Q & A with Peter Ngila, Alumni Award Recipient

Q & A with Peter Ngila, Alumni Award Recipient

Peter Ngila is one of the four recipients of the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award. It will provide financial support for him to attend the Retreat in April 2017. The Award recipients are determined by merit and financial need, and the Award is funded by IWR Alumni.

Peter’s Bio:

Peter Ngila is a Kenyan writer. He graduated from Mount Kenya University in August, 2015, where he was studying journalism. His short fiction has appeared on magazines and journals in Kenya and beyond including Jalada Africa, Prachya Review, Brittle Paper, Lawino among others, and got anthologised in Ebedi Review. Peter has attended Writivism Creative Writing workshops in Kenya and Tanzania, and has taken part in The Writivism Mentoring Process. He also attended the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Migrations Flow Workshop in Nairobi. Peter has a number of manuscripts, including a short story collection, and a novella. He will go to Ebedi Writers Residency in Nigeria in January 2017 to complete work on a novel.

 

What are you most looking forward to about the Retreat?

PN: I am most looking forward to the writing workshops, because I am always out to improve my writing career, and also share with and learn from fellow attendees. And yes, to visit Iceland, and meet Nadifa Mohammed!

 

What do you find inspiring?

PN: My writing is usually inspired by what happens every day. I love meeting new people and seeing new places. I am one of those people who are shameless enough to eavesdrop at your phone call, and later turn the conversation around in my mind.

 

How do you overcome writer’s block?

PN: I don’t believe in writer’s block that much. I think one cannot produce all the time, because you will have to read other writers to improve your writing. And rewriting and editing is also part of writing, and so these to me may not happen the same time with writing, as long as they are integral parts of the writing process.  And yes, when you are not in the mood to write, rewrite or edit, you should sit back and enjoy life. But again, that shouldn’t encourage laziness, so most of the time I usually push myself by sitting down all day, and having the previously desired word count by evening no matter what, then take a shower and go out walking; that’s how to keep fit.

 

How has writing influenced your life?

PN: Well, writing has impacted my writing in many ways. It has enabled me to open up my life (because all those secrets I thought were too dark or even interesting to share with the world are part of research and they tend to come out fictionalized in my writing). Writing has also taken me places, from writing workshops to festivals in and outside my country, Kenya. (And yes, I am going to Iceland, the first time actually to fly out of Africa)! My writing has also enabled me to communicate better because I am not the best verbal communicator.

 

Peter is very excited and thankful for the opportunity to attend the Retreat. In a final comment, he cites eagerness to learn, persistence, and patience as the tools anybody can use to achieve their dreams.

Our writing competition winner is announced!

Our writing competition winner is announced!

For the third year in a row, we have partnered with Iceland Travel to run a competition to win a spot at the Iceland Writers Retreat. This year’s theme was “Iceland — Regard The Moon” and we received over 350 submissions from the around the world.

The winner of the competition is Heidi Ball from the UK, with her story “White Light”. Continue reading

Q & A with Akvile Buitvydaite, Alumni Award Recipient

Q & A with Akvile Buitvydaite, Alumni Award Recipient

Akvile Buitvydaite is one of the four recipients of the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award. It will provide partial financial support for her to attend the Retreat in April 2017. The Award recipients are determined by merit and financial need, and the Award is funded by IWR Alumni.

Akvile’s Bio:

After exploring many countries on her solitary travels, she finally settled down in Copenhagen. She grew up in a small town in Lithuania and the variety of places that she has visited have given her an opportunity to treasure the diversity of this world. Akvile has been teaching for several years and at the moment is taking a degree in English and Cultural Studies. Writing has always played a role as a very intimate and personal expression of her solitude; lately she has become more explicit about it and received many encouraging responses. Akvile wants her writing to tackle the questions of social justice and to evoke emotional understanding of a human life. She is really looking forward to meeting all the people at the Iceland Writers Retreat, share and learn together and just let the beauty of Icelandic nature capture our minds.

 

What are you most looking forward to about the Retreat?

AB: Honestly, I am really overwhelmed by the choice of workshops and possibilities to learn from great authors and other participants. I imagine the retreat as an opportunity not only to create a space with like-minded people, but as well to learn more about the ways to create a literary work, establish narrative structures or to depict novel characters. This is all very new to me, therefore I’ve got plenty of questions and considerations and I am looking forward to sharing them with the others.

 

What do you find inspiring?

