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The Reykjavík Grapevine Issue 12 — 2015

Opinion Politics | Chromosome | Bright? concerns

Do You Read Me?

Inequality in the intellectual world Words by Valgerður Þóroddsdóttir Translated by Larissa Kyzer Summer 2013. The cover of the British magazine Port declares that a new golden age in print media is underway. The magazine’s cover is minimalist—black letters spelling out the names of six editors at the largest cultural publications in the Western world. Dead centre is a crisp, black and white photo of six white men. The cover generated some attention at the time, especially from certain online media outlets in the United States well versed in critical feminist thought. For me and many others, the image was the embodiment of a certain problem, an uncomfortably matter-of-fact picture of the current situation: men holding the keys to the entire publishing industry as it stands. The image was unpleasantly reminiscent of some realities in my immediate environment. It brought to mind another photograph: of the board of the Reykjavík International Literary Festival taken that same year. There sat nine people at a table—seven men and two women, one of the latter not actually a member of the board but serving, and still serving, as the festival’s artistic director. Since then, another man has actually been added to the administration, putting the proportion of women on the board at roughly eleven percent. I looked at this photo for a long time and tried to imagine the rationale for such a ratio. Are people deliberately looking the other way? Do they have no interest in seeing this? Or is this unconscious, learned behaviour? I was 23 when the middle-aged editor of a cultural magazine that I wrote for pushed up against me and, with hot whiskey breath, whispered in my ear that women had no business in the editor’s chair. They were simply not as capable writers as men. A year later, I ran into a young, male author at a literary festival who asked me, rhetorically, what kind of books I was publishing [with Partus Press]— and smirked as if he were telling a joke when he answered for me: only young female poets. That same year, I heard Steinunn Stefánsdóttir, the chairman of the Ice-

landic Women’s Rights Association, say in an interview on a morning radio program that “In many respects, it’s somehow more manageable to advocate for the law to reflect equality. […] But when it comes to the intangible, things get more difficult.” How does one highlight inequality in the intellectual world? How is it possible to isolate and measure when women’s voices are not being heard, not being taken seriously, or are even being ignored? What does it say about the state of affairs when nationally renowned authors sit at a table and seem not to notice that there are eight times more men’s voices than there are women’s? Isn’t that a perfect metaphor for the problem? Haven’t we become a bit deaf when we no longer hear that men’s voices are dominating the conversation? No one seems to bat an eye. We just sit at the table and smile for the camera. We need more women’s voices, not fewer. But the problem is even more complicated than that. As much as we need to increase the number of voices, we also need to be more responsive to them. For even when the voices of women do make it through—when they’re heard on the radio, when they’ve fought their way into male-dominated organizations despite discouraging messages from their immediate environments—how much attention do we give them then? How well, in fact, are we listening? A little over a month ago, an article was published in GQ magazine under the title “The New Canon: The 21 Books from the 21st Century Every Man Should Read.” It’s unlikely to surprise you that of the books listed, only four were books by women, or just under twenty percent.

Many studies have revealed similar was created by a man. trends, that is to say, that men are less But back to that subtle question— what can we do in order to be more likely to read books by women. Some responsive to women’s stories and to studies indicate that on average, only one out of every ten books read by a women’s voices? The outlook is bleak. It’s not exactly desirable to put your man is by a woman. perspective or work of art out there This year, the publisher Forlagið if no one pays any attention to it. And released an anthology of Icelandic poetry in which former president [and how does one get people to listen if they’ve already decided not to? How the world’s first democratically electdo we become receptive to those voices ed female head of state] Vigdís Finnthat reflect something other than just bogadóttir selected Icelandic poems our present points of view? That these and verses that have been dear to her throughout her life. There are thirty- viewpoints are forever celebrated by literary organizations is a matter of seven poets featured in this book, three fact. Wouldn’t it be better to celebrate of whom are women. But the question of how well we are diversity? The problem is complex and tanlistening begs a still subtler and comgled, but some of this plicated one about is clear. Role models how much interest I was 23 when the make a difference. It and respect we af- middle-aged editor is simply not permisford women’s stosible to pretend not ries—how receptive of a cultural magato see, to pretend not we are to the female zine that I wrote for perspective. pushed up against me to hear. It is not possible to hide behind Many factors are certainly at play and, with hot whiskey excuses any longer. The country’s literhere. This touches breath, whispered in ary organizations on how we define my ear that women fail the younger genthe canon. What we erations when they choose to teach in had no business in don’t think about schools; which books the editor’s chair. equality in publicawe choose to buy; tions, in festivals, in grant conferrals. how we arrange those books in bookstores; who we choose to include in our The media fails when equality is abpoetry anthologies; and who we invite sent from their literary coverage. You may be stuck in old habits, but let’s to sit on the boards of our literary organizations. All of these decisions have not forget that fresh eyes are watchconsequences and reveal which voices ing and fresh ears are listening. Everything we do sends them a meswe value, safeguard, encourage, or sage about what business they have in simply dismiss. Do we think it’s reasonable, for ex- this world. ample, that female writers who write Valgerður Þóroddsdóttir is a poet and from a woman’s perspective should writer living in Reykjavík. She is a foundneed to contend with devaluation of ing member and current director of the potheir art by way of terms and marketetry collective and publisher Meðgönguljóð ing tags like “chick-lit”? The term (Partus Press) and was nominated for the shouldn’t, perhaps, be insulting, but it PEN International New Voices Award in undeniably is. (What would be most 2014. Valgerður originally read this editoreasonable, of course, would be that rial on an episode of ‘Skáldatími’ (Authors’ books told from a female perspective Hour) on The Icelandic National Broadcasting Service radio station, Rás 1. It has be read by everyone.) been translated and republished in The With that in mind, it should seem no coincidence that the most famous Grapevine with her permission. female protagonist in Icelandic literary history [Salvör Valgerður, from the Halldór Laxness novel 'Salka Valka']

By Nanna Árnadóttir Dear Nanna, What's the coolest souvenir I can buy in Iceland? Best, Future Shopper Dear Future Shopper, Anything in the shape of Iceland, that has the shape of Iceland painted on it or has the word “Iceland” written on it so you definitely don’t forget that you were in Iceland that one time and no one who looks at your souvenir thinks you may have gone to Denmark instead. Nanna Dear Nanna, My sister is breaking up with her boyfriend of a few years. The family has always really loved him and he's a really nice guy. But now my sister is saying that he was abusive. I'll be honest I've never seen any evidence of abuse, none of us have. We were all really surprised actually and she does exaggerate things sometimes. Anyway, I'm wondering if I have to stop hanging out with him because they broke up? Just because she dumped him doesn't mean the whole family should right? Best, Sister Sister Dear Sister Sister, Whatever you do don't buy a word your sister tells you. I don't know what you've heard about believing abuse survivors when they speak up but it can really hurt the alleged abuser's feelings. In my experience people always act the same when they are in public as they do when they are in private but even if they didn't do that I'm sure your sister’s ex would beat up or verbally abuse your sister in front of you, just so you could both be sure your sister wouldn't exaggerate it later. My advice to you is to cut your ties with your sister. Best, Nanna Because this needs to be said. On an all-jokes-aside note, if you or someone you know needs help escaping domestic abuse in Iceland, contact Iceland’s Women’s Shelter (Kvennaathvarfið). They have a hotline and offer counselling. Tel: 561 1205.

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Profile for Reykjavík Grapevine

The Reykjavík Grapevine Issue 10 2015  

The Reykjavík Grapevine Issue 10 2015