Seeing new sides of Iceland: Christer Magnusson’s experience

Seeing new sides of Iceland: Christer Magnusson’s experience

Christer Magnusson has lived in Iceland for many years, but attended the Iceland Writers Retreat for the first time this year. This is his story.

As an aspiring writer, this was my first Retreat or even writers’ conference or author meeting. I had decided to get the most out of it and I think that I really did. What perhaps was most surprising was how much I learned about Icelandic literature. Although I live in Reykjavik and have the opportunity to read the books in their mother tongue, life always seems to get in the way. To add insult to injury, the last two years I have almost entirely read historical non-fiction and dusty documents buried in archives. The Retreat was a welcome breathing pause and a way to reconnect to Icelandic fiction and indeed also to English-speaking fiction authors. I also got to see new sides of Iceland and Reykjavík and had the opportunity to meet the President.

I will forever remember the literary tour to Borgarfjörður. In the church at Reykholt the priest entertained us with stories about Snorri Sturluson and the civil war in Iceland in the 13th century. I sat in the front row and when the priest talked about the famous inheritance feud he almost stung my left eye out as he played the part of the plaintiff’s wife. Fortunately, several men rushed forward out of history, more precisely September 29th, 1180, and diverted the attack. Instead, he slit open my cheek with his hand. Now I know a bit about how it felt in that moment to be Sturla Þorðarson, Snorri’s father. Surely, I will feel the wound every time I open Óskar Guðmundsson’s biography about Snorri, one of my favorite books.


Every Retreat workshop added many things to my understanding of the writing process. In a few days, I have taken big steps towards my goal of lighting up my non-fiction writing with place and character. The only backside of the Retreat are all the books, recommended by the faculty and by participants I met, that I now have to read. I already miss the people on the Retreat. Some of them I will continue to be in contact with but others are probably lost forever. But that is the way of our lives.


Every day I felt more like I really was a writer, although all I had written during the days were conference notes. Actually, this last part is not true. In some of the workshops I also got to write small pieces of fiction and was amazed by what the faculty managed to wrench out of me. Somewhere in my subconcious there seems to be some stuff that wants to come out.


The moment when I felt most like a writer was when I presented my discount card to a young and beautiful female cashier in Eymundsson bookstore in the centre of Reykjavík. The card said in large print, “Iceland Writers Retreat” so surely somebody in the possession of such a slip of paper must be a writer. For one second I imagined that she looked upon me in awe and thought that I was a Very Important Foreign Author. Unfortunately, I addressed her in Icelandic and all the books I had chosen were Icelandic. The next moment my heart sunk as she scrutinised me and my discount card suspiciously and I felt more like a thief than a writer. Shouldn’t anybody who would claim to belong to the Retreat be a foreigner? Where had I come across this card? Anyway, she accepted it and I could walk out of the store a free man and with five more books to try to fit into my bookshelf.

I want to end with a reflection. At the Retreat, I told participants to call me Chris. Sometimes I told them that although I live in Reykjavik and now hold an Icelandic citizenship, I am from Sweden. On the Friday afternoon of the Retreat, there was a terrible incident in Stockholm. On Sunday, it was reported that one of the victims of this atrocity was a British citizen named Chris. It struck me that in the wrong cirumstances, it could have been me. Or any of us. Our only comfort is that violence is never the right way and terror will not prevail in the end. The pen is the best weapon so let’s carry on writing and do our best to make this world a better place.

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