By Dani Redd
Have you never been struck of a sudden by the living, breathing quality of this island, as if it were some great beast from before the Flood that has slept through the centuries insensible of the insects scurrying on its back, scratching an existence for themselves?
J M Coetzee, Foe
Islands never formed part of my imaginative landscape when I was younger. Perhaps because I grew up in a village it was space and vastness I longed for - prairies and mountain ranges and oceans. A fallen tree lying in the tangled grass was my pirate ship, and my three siblings were my highly reluctant crew. Growing up, I was desperate to leave, but after three years in London I longed for the peace and intimacy of a smaller place. That’s one of the reasons I find islands so appealing now. They embody both these apparently contradictory desires: the security of enclosure and the vastness of the ocean stretching out beyond the horizon.
These days I devote a lot of time to reading and thinking about islands. I’m particularly fond of novels set on islands in the cold waters of the Northern Hemisphere, such as John Burnside’s A Summer of Drowning and Amy Sackville’s Orkney. When I read books I see colours. Novels set on northern islands are often written in my favourite word-hues: dark blue, silver, green and grey. Colours that evoke not only the topos of the remote island but also melancholia, yearning, and loneliness.
I recently finished writing my first novel, Bodeg, which is set on an island in the Arctic circle. Before I began, I decided the island, Bodeg, had to be fictional. I had no knowledge of what a “real” Arctic island might be like. I felt that if I visited one I’d do little more than scratch the surface. I didn’t want to misrepresent an entire island, its culture and its inhabitants. Or, to put it in more academic language: I didn’t want to replicate the discursive gestures of colonialism, which treated newly “discovered” territories as tabula rasa, or blank slates, wiping away indigenous cultures and inscribing European names and customs onto them. However, it proved almost impossible for me to conjure up an island out of thin air. Early readers of my novel found the topography of the island vague. They couldn’t see the island when they read, because I couldn’t see it as I wrote. I needed inspiration: colours and textures of landscape; weather patterns and qualities of light.
In April 2015 I had the good fortune to be offered a month-long residency at Gamli Skóli, on Hrísey, a small island with a population of 120, located off the Northern coast of Iceland. Hrísey is shaped like a teardrop. The metaphor was too good to pass up, and Bodeg quickly became teardrop-shaped too. But I had to fill in the outline so my imaginary island differed from Hrísey. To do so, I decided to visit several other places in Iceland after finishing the residency: Dimmuborgir and the Lake Mývatn area; the volcanic Westman Islands in Southern Iceland. Bodeg became a composite of all these places—an impossible topography.
Every day I went for a long walk and noted down what I saw. Here are a few examples:
02/04/15: A small flock of birds scatter flickering shadows on the snow.
02/04/15: A wooden rack. Crowded with strings of what look like brown fingernails but are the curved bodies of drying fish.
05/04/15: When I went off on my run, the horizon gleamed mirror bright. Now it’s blurred by a thin mist, which appears to rise from the water. The clouds are flat and dense as pebbles.
11/04/15: The snow curls off the edges of the island, smooth as whipped egg whites.
16/04/15: Mountains light against the sunset. Then, at twilight, there’s a moment of reversal, when they become dark silhouettes against a luminous blue sky.
21/04/15: I see old swing sets, interspersed at intervals around the island. Made with wooden poles (leftover from the fish drying racks?). Frayed rope. Nobody uses them.
28/04/15: Old man at the pool, trying to punch our tickets.
We look down. There is a snow bunting clasped in his other hand.
01/05/15: Crusts of lichen: pale green, orange, bright yellow. Moss: small pillows, dark green and silversoft. Fungus: lime green, like small trumpets, chanterelles, miniature futuristic cities.
01/05/15: copper beeches. Flesh-coloured trunks. Branches like blood vessels.
02/05/15: Muffled. Stillness. Black + white monochrome. It’s called the Dark City. Twisting paths and avenues. Mysterious openings. Termite mounds, chimneys, pinnacles; all as pockmarked as the surface of the moon.
Vestmannaaeyjar (The Westman Islands)
05/05/15: The lady who owns the guesthouse, Hrefna, told me that when she was younger there were still lots of puffins nesting on the cliff-edges of the island. The babies leave the nest before they can fly; they aim towards the bright lights of the town and come crashing down inland. One night, when she and her husband had first started dating, they drove all round the island, stopping to pick up the puffins. They collected about a hundred, and when it got light they started to teach them how to fly—extending their legs and bodies, unfurling their wings and launching them…
Reading through my hastily scribbled notes again, several things become apparent. First, that there is a short story about birds just waiting to be told. Second, despite the fact I was aiming to describe things as I saw them, the language I used was not purely observational but figurative. The word “metaphor” means “to carry over”; it is a movement through which the real crosses a border into the imaginary or the symbolic. When I used metaphors, I was translating the physical landscape into an imaginary space. Third, nobody notices everything. The eyes select what they see. Patterns of interest emerge. I found myself recording the island’s transformations—the way the sea turned from cobalt blue to grey, the snow-covered mountains from white to pink—according to changes in the light. I also found myself drawn to images of abandonment: the unused swing sets; a derelict house; an anchor covered in rust. I am sure another visitor to Hrísey would have come away with a different perspective, as if they had visited a completely different island.
I did not research the history of Hrísey or speak to its inhabitants about their life on the island. Instead I created my own stories from the things I saw. Why had the house been abandoned? I imagined a man waiting for someone, or something, whilst the house around him disintegrated until he was just a shadow haunting dusty rooms. The island seemed to change so rapidly, constantly revealing new colours and contours as snow fell and then melted, that I began to imagine it as an entity with its own mercurial personality. Perhaps the volcanic eruption could be a manifestation of its anger. If the island was alive, could any of the characters hear it speak? I began to weave my observations together, creating both an island and a story.
Bodeg started to acquire form and depth within the narrative. Away from Iceland, I found that words flowed most easily when I wrote early in the morning, watching the sun rise through my bedroom window, or later in the day, between the sun setting and twilight. A friend introduced me to an Icelandic classical composer, Olafur Arnalds. Whenever I was groping for a phrase or an idea I would listen to his music and the words would come. But Bodeg never became completely solid. This is because each character viewed it through a different pair of eyes. The island I created was a palimpsest, bearing traces not only of my early observations but their thoughts and desires. Writing this I now realise why I decided not to return to Hrísey when I visited Iceland recently. The “real” island occupies much less space in my imagination than Bodeg; it has become a fading image. When I compare them, there no longer seems much of a connection between the two.
Dani Redd loves thinking about, writing about and visiting islands. She has legitimised her passion through a PhD studying representations of islands in contemporary fiction. Her recently completed novel, Bodeg, follows a family as they journey to a remote island in the Arctic circle, and explores the effect the isolated landscape has upon each character. Her inspiration was drawn from multiple visits to Iceland and a writing residency at Gamli Skóli, on the island of Hrísey. Her short stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies, including The Cardiff Review. She won Words and Women’s inaugural short fiction award in 2014.