Queer literature in Iceland may not have been prominent in the past, but it has always been there, according to Úlfhildur Dagsdóttir, project manager at Reykjavik City Library. Nine years ago she led the first walking tour through Reykjavik focusing on queer literature. She says the tours appeals just as much to the average literary people, as it does to those interested in queer matters.
Since then, Úlfhildur has led a number of similar walks. “Some of them have been a part of the literary walking tour program with the library, but I‘ve also been asked to do tours on my own in relation to Reykjavík pride.“
Icelanders pride themselves with being a literary nation, with more books published per capita than anywhere else. Since 2003, the Reykjavik City Library has offered themed literary walks around the city. In 2006, it just so happened that a planned walk was supposed to happen during Pride.
“We thought it was a great opportunity to put together a tour with a queer theme,“ Úlfhildur recalls. “And that‘s what we did, basically.
We then repeated the walk a few months later, due to demand, and a couple of years later the tour date was on Reykjavík Pride again so we did another walk.“
Moving through the settings of literary text that have a queer connection, the texts are read out loud at the appropriate location, often with lively discussion following.
“The walks take about an hour and a half. Up until now we have done three or four versions in Icelandic and one version in English. They all have some overlaps, but because we know some people come again and again, we try to include something new every time. On the other hand, there are always new people as well, so most often we would include the classics, like Guðbergur Bergsson‘s Tormented love (i. Sú kvalda ást […], 1993),“ Úlfhildur explains.
Of the 8 or 10 stops in each walk, most of them are easily recognizable locations in central Reykjavik. “We stop by Ingólfstorg square for Elías Mar‘s Lullaby (i. Vögguvísa, 1950) and so on, but sometimes the text doesn‘t provide a specific location. For example in Tormented love, by Guðbergur, the setting is just some basement apartment in downtown Reykjavik. And with Felix Bergsson‘s play, The Perfect Equal (i. Hinn fullkomni jafningi, 1999), we stop at any given theatre. On occasions like this, we try to find a fitting place to suit the text,“ Úlfhildur says.
With the optimum group size for each walk being no larger than 40 or 50 people, Úlfhildur and her colleagues have entertained up to 100 people in one go. “I prefer the smaller groups, so the whole thing doesn‘t become too blurry – or just a distant rant.“
To make sure the text is done justice, actors, writers or even the authors themselves read to the guests. But what constitutes a queer literary text?
“It was actually a little strange to look for material for these walks, as their main focus is the literary texts. Often you would talk about love stories and then try to find a description that clearly entail something gay or queer, and quite often that would leave you stranded with only the sex scenes,“ Úlfhildur explains.
“So this was a little more complicated than I had thought, but there is certainly no shortage of material. We do not focus on texts by queer authors alone, but also include other texts with queer-related content.
To name a few examples we have read from Vígdís Grímsdóttir‘s Z: A Love Story (i. Z: Ástarsaga, 1996), several books by Kristín Ómarsdóttir, Sjón‘s Night of Steal (i. Stálnótt, 1987), Málfríður Einarsdóttir‘s Rásir dægranna (1986), Arnaldur Indriðason‘s Betty (i. Bettý, 2003), Jónína Leósdóttir‘s books for teenagers and the ancient Njáls Saga.“
According to Úlfhildur, the guests that attend the walks are no less the average literary enthusiasts then they are interested in queer matters per se, as is the case with queer literature in general.
“Some find queer literature exciting and new and often it provides the reader with a new outlook on both the community and literature. Some may find interest in it because they want to educate themselves, maybe they suddenly have a queer relative or simply want to be familiar with this world image.
For myself, this different view of the world is exciting to read. And it applies to everything, including how the characters and plot are created. The old texts have their own charm because everything had to be coded, but now when everything is out in the open it has brought out a certain freshness.“
If you are interested, you can order a guided literary walk with a queer theme by contacting Úlfhildur.
For individuals or smaller groups that would rather do it on their own, you can also download an app with literary walking tours around Reykjavík.
It might also interest you to know that Reykjavík City Library houses the „Queer library“, originally collected by The National Queer Organization (i. Samtökin ’78), and every now and then pulls together a list of notable queer books and movies available for rent.
Now go take a hike!
Main photo courtesy of Reykjavík UNESCO City of Literature.