for finding and capturing joy in language, an irresistible joy that carries the reader away on a journey.
© Úlfhildur Dagsdóttir, 2003
The poem “The Flowers on Women’s Skirts” is from the book Brushstrokes of Blue; The Young Poets of Iceland. Translated by Bernard Scudder. London: Greyhound Press 1994. Bernard Scudder also translated Kristín’s poems in In and Out the Window. Reykjavík: Salka 2003.
Other translations are by Úlfhildur Dagsdóttir.
The novel Children in Reindeer Woods (Hér, 2004) marked a new chapter in the writings of Kristín Ómarsdóttir. Children in Reindeer Woods is a war-story, a novel about wars, the story of a war. When interviewed, Kristín said that when she was younger she avoided words like ‘a message’ like the plague, but now she welcomed it and was happy to acknowledge that her new novel carries a strong message. Indeed, Children in Reindeer woods does carry a strong message, without doubt the novel criticizes war, in all its uselessness and absurdity. Which war is going on or where we are is never stated, we just find ourselves among children in reindeer woods, a place free from the war – or is it?
What makes Children in Reindeer Woods so interesting is the underlying theme of wargames, war as a (boys’) game – only here the wargame is a dolls’ game. The first chapter describes how three soldiers arrive at a farm and shoot everyone, adults and children, apart from one preteen girl. Then one of the soldiers shoots the other two and settles in at the farm with the girl. He is clearly on the run, a deserter who has quit the wargame and now starts playing a new game, that of being a mundane farmer. But for the game to continue some sacrifices have to be made. What more is there to say? Another soldier parachutes onto the farm, carrying provisions, the two soldiers share a lovely discussion about washing feet and drinking whiskey after brushing one’s teeth and the next day the parachutist has disappeared, apparently on a bicycle – leaving one of his shoe. And then more guests arrive, among them a singing nun, and the girl fears for their lives.
The Reindeer Woods is a world where everything can happen, and the same goes for Kristín’s next novel, By the Bridge (Hjá brúnni, 2009). This is a novel so full of symbols that it is very tempting to read it as an allegory, in particular the parts that deal with oppression by the authorities and the fear of art.
The story spans some twenty four hours in an unknown city, a city that is well at home among the many fascinating imaginary cities of literature. The main heroine is María, a ballerina. Many other characters appear, her room-mate and neighbours, poets, theatre directors and a pregnant daughter-in-law of the directors-couple, theatre people, María‘s fans, mad women and confused young men, and so on. An important part of the story is the river that runs through the city, splitting it in two, bridged by a number of bridges. Already this is a tempting symbol to interpret the novel, particularly as in the first part of the story there is a discussion on suicides and death linked to the bridges in particular, and the city in general. Are the bridges a symbol of the complicated relationships so prevalent in the city? Relationships between the authorities – who eventually show their power – and the artists, or between the artists and the citizens in general, or is the bridge possibly a symbol of the destruction of creativity that strikes at the end of the novel, when the totalitarian government attacks the artists?
By the Bridge is in sixteen parts, and each of those is divided into a number of shorter chapters, many of who offer continuous, sometimes tiresome, but mostly enchanting digressions. In the same way the narrative jumps back and forth in time. One important part is called „Historical Remains“, describing the dictatorial acts of a father and a major against a daughter who is more interested in women than in men.
In the first parts, where the stage is set, the reader gets to know the city fairly well. The author‘s characteristics are clear here, in how she creates a texture that is quite physical – as seen especially in the ballerina‘s movements around the city – and also in the way various wonderful details are portrayed. The text is so layered that the reader needs to stay alert. The idea of life as a stage is quite old and tired but Kristín manages to breathe new life into it, as for example seen in a chapter on cafés and how many perfect moments are simply made to be repeated, as in a theatre.
Alongside these marvellous details of the everyday large questions loom, of poetry and creativity, death and totalitarianism. Poetry is important for the city and art is important for María, as she has left a secure job to dedicate herself to the art that she finds important and believes to have subversive powers. Art as a power, to awaken, criticize and subvert – and also as a forum for death – is an important theme in the novel, and these roles of creativity are of course those that the government attacks.
