I’ll never forget my first visit to Iceland. From the moment my plane landed, it was love at first sight. The stunning, stark landscapes aside, it was pure fluke that I arrived at the beginning of Pride Week, and downtown Reykjavik was awash in rainbow-coloured pennants and banners. The country’s prime minister was the world’s first openly LGBT head of state, who’d married her girlfriend as soon as same-sex marriage became legal. By day, the city mayor marched in drag; by night, breathtakingly talented all-female poetry collectives slammed their lines on stage in dusky cafes.
To judge from surface impressions such as these, the lovely island nation presents as a progressive utopia. So it’s useful that books like Miss Iceland exist to remind us of the bigotry and harassment lurking beneath the surface; the micro-aggressions perpetuating sexism and homophobia which lie not far beneath the civilized facade of even the most progressive-seeming nations.
To be honest, we need few reminders of the slow pace of progress. Just recently, a United Nations study of 75 countries revealed a shocking 90% of people are biased against women. Globally acclaimed feminist icons like New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern are struggling for re-election at home, while the United States is hurtling toward the Stone Age on reproductive rights, with looming Supreme Court challenges to rights won by women almost five decades ago. The gender wage gap has only shrunk by about 20 percent in the past half century (and that’s going by the most generous estimates). If you’re like most intelligent people, your head must be constantly spinning trying to understand what is wrong with the world.
The genius of Miss Iceland is that it uses an elegant fictional narrative to establish in literary form a continuity between the sexist ’60s and the present day. The Guardian describes the contemporary trend as a “global backlash towards gender equality”. Miss Iceland, by contrast, reminds us that what this really reveals is the infinitesimal pace of change, as slow and ponderous as an Icelandic glacier.
Miss Iceland is set in the 1960s, but much of the sexism experienced by its protagonists will be sorely familiar to contemporary readers. The period setting allows its author — award-winning novelist, playwright, poet and art history professor Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir — to achieve a delicate and clever balance. The book pokes fun at the past in that wry manner which reminds readers that yes, men’s behaviour has been ridiculous through much of history, and now that we’re all in on the joke it’s hard to take the men of the past seriously. But this is a double-bladed in-joke; if modern men were truly honest, many of them would recognize themselves in these pages as well.
Those who might think the author chose the easy way out – setting her novel in the ’60s, so as not to disturb the sensibilities of contemporary ‘woke’ men – would be mistaken. The book’s setting does more to reveal how little we’ve in fact progressed over the past half century. Film portrayals of ’60s-era sexism allow men to distance themselves from their sexist forebears – those garish horn-rimmed glasses; the heinous haircuts; the moustaches which are either thick enough to sweep a floor with or so thin they look like they were run through a pencil sharpener; all these serve as constant visual cues in film and on screen to remind us this is the past. We’ve evolved.
But in the stark, splendid prose of Miss Iceland, the most obvious reminders we’re in the past are material in nature: the constant clacking of the protagonist’s typewriter; the lack of cellphones and ubiquity of handwritten mail. Men themselves, stripped down to their sexist core, seem not so different after all despite the span of six decades. The male poets who gather nightly in the cafes and bars to pose and posture seem little different from 21st century hipster bros.
Miss Iceland is centred around Hekla, a young woman who has just moved to the capital of Reykjavik to seek her fortune as a writer. But despite her talent — four published poems, two short stories in print, and two novel-length manuscripts submitted to publishers, all under pseudonyms of course – the men she encounters, publishers included, are more interested in getting her to enter the local beauty contest.
The sparse prose of the book is one of its best qualities. The uniquely constructed narrative flows quickly, lightly. It may seem trite to forever be comparing modern Icelandic literature to Viking sagas, but there is an epic saga-like quality to the prose. Although a linear, coherent narrative emerges, the text is sub-divided into short passages with pompous headings. Characters speak in declamations of poetic profundity, sparse as the landscape yet potent with meaning.
Despite the book’s quick pace and light touch, its characters are fully formed and richly portrayed. Isey, Hekla’s friend from childhood, shared her literary aspirations growing up but wound up meeting a man, marrying, and having children. She and Hekla remain loyal friends but their exchanges underscore in poignant detail how marriage and motherhood have curtailed Isey’s opportunities. A loyal friend with a poetic soul, she’s reduced to living vicariously through Hekla’s free and literary life. Her ambivalence about this fate expresses itself palpably.
