An útlendingaljóðskald’s ecolinguistic activism through apiculture and Icelandic-language acquisition
The following talk was commissioned in March 2014 for the life celebration of poet, actress, and sculptor Melitta Urbancic, who fled from Austria to Iceland during the second World War. Her poetry collection From the Edge of the World was translated into Icelandic by Sölvi Björn Sigurðsson and launched at the celebration. I was asked to speak about the experience of being a foreign-born artist living and working in Iceland.
Góðan daginn og til hamingju með daginn.
It is a pleasure to think through the situation of the foreign-born Iceland-dwelling artist through the lenses of cultural sharing, societal impact, and especially polylingual implications.
I titled my talk Bý: a talk about the útlendingaljóðskald’s ecolinguistic activism through apiculture and Icelandic-language acquisition. As a poet, I’m a language pervert, and this long-winded multisyllabic title grants me the potential to introduce the terms ‘ecolinguistics’ and ‘apiculture’ into the room. Both terms are, for me, at the intersection where my experience crosses with Melitta Urbancic’s experience as a foreign-born artist living and working in Iceland.
Apiculture: the art and science of raising honeybees.
Ecolinguistics: the burgeoning field of ecolinguistics provides an important platform to investigate the correlation between ecosystems and languages, including how language usage informs human interactions with environments.
Bý: a half-word, a not-quite-word, a near-word in Icelandic. Through the combination of these two letters, I wink at ég by hér (I live here), býflug (bee), the English-language sonic homonyms bee (býflug) and to be (að vera), and the English-language by (next to, creator of) with its visual similarity. Through bý, two languages intersect. And within bý, the subjects of dwelling, apiculture, language acquisition, and authorship perform a kind of waggle dance (to borrow beekeeping parlance).
Through our cultural cross-pollination, foreign-born Iceland-dwelling artists and writers acquire a new tongue (Icelandic) and develop a taste for inquiry, for wilful остранение / ostranenie (to borrow the Russian literary loanword for defamiliarization), and for alterity (for being other, or different). By engaging a foreign language or society, we confront a difference of self. This interaction carries the hallmarks of any relationship— that heady rush when we experience ourselves other than we imagine ourselves to be. As with a lover, we see ourselves through their eyes, hear with their ears…
With an ear full of another language— its cadences, its grammar, its shifted emphasis on phoneme frequency— I remap my mouth. I learn to trill r. I learn the side-cheek exhalation of a dark l. My gut sucks into itself with each aspiration before a double k. (Takk!) I feel nauseous when I try to inhale/exhale my hn. And I startle everyone around me when I já-on-the-in-breath.
In Iceland and in Icelandic, I unlearn pronunciation. I unlearn my mouth in the way I think I know it. I become displaced not only geographically, but also within my own body through my relationship with listening, comprehension, and utterance. This embodied linguistic reconstruction shifts how I write in my mother language, and invests me with curiosity to explore this new language as a writer.
How people map sounds onto themselves— via languages, geographies, semantics, ideologies— challenges me to reconsider what I think I know. For example, I place what I think I know as stone in my mind and instead utter stein. O confronts ei. I change what I used to pronounce as æ (as in line) to ey (as in lane).
Stein is Gertrude Stein is Gertrude Stain is Gertrude Stone.
How is stone different from stein, and how does the subtle shift in the sound and sight of the languages relate to the real-world entities they reference?
My ongoing interest in Icelandic has shifted more my engagement with land, with body. Engagement with land and body is always, inevitably, engagement with language, since it is largely through language that we sense the sense of body and land.
To arrive here, one undergoes the oft-noted experiences of culture shock and bureaucratic red tape. Any migration of this kind will prove a struggle, and each struggle is different. The reasons for moving are different. The reasons to leave. The reasons to stay. The reasons to be. Learning the cultural behaviours of a new society. Learning language. Learning landscape, weather. Learning food. Learning struggle.
Even the bees struggle with overwintering here.
For the poet, writer, and artist, displacement in a foreign culture necessarily challenges her relationship to the materials with which she produces work— whether those materials are linguistic, corporeal, plastic, environmental… Melitta took a familiar practice to her— beekeeping— and attempted its transition, trans-elation, or adaptation within an Icelandic ecosystem. The act of apiculture requests a hands-on experiential learning of ecosystem functionality. Through her beekeeping, Melitta would have learned how an Icelandic ecosystem converses in a dialect different than that of her former home.
When I sought immigration, I looked seriously into beekeeping in Iceland. My instinct followed Melitta’s— a way to become intimate with an ecosystem through interaction with a familiar non-human entity: bee. At the time, Iceland’s beekeepers’ association reported that there were fourteen beekeepers within the country. As a child, I used to don the beekeeping suit and help my dad smoke the bees from their hives. As an adult, I’ve hoped that someday when I settle, I’ll return once more to this formative practice. And so it became my dream to be the fifteenth beekeeper.
What Melitta began so many years ago as an early Icelandic beekeeper has finally caught on within the countryside here, despite the difficulty of the practice. Similarly, her perhaps underacknowledged role as writer and artist living in her adopted country forms the path of unexpected trail-blazing for the handful of writers and artists born elsewhere who now live here.
Taking this step to celebrate her literary contribution to Icelandic society supports the blossoming of intercultural values while positing the careful yet enthusiastic question of language preservation alongside language exploration. With the recent designation of Reykjavík as a UNESCO City of Literature, a literary history is acknowledged while its future is positioned for a wild transformation via the reinvigoration of Icelandic through native and foreign writers. How will we embody our languages and write our bodies into our languages? How will Icelandic and the concept of Icelandic literature (whether written in Icelandic or another language) respond to the mouths and hands of its foreign-born lovers? And how will Icelandic society shift its taste, attitudes, and support systems (publication, subsidy) to embrace the hvalreki (literally: beached whale, but colloquially: windfall) of foreign-born artists who’ve come here to bý?
Ég þakka ykkur fyrir áheyrnina.