In this way the novel illustrates, in its textual construction and subject matter, how art is not necessarily something comfortable and handy, beautiful or accessible. Art is (also) supposed to poke people, challenge and disturb. However, such a tightly woven and colourful work does not lend itself to any easy or simple readings. Certainly By the Bridge is a highly political work about the social and radical roles of art and the threats of totalitarianism, but the story is also a wonderful journey through the strange thoughts of strange people, an artwork that reaches into each nook and cranny of the city life and reveals the mundane as a marvellous adventure.
Queer issues have characterised the work of Kristín Ómarsdóttir from the beginning and in the novel Milla (2012) the world is very queer. Milla is a depressed 21 year old girl who works at the Reykjavík City Library. She is in love with María who is a nurse and some years older than Milla. María is worried about Milla‘s depression and is also not sure if she loves her enough. Thus the novel is partly a love story, a story about the struggles of love, separation and broken hearts. A woman comes to the library and hires Milla to catalogue her home as a ‘Museum of the ordinary Icelandic family at the end of the twentieth century’. Finally, Milla’s grandmother’s story is told, and that part of the novel is the least grounded, even though it also turns out to be quite social-realistic.
The museum constitutes a kind of a frame for the novel. Milla is hired early in the story and when she has finished cataloguing, towards the end of the book, Milla’s boss invites her to a fateful dinner at Hótel Holt. It is also in the museum that the marvels of the everyday appear most clearly, as Milla’s cataloguing of the various objects of the museum is highly peculiar, both in terms of simplicity and rich imagination. Milla’s imagination plays an important role in the novel, and as so many of Kristín’s characters she is very good at telling stories. These stories are about herself and the people around her, some she tells to others, some are only in her mind.
As before in Kristín’s work, the text offers endless moments of sensuality and lushness, found both in physical relations and descriptions of food. Kristín is ever so clever in finding moments, images and ideas. Many of these are highly symbolic, and Kristín easily handles symbolic material, playing with it and moulding it, layering her texts with events and objects that are strikingly significant – however, these signs are never particularly clear and the meaning can easily go all over the place, reaching a different destination from the obvious one.
These concise and comical descriptions are given even more power due to refuting the borders between reality and fantasy, and this creates a queering in the text, where the reader can never be quite sure where she is or what is actually happening. This is one of the many things that Kristín is a mistress of: her books are not only about the queer realities of homosexual couples but the whole world becomes queer, all norms are refuted and nothing is as it seems; or perhaps not, perhaps here everything is as it seems, and this is a new world who has rid itself of all heteronormativity.
The Vagrant (Flækingurinn, 2015) is a considerably more realist novel. The main character is a mute vagrant: he has his own lingo that nobody understands apart from his mom. His name is Hrafn, known as Krummi, and he dreams of having a child to teach it all about love. His social situation does not support this, he is unemployed and homeless and stays in an unlocked storage room in an industrial building. And he is a drug user. Despite all this he knows how to enjoy the good life has to offer, such as new clothes from a suitcase left behind in a taxi, or the offer of friendship. He also has a talent for spotting beauty in his surroundings, when he is so inclined.
This might appear like a sentimental story about an unfortunate underdog, an attempt to elevate his life and turn it into a kind of a saint’s legend. That is not the case, however. Krummi is certainly innocent in many ways, even a kind of an angel, but it is clear that his life is far from saintly and the dark sides of his life are mercilessly described. Thus the novel is devoid of all sentimentality when criticising the situation of those who somehow fall between the cracks of society.
At the start of the story Krummi is in a fairly good way. He is a regular guest in Laufey’s house where he meets a group of friends who provide him with the intoxication he needs. He helps Laufey around the house and is fairly well balanced. However, balance among drug users is a precarious thing and suddenly he gets angry and storms out – and is immediately sorry. A black thief, Engilbjartur Bjartsson (literally “Angelbright Brightson”), who is a subject to prejudice due to his colour befriends Krummi and together they travel the wide road of crimes. Their cooperation involves the tall Hrafn lifting the finely boned thief up and through open windows, where money is to be found. But then everything starts to go wrong when Engilbjartur begins to focus on revenge, for himself and Hrafn.
