In Grandmothers’ Archipelago: an Interview with Sjon

Posted on October 25, 2010



By Lucy Popescu of Words Without Borders

LP: You like to weave folk tales into your fiction? Why?

S: Folk tales and folk beliefs are told and kept alive by those who have no power in society and therefore provide you with the “unofficial” version of how it is to exist in a certain place and time in history. They are still with us today and as usual are hidden in plain view. This is the prima materia for any writer who wants to write universal stories and be part of what I have called the Grandmothers’ Archipelago.

It is based on the last lines of Halldór Laxness’ novel Brekkukotsannáll (The Fish can Sing). There the story’s protagonist is leaving Iceland to become a famous singer in the big world and the old pair who have brought him up are seeing him off at the harbor. Then the grandmother, who has barely spoken throughout the novel, says:

“And if you should meet a wretched old woman like me anywhere in the world, then give her my greetings.”

It seems to me that that is what authors of books we consider “world literature” are doing all the time, they are simply bringing their grandmother’s greetings around the world to whichever grandmother might be within earshot. And as those old women are the keepers of everything that really matters to their folk, it is the folk stories that they want to share . . .

Read more:

Photo credit: Sjon’s publisher Bjartur