New books on queer women – “There are many stories not being told”

New queer novels shed light on life in the closet and violence in a relationship between two women.

“There are many stories not being told,” say fellow authors Sólveig Johnsen and Anna Stína Gunnarsdóttir who have just released their first solo novels. GayIceland met up with Sólveig and Anna to talk about their brand new books that both center around queer women and the challenges they face – today and in the past -, life in and out of the closet and the second MeToo wave that is currently sweeping through Iceland.

So first question. Your publishing party is taking place at Loft Hostel at 3 o’clock P.M. today, how do you feel about that? Are you stressed or excited?
Anna: “I’m soooo nervous! This is the first time I publish something as a solo author and the stress has been overwhelming at times. But it will all be worth it to see people reading and talking about my book, that’s what this is all about after all.”

Sólveig: “A bit of both! I am absolutely terrified but at the same time very proud of this big accomplishment and excited to share it. Hopefully we get a lot of queer readers!”

Why did you guys decide to team up and host a party together?
Sólveig: “Well, our cooperation began through Blekfjelagið, the society of creative writing students at the University of Iceland, and also through our publisher. That’s how we were introduced to one another and we quickly realized that our books both center around queer women, so releasing the books as a “double trouble” queer extravaganza was the obvious choice.”

Anna: “Yeah, I didn’t really know Sólveig before, apart from being queer writers we have very little in common, but it’s been great having this safety net instead of going out into the writing world all on my own. And of course we’ve gotten to know each other as this adventure has progressed, so I’m proud to call her my “publishing sister” today.”

“The current MeToo wave represents how frustrated we are with a society and legal system that STILL don’t listen to us, even after the first MeToo wave, other hashtag-based movements and social activism …”

Anna, your book Dagbókin (The Diary) is about a woman who discovers her aunt lived her life in the closet. Is the book based on actual events?
“Not at all. Everything in the book is fiction, even the place where most of it happens. There are a lot of reasons for this, mostly because there is simply no written evidence of women being queer at the time, but also because people who lived this time are still alive today, and LGBT matters are still a sensitive subject in some communities. Of course queer people have always existed, and even been open about their love for each other to a select few, but the evidence of this is anecdotal at best. What I wanted to do was to write about a person who is like me, but living in a different time, to try to imagine what that life would have been like.”

Authors to watch out for: Sólveig Johnsen and Anna Stína Gunnarsdóttir. All photos / Eva Ágústa Aradóttir

Do you think the closet is still an issue for many women (and people in general) in this day and age?
“There are many closets and we’re continually coming out of them throughout our lives. Every time I start working in a new place or meet someone new I have to start by telling them I live with a woman, because most of our society is so heteronormative that people just assume everyone’s heterosexual until they come out. So we don’t create the closets, society does.

Nevertheless, coming out is getting easier and for the younger generations especially closets are a thing of the past, so I think we have a bright future ahead of us where coming out will not be necessary anymore.”

What about your book Sólveig, Merki (Signs), can you tell us more about it?
“My main protagonist, Saga, falls head over heels for a woman she meets at a bar, and is so infatuated with her and with the new relationship that she completely ignores the bright red flags that soon start to appear. It’s a book about toxic relationships but also about friendship, being an adult but not knowing what to do with it, and living in a queer bubble in Reykjavík. A lot of the events happen downtown, before everything changed because of Covid, so in a way the story also commemorates a bygone era in Reykjavík nightlife.”

Your book deals with violence in a relationship between two women. What inspired you to write about that?
“I often feel that the general public doesn’t realize or acknowledge that queer relationships are sometimes toxic, just like cis-hetero relationships, and that queer people are not by default all happy and healthy just because they managed to “come out”. Anyone can get stuck in unhealthy and codependent patterns and abuse can happen within relationships of any kind.

“Violence isn’t limited to any one kind of relationship, or gender, or sexual orientation. I think there are many stories not being told.”

Some of the inspiration for the story came from my own experiences, even though all characters and events are pure fiction, and I feel that as a person that has dealt with their fair share of toxicity and abuse this is a topic that I know well. The feelings in the book are very real and I suspect that readers of all genders and sexual orientations will relate to them.”

On that note there has been a huge discussion about violence in Iceland for the past days and we are currently experiencing what seems to be a second wave of the MeToo revolution. Why do you think that is, Sólveig? And do you think this wave will be more powerful than the last one?
“From my perspective, the current MeToo wave represents how frustrated we are with a society and legal system that STILL don’t listen to us, even after the first MeToo wave, other hashtag-based movements and social activism such as Druslugangan. After sharing an overwhelming amount of triggering and intimate stories and coming forward with our personal traumas, the reputations of perpetrators are STILL valued above the lives of those who have been abused.

