What you take from Iceland: soil the color of rust. Grey sky-hue of Hallgrimskirkja. Mountains shawling fog around their shoulders. Mustard yellows of cottages in Reykjavík. Spurt of geysers hissing up into an April afternoon. Arctic winds jostling you off your feet.
To experience such a landscape, to amble in it, to breathe its glacial air, to have it whistle its mysteries into your ear, is something that a writer can only dream of. It enlarges the imagination. Time warps in the strange spring light. ‘The end is in the beginning and lies far ahead,’ the narrator of Invisible Man says, and here you are reminded of those words. You feel as though you are at the end of time and at its beginning all at once.
As spectacular as it is, that scenery is simply a backdrop for the books. There’s the pleasure of listening to a rowdy 80 year old tell the story of her life in Hallgrímur Helgason’s Woman at a 1,000 Degrees. Debates about wickedness in ‘The Wife of Bath’ and Lolita in a workshop with Lauren Groff. Dissections of the twists and turns of narration in The Polyglot Lovers with Lina Wolff.
You leave brimming with inspiration from these conversations. Thinking about how to apply lessons to the novel you’re finishing, set in a landscape very different from the one you wander through in Iceland. A landscape on the equator, of desert dunes and swamplands and spotted cattle and temperatures that feel like a 1,000 degrees indeed.
You meet strangers who become friends. A Nigerian author who paints a gorgeous scene of a boy sitting atop an old fridge on a beach in Lagos. An Indian writer who presses little gifts from Mumbai into your hands. An American author who opens her door to you and conjures up for you the bustling alleyways of Barcelona.
And you laugh. At one reading the former mayor of Reykjavík evokes his childhood disorientation at the many strangers he meets in the Icelandic countryside who turn out to be…relatives. You laugh so hard you are in tears at this mirror-image of your own confusion as a child stumbling amongst aunts, uncles, cousins and second cousins in Sudan.
Beyond the laughter, you are reminded that each word on a page is a step that bridges the gap between yourself and other selves. Your world and other worlds. It’s why you’ve always been drawn to books. And why you are ever so grateful that they’ve set you down in Iceland, crossed you from Khartoum to Reykjavík.
Fatin Abbas was a recipient of the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award in 2018. We are currently fundraising to be able to offer this scholarship again for 2019. To contribute, click here.