Natalia Sylvester published a fantastic essay on Writer Unboxed:

As an immigrant and a Latina whose recent novel deals with family sacrifice, love, generational trauma, secrets, marriage, adolescence, borders, and immigration, I’m often told things like my novel is very timely, or that the topic of immigration is very relevant right now. I’ve lived my whole life as an immigrant; to me and millions like me, immigration is not a “topic” but a lived experience. We cannot separate politics from our lives because our whole lives there have been policies in place that affect us. […]

In stories like mine, in a time and setting where the current (and historical) politics obstruct and oppress the lives of the Latinx immigrant communities I’m writing about, the political becomes more visible. It is a force that we do not have the privilege, as much as we’d want to, of ignoring. Even if I were to write a fun, “non-political” story that makes for an escapist read, it’d be difficult to do so authentically because my existence as a woman of color and immigrant is politicized in the world we live in.

I am a white cis man. So far, so good. But I am also an atheist gay man raised in a very strict Catholic country where being different is very rarely an advantage. I refused to remain in the closet, didn’t attend mass or religion classes at school. It was enough to become a polarising figure, accused of pushing an extreme agenda. The price I paid for being openly gay (as opposed, I suppose, to people who are openly straight) was high – I lost contact with a large part of my family. The reason? Wanting to bring my boyfriend to a family celebration. When my cousins brought their girlfriends, that was normal. When I wanted to bring my significant other, it was made very clear to me that it was okay for me to be gay – but only where nobody could see me.

A few years ago I happened to be in Poland in time for a rally demanding legalisation of registered partnerships – not even the most extreme of activists dared to demand same-sex marriage at that time. Since I was very open about my sexuality on my Polish blog, I was called onstage without any prior warning. I gave a short impromptu speech, in which I said that in Poland I was “a gay man”, while in the Netherlands I was a person. This was shocking enough to put me in a newspaper. But even though here in Amsterdam I am a person, I still check who is around before I hold my husband’s hand. Because even here, even in 2018 this puts both of us at danger. We’re flaunting, pushing our sexuality down people’s throats, think of the children. We’re holding hands.

Committing a political act either before or after I was called onstage

 

The default people

A default person is a white cis straight man following the mainstream religion of the country he lives in. He was born in that country, and sees himself as a patriot. Being the default brings along a lot of what is essentially political privilege. And the default people don’t want to lose it. Women are great to play girlfriends, wives, daughters, secretaries. They get spoken parts, in which they talk about men. In the first “Thor” movie, directed by Kenneth Branagh, Natalie Portman plays a badass scientist. In the second, she mostly shrieks and faints. I didn’t watch the third one, so can’t comment on that.

Look at the reaction to the all-female “Ghostbusters”, “Wonder Woman”, “Ocean’s 8”, “Black Panther”. Despite the fact that default people are represented everywhere all the time – pop music, movies, TV, billboards, adverts, books, you name it – they feel threatened by anything that doesn’t confirm their view of the world. An Asian actress is shunned, because “Asians are not expressive enough”, therefore she can’t play an Asian woman (!?!?!?!?) and a white woman must step in. Margaret Cho was told she was too fat to play herself. It all boils down to the idea that default people should have a monopoly on being represented. Blockbuster movies featuring gay men (“Brokeback Mountain”), people of colour, women in all leading roles are all considered shocking, ground-breaking, and political. If I have one thing to say about “Brokeback Mountain”, it’s that once you stop thinking of gay cowboys as scandalous taboo topic it’s a rather boring movie. The director managed to make it just scandalous enough for people to watch it. Casting two very popular white cis straight male actors helped, I suppose. It also got them lauded for their courage.

Back in Poland I was regularly told to “go to Holland where perverts like you belong”. I emigrated, and never looked back. I was accepted without any problems, assigned a knowledge migrant visa, later applied for citizenship and received it. This didn’t make me a Dutch person. It made me an immigrant from Poland with Dutch citizenship. I feel very lucky, grateful, but also still resentful towards a country where it is completely acceptable to tell me straight to my face that I am unwanted. I’ve experienced violence – verbal, emotional, physical – because of the political fact of holding my boyfriend’s hand in public. Even during that rally in Poland we, the Dutchies, seemed to be the only couple holding hands. I originally wrote that my life was never in danger, but then I remembered the death threat I received because of what I write on my Polish blog. Specifically, because I don’t hide the fact I am gay.

Just married (photo: Gerardo Viviers)

“What will children think when they see two men kissing?” is just one way of saying “you’re not really human”. Back in Poland a prominent politician said once that there is no discrimination against queer people, because any gay man can marry a woman whenever he likes. Another pointed out that she never noticed any discrimination against gay and lesbian people. (She is straight.) I was accused of “flaunting my sexuality” and “pushing it down our children’s throats”, as if all children were straight. As if we, as children, were not constantly having heterosexuality pushed down our throats. Why is it so easy to forget heterosexuality is also a sexual orientation? That white is also a colour? (I have a grudge against the phrase “people of colour” for this reason, while reluctantly accepting there’s no better expression to use at this time.)

