Once upon a time the Hallgrímskirkja clock struck 03:00 and, on her way to the bus that would take her to the airport, a South African girl lost her hiking boot in the streets of Reykjavik. She did not mean to, and it happened swiftly, the shoe slipping off much easier than it had been to put on. As if it had a will of its own, forcing her to leave a piece of her behind so that she might have to return one day.
In the airplane, on the final stretch of the trip towards Iceland from Munich to Keflavik, I watch an Icelandic crime series and listen to the language. The words I hear and see at once seem so familiar to the tongue, yet so foreign:
“neyðarútgangur” (Icelandic), “nooduitgang” (Afrikaans) – emergency exit
“kirkja” (Icelandic), “kerk” (Afrikaans) – church
“Mánudagur” (Icelandic), “Maandag” (Afrikaans) – Monday
Upon arrival at Keflavik International Airport I meet with one of the other retreat attendees and we are met by a glacial wind unlike any I had ever experienced before. We stare through the window of the bus at a foreign landscape.
I had never seen snow before.
Iceland is unyielding, stark, cold, sublime.
The sublime: an aesthetic value judgment – that which is linked with both pleasure and pain. With danger, extremity. The experience gives a type of pleasure that is riddled with anxiety, with an awareness of something that transcends the ordinary sense of beauty. The sublime is the experience of the limits of understanding and reason.
The sublime threatens one’s existence and is a delightful horror.
Iceland is a mythical mistress, forcing one to face beauty, tragedy, and catharsis.
Oddities reveal the truth. Staircases and landings. The senses are the strings of an instrument. Rubbish. Dogs and cats and old people and children.
Just past midnight I stand on the bow of a boat and I try to focus my camera in the dark, the North Atlantic wind blowing against my jacket. The cold had taken hold of my hands. It is nearly impossible.
I await her. The Aurora Borealis.
She is mischievous and I sometimes wonder if I ever truly saw her shimmering green satin dress for a brief few minutes that final night in Reykjavik.
Carien Smith will be a JIAS Writing Fellow in 2020 after which she will pursue her PhD studies in Climate Change Ethics and Epistemology (Philosophy). For more information, visit her website: https://www.cariensmith.com and https://www.facebook.com/Carien-Smith-166234987540871/ .
We did it — thanks to your support!
Thanks to the generosity of our wonderful alumni and friends of the Iceland Writers Retreat, we have once again achieved our goal and will be able to offer Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Awards for deserving writers to attend our event in 2020, at least one full and one partial award.
(Full funding covers all participation in the Iceland Writers Retreat, as detailed on our website, as well as accommodation and round-trip flights to Iceland. Partial funding covers the participant fee only, and neither accommodation nor round trip flights.)
Details for eligibility and how to apply for will be published from 1 September, with applications accepted until 31 October. It will be free to submit an application, but follow the instructions carefully, as incomplete submissions will not be considered. (We will post full details on how to apply on 1 September.)
The recipients will be chosen based primarily on two factors: a) The potential they demonstrate (or have demonstrated) as writers and b) Their need for financial support to be able to attend. We will also evaluate based on the other questions in the application, though, so make sure to tell us about yourself and why you think you’d be the perfect match for the Iceland Writers Retreat. (Please don’t just tell us how you have always wanted to visit Iceland.)
If you’re not eligible to apply for the scholarship, but wish to attend the Iceland Writers Retreat, you can register now. Anyone can register to attend, but spaces fill on a first come, first served basis.
A special thank you to our contributors:
Jose R. Garcia
Erica Jacobs Green
Felicia L. Mason
Martine van Bijlert
Janine Vici Campbell
*Names in bold denote individuals who contributed EUR 110 or more to the campaign.
We are currently fundraising to offer an Alumni Award again in 2020. These awards are need- and merit-based scholarships that allow talented, international writers to join us in Reykjavik next spring to explore Iceland’s unique literature and culture, as well as to learn from our internationally-renowned faculty. If you’d like to donate, you can do so via our Karolina Fund here.
If we raise enough funds, applications will open in September 2019 and continue through October. Winners will be announced in early December.
Jonaki Ray is a 2019 Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award winner, receiving a partial scholarship to attend the Retreat. Her work has been published, both online and in print, in India, the US, the UK, Ireland, Italy, and Singapore. She was nominated by Zoetic Press for the 2018 Pushcart Prize for short fiction; and by Oxford Brookes Poetry Center for the 2018 Forward Prize for the Best Single Poem and was the winner of their 2017 International Poetry Contest, ESL. She has been shortlisted for multiple other awards including the 2018 Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize and the 2016 Writers’ HQ International Fiction Contest.
Jonaki wrote a guest blog about her experience at IWR for Authors Electric. Read more about what she learned at IWR 2019, and what she took from the experience, here.