AB: I’m mostly interested in the lives of ordinary people. Often when I am sitting on a bus or train, I try to imagine the stories of the fellow passengers. I love being in the city that is crowded and solitary space at the same time and I believe that every human life is really fragile. This thought works as a driving force for me. Still, I have discovered that imagination and inspiration play a small role in the process of writing, because the rest requires discipline, effort and work. There are periods when I am really struggling to produce anything, because my writing expectations and reality do not correspond with each other. Then I feel the need to get out from my routine and spend some time in nature where I can sort of go back to my senses and find that inner flow. Essentially, literature and music are the cornerstones for my own writing—when I am into a novel or listening to an album it triggers a certain emotional response in me and then I embody this into a poem or a fictional work. There have been several novels that left a huge impact on me and I am still touched by the power that words might entail and their ability to awaken one’s senses.

 

How has writing influenced your life?

AB: Until very recently, I’ve pictured writing as my personal expression only and I have been rather quiet about it, so many people around me didn’t even know that I have this sort of ‘hobby’.  One of those days, while sitting on the train and staring at strangers, I got this incredible wish to write a novel and slowly it led into a plot, a main character and the whole story line that is inhabited in my head every day since. It is still very fresh to me so I am finding it difficult to grasp its effects on mine or anyone else’s life. However, I consider language as a way of restricting or emancipating people since many of our experiences are bounded within the linguistic frame.  Therefore, I see writing as a way to give a voice to people and I hope that I will succeed in transforming my ideas, values and world views into a fictional narrative.

 

In a final comment, Akvile expresses her excitement to attend the Retreat and optimism for the changes it might bring.

Nadifa Mohamed & Peter Ngila featured in top African literary blog!

Nadifa Mohamed & Peter Ngila featured in top African literary blog!

I write because I love writing, and I am glad to have made it to the Iceland Writers Retreat…I am looking forward to interacting with writers all over the world,” says Peter Ngila, one of the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award recipients who was recently featured, together with Nadifa Mohamed – one of the Iceland Writers Retreat 2017 faculty members – on the James Murua blog. James, who is one of the Africa’s most prominent literary bloggers, provides news and reviews about African writers and the African literature scene. Read more about their feature here!

Q & A with Nathan Ramsden, Alumni Award Recipient

Q & A with Nathan Ramsden, Alumni Award Recipient

Nathan Ramsden is one of the four recipients of the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award. It will provide financial support for him to attend the Retreat in April 2017. The Award recipients are determined by merit and financial need, and the Award is funded by IWR Alumni.

Nathan’s Bio:

He lives in West Yorkshire, UK. He writes mostly short fiction based on mythology and folktale, though he has also published one novel called Nothing’s Oblong, and is currently working on a translation of the long medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Other influences include J L Borges and Angela Carter.

Nathan taught English for several years before choosing to focus on writing and to set up a small press. In his spare time he loves baking, bookbinding, and making music with synthesizers and an old jazz bass.

Although he enjoys reading and translating Icelandic, this will be Nathan’s first trip to Iceland; he hopes to improve his spoken language as well as see some of the country and stock up on a few more books.

 

What are you most looking forward to about the Retreat?

NR: Pretty much everything, really. I’ve never been to Iceland before, but since having studied some of its medieval literature, and having learned some of the language, I’ve wanted to spend time there and explore the spaces and their histories, and the ways in which the land and the stories generate each other. From a writing point of view, I’m looking forward to having somewhere new feed into my ideas for various projects, and I’m excited to see where Iceland will take my work. It’s also going to be good to meet other writers, to swap stories, to discuss books and writing, and to perhaps make friends. I’m guessing I’ll need more than one trip to do it all but I can’t think of a better way to start than the Retreat.

 What do you find inspiring?

NR: Inspiration is a tough one. It can come from anything, anywhere, anyone, and at any time. I keep a notebook with me whenever I leave the house, and it sits by my bed at night. Sometimes I’ll come across a word that will be enough to kick-start an idea; sometimes a whole historical episode will suggest a story, a re-telling, a re-imagination. Often, the seeds of a piece are small, but the things that grow from them seem to feed into each other, and they have to catch together in the right ways for a piece to truly develop. A lot of the time, that comes with a great deal of hard work. Trial and error is the only way to see what will happen. When it doesn’t go well, try again.

How has writing influenced your life?

