The french speaking magazine LaPresse interviewed me recently about my novel Hans Blær – Troll, in french, just out from Editions Métailié. I answered in English, since my French is not up to snuff. If you wish to read the interview in French, as it was published (edited for brevity), you can find it here – otherwise, my answers in English are here below.
a) Why did you choose to create this character that refuses traditional gender representation ?
One of the major focuses of my work has always been the formation of identity – how we are who we are and who we are allowed to be. Agnes (and others) in Illska has her „foreignness“ pushed on her; Áki and Leníta in Heimska have their egos bloated by constant attention/surveillance etc. In Troll I wished to examine what happens when someone dons an identity people disaprove of.
Most identities that are marginal or offensive to someone are maintained by building groups and alliances – by creating an „Us against the world“ mentality, so that the participants feel they are fighting the good fight (sometimes – as in the cases of trans people – that is true; in other cases, such as nazi-trolls, it is not – but the feeling within the group is similar). What I wanted to give Hans Blær was an almost irreconcilable identity – two extremes, where one would almost attack the others – and the only way to do that was to give them an intense desire to not fit into society, to be an outlier, a punk with an oppositional disorder, a trans-gressor, to never ever fit into any group, hated by the ultra-right for being trans and hated by the trans for being ultra-right. And thereby, in some strangely contorted way, free – an absolute individual.
b) In French, there is a specific pronoun to refer to people who identify as non binary ; in English, it's they/them/theirs. What is used in Icelandic ?
The most common one is "hán" – but there are a few others floating around. Hán is the one used in the book (but Hans Blær being Hans Blær they conjugate it in their own peculiar way).
2. Hans Blaer is a person who does and thinks and acts as they wish, but there are consequences to these actions, one of them being that the police, among others, is looking for them (even though the police is not the one that scares Hans the most, maybe!)... How much liberty do you think we have in our so-called free-world where it appears that anyone can say whatever they want?
We have more power to express ourselves than ever before in history. Anyone with a cheap smart phone and a twitter account can say whatever they want – and has the possibility to go viral. At the same time we are faced with the impossibility of cutting through the noise. If you've ever tried reading (different texts) aloud with many other people in the same room you will know the bird-cliff effect – where eventually the only person you hear is yourself, everything else is just noise. This is what social media is. A bird cliff. We are also faced with different possibilities of outrage and social cancellation or even prosecution and – in dictarships – prison or death.
If we leave the dictarships aside – as to a certain extent different rules apply there – these are not societies that breed serious or difficult thinking. They refrain from the uncomfortable and breed simple soundbytes, black and white slogans etc. I think there is a general feeling in Europe today of polarization, or the formation of many different insular group-identities, much along the same lines as in the United States, where people are mostly speaking to their own in-groups, their peers, and have little understanding or tolerance for the peculiarities or characteristics of people in other groups.
3. Do you think that social media are dangerous in a way that they can provide an audience to just about anybody, even people who can create toxic debates?
I think we've always had the audience – and the same toxic discourse has been going on. But it has happened in private. The difference with social media is that a large portion of our private lives are now no longer private – they are a performance intended for others (and as such, maybe always magnified). This can and does infuriate, for good reason. Our private voices – or the voices in our in-group – have always contained much malignance for other groups, both in jest and in seriousness. Not to detract from the toxicity of speaking ill of others, toxic discourse (along the lines of „all men are bastards“/ „all women are whores“) has also been a conduit for general frustration. We can become more polite, more inhibited in our expression, but that in itself will not rid us of the frustrations that triggered the vulgarities.
As for social media, in particular, of course it is dangerous. But so is the ocean, so is childbirth – and so is literature. We need to be much more willing to deal with the danger of being alive and to look at eachother unflinchingly and with compassion.
4. Each one of your novels is audacious and provocative in its own way ; what do you think the role of literature should be in general and in 2021?
I don't think I can – or should – speak for literature in general. I can participate in this great project of world literature like a rain drop participates in the rain and try to think of my own flight through the atmosphere and where I wish to land and make a splash. I am continuing on my path – giving my heart to the stories that I see around me, and trying to understand the nature of identity and groups, of love and selfishness, fear and rage.
I have a new novel coming out in Iceland in the fall, about the writer Eiríkur Örn, who is a dishonourable and cancelled writer in Reykjavík. It is a not an autobiography, though it may sound like it, it's a fictionalisation of the repercussions of publishing Hans Blær and becoming a transgressor – of sorts – where it (predictably) offended the right, which doesn't want to see trans identities, and angered the left, that didn't want a cishetero white male author writing about trans identities, especially not transgressive ones. So the identity in this novel – up on the chopping block – is my own.