The Queer reading group will be meeting on December 17th at 7pm at the center of the National Queer Organization, Samtökin ‘78, at Suðurgata 3 in Reykjavík, where they are going to talk about the book Bettý by Arnaldur Indriðason. One of the organisers Ásta Kristín Benediktsdóttir, talked to GayIceland about what they have been up to and discussed the state of queer Icelandic literature today.
“The atmosphere is casual and relaxed, or at least we try to keep it that way. Sometimes one of the members or a special guest introduces the book and the author before we start the chat, sometimes we just dive in,“ says Ásta when describing a typical night at the club. “We emphasise that everyone gets the chance to talk and participate if they want to, and there are no stupid questions or comments. Everyone is welcome to join us – if they like to read and talk about books!“
What kind of literature have you been reading so far and how do you decide which books to read?
“We read one book or text a month, and the reading list has been quite diverse – novels, novellas, short stories, memoirs, poetry etc.,“ she explains. “The texts we have read are all in Icelandic, but there is no policy behind that. The group decides collectively what is read, and if the people who show up and participate in forming the reading list are interested in reading texts in English, or something else than fiction and memoirs, we will do that. The only criteria I think we will always follow is that the text is somehow related to queer experience.“
“…queer characters, especially characters who are attracted to the same gender, now quite often appear as supporting characters and a part of the background …“
The group was founded eight months ago. How did it come about?
“Guðjón, one of the organisers of the group, believed Samtökin needed to appeal to a broader range of people, so he just came up with the idea to form a literary group and pushed it forward. María Helga, the chair of Samtökin, was all in and they contacted me and asked me to join them. I said yes, of course, because I love discussing books with other people and I thought a platform like this was a very good idea.“
Ásta also tells us that this is not the first time she takes part in turning one of Guðjón’s great ideas into reality, because she has already participated in forming a reading group with him in the past.
“Ten years ago, while I was doing my BA in Icelandic studies, he tricked me and a few others into organizing a reading group with elderly people in one of the community centers. It turned out to be one of the most fun things I’ve ever done; we met a very nice group of people regularly for a few years and talked about all kinds of books,“ she recalls. “So now I just do whatever Guðjón tells me to do, it’s usually worth it,“ she adds in jest.
In December, you will be reading Bettý, a suspenseful detective novel by Arnaldur Indriðason. What interested the group about the book and why did you choose to read it?
“I can’t really say much about the book or why we chose it without spoiling it for those who haven’t read it. So let’s just say it will be a very interesting read.“
What about queer Icelandic literature in general, what is the state of it today?
“I think – and this is just a feeling because nobody has really looked into it – that we have seen a ‘wave’ of secondary queer characters and themes in the past 10 years or so. What I mean is that queer characters, especially characters who are attracted to the same gender, now quite often appear as supporting characters and a part of the background – a friend of the main character has two dads, the neighbors are lesbians, and so on,“ Ásta explains. “This is of course very positive and shows that our society has changed and writers now include same-sex couples when they build a setting for their stories. But I don’t know if we can say that this is queer literature, because most of the texts that I have in mind don’t really deal with the queerness (or gayness), they just place it in the background.“
What about Icelandic literature that actually deals with queer issues then?
“If we define queer literature as books that actually deal with queer issues, the ‘state’ of it is still quite poor, in the sense that it does not include a large number of titles, but it’s improving. We have the ‘queer canon,’ books by Vigdís Grímsdóttir, Kristín Ómardóttir and Guðbergur Bergsson from the 1990s and 2000s, and I can also mention recent books like Mánasteinn by Sjón, Lilja Sigurðardóttir’s crime trilogy, Jónína Leósdóttir’s teen novels, and poetry and stories by writers such as Ingunn Snædal, Elías Knörr, Eva Rún Snorradóttir and Júlía Margrét Einarsdóttir. And then of course all the books that I haven’t read but lie waiting for me on my desk …“