The crime writer Lilja Sigurðardóttir made Icelandic history with her latest novel “The Trap” (Gildran). The main protagonist is a lesbian cocaine smuggler called Sonja, by no means your average heroine in a crime novel – or any novel, for that matter. The story of Sonja was an instant hit and the film rights have already been sold to Hollywood. Lilja has just handed in the manuscript of the sequel and she feels it is important to have queer protagonists in novels and films, maybe the most important issue in the fight for equal rights for queer people.
“We have almost no history of queer literature in Iceland,“ she says. “Of course there have been a few characters in Icelandic books that are queer but we don‘t have the genre queer literature. And come to think of it there is hardly any such genre to speak of on the international literary scene either. And in the books where queer characters do appear their reality as queer people is hardly dealt with at all, it‘s just used as a definition that they are queer but authors seldom go into their world. I want to write books where being queer is an issue, I think that‘s interesting for the readers whether they are queer themselves or not. And the reception of The Trap have confirmed that believe. People really appreciate being let into that world.”
The Trap is Lilja‘s third novel. Why didn‘t she address this issue before? „I didn‘t really feel up to it,” she admits. “I was’t sure how to handle the issue. Wanted to do it well and not dramatize it but still write about all the complications that seem to be a uninevitable part of being queer. It was no easy task but very rewarding, people are so grateful. I have felt it myself whenever there are TV series about queer people and one forces oneself to watch even if it’s total crap, just to see how it handles the queerness.”
But isn’t it an important step towards equality that the literature and entertainment industry conveys the queer experience? “I think it is, yes. Here in Iceland we queers are quite visible in different areas of society but the literature is not showing that. When I was growing up and discovering that I was a lesbian the characters in films and books that were lesbian were always very tragic or they were vampires. There were no lesbian role models. But nowadays all the rules about what you can say and how you should act as a lesbian have become much more flexible.
“When I was young I didn’t dare to grow my hair long… That was looked upon by other lesbians as trying to hide the fact that I was a lesbian. Short spiky hair, jeans, t-shirts and leather jackets was the only acceptable look for lesbians.”
When I was young I didn’t dare to grow my hair long, for example. That was looked upon by other lesbians as trying to hide the fact that I was a lesbian. Short spiky hair, jeans, t-shirts and leather jackets was the only acceptable look for lesbians. All that has changed, thank heavens, and I really think that right now is the moment to introduce lesbian, gay, trans and all kinds of queer characters to the literary world and films.”
Gay men have been much more widely presented in the entertainment industry than lesbians and Lilja says that she understands that up to a point. „The gay world is much bigger, there are more of them and of course they are males so they have that head start. Take the porn industry, for example, there‘s loads of gay porn but the porn that is presented as lesbian is all from the perspective of straight males and has little or no connection to lesbian sex in real life. I don‘t think that there is anyone making real lesbian porn for lesbians, at least I have never heard of it. Of course part of the reason for that is that unbelievably many people still believe that being a lesbian is just some phase while you are waiting to meet the right man. But I truly believe that the lesbian experience is having it‘s moment. At least I hope so.”
Although Lilja says that she is by no means the best person to talk about the current status of human rights for queer people she was active in the fight for years, having been the vice chairman of the national queer organisation Samtökin ’78 for one year and the first managing director of the organisation for a few years back in the nineties.
“It was actually more for appearances to call it a managing director,” she says laughing. “The pay was an absolute minimum but all my free time was spent at the office. Back then we were struggling to get the law on registered cohabitation through the parliament and that was a lot of work. It was a great period but as my wife was the chairman of the organisation at the same time it took a huge toll and we were so exhausted that we moved to England for two years afterwards to get away from it all and get some peace. I have not been active within the organisation since.”
Asked if she thinks the battle for equality for queer people is won Lilja thinks for a bit and then says: “No, I think it‘s far from won. Of course here in Iceland we are really privileged compared to many other countries but old people like me who remember how it used to be are always a bit sceptical that it is here to stay. I think it would not take much to drag us back into the way things used to be. That‘s why we fought so hard for the changing of the laws, back in the day, because it is much harder to rob people of human rights if they are established by law. So, no, I don‘t think the battle is won. That‘s one of the reasons I think it is so important to represent our reality in what I write. Not with some political purpose, but just to show our reality to the world. That‘s part of establishing our rights as equals to straight people.”
“Many of the issues that feminists are fighting for are even more important for queer women. Take the pay gap for example. It‘s an issue that is even more important for lesbians to get solved as it is much harder to run a household with two women‘s wages than a man‘s wage and a woman‘s wage.”
Are the feminist issues, the battle for equal rights for women, any different for lesbians than straight women? “I don‘t think so, not really. Many of the issues that feminists are fighting for are even more important for queer women. Take the pay gap for example. It‘s an issue that is even more important for lesbians to get solved as it is much harder to run a household with two women‘s wages than a man‘s wage and a woman‘s wage.
Same goes for the fight against domestic violence. It is quite as common in same-sex relationships as in heterosexual relationships, some say even more common but it‘s mostly hidden. The spotlight is always on men mistreating women but we have to draw attention to the fact that women are also mistreating women in personal relationships.
The objectification of women is maybe not as big an issue for queer women within their group but we have to fight stereotypical representation of lesbians and comments about how we look and how much sex appeal we have all the time. So, no, I don‘t think there is a difference in the issues that queer women and straight women deal with in that respect.”
But is there such a thing as a lesbian culture? We hear about the gay men’s culture all the time, their love for musicals and Eurovision etc., do lesbians as a group have something like that in common? “Football,” Lilja says and smirks. “Lesbians are wild for football. My wife even bought this huge HD TV the other day to watch the EM, she tried to tell me that the old TV was giving up but I know that was not the reason. I actually don‘t share this enthusiasms, but I try, I really try. Watch the games and try to get excited about them. But, sorry, it‘s just not my thing. I would much rather read a good book or, even better, write one. That‘s what I really like to do and that‘s what I‘m gonna keep doing in the future.”
The 19th of June marks the Women’s Rights day. In honor of that GayIceland will for the next days publish articles based on interviews with queer women.
Photos by: Halla Þórlaug Óskarsdóttir.