NR: Life and writing are not separate things – writing is a part of life, and helps make life what it is, while life shapes writing in return. For a long time, making stories was simply a way to entertain myself, or to process and play with things that were happening in my world. Eventually stories became an end in themselves, and I became interested in how they work on a more technical level. Being a writer has given me a different kind of understanding of the ways in which writing works – I come to books and the study of books with a writer’s mind, a writer’s skill set, a writer’s sensibility for the processes that generate those objects we think of as stories. I think that’s quite a different position to be in to a strictly academic one, or to the general reader. My academic studies are feeding into my life in other ways that are no longer university-based, but being a writer first has created the platform upon which I place everything else for consideration. It’s a kind of blend of the critical, the creative, and a joy at making leaps into strangeness and getting things wrong; it’s a balance of tight control and complete freedom.

As a final comment, Nathan expresses his gratitude toward those who made this opportunity possible.

Pulitzer Prize Winner Jane Smiley: “I Thought Icelanders Were Very Straightforward and Smart”

Pulitzer Prize Winner Jane Smiley: “I Thought Icelanders Were Very Straightforward and Smart”

Before she was awarded a 1992 Pulitzer Prize for her iconic novel A Thousand Acres, American author Jane Smiley won a 1976 Fulbright Research Grant to study in Iceland for a year—an adventure that has been a consistent source of inspiration for her throughout her prodigious literary career. Smiley recounts her time as a young student in Reykjavík with the Iceland Writers Retreat in this piece and describes both her upcoming toddlers’ book and her ambitious new trilogy about the past 100 years of American life and human civilization.

Interview by Elliott Brandsma. Photo by Mike McGregor/The Guardian.

Jane, take us back to your time as an exchange student in Iceland. What initially drew you to the country, and what projects did you work on while you were here?

In graduate school, I studied Old Norse, Old English, Gothic, and Old High German. I loved the sagas, and I took Old Norse for four or five semesters. One year we read all of Njál’s Saga, so when I was thinking about studying abroad, Iceland was the only destination I had in mind. I wanted to learn modern Icelandic and improve my reading skills in Old Icelandic. I was not quite prepared for the climate or the landscape, but I enjoyed myself a great deal. The landscape seemed very exotic to me, and I enjoyed taking walks. I also enjoyed the historic sites we students were taken to visit out in the countryside.

Toward the end of my stay, I got to be friends with a man who owned a car and was a hiker. He took me to visit some great scenery, and also on a horse ride. My real difficulty came from the length of darkness as the Winter Solstice approached. I had a very hard time waking up in the dark and my biological clock got out of kilter so that I stayed up writing much later than I would have at home in the states. I loved the swimming pool that was not far from Háskóli Íslands (the University of Iceland), especially the hot pools. I would go there every day, then stop at the consulate (now the U.S. Embassy Reykjavík) and check out books to read. I did a lot of reading.

My friend also told me about Greenland. I had read The Saga of the Greenlanders, but what he told me sparked my imagination, and I started thinking about writing a novel about the end of the Greenland settlement. I did do so, and that was published in 1988, about 10 years after I got back from Iceland. I visited Greenland in the early ‘80s. I saw that it was very different from Iceland, but Medieval Norse literature connected them in my mind, and so I modeled the style and the philosophy of the Greenlanders on that of the sagas. Also, I loved rjómaterta. I went to a certain fancy hotel and ate a slice every Friday.

You have had a successful career in academia and literature, winning the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, teaching once for the prestigious creative writing program at the University of Iowa, and also at Iowa State University, and being elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. You now teach in the Creative Writing Program at the University of California at Riverside. How did your stay in Iceland shape you into the writer you are today?

The American consulate had a very good library, so I read a lot of books—like War and Peace and The Grapes of Wrath—that I had never read before. Even though I did socialize and go to concerts and have friends, there was plenty of time to read, especially late at night. I caught up on novels I had missed earlier when I was busy translating archaic texts in school. I loved them, and they cemented my interest in the novel as a form. While I was there, I did my assignments for my course in Icelandic, but I also wrote a great deal, though none of that has been published. It was good practice and gave me good habits. Since I did a lot of walking, there was plenty of time to ponder various ideas.

Describe your interactions with Icelanders. What do you miss most about the people and culture of Iceland?

I found Icelanders friendly and easy to get along with, but I was surprised at a few things. At the end of my stay, a man who was planning to go to the states asked me to help him with his English, so we had a few sessions. His English was pretty good, but I had to show him how to lower his voice and not stand too close to the people he was talking to. I also witnessed an amusing exchange at the market, where two Icelandic women were trying to figure out what celery was. In the dormitory at the university, the students could be a little rowdy on party nights but were in general very friendly. I thought Icelanders were very straightforward and smart. I enjoyed talking to them and being around them.

