Eyes Wide Open and Searching for Answers
Bjork collaborator Sjón on why storytelling is important for small nations
By Yeow Kai Chai
His name may not ring a bell for most Singaporeans, but if you are an art-house film junkie and/or music buff, chances are you have already heard his words.
"I've seen it all, I have seen the trees, I've seen the willow leaves dancing in the breeze/I've seen a man killed by his best friend/And lives that were over before they were spent," goes the darkly moving theme from Lars von Trier's Palm d'Or-winning musical drama Dancer in the Dark (2000).
The song is 'I've Seen It All', with lyrics written by the Icelandic poet-novelist Sjón and Danish director von Trier, and was sung with wide-eyed gumption by Iceland's most famous export Bjork. It is delivered from the perspective of someone who is going blind, specifically the main character Selma played by the singer. The song nabbed the lyricist nominations for an Oscar and a Golden Globe.
Coincidentally, Sjón's name itself means "sight" in Icelandic. Born Sigurjon Birgir Sigurdsson, the 51-year-old Reykjavik native uses the pen name for his fiction, poetry and drama – and what a luminous body of work it is. Three of his award-winning books – the two novellas, The Blue Fox (2003) and The Whispering Muse (2005) as well as the full-length novel From the Mouth of the Whale (2008) – have recently been translated into English by Victoria Cribb and are available in a handsome midnight-blue jacket. The Blue Fox, set in 1883, is about a naturalist, a priest-hunter who is tracking a blue fox, and a young woman with Down syndrome. The Whispering Muse focuses on competing narratives of two characters in a merchant ship in 1949. From The Mouth zeroes in on Jonas the Learned, a 17th-century exile and healer who searches for the elusive bezoar – a mythical stone that could heal all ills. Melding historical fact, narrative fiction and myth, his writings are elegantly elliptical, daring and searching – much like his frequent collaborator Bjork herself.
You can see why these two make kindred spirits: these fabulists revel in the possibilities of nature, cosmos and imagination. They have an insatiable appetite for knowledge. He has written lyrics for Bjork throughout her career, including tracks such as 'Isobel', 'Joga', 'Bachelorette' and 'Oceania', the last of which was written for the opening ceremony of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. Three of his songs were featured in her 2011 album Biophilia.
A prodigy who released his first book of poetry at the age of 16, he started Iceland's first and only neo-surrealist group called Medusa, and has played in seminal bands such as the Sugacubes in the 1980s. Sjón takes time off from his packed schedule promoting his latest novel in Ireland and answers five brief questions by Yeow Kai Chai before he makes his debut at the upcoming Singapore Writers Festival.
YKC: Jonas, the protagonist of From The Mouth of the Whale, is based on the 17th-century healer Jon Gudmundsson. Do you see a parallel between his undertakings – healer, natural scientist, poet, bone-and-book carver – and the multiple hats you wear too?
S: Yes, on our small island it is important to be open to do the task at hand. One of the reasons why Icelandic culture is thriving is our willingness to work across art forms, genres and traditions, as well as trying any new thing that comes our way.
As a young poet in Reykjavik I did posters for rock concerts, gave arts workshops for children, organised a street festival, cooked at public events, was a substitute teacher and sometimes a roadie. It gets things done if one just says 'yes' when asked to help out and most of the tasks that Jonas the Learned takes on I would be ready to do as well, well, maybe not exorcism.
YKC: In a previous interview, you mentioned that for small countries like Iceland, it's crucial to attract readers through stories since you cannot assume people are interested in who you are. So, you have to rely on yourself and those stories of origin and survival to assert your identity. I am very struck by your statement, as Singapore is also a small nation – even smaller than yours in terms of geographical size. Can you elaborate on the importance of storytelling for a small country?
S: I am a strong believer in storytelling being at the core of what defines us as species. We seem to have an uncontrollable urge to swap stories, as well as keeping us civilised by calling us to compassion with our fellow men, allowing us to laugh at ourselves and to define our situation here and now and in the grand scheme of things, stories are among the most valuable social currency we have.
A small nation has nothing but its culture when it comes to asking for a seat at the international table, or around the global bonfire. It is by artful telling about who we are and where we come from that we assert that we too are fellow travellers on the planet Earth. Sometimes the stories are told in dance, sometimes in song, sometime in words on paper. But a well-told story from a far-away place will always get you respect.
YKC: You hail The Icelandic Sagas, which are prose histories of Icelandic events in the 12th and 13th centuries, as the great foundation of Icelandic literature. Can you tell us what the Sagas mean to you and Icelandic writers as source and inspiration?
S: The Sagas are one of the wonders of world literature. The best of them are great prose narratives that have all the hallmarks of the European novel as it was developed three hundred years later on the continent.
In these stories you read about families and individuals from the first days of the settlement to the Christianisation of the country in the year 1000 C.E. They are masterfully told and structured, full of wit and tragedy, love affairs and battles and the stage stretches from Iceland to Constantinople and beyond. But because they were written in the Icelandic language – which in the age of Latin is another wonder – they were lost to the world until the 17th century.
Since then, they have been praised by many people, from Goethe to Borges, and they remain a great source of inspiration for those of us who claim a special relationship with them as most of us can still read them in the original. In my case I take from them the example of mixing different genres, modes, levels of reality...
YKC: According to a 2007 study on superstition in Iceland supervised by Terry Gunnell, an associate folklore professor at the University of Iceland, most Icelanders will not discount the existence of elves and ghosts. Why is a belief in the otherworldly a part of the Icelandic psyche?
S: Because we like to live in a good and exciting story where man lives a life made complicated by forces beyond his grasp and power.
YKC: Having been to Iceland in 2011, I was awed by its remote locale as well as its natural landscape. I wonder: Does living in a island distinct from the rest of Europe make the Icelanders relish their physical isolation more, or hanker to be a part of the world? How has the physical and emotional distance from the mainland fed into the country's sense of identity?
S: A person living on an island tends to see the ocean as a road but not a wall. And we grow up with the notion that should we need something from the big world we just go there and fetch it. So, our history is one of people who are never afraid of testing their home-grown culture and beliefs with the new ideas and tricks someone brings home from abroad. It also gives us a sense of security and the peace needed to use our freshly discovered foreign tools to forge something truly unexpected and exciting from our heritage.
Sjón will appear at the following programmes at the Singapore Writers Festival. On Nov 9, he is featured in a literary meal, Eat Your Words with Sjón, at Barber Shop, The Arts House from 1pm-2pm; a panel discussion on Nordic Lights – An Introduction to Nordic Literature, at The Salon, National Museum from 4pm-5pm; and a panel discussion on Nordic Poetry, at the same venue from 5.30pm-6.30pm. On Nov 10, he will take questions at a post-film dialogue after a screening of Dancer in the Dark at the Moving Image Gallery, at SAM-8Q, from 10am-1.30pm. Some events will need a Festival pass. For information, please go to the SWF website.QLRS Vol. 12 No. 4 Oct 2013