“It’s so much work being with a small child, Hekla. We’re together all week, all day long and also at night when Lydur is away doing road work in the east. I didn’t know it would be so wonderful to be a mother. Having a baby has been the best experience of my life. I’m so happy. There’s nothing missing in my life. Your letters have kept me alive. I’m so lonely. Sometimes I feel like I’m a terrible mother. Then my mind is elsewhere when Thorgedur is trying to attract my attention. I’m so scared of something happening to her. You can never let a child out of your sight…The best time of the day is when Thorgedur is asleep in her pram in the morning and I make some coffee and read…”
Hekla’s other best friend, David Jon John Johnsson (Jon), is an important character in his own right. A gay man in a world where homophobia is still illegal and institutionalized, Jon suffers his own form of societal oppression. He yearns to make clothes and work in theatre but can only find work on fishing boats, where he’s hounded and harassed for his queerness. The two find solace in their friendship, which is portrayed in beautiful and endearing detail.
Apart from Jon, all the male characters of the novel are shrouded in various forms of sexism. Hekla’s boyfriend Starkadur is an aspiring poet who feels threatened both by her close friendship with Jon (even though he knows that he’s gay) as well as her prodigious literary talent (when he discovers the writing that she first hides from him). Yet these men are not evil in the sense we usually think of villains – they’re simply blinded by their own privilege, lost in a fog of self-indulgent misogyny. And they’re redeemable. In the end, Starkadur’s meek acceptance of Hekla’s superior talent and independent lifestyle is what opens the door to his redemption, both as a man in her life as well as a writer.
Olafsdottir uses Hekla’s matter-of-fact dedication to her writing to remind us that women have rarely had the luxury throughout history to grandstand and posture like men. While she stays home to write through the night, Starkadur and his male poet friends gather in their cafes and bars to trade lines and vie for literary dominance. Hekla is neither accepted by their circle, nor – except briefly upon her arrival – does she seek it. Instead of wasting her time seeking their acceptance, while they jostle and joust and drink she perseveres alone at home on her typewriter, pouring out page after page.
Her boyfriend goes to immense, performative effort to reorganize his life around his writing, changing jobs and restructuring his day in order to maximize opportunities to write. But despite all this, the words simply don’t come. Hekla, on the other hand, holds down two jobs, and manages to eke out pages on her typewriter during whatever spare time her own constrained life offers. She doesn’t lament or complain like the other poets about not having time to write; she has a matter-of-fact awareness that daily survival requires her to both work (in far more trying and sexist environments than the male poets) as well as find time to write. She simply does it. Her success is a resounding refutation of the masculine writing culture in which “bro-ets” gather and drink and lament while collectively policing their mutual lack of achievement. There’s a lesson here for contemporary writers, no doubt.
Hekla is no hapless victim. She’s fully aware of both the virulent sexism of her society and the ridiculousness of the patriarchy it serves. She pursues her path with confidence, matter-of-factly dealing with the barriers in her way. She possesses an inner calm that is at odds with her volcanic namesake, but offers readers an inspirational example of a woman who knows what she wants – whether it’s a man in her life for a few months, or eight hours a day for writing – and pursues her desires with neither doubt nor apology.
Secondary characters are just as rich despite their brief appearance. Hekla’s father is obsessed with volcanoes (he named her after one, in spite of her mother’s pleas to the contrary) and whenever a new one erupts (which in Iceland is frequent) he drops everything to go watch. A stolid traditional farmer, his faith in his daughter’s literary ability and steadfast support is touching. But even he is marked by the patriarchy, as revealed in Hekla’s mother’s opening monologue. Her husband named Hekla without consulting her, and consigned the family to a farming life in a countryside she hates.
It is Hekla who escapes. The book is searing in its portrayal of sexism and misogyny, but it is about escape, too. All the characters seek escape. Isey sought escape in a man from Reykjavik, but is now trapped in a basement apartment with children. Jon seeks escape from bigotry and discrimination in his sewing; Hekla in her writing. Eventually metaphorical escapes are not enough: Jon plots his escape from Iceland to mainland Europe. When he finally makes it to Denmark he discovers that although there are clubs where men dance together, they are still raided by Danish police. And so he hits the road again – constantly seeking escape from the small-minded bigotry which then, like now, is the greatest barrier to the happiness of good people.
Miss Iceland is a beautiful book. It is at once a poetic, light-hearted narrative filled with endearing characters; and yet also a sharply edged social critique that is caustic and righteous in its portrayal of the enduring nature of sexism, misogyny and homophobia. Above all, it leaves the reader feeling buoyed and optimistic, despite the serious and oppressive nature of its subject matter. It’s a powerful portrayal of a woman’s struggle for freedom in the 1960s, but its true lesson is for the present, as a gorgeously crafted reminder of the tenacious nature of discrimination and hate, and the determination and commitment that is often required to overcome it.
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