Name some of your favorite books by Icelandic authors. In your view, which book is a must-read for anyone considering a trip to Iceland?

I first read Halldór Laxness in Iceland. Independent People is one of my favorite books of all time and has been very inspiring to me. That would be the book I would tell people to read. But any other Laxness book would be terrific, too. And, of course, the Sagas, especially Laxdæla Saga, which is less focused on a single person than Njál’s Saga. I was quite fond of the main character of Gisli’s Saga, who seemed less rough and more sympathetic than some of the other saga heroes.

Tell us about your latest works, the Last Hundred Years trilogy. In your own words, what is the series about, and why did you decide to write an American family saga that extends an entire century?

The first idea that came to me was the title of the trilogy—the Last Hundred Years. No one can be certain at this point whether the last hundred years of civilization will turn out to be a success or a failure. I think it could go either way. There are good things about the modern era, but also quite frightening and depressing things, like nuclear warfare, climate change, the rise of the power of corporations and banks, and the splintering of the political landscape in America and the Middle East. I was also interested in the formal experiment of having the books progress year by year, and fitting the plots of the characters’ lives into those years rather than doing it the usual way. I enjoyed that part a great deal. I did put in a Norse character, Andy, from a town in Iowa founded by Norwegian settled in the 19th century. That enabled me to put in some bits from the sagas and from other Scandinavian stories. She is one of my favorite characters. Another character, Henry, is my alternative self—the one who became a medievalist rather than a writer.

You are also venturing again into children’s literature with the upcoming book 20 Yawns. How did this project come about, and what were some of the challenges writing for such a young audience?

I have written five YA novels about an 11-13-year-old girl who lives on a horse ranch in California. These are based on a horse training method that was invented near where I now live and has transformed the way horses are trained in the US—much more cooperative and less confrontational. 20 Yawns is a toddler book. I came up with the idea and wrote the text, but the artist came up with the art, which I think is the main pleasure of the book. I hope it sells and that people like it.

Iceland transformed Jane Smiley’s writing. Will it transform yours? Sign up for the 2017 Iceland Writers Retreat and discover the wonders of Iceland’s inspiring literary culture for yourself.

Q & A with Victor Yang, Alumni Award Recipient

Q & A with Victor Yang, Alumni Award Recipient

Victor Yang is one of the four recipients of the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award. It will provide financial support for him to attend the Retreat in April 2017. The Award recipients are determined by merit and financial need, and the Award is funded by IWR Alumni.

Victor’s Bio:

Victor spends lots of time teaching, biking, and thinking about food when he is not parked in front of Microsoft Word at a coffee shop. He spends his days as a labor organizer at the janitors’ union in Boston, USA. His job, as a writer and an organizer, is to listen to other people’s stories and ask that they be shared. His essays are forthcoming in The Rumpus and Tahoma Literary Review. He grew up in Canada, rural China, and the USA.
 

What are you most looking forward to about the Retreat?

VY: While writing my application, I did the math for the Retreat: four days, five workshops, up to fifteen writers each. I’m excited for how that time multiplies — to talk about craft, to learn from folks from around the world, and to write.

 

What do you find inspiring?

VY: A good cup of coffee can do many wonders, I learned back in my student days. Plus no Wi-Fi and a promise to myself or a good friend that I’m not leaving the coffee shop, library, or wherever else until I write at least a paragraph or two, no matter how shitty. Getting into the practice of barfing words onto a page, or what other people call freewriting, has really helped.

 

 How do you overcome writer’s block?

VY: Small goals are good. In the first week of working on a manuscript, I built up enough momentum to write a grand total of seven words one day, fifty the next, and on it goes.

 

How has writing influenced your life?

VY: I’ve been the wallflower who enters a room full of strangers and clam up, or the kid who sits at the back of the class without saying a peep for weeks. Microsoft Word has treated me with more kindness than many social situations. I started journaling as a kid to make sense of the world and perhaps some of the most confusing things in that world, namely my own self and my wackiness. Word processing software, other than the red squiggles that yell for not spelling right, is as non-judgmental as they get.