To help writers like Jonaki attend the Retreat in 2020, you can donate to the Alumni Award fund here. Registration for IWR 2020 opens on July 9th. To learn more about the Retreat, and our brand new Iceland Readers Retreat, check out our website.
If I’m being totally honest, I certainly didn’t expect the most memorable experiences of my Iceland Writers Retreat to occur indoors. In my defense, the reasoning seemed obvious at the time — it’s the “I” of IWR — but I still hesitate to admit it now. I was so impressed with the sharp minds and incredible writers at IWR that I don’t want to embody the quip, so often misattributed to Twain, about what happens when fools open their mouths. And yet, here we are.
The promise of the Icelandic landscape initially drew me in. In part, this can be attributed to the total dearth of photographs of hotel conference rooms in Iceland’s tourism adverts. Though, probably more of it has to do with the fact that I am only semi-domesticated. That I feel so much more myself with grass underfoot and foliage overhead in place of carpet and fluorescents. I’m happy to say that this part of me was not left wanting as we traveled the Golden Circle on my first day of the retreat. From Geysir to Gullfoss and Thingvellir, my eyes (and camera) feasted. And then, each clear night thereafter, I got to watch the northern lights dance until my toes threatened to secede from my feet.
How funny it was, then, for me, this semi-feral part-ape man, to arrive for my first workshop the next day and discover just how tame my writing practice had become while I wasn’t paying attention. That first session, Priya Basil led us through an exercise where we welcomed abrupt and unplanned transitions. We jumped from one topic to another, which allowed the subconscious to weave connections from seemingly disparate prompts. This twenty minutes was so productive that afterwards I declared I would pay good money for an app that replicated the exercise where she read a random word every four minutes. She was not swayed then, but the offer still stands.
Though it sounds borderline obsequious, IWR knows how to do programming. Every workshop I attended was just as good and productive as the first. Elizabeth Renzetti got us into the point of view of other characters from our own memories; Chigozie Obioma steered us through character-generated plots and the difference between tales and stories; Tessa Hadley’s love of craft was twice as infectious in person as it is on the New Yorker Fiction Podcast as we dissected a short story word for word, finding new and deeper meanings in every line; and Lina Meruane guided us through an exercise to generate a story from two random photographs put into relation. In this last session, because of the unique interaction of my two images, I may have unwittingly taken my first steps into writing… well, let’s call it Romance and hope for the best. I walked away from each workshop invigorated and with an idea of something new and unexpected to write once I returned. Each session pushed us to expand our practice and suggested new ways to unbridle our writing.
But perhaps the most meaningful moment I had (indoors of all places) was also the most personal. On that Golden Circle tour our first day, the last stop was at Gljufrasteinn, the former home of Nobel prize winning author Halldor Laxness. We were in a rush to return in time for a visit to the President’s residence (#humblebrag) and we’d just seen, in order, a geyser, the largest waterfall by volume in Iceland, and the place where the European and North American tectonic plates drift apart 1cm at a time. The house seemed like an afterthought sandwiched between the geological and political events of the day. Until, that is, I stepped inside.
Audur Jónsdóttir’s memories of her grandfather lulled me somewhat out of the present. It seemed like with each word about this great author who was, to her, just a grand-dad, she sparked a memory of my own. The eclectic decor, like the zebra print couch that ran beneath an expansive window, the smell of old books, the paintings on the wall, and the tasteful midcentury modern furniture all (perhaps counterintuitively) fit together. It matched the charming stories of this man’s daily walks up the nearest mountain.
The house and her memories reminded me of my own departed Uncle and his home. A landscape painter of some small local renown, my Uncle Tom had been one of my first intellectual idols. When he passed away, rather than flowers, paint brushes were dropped on his casket. I frequently think of his studio, with the pile of canvases and prints against one wall. And the corner next to the sliding glass door where he set up his still-life compositions. The small mounds of dried oil paints and the piney smell of the cleaner that got them off his brushes. The only furniture in the studio was a humble chair in front of the easel.
My uncle was technically color-blind. It’s part of what made his paintings unique. He would paint a landscape and throughout there would be scattered, impressionistic pops of unexpected colors. Purples amidst greens. Blues with yellows. To him, these were not flourishes. The shade fit, even if the hue— that he could not discern— did not. His paintings all contained these small surprises and were elevated by them.
In Halldor Laxness’s den, I sat listening to Audur speak with warmth and love about this famous man who was never too busy to be a good grandfather, and I felt so close to being back at my Uncle’s. It is only in hindsight that I recognize how this all too brief visit foreshadowed my week at the Iceland Writers Retreat. How it would be about the joy and power of discovering the unexpected and integrating it into our own work.
Dan is currently a member of the Tulsa Artist Fellowship. You can find him online at danmusgrave.com
What were you most looking forward to about the Retreat?