The plot is based on the stories of those two, and slowly a picture is drawn portraying how these two highly different men, with highly different backgrounds, end up on the street for different reasons. Less is told of other characters, apart from Hrafn’s benefactress, a woman who wishes to help him. Mainly the novel is concerned with descriptions of the daily life of the homeless and his attempts to make a home for himself, his interactions with his surrounding and also his observations and thoughts. And it is in this that Kristín’s special way with words and her insights flourish:
“Mister civil servant, I life and work as a vagrant in Reykjavík. The job consists of being shunned. I think I may say for certain that I do a pretty good job and that the shop owners of the city centre would provide me with recommendation if asked. Society needs grief so ordinary people can feel. A certain percentage of each generation has to be pushed aside to the margins. I am to walk daily around town to evoke response and emotions among my fellow citizens [...].“ (161)
There is plenty of criticism but it does not appear in longwinded descriptions of a system that fails or detailed clarifications about mean governments. Rather the polemic appears in a quiet way, in the descriptions of the daily lives of Krummi and friends, and his reflections on this and that along the way.
The Vagrant is in many ways Kristín’s most accessible novel, although the author never relaxes on the demands that she always makes on her readers. Her work is characterised by a complex and elusive polyphony. This demands an intense concentration, otherwise you miss out. She plays on the notes of sorrow and joy, disgust and sympathy and mixes with her own peculiar version of the marvellous, without ever losing touch with what is often called reality.
Kristín’s mastery of the form of the novel is impressive and she is continually working to expand it. However, it is in short texts that her special gift is best expressed. An example of this is the short story collection We belong to the same darkness. On friendship: Marilyn Monroe and Greta Garbo (Við tilheyrum sama myrkrinu. Af vináttu: Marilyn Monroe og Greta Garbo, 2011). In addition to the stories the collection contains one poem and a number of drawings by the author. The stories are all about the communications between these two iconic actresses and film stars, who in this fictional world are great friends and do all sorts of things together. The stories are six in all, some very short and others longer, all exquisite. Despite dark undertones of loneliness and suicide they are full of warmth and closeness, in addition to the joy found in good friendship.
What joins these women is their love for literature and stories, and this is described in the first story, “An afternoon by the Caribbean”. They read together and aloud to each other, or tell each other stories. And Marilyn bakes for Greta: “Literature and bread buns united them” (5). And they drink champagne: “There are few things more Saturdayish than champagne after all the Saturday brunches during the twenties and thirties. And now there is world peace even though she had not forgotten anything and many had fallen. She would never stop grieving but bubbles strengthen the saddened soul” (5). In this way Kristín sketches the historical context and the stories contain various references to history, famous persons have sent letters to Greta Garbo and they muse over Mao’s luxury during the cultural revolution. Still, there are no indications of any concrete dates, and in the world of fiction this does not matter. Or, as it says in the beginning of the book, “We who belong to the same darkness is not about real events; the stories and poem are fiction where the actresses Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962) and Greta Garbo (1905-1990) play the main roles. All characters who take part, including Marilyn and Greta, are fictional.“
Two men appear in one of the tales, they are threatening and they claim to have something to say to the women, claim the right to take any women they want. Those two are symbolic for all the men who inserted themselves into the life of these women, wanting to own them, take pictures of them, demand their nudity and beauty, kisses, sex, admiration and smiles. As with the incidental references to world events there are several references to these men throughout the text. The emphasis is not their influence on the women, quite the opposite, as the stories describe how Monroe and Garbo manage to create their own space due to their friendship, a friendship that unites them and protects them against intrusions. The loneliness that accompanies fame is kept outside the moments they have together, or as Marilyn says: “I would prefer not to kill myself when in your company” (29).
It should come as no surprise for readers familiar with Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s work that the texts are suffused with (queer) eroticism, as the actresses discuss sex and each other’s bodies.
Kristín’s drawings create a perfect continuity with the texts. Kristín has worked with the pairing of pictures and words in her poetry collections, and in fact all of her work is highly visual, as elaborate descriptions of the smallest details continually interrupt the flow of narration, creating emphatic moments within it, diverting and delighting.
