New novel sheds light on the lives of Icelandic lesbians

Forever love (Að eilífu ástin) is the name of a new novel by Fríða Bonnie Andersen that just hit bookstores. It is Fríða’s first novel, but she has written plays and a book for children. Forever love tells the story of two lesbians in the twenties and thirties of last century, and takes place both back then and in present time through the eyes of the son of one of them and through the eyes of a deacon, who’s trans and attending the other at a nursing home.

Forever love (Að eilífu ástin), a new novel about lesbian love in the past.

The subject is new in Icelandic literature. Sure there have been lesbian protagonists in Icelandic novels before but none from that time period. Fríða Bonnie says that this story has been on her mind for years although she is not quite sure why.
“I don’t know where this story came from,” she admits. “I always wanted to know more about what it was like to live as a lesbian in Reykjavík in the first half of the last century, but when I went looking for some literature about that subject I drew a blank. There is absolutely no evidence of their lives and I found it important to shed a light on that and really try to understand and show others what it was like.”

From dreary Reykjavík to gay Paris
One of the protagonists, Elín, goes to Copenhagen to learn to be a seamstress and from there she goes all the way to Paris where she gets a job at a fashion house run by a gay designer and is thereby swept into the wild life of gays and lesbians in Paris between the two world wars. Why did Fríða decide to let a big part of the story take place in Paris?
“In those years Paris and Berlin were the hotspots of queer life and I wanted Elín to get to know that and get to understand that living with a woman was not out of the question there like it was in Iceland at that time. It’s there she discovers that she is a lesbian and even though she gets married and has a son, after she returns to Iceland she can’t deny that aspect of herself. In Reykjavík at that time no one spoke about lesbian love, except whispering about it as a juicy gossip, and a big part of the story focuses on how she and her lover, Þórhalla, find a way to make their love affair blossom – for a while at least. That was no easy task at that time.”

“In Reykjavík at that time no one spoke about lesbian love, except whispering about it as a juicy gossip.

In Paris Elín goes to women’s bars with her french lover and even attends parties in Gertrude’s Stein and Alice’s B. Toklas house where she meets famous people from that period, did Fríða do a lot of research about life of the Parisian Bohemians of that time?
“No, not a lot,” she says and shakes her head. “But I read about that period, especially those women’s club which where of course non existing in Reykjavík then. I went to Paris a few times and visited some of the bars that I describe in the book, but sadly some of them do not exist anymore.”

One of the protagonists in the present part of the story is a trans woman, Sigga, and Fríða says that the inspirations for that character came from her own family. “I based this character in some ways on my sister,” she says. “My father was American and after my mother left him and moved back to Iceland he married again and had more children. A few years ago me and my siblings went to a family reunion in America mostly to try to get to know our brother, but we were unable to locate him and his name did not exist in any published records so we were really baffled. After we came home again we found out that our brother, was  in fact our sister Vivienne and was transitioning. Her story, for example how she lost her position as a clergyman, when she went through with that took me by storm and when it became time to choose the character that Þórhalla confides in in her old age I used some aspects of Vivienne’s story to create Sigga.”

The frustration of not knowing
The other protagonist in the present time setting of the novel is Alexander, the son of Elín, who has no idea that his mother was a lesbian and is trying to fill in the gaps in her story. The development of that character came to Fríða as she herself was trying to dig up true life stories of her parents. She sayst that Alexander represents us all in not knowing what the lives of our parents were really about. “I got so frustrated trying to find some documentation on how lesbians lived at that time, that I started thinking about how hard it must be for their relatives to puzzle their stories together,” she says. “In those times if two women lived together they were always considered just friends and if they had children it must have been very bewildering to realize, maybe years later, that they were in fact lovers. That was one of the things I wanted to explore in the story and that was how the character of Alexander was born.”

“I only hope that potential readers will like the story and the characters half as much as I do, because they are really dear to me.”

Fríða herself has been an openly lesbian since the eighties and has been living with her wife for years, were there any lesbians around from the former half of last century when she was coming out?
“No, I can’t remember any,” she says. “Once I read an interview with an eighty years old lesbian, but that was years ago and I have not been able to locate any more such interviews. It’s really a well hidden part of our story so I took it upon myself to try to lift the veil on that – a little anyway.”

All the queer characters were stereotypes
None of the things Fríða has written previously has had queer characters but with Forever the love she establishes herself firmly as a queer writer. Does she think it is important to identify oneself as queer in one’s writing?
“Yes, I think so,” she says firmly. “When I started writing this story there were hardly any queer characters in novels, films or TV-shows and if there were they were all these horrible stereotypes. I didn’t identify with them at all and it was hard for a budding lesbians not to have any role models in fiction. Obviously I was not the only writer thinking about the importance of queer role models at that time and now films and TV-shows have a lot of queer characters so in a way my thunder has been stolen, but I still think my story is important and I stand by it 100 percent. I only hope that potential readers will like the story and the characters half as much as I do, because they are really dear to me.”

Having read the story I can confirm that they are really worth getting to know and the story is very well told and riveting. Grab a copy in an Icelandic bookstore and start reading today – even if you need the assistance of a dictionary to do so. It will be worth your while, I promise.

Main photo: Author Fríða Bonnie.

Á. Óskarsson
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Á. Óskarsson selur fjölbreytt vöruúrval fyrir íþróttahús, sundlaugar, skóla og leikskóla og einnig ýmsar vörur til einkaafnota. Fyrirtækið selur vörur til íþróttaiðkunnar og leikja ásamt því að bjóða upp á ýmsar lausnir fyrir íþróttamannvirki.

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