I wanted to meet new people and gain new insights from the sessions.
Are there any exercises or bits of wisdom you heard at the Retreat that you look forward to using in your writing going forward?
The most important thing I learnt from Louis de Bernières is to enjoy the writing process, even if that means going against the norm. I needed to hear that, because I had been having a hard time with a project, trying to follow a “due process” that was clearly ineffective and frustrating. Now I’m particular about enjoying the process, I realize that if I’m not enjoying it, my readers probably wouldn’t too.
I learnt about paying more attention to the other senses. Prior to this, I’d really only concentrated on sight, touch, and a few times, smell. Now, it’s amazing to see how much more affective my stories are, because I’m adopting a wholistic, deliberate approach to conveying the senses. Paul Yoon taught this.
Another important thing I gathered from the retreat, is really fundamental. Chigozie Obioma expounded on characterization and how it’s important to check that that foundation has been well laid. It was really the answer to a question I went to the retreat with. As a result of this, I’m rewriting a significant portion of my novel.
Were there any other highlights of your time in Iceland?
I can’t talk about Iceland Writers Retreat without talking about the food! Gosh! I loved it all. It was delicious and healthy, and we were well-fed during and in-between meals.
I also enjoyed walking around Reykjavik and observing the lifestyle of the people. I was quite impressed with the warmth of the Icelandic people.
It was also such an honour to meet Audur Jónsdóttir, granddaughter of Halldór Laxness.
And yes, I made new friends that I’m happy to keep in touch with!
Is there anything else you think would be relevant to share with our followers?
If you can make it to Reykjavik for this retreat, please do. And go on the Literary Borgarfjörđur tour! You would be incredibly inspired by the rich, intriguing history of the Icelandic people. If you do, look out for the snowy mountains, they’re majestic.
Lola blogs creative writing news and tips at lolaopatayo.com. Her work has appeared in Obsidian and Hot Metal Bridge. She is a recipient of the Iceland Writers Alumni Award. She lives in Lagos, Nigeria where she is at work on a collection of short stories and a novel.
How did you find out about Iceland Writers Retreat originally?
I found out about this retreat in 2016. I was researching for an article about writing retreats around the world and found this mentioned in a list of the best writing retreats! I didn’t apply that year but decided to try my luck for the 2019 retreat.
What were you most looking forward to about the Retreat? How has writing influenced your life? What do you find to be your biggest challenge in your writing life?
I have always been a reader and looking back, it was obvious that the world of literature is where I belong, but this wasn’t something that happened until a few years ago. I studied science and it was only after I finished my Master’s in Computer Science and started working that I realized that I enjoy literature more. As a result, I started writing poetry and fiction only recently. Along the way, I have worked as a software engineer, a teacher, a journalist, and now am an editor. I don’t get much time to write, but when I do manage to write, I feel that I am celebrating the most beautiful aspect of life—the gift of creativity. Given my writing journey and the fact that I also love traveling, there were actually two things that I was most looking forward to about the Retreat: learning the craft of writing and visiting Iceland.
What was your favourite part of the Retreat? Were there any other highlights to your time in Iceland?
There are too many favourite parts and highlights: Starting from the first day when we went on the tour of the Golden Circle, standing at the fissure between the two tectonic plates, meeting the President, the workshops, listening to the stories by Icelandic writers during the walking tour…the list is endless! A completely unexpected bonus was the rapport and friendships I formed with the other participants; people who love books and writing and support each other, even now when we are back to our respective lives.
Are there any exercises or bits of wisdom you heard at the Retreat that you look forward to using in your writing going forward?
I learnt something from all the workshops. Maintaining a goal of certain words and finding the time to write every day, learning to analyze samples of writing, and realizing the atypical ways one can write are some of the points that have really impacted me. I hope to implement these in my writing going forward.
Is there anything else you think would be relevant to share with our followers?
I would like to share my appreciation of the organizers and volunteers for the excellent coordination and help they provided for each of us. At some point there was a lot of anxiety about travel and hotel arrangements, and I really appreciated how we were all kept in the loop, and everything was kept running smoothly. It was made to look easy, but it is an amazing feat given the number of events and people who participated!
Jonaki is a 2019 Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award winner. Her work has been published, both online and in print, in India, the US, the UK, Ireland, Italy, and Singapore. She was nominated by Zoetic Press for the 2018 Pushcart Prize for short fiction; and by Oxford Brookes Poetry Center for the 2018 Forward Prize for the Best Single Poem and was the winner of their 2017 International Poetry Contest, ESL. She has been shortlisted for multiple other awards including the 2018 Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize and the 2016 Writers’ HQ International Fiction Contest.