“Diversity” is a buzz word in 2018. “Representation”, “own voices”, you name it. This doesn’t change the fact that a woman of colour is being told by her white editor that she (the author) doesn’t know how to write a character of colour correctly. (My apologies for not being able to provide a source – perhaps tellingly my attempts to locate the original article led me to…4chān.) That Natalia Sylvester is accused of pushing a political agenda – and, at the same time, asked why her novels are not more political. That when I said on that stage that I wanted to be treated like a person without putting me in a rainbow-coloured box and shutting the lid it proved to be controversial enough to warrant an article in the biggest newspaper in Poland. I take issue with the word “diversity” as well, because it creates another divide: default people versus diverse people. As if non-whites, non-straights, non-*insert dominant religion in your country* were some sort of “diversity tokens”, political simply because they – we – exist in public.

A while ago I noticed that I stopped reading novels written by default people for default people. It wasn’t a political act either. It was seemingly a coincidence that continued until I realised my top five novels of 2017 were all written by women, not all of them white or straight either. I never picked a book thinking “this will be good, because a woman/PoC/gay man wrote it”. I believe I just got tired of the default viewpoint. It truly has been pushed down my throat for decades, together with explanation that it’s good for me, and attempts to convince me there was no other perspective.

I am both exhilarated and upset by the fact “Black Panther” was such an enormous hit and generated so many headlines. “Black Panther” finally gave on-screen representation to people of colour, for once not cast just as “token blacks” to show “our commitment to diversity”. When the makers of “Doctor Strange” were accused of whitewashing due to the fact Tilda Swinton was cast in a role written for an Asian man, they responded:

Both director Scott Derrickson and writer Jon Spaihts have defended Swinton, rationalizing that casting a woman in the role of a man was already a diversity choice.

Very recently casting of Scarlett Johansson as a trans man sparked controversy. Johansson herself fails to understand the problem. This was her statement:

Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment.

She feels personally attacked and singled out. It doesn’t look like Scarlett Johansson realises what the problem even is. She is a white, straight, cis woman, who already played a Japanese character, because – I suppose – there just aren’t any Japanese actors? (The movie, “Ghost in the Shell”, bombed at the box office.) The very idea that perhaps the role of a trans man could be given to a trans man is a shocking political statement. As if the filmmakers were not already being so brave and supportive by even making a movie about a trans man at all! Below a photograph of the man Johansson will be playing:

Nobody is saying Scarlett Johansson shouldn’t ever play any leading role again. Nobody is saying she is not talented. The movie industry didn’t suddenly stop offering acting opportunities to white actors. Despite the success of “Black Panther” I don’t expect that five years from now all superheroes will be disabled black lesbians (as was sarcastically suggested when the idea of Idris Elba playing James Bond started floating around). But disabled black lesbians exist. So do gay atheists born in Poland. Trans male actors. Immigrants. Gay Muslims. You wouldn’t know that from popular culture. But yes, we do exist, and we don’t think about ourselves as “diversity representatives”. We think about ourselves as people. I hope to see the day when that doesn’t seem shocking.

Just married (photo: Dorota Kozerska)

I am currently in Reykjavík, Iceland. The sky is fully covered by clouds, which doesn’t stop us from hoping to see Northern lights just one more time before we depart. Yes. I’m greedy like that.

 

But how did all this happen?

It all started with a dream I had many years ago. I dreamt of a fishing village, where three brothers – one of whom was a pastor – fell in love with the same woman. There was more to the dream, of course. Blood, gore, fire, drama, and that final scene where the pastor confesses his sins to all the parishioners, and gets chased out of town, as the church burns in the distance.

It was the most cinematic dream I’ve ever had. It was also, frankly, quite ridiculous. Entertaining, but ridiculous. So I thought I would forget about it, same as all my dreams before, but I didn’t. I carried it in my head for years. Every now and then I would see or hear something, and then be reminded of the dream. My writer’s mind – I’ve been writing since I was 7, blogging for 15+ years with thousands of readers who followed me when I moved on – kept on adding and removing details. Expanding on them. It became one of my multiple “yeah this might become a novel one day, I mean look at those horrible books that get published nowadays lulz I could do so much better if I only tried”. But I never tried. Who’s got time for that?

A few years ago I had enough to do. I was working at the forge aiming to become a full-time professional blacksmith, I was renovating and selling an apartment, getting married…and somewhere in the middle of all this I lifted a piece of IKEA furniture, something snapped in my back, and that was the moment my blacksmithing career was over, although I didn’t know it yet.

 

Enter Ásgeir

 

Someone sent me this video. There are two people who could have sent me this song. Both insist they heard about it from me. I listened, then again, and fell in love with the song, but didn’t like anything about the album. I dismissed it as muzak. Then, a while later, I noticed husby was playing something really beautiful. I asked “what’s that?” and he answered, “oh, it’s this Ásgeir guy”. My jaw dropped, and I listened. And listened.

