The weather was hostile but the welcome warm at the Reykjavik International Literary Festival. Many world renowned writers, including Margaret Atwood, J.M. Coetzee, Herta Muller and Haruki Murakami, have attended this festival since its inauguration in 1985 and this year was no exception. Canadian Douglas Copeland, Indian Kiran Desai and German Jenny Erpenbeck all read from their latest books and contributed to panel discussions. Belarusian Svetlana Alexievitch, a courageous journalist whose books about the fall of the Soviet Union, the Soviet war in Afghanistan and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster have earned her international acclaim and awards (and an extended period in exile), was also a noteworthy speaker. Astonishingly, Alexievitch appears to be out of print in the UK and I hope a publisher will rectify this shortly. Her latest book, Time Second Hand, will be published in several languages in the autumn.
Our main host for the festival was Sjón. A prolific writer, Sjón has written novels, poetry, plays, librettos and picture books for children. He has received numerous literary awards and was also Oscar nominated with Björk for writing the lyrics to 'I've Seen It All' from the Lars von Trier film Dancer in the Dark. His novels The Whispering Muse, From the Mouth of the Whaleand The Blue Fox (translated into English by Victoria Cribb and published by Telegram Books) provide a fascinating introduction to Iceland, its extraordinary landscape, mythology and culture. Sjón is the President of the Icelandic Centre of PEN, the worldwide association of writers, and the organisation's 79th annual congress coincided with the festival. Appropriately, this included the presentation of International PEN's New Voices Award for a short story by a young and unpublished writer aged between 18 and 30. The winner was South African Masande Ntshanga (pictured receiving his award from Alain Mabanckou) and you can read his winning entry, Space, here.
Björk added a touch of glamour attending an afternoon session on 'Digital Frontiers', about free expression on the internet, and one of the writers' evening receptions. Highlights for me were meeting Herman Koch, Dutch author of The Dinnerpublished in the UK by Atlantic Books (a film adaptation was con-currently premiering at the Toronto Film Festival) and Mabanckou, a renowned Francophone African author, whose novel, Black Bazaar, was nominated for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Sadly I missed Polish poet and writer Ewa Lipska, whose novel, Sefer, I recently reviewed here. I look forward to reading Danish Kim Leine whose latest novel set in 18th century Greenland, The Prophets of Eternal Fjord, is to be published by Atlantic Books next year. I also met various Icelandic authors, such as the wonderfully named Haukur (Hawk) Ingvarsson who I hope will be picked up by an English publisher and Kristin Eiriksdottir whose short story, 'Holes in People', appeared in Dalkey Archive's anthology Best European Fiction 2011.
Reykjavik is designated as a UNESCO City of Literature and proudly nurtures a vibrant community of writers. What I particularly loved about the festival was that it introduced us to an array of Icelandic authors, brought together high profile international names with emerging voices, and served to encourage the next generation of writers. This year, because it was organised in association with International PEN, there was an emphasis on free expression. There can't be many festivals that can lay claim to such a comprehensive and multi-layered approach to the written word.