This year is the fourth year the Iceland Writers Retreat has offered the Alumni Award. This prestigious award is funded in by generous IWR alumni and friends. It gives its recipients full or partial funding to attend the next Retreat, which will take place April 3 to 7, 2019 in Reykjavik. The winners are chosen based on both merit and financial need, and submissions were reviewed by IWR alumni volunteers. We received over 600 applications from around the world and the quality of submissions was extremely high. Over the coming weeks, we will be posting Q&A’s with this year’s recipients of the Alumni Award, today’s with Carien Smith. You can read our Q&As with Dan Musgrave, Lola Opatayo, and Jonaki Ray on our blog.
Carien Smith is a Johannesburg-based academic and award-winning writer in both English and Afrikaans. Carien grew up in the Eastern Cape, and is currently a contract lecturer and research associate at the Department of Philosophy at the University of Johannesburg, where she has just submitted her dissertation for a Master’s Degree in Philosophy, focusing on Value Theory and the Apocalypse. She has published multiple research articles in various accredited academic journals, and has contributed to a literary theory encyclopaedia. She plans on pursuing her PhD in Climate Change Ethics and Epistemology. Her research areas include Absurdity, Value Theory, the Apocalypse, Climate Change Ethics, Epistemic Injustice, and Ecocriticism.
Carien has been a finalist for the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award twice (2016, 2018), and is elated to be a recipient of this award for 2019. In 2015 she was longlisted (6 longlistees) for the PEN International New Voices Award. She has won the AdHoc Flash Fiction competition (a Bath Flash Fiction Award project) twice (2018, 2016). In 2015 she received an Afrikoon from the ATKV (Afrikaans Language and Culture Organisation) for her contribution to Afrikaans literature and the arts. In 2009 her play titled “Formalien” was longlisted for the Nagtegaal Prize (10 longlistees). She has published multiple creative fiction pieces in books (Op die spoor van in 2017, Spreek die Woordin 2016, and Nuwe Stories 3in 2014), in newspapers, and other collaborations. Carien is also a professional member of PEN South Africa, and is currently working on finishing her debut short fiction collection, to be published by one of the top publishing houses in South Africa.
This year is the fourth year the Iceland Writers Retreat has offered the Alumni Award. This prestigious award is funded in by generous IWR alumni and friends. It gives its recipients full or partial funding to attend the next Retreat, which will take place April 3 to 7, 2019 in Reykjavik. The winners are chosen based on both merit and financial need, and submissions were reviewed by IWR alumni volunteers. We received over 600 applications from around the world and the quality of submissions was extremely high. Over the coming weeks, we will be posting Q&A’s with this year’s recipients of the Alumni Award, today’s with Jonaki Ray. You can read our Q&As with Dan Musgrave and Lola Opatayo on our blog.
Jonaki Ray was educated in India (IIT Kanpur) and the USA (UIUC), and after a brief stint as a software engineer, returned to her first love, writing. She is now a poet, editor, and writer based in New Delhi, India.
Honors for Jonaki’s writing include a 2018 Pushcart Prize nomination for fiction by Zoetic Press, and a nomination for the 2018 Forward Prize for the Best Single Poem by Oxford Brookes University Poetry Centre. She is a finalist in the 2018 Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize, and the winner of the 2017 Oxford Brookes International Poetry Contest, ESL. In 2016 she was longlisted in the Writers’ HQ International Fiction Contest and the RL Poetry Award, and shortlisted in the Oxford Brookes International Poetry Contest, ESL.
Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Southword Journal, The American Journal of Poetry, Rambutan Literary Journal, Lunch Ticket, The Matador Review, Coldnoon, Indian Literature (Sahitya Akademi), So to Speak Journal, while non-fiction essays and reviews have been published in The Wire, The Times of India, The Telegraph India, and Down to Earth, among others.
This year is the fourth year the Iceland Writers Retreat has offered the Alumni Award. This prestigious award is funded in by generous IWR alumni and friends. It gives its recipients full or partial funding to attend the next Retreat, which will take place April 3 to 7, 2019 in Reykjavik. The winners are chosen based on both merit and financial need, and submissions were reviewed by IWR alumni volunteers. We received over 600 applications from around the world and the quality of submissions was extremely high. Over the coming weeks, we will be posting Q&A’s with this year’s recipients of the Alumni Award, today’s with Lola Opatayo. You can read our Q&A with Dan Musgrave here!
Lola Opatayo holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Literature-in-English from the Obafemi Awolowo University, and an MA in Communications and Language Arts from the University of Ibadan. She works as an editor, blogger and teaches an online creative writing class- StoryCrafting. Lola has worked as a project manager with Writer’s Studio Africa. She blogs creative writing tips, news and resources at lolaopatayo.com.
Lola’s stories are centered on female reproductive, sexual and mental health issues. Her work has appeared in Obsidian. She lives in Lagos, Nigeria.