The short short story collection, Eternal Mirrors : Scientific observations (Eilífar speglanir: vísindalegar athuganir, 2013) is a small book that contains an amazing amount of material. This is partly explained in the subject matter: mirrors and reflections that transform everything, both space and individuals. These mirrors appear also in similes, where hands are like doves, fingers are evidence of sexuality and as before sensuality and eroticism is everywhere, as is death:
As already told the sun is a mirror for oranges. No. Oranges are a mirror for the sun. Apples for the evening sun, the rosefingered morning and the moon. The green apples choose to reflect the moon. The yellowgreen cannot decide. My nervous system imitates the branches of trees. Bananas and cucumbers the male members. Raspberry the female sex. Have you eaten raspberry jam for breakfast with toast and tea? Not me.
The stories are recorded in a foreign city and are laced with observations of the heavenly bodies, the home island where there is enough hot water, the history of the world where writers commit suicide after wars. They span a wide range, including a list of free things, threads that connect people, as when money changes hands. Dreams and sleep are important themes, and there is also good advice about monsters. One regular theme is a visit to a sweets store where sweets cover the walls and unexpected things happen.
Eternal Mirrors is probably Kristín’s most surrealistic work, from the unexpected encounters of various phenomena to the seemless joining of the everyday to wonders and marvels where life is transformed into art. Surrealism is always nearby in her work in one way or the other, often accompanied by one of its predecessors, symbolism; although Kristín’s symbols are expansive and above all utterly elusive.
Kristín’s short and short short stories are closely related to her poetry. As in the mirror tales the poems can be both unbearably expansive and exquisite, and above all marvellous. The collection Christmas poems (Jólaljóð, 2006) is a good example of all this, the poet turns Christmas into poetry, a poetry that is a kind of fairy-tale. There are many references to reading, as in the poem “Winter morning”, where “the night is thick with darkness and you are not allowed to wake up until you have read a thousand pages of the darkness”. This is a good example of the poet’s talent to create new images out of familiar circumstances. We meet a man who is dissatisfied that he is no longer an angel, and is given the excellent advice that if he tidies up and cleans his home the festival of light will draw near. And then there are Christmas dresses, winter snow, elves and angels, cinnamon sticks and vanilla cookies, and of course Mary and the baby Jesus. The Icelandic Christmas cat makes an appearance and of course the reindeers. The Christmas dresses are either blue or red and the Christmas cat chases after the girls who are only wearing their tights and have not put on their dresses. Cleaning up for the elves is an important custom: “soles from another world will dance / in woven golden socks / perch on chairs and read our books”, as it says in “The Elves come for a visit”. And in the poem “An army of angels flocks to earth” angels float “under parachutes that are woven / from the same material as a spiderweb”.
The last two parts of the collection are in prose. One is called “Images”, where fairy-tale and dream images are listed, some familiar while others are marked by the poetess’ peculiar view of the world. The other is named “A child’s play”, a wonderfully fun – and tragic – version of the fairy tale about Hans and Greta.
Humour and cruelty is also a characteristic of the collection See your beauty (Sjáðu fegurð þína, 2008), and in general a dialogue between these two is prevalent in all of Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s texts. The poems are about poets and critics and death and sex. As before the marvellous is always close.
The book begins with a poem about guidance, well suited to lead the reader into the nooks and crannies of poetry, ideas and diverse worlds that appear in the book. A poet follows a guide who is leading a group of “tourists in winter coats” and announces that poets are mostly extinct, or are they? At least they have started to smell (“Guidance”). However, poets have not disappeared from the book, later they arrest a critic (who gains new understanding of poetry in “Poets arrest a critic”) and later still they are wandering around toy stores (“From a toy store”) to “blow the dust of poetry over the toys. Like fairies from fairy tales they whirl dust from a magic wand – and this is why toys come to life in the hands of children.”
This fairy tale theme appears in many forms in the collection, a paper version of a city rises and a hero writes an ode to eternal youth (and the fear of getting older) and then there is a poem dedicated to the shadow. There is a kind of a Cinderella poem (“A lush day”), where a woman dresses up in the magical clothes of nature, goes to a theatre “in a long dress made of branches / wearing a necklace made of worms”, “the handbag is from ink / socks from saliva / high heels of basalt”. The poem is a good example of Kristín’s approach to nature, they are quite earthbound, literally, even smelly. Two previously mentioned poems (“A hero’s ode” and “my shadow”) refer to the theme of death that reaches its pinnacle in the poem “This is not over”, where the beauty queen of the dead is crowned.