As I’ve read stories by folks like Jenny Zhang and Daisy Hernandez about their mothers and their activism and their take on racism in the world, I think “Hell, how do they describe and reflect on experiences in my life in words so much more poignant and accurate than my own?” I guess this is answering the inspiring part of what you were asking in the last question, but when done well, “well” in terms of not necessarily good craft but good therapy and processing, my writing encourages me to treat myself and others with more humanity and to find what’s common among all of us. It helps me make sense of things that I find specific and weird, and to discover, in the process of writing and thinking, that those things tell of universal truths that can in turn speak to so many people.

 

Victor would also like to express his gratitude for the opportunity to join the IWR community and for everyone who made the Alumni Award possible.

Meet the Recipients of this Year’s Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award

Meet the Recipients of this Year’s Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award

This year is the second year the Iceland Writers Retreat has offered the Alumni Award. This prestigious award is funded in its entirety by generous IWR alumni and friends. It gives its recipients full or partial funding to attend the next Retreat, which will take place April 5 to 9, 2017 in Reykjavik. The winners are chosen based on both merit and financial need, and submissions were reviewed by IWR alumni volunteers. We received almost 600 applications from around the world and the quality of submissions was extremely high.

The recipients are:

Victor Yang: Victor spends lots of time teaching, biking, and thinking about food when he is not parked in front of Microsoft Word at a coffee shop. He spends his days as a labor organizer at the janitors’ union in Boston. His job, as a writer and an organizer, is to listen to other people’s stories and ask that they be shared. His essays are forthcoming in The Rumpus and Tahoma Literary Review. He grew up in Canada, rural China, and Kentucky and is now based in Boston.

Peter Ngila is a Kenyan writer. He graduated from Mount Kenya University in August 2015, where he was studying journalism. His short fiction has appeared in magazines and journals in Kenya and beyond including Jalada Africa, Prachya Review, Brittle Paper, Lawino, Ebedi Review among others. Peter has attended Writivism Creative Writing workshops in Kenya and Tanzania, and taken part in The Writivism Mentoring Process. He also attended the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Migrations Flow Workshop in Nairobi. Peter has a number of manuscripts, including a short story collection, a novella and a novel (in progress). He will go to Nigeria in January 2017 for six weeks to complete work on a novel.

Nathan ‘NJ’ Ramsden (partial scholarship) lives in West Yorkshire, UK. He writes mostly short fiction based on mythology and folktale, though he has also published one novel (Nothing’s Oblong), and is currently working on a translation of the long medieval poem ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’. Nathan taught English for several years before choosing to focus on writing and to set up a small press. In his spare time, he loves baking, bookbinding, and making music with synthesizers and an old jazz bass. Although he enjoys reading and translating Icelandic, this will be Nathan’s first trip to Iceland; he hopes to improve his spoken language as well as see some of the country and stock up on a few more books.

Akvile Buitvydaite (partial scholarship): After exploring many countries on her solitary travels, Akvile finally slowly settled down in Copenhagen. She grew up in a small town in Lithuania and the variety of places that she has visited has given her an opportunity to treasure the diversity of this world. She has been teaching for several years and at the moment is taking a degree in English and Cultural Studies. Writing has always played a role as a very intimate and personal expression of her solitude, whereas lately, she has become more explicit about it and thus received many encouraging responses. Slowly, she began to cultivate this passion and transform it into fiction. She wants her writings to tackle the questions of social justice and to evoke an emotional understanding of a human life.

We’ll be profiling all the recipients in more detail in the coming weeks.

The other finalists for the prize were (in alphabetical order):

Kirsten Barkved (Canada)
Brandon Breen (United States)
Tanvir Bush (United Kingdom)
Jenn Carson (Canada)
Emily Craven (Australia)
Julia L Guarch (United States)
Dela Gwala (South Africa)
Rachael King (New Zealand)
Katrina Jorene Maliamauv (Malaysia)
Regomoditswe Mamogale (South Africa)
Kim Parkhill (Canada)
Anastasia Pascoe (United States)
Arsalan Pirzada (Pakistan)
Marcie Rendon (United States)
Lena Rutkowski (Denmark)
Sally Ryhanen (Australia)
Nora Shychuk (United States)
Ryan Skaryd (United States)
Lucy Steeds (United Kingdom)
Lisa Sullivan (United States)
Ingeborg Swart (Netherlands)
Holly Truslove (United Kingdom)
Hannah van Didden (Australia)
Sophie Wellstood (United Kingdom)
Terry Anne Whitebeach (Australia)
Pierre Zahnd (France / United Kingdom)

An additional 52 people received “honorary mention”.

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