In The Silence would later become my album of the year for both 2014 and 2015 (nothing better came out). I’d buy the regular CD, Icelandic version (Dýrð í dauðaþögn), the vinyl, the 3CD special edition, acquire (thanks Jens!) the 7″ picture disc for Nú hann blæs, cry my eyes out during the concert in Amsterdam – the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

Once I realised who translated Einar Georg Einarsson’s – Ásgeir’s father’s – lyrics into a language I understood, I fell hard for John Grant. A little book called “Bad/Good sides of Iceland” lists John Grant as the only celebrity who moved to Iceland and bothered to learn the language. (Which didn’t stop him from singing “I hate this fucking town” about Reykjavík, but that’s a different story.) I listened to the music, the dream marinated quietly in my head, until one day something in my brain sort of clicked.

A thought appeared: “I wonder if they used to have fishing villages like ‘mine’ in Iceland?” Had I known the timing of this thought would prove to be important, I would have written it down. But back at that point all I knew was that Ásgeir’s Dýrð í dauðaþögn sounded divine, the English translations were beautiful, and everything about the music largely describing freezing cold felt like home and warmth. Which was something I needed a lot at that time…

 

2016

I spent most of 2016 in horrible pain from the back injuries. I tried, and failed, and tried, and failed to return to the forge. 30 minutes of work would result in three weeks of pain. I started dreading going to the forge, already wary before leaving the house of the pain that it would cause. Finally, I gave up. (And tried again, and gave up again, because that’s how I roll.) I missed – still do – the smell of hot iron and burning coal more than anything in the world, but still not enough to voluntarily cause myself massive suffering.

I survived this year because of the love of my husby and friends; music; sheer stubbornness. But it got close, very uncomfortably close. Maybe that was why on January 1, 2017, I opened the laptop and started typing in my story of three brothers in a fishing village. The date wasn’t a symbolic gesture. I was mildly depressed, in a bit less pain than usual, had nothing better to do. People with spine injuries don’t party too hard on New Year’s Eve. So I sat on my profiled pillows, and typed. For two weeks. Averaging 12 hours a day. I finished the first draft, 180 pages of text, in two weeks.

 

2017

When you write a story down, you start seeing the problems with it. The weaknesses, parts that simply make no sense at all, but also the research and problems you’ve just placed in front of yourself. To begin with, I didn’t actually know if villages like the one I needed existed at all. I couldn’t place it right in time – it had to be historical-ish, but I never really read much about this period. I hated things that had to do with war, shooting each other (what’s wrong with a good ol’ axe???), digging trenches, throwing grenades, and writing letters to your beloved one back at home. I had a story about people, and this story required the right timing, place, backdrop… and Ásgeir continued providing the sonic landscape.

I did not do a bit of research until this first draft was finished. I didn’t even check whether Iceland would work for me at all. But when I bought ‘Wasteland with words’ by Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon it felt like magic. I received answers to questions I didn’t even know I had. Mostly, though, I was shown very clearly that Iceland was the right setting for my novel to take place. Better than right. Perfect. Reading ‘Wasteland with words’ resolved problems I didn’t notice I had. Sigurður Gylfi’s book allowed me to write down a list of all research questions I needed to do before proceeding.

Research

I read a lot and I started work on the second draft in March. At this point I was already trying to contact historians and church officials in Iceland, asking on my Polish blog whether somebody could perhaps help me with some things (my blog readers are magical). I talked husby and my dear friend Ulf into going together for a few days in June. But no blacksmiths or historians responded to my queries, and I gave up on the idea I would get to talk to anybody. Weeks before our departure I heard from Helga Maureen at Árbæjarsafn – yes, she would be happy to meet up and help me find answers to my questions. Bart the Leatherman, whom I met through my blog, helped me figure out where to go and what to see. In disbelief, I watched my dream coming true.

 

 

This first trip in June 2017 would give me new friends, new adventures, and turn Iceland from a place suitable for my novel into a full-blown obsessive love that began as the plane was landing, and I saw the shape of the island.

More to follow…

The main photo is a pretty good example of what Reykjavik is like, but it misses this certain je ne sais quoi…

Oh yes. This.

But also this:

Reykjavik makes me think that someone took a few towns I know – Warsaw, Cracow, Birmingham, and Berlin, then threw them all in a cauldron, stirred just a tad, then threw them in one spot, and surrounded by incredible nature for no reason at all. You can walk past a butt ugly building site with view on the mountains. Buildings that are nearly falling apart will be found right next to new and shiny ones, and both will be covered in breathtaking graffiti. Or in the “Bjarni was here lol” graffiti, of course. A super pricey jewelry store will be found next to something that looks like a neighbourhood cinema from an early Almodovar movie. And then Sun Voyager in front of, I kid you not, a gas station. Actually scratch the rest, this is what Reykjavik is like. (The sight of Sun Voyager puts tears in my eyes no matter how windy or sunny the day is.)

Continue reading