Material death is not the only form of death walking, scythe readied, around Kristín’s poetry collection. As so often before in her work, death by bourgeoise existence is prominent, and leaves nothing untouched. No crisis is needed, the death of the bourgeoise has been and gone for ages and leaves behind an appropriated emptiness in the poem about the “Pater familias” who stays awake at nights and thinks he is a snail, putting his feet in shoes that are “a gift from the wife, / or were they perhaps a clue: / “Go, leave us …”” In “An Icelandic National song” the narrator lives in a room called Iceland. It is attached to Europe via marine cable and “Life goes on as usual.”
Life does, however, not go on as usual in the poems of Kristín Ómarsdóttir, as clearly seen in the poetry collection Spiders in gallery windows (Kóngulær í sýningargluggum, 2017). In the first poem the narrator has “poems cross-stitched in the tongue”. In the middle of the book there is a “greeting”, where the “point of the wordblue tongue lightly touches the potato” and a speechless wall asks “what is it that you wished to say miss voiceless?” Before “greeting” there is the long poem “from a diary” where it is stated that “language strengthens itself on coals kept warm by feelings / lack of passion scares the words away”. The poem “verse” is also about words:
in the palm lies a dead word soft as the breeze and the rose outside
and as warm as the newly died fire and a newly laid egg
the word brought me one lamb and a green thread
your voice brings me security that I am living somewhere else
when your lips touch my ear I travel safely
In the next poem, “a splinter of memory”, we learn that “the soil preserves words that unlike me know when their time is come” and later it turns out that “they pierce the surface in this book”.
In this way Kristín Ómarsdóttir spins a spiderweb of words that form poems and colours, pictures and objects, memories and emotions. The words gush forth because language has eaten coals that keep it warm like a newly laid egg. And despite all speechlessness and voicelessness the words reach their destinations, even if only by the touch of the wordblue cross-stitched tongue, lips and ears. Kristín’s words spring from the soil, tumble out of spiderwebs and transform everything in a single moment.
Kristín’s approach to language and words is characterised by a peculiar and at times surrealistic vision revealing hitherto unknown possibilities to sense, understand and communicate and in the same way her weave of images is colourful and diverse. In fact it says in the poem “dance” that “colours decorate the mindset”.
A spiderblue colour puts its mark on “preparation”, where there are “spiderblue bedsheets like spiderblue desire” and “a rope in emergency colours”. Pink appears often, the radios are pink in “from a diary”, in “windowpanes” the carpenters back is pink and in “a souvenir” the mirror captures “my image as I run my fingers through the morningpink hair”. The tallow is heavenly pink in “escape” and the sofas redlipped in “uninvited”. Pink is related to death as seen in “bench”, where the narrator sits beside death himself, “appearing on the bench” while “the morningpink notes whiten the sicklybright kitchen”.
The uncanny has been a regular theme in Kristín’s work, ever since the game of knives played in the short story collection Travelling to you (Í ferðalagi hjá þér, 1989 ath). Its traveling partner is “innocence”, which is born each spring “younggreen / then the colour changes, like the meaning, and flames in the autumn”. In the same way Kirstín’s poems change their colours and meanings, spanning oppositions and sundering alignments: “darkness supports and strengthens blindness”.
Gender politics have always played an important part in Kristín’s work, as seen in the way she subverts gender roles and sexuality. As before there are many feminine symbols in Spiders in Gallery Windows. The glass-breast – or breasts – is the most striking. Glass-breasts appears regularly throughout the whole collection, and they can be read as a symbol of how fragile the female body is: as so often Kristín’s gender images are accompanied by power games. Patriarchy has a strong presence in the poems, as when the hearts of the boys with the logos tattooed on their backs beat in in synch “under their fathers’ cover”. Spiders in Gallery Windows is more political than her previous poetry collections, and this can be seen in a broader context as poetry in general has become more political in the last decade or so. Kristín’s politics has the same quality as all her work, being at the same time direct and aggressive and complicated and polyphonic.