This time around I hope that more men participate in the movement, both with their own stories and as allies, and that people in general start to see this as a problem that belongs to the whole society, not to a “small group of victims”. We all must do our part!”

There seems to be this general notion that the last wave of MeToo revolution didn’t have as much impact as many people had hoped. Anna, do you think this new wave will?
“Wow, I sure hope so. The biggest problem today is that victims are not listened to and taken seriously, especially within the legal system and that desperately needs to change. Sexual violence ruins lives and it’s about time that perpetrators see that there are consequences to their actions.”

Merki (Signs) is Sólveig’s first “solo book”. “I have published short stories in various publications, most notably in the book Það er alltaf eitthvað which was released in 2019 by Blekfjelagið. I also wrote the screenplay for a very exciting new web series, Norms, which will be released on Stöð2+ and on YouTube in June. (Not so) coincidentally, Norms is also a story centered around queer women.”

Talking about violence, here has been a previous discussion about the fact that violence in LGBTIQplus relationships can often be more hidden than in other relationships, do you agree with that Sólveig?
“I think abuse in relationships is very hidden in general and many behaviours are unfortunately normalized in popular culture, especially when it comes to mental abuse. But in regard to queer relationships specifically it is very seldom discussed and often people forget that violence isn’t limited to any one kind of relationship, or gender, or sexual orientation. I think there are many stories not being told.”

Anna: “I totally agree. When I first read Sólveig’s book I was shaken, because many of the themes in it are so familiar. I myself have been in these situations, and so have the people around me. I really felt like Sólveig had gotten into my head, which is a good thing, because it means she is writing about reality that needs to be talked about to be dealt with properly.”

Do you think we are likely to see this second wave of MeToo sweep through the LGBTQIplus community?
Sólveig: “Queer people, especially women, are participating in the MeToo movement and I can only hope that even more people speak up. Violence against marginalized groups within the queer community is also a well-known problem and in my opinion we should be louder about that, inside and outside of the MeToo movement.

For example we should all put efforts into making trans people safe ALWAYS, and we don’t need more stories to prove the need for that. But I suspect there are diverse stories within the queer community and that a queer-specific MeToo wave could be a possibility.”

“To come out and openly admit that our relationships are not perfect is scary to some people because they’re afraid that all our relationships will be labeled as unhealthy and we will therefore lose all the great work that’s been done by the queer rights movement.”

Anna: “I honestly couldn’t say. LGBTQI people are still facing a lot of discrimination, and to come out and openly admit that our relationships are not perfect is scary to some people because they’re afraid that all our relationships will be labeled as unhealthy and we will therefore lose all the great work that’s been done by the queer rights movement. So it really depends on the individual people how this will turn out.

But what’s important about the MeToo movement is to come out with your truth, tell your own story and make sure that everyone knows that sexual violence is an unfortunate reality and needs to be dealt with, no matter who the perpetrator is. We need to work on our boundaries, wherever they might be, to live life as healthier individuals, no matter our gender identity or sexual orientation.”

Sólveig, do you think your book might be a contribution to that discussion?
“For sure. I am bringing forward a real perspective and some very real emotions. I hope the story sheds light on how toxic relationships can seem totally regular on the surface and how innocently such problems can start.”

Anna Stína has had short stories, poems and flash fiction published in several student publications, most organized by Blekfjelagið, the creative writing student society. Dagbókin (The Diary) is the first work she has published as a solo writer. “In 2018 I took a course at the University of Iceland, where creative writing students and publishing students got together and published a book from scratch. It was a great learning opportunity, and if people are interested, I still have a few copies available for sale. The book is called Hljóð Bók and has its own page on Facebook.”

What about you Anna, do you think your book could help readers who are still closeted and are afraid to come out?
“I hope so! But to those people, I would also like to say that it’s OK to be in the closet. Coming out is such a personal thing and some people are just not comfortable doing it. There’s no shame in that.

We also tend to forget that some people live in situations where coming out is just not safe for them, so I think it’s really important to take that into account.

So stay safe, and if you can come out, we will be there for you, but by all means do it in your own way and your own time. Your life is your own, and nobody should be able to tell you how to live it.”

Finally, where will people be able to buy your books?
Anna: “Hopefully everywhere! There will of course be copies for sale at the party, and after that we intend to distribute to all the major bookstores, as well as the libraries. I would like to invite people to put themselves in contact with us, so if they don’t see our books somewhere they usually buy books, we can remedy that. And of course, people are more than welcome to contact us directly to buy the books, it’s a much more lucrative option for us.”

For those who are interested in going to the publishing party, the party will bet held at the café on the top floor of Loft Hostel at 3 o’clock P.M. today, Wednesday the 12th of May. According to Sólveig and Anna everyone is welcome, as long as there’s space.

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