All of this is very much in tune with the peculiar vision of the poetess who paints everything in spiderblue and morningpink colours. As before Kristín opens up a labyrinth of disturbed realities for the reader, leading her astray and confusing her, her poems are at the same time charmingly pretty and profoundly uncomfortable. The wordblue point of the tongue pierces the comfort zone and before you know the threads of the spiderwebs have spun around your mind. Using repetitions and repeated themes achieves an effect that is at the same time soothing and disturbing and the rhythm is irregular and at times shrieking.
Thus it is very appropriate for Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s titles to mention spiders as her work is in some way as a spider’s web, once you touch it there is no turning back. Everything is topsy turvy and all roads lead everywhere. Before you know your limbs are stuck and the only possibility is to wrap the web tightly around you and dwell there, for a long time.
©úlfhildur dagsdóttir, 2019
Neijmann, Daisy L., ed. A History of Icelandic Literature
University of Nebraska Press, 2007, pp. 448-449, 452, 454, 497, 583
On individual works
Elskan mín ég dey
Dagný Kristjánsdóttir: “Du er hvad du gør” : de skriver om livet med udgangspunkt i døden og når frem til at [...] = “You are what you do” : they discuss life from the pont of view of death and come to the conclusion that [...]”
Nordisk litteratur 1998, pp. 70-71
2018 – Maístjarnan – Poetry award for a published poetry book: Kóngulær í sýningargluggum (Spiders in Gallery Windows)
2009 – Fjöruverðlaunin – The Women’s Literature Prize: Sjáðu fegurð þína (See Your Beauty)
2005 – Gríman: the Icelandic Drama Awards (Playwright of the year): Segðu mér allt (Tell Me All)
1998 – DV Cultural Prize for Literature: Elskan mín ég dey (I’ll Die, My Love)
1997 – The National Broadcasting Service’s Writer’s Fund
1985 – First prize in a competition hosted by The Icelandic National Theatre: Draumar á hvolfi (Dreams, Up Side Down)
2020 – Fjöruverðlaunin – The Women’s Literature Prize: Svanafólkið (The Swan People)
2019 – The Nordic Council’s Literature Prize: Kóngulær í sýningargluggum (Spiders in Gallery Windows)
2017 – The DV Cultural Prize for Literature: Kóngulær í sýningargluggum (Spiders in Gallery Windows)
2017 – The Icelandic Literature Prize: Kóngulær í sýningargluggum (Spiders in Gallery Windows)
2015 – The DV Cultural Prize for Literature: Flækingurinn (The Vagrant)
2012 – The Icelandic Literature Prize: Milla
2011 – The Gríman Drama Award for best radio play: Í speglinum sefur kónguló (In the Mirror There Sleeps a Spider)
2008 – The DV Cultural Prize for Literature: Sjáðu fegurð þína (See Your Beauty)
2008 – The Gríman Drama Award for best radio play: Smásögur (Short Stories)
2001 – The Nordic Radio Drama Prize: Margrét mikla (Margret The Great)
2000 – The Nordic Council’s Literature Prize: Elskan mín ég dey (I’ll Die, My Love)
1999 – DV Cultural Prize for Literature: Lokaðu augunum og hugsaðu um mig (Close Your Eyes and Think of Me)
1998 – The Nordic Drama Award: Ástarsaga 3 / lovestory #3
1997 – The Icelandic Literature Prize: Elskan mín ég dey (I’ll Die, My Love)
1995 – The Icelandic Literature Prize: Dyrnar þröngu (The Narrow Door)
Ljóðasafn (Poetry Collection)Read more
Svanafólkið (The Swan People)Read more
Waitress in FallRead more
Kóngulær í sýningargluggum (Spiders in Gallery Windows)Read more
Leikprufan; Gjöf mín, yðar hátign, Stjörnur / Audition; My Gift, Your Excellency; StarsRead more
Tell me moreRead more
Ljóð í leiðinni: skáld um Reykjavík (Poetry to Go: Poets on Reykjavík)Read more
Elífar speglanir: vísindalegar athuganir (Eternally Mirrored: Scientific Observations)Read more
Children in the Reindeer WoodsRead more