by Monique Tschofen
You and I both know identity
is a nebulous thing.
(Gunnars, "the real postmodern")
The story of this writer’s life tells of a woman in a form of perpetual motion — motion across continents, motion between cities, and between jobs, but also motion of a higher sort1. She has travelled throughout the traditions of world literature in her readings, journeyed through a wide range of forms and genres in her writings, always exploring the emotions of loss and longing and love. Because so many of Kristjana Gunnars’s writings play with the structures of autobiography and reveal the traces of these motions and emotions, it might be tempting to read her work seeking direct correlations between the writer and her writing. To thus limit one’s engagement with these highly intelligent and complex works would, however, be a mistake. While Gunnars begins with the personal, she has consistently and self-consciously interrogated just what writing about the self might mean. Konrad Gross’s explanation about Gunnars’s narrative strategies in The Prowler applies to most of her oeuvre. He notes how her narrators reflect on the limitations of story-telling and the limits of memory:
Thus she constantly reminds her readers of the text as artefact, and reinforces her argument by breaking down the distinction between memories as stories and aesthetic reflection by transforming events from her past into metaphors of the artistic process. (129)
For Gunnars, story, life-story, and metsastory have always interconnected, and indeed she shows us most clearly how these realms can be mutually illuminating. One of the pleasures, then, of taking an interest in the person behind her writings begins with an acknowledgement that in this vast and endless adventure, stories proliferate and lead to other stories.
my journeys uncharted, undated
the boundaries unmarked
the hours broken
my uncoordinated life
(The Night Workers of Ragnarök 28)
Kristjana Gunnarsdottir was born March 19, 1948 in Reykjavik, Iceland. Her Icelandic father, Gunnar Bodvarsson, was one of the scientists who provided the engineering know-how behind the geothermal heating system that heats the capital, Reykjavik, and her Danish mother, Tove Christensen Bodvarsson, was a textile artist. She has one sister. Her entire family moved from Reykjavik to Oregon in 1964, where her father taught oceanography, geophysics, and mathematics at Oregon State University. The English language, which she began learning as a high school student in the United States, was her fifth language ("Words on Multilingualism" 8).
For Gunnars, this migration was formative. Her first short story, composed in her teens when she was in Oregon, was "about some girl desperate to get home again," and the themes of exile, displacement and dislocation, constructed as loss but also as longing and adventure, have permeated her poetry, prose, and academic writings ever since (Gunnars, Email interview). In the Introduction to The Night Workers of Ragnarök, Gunnars explains how she came to be conscious of this duality through her reading:
It was in [Stephan] Stephansson’s poetry that I found consolation for the feelings of absence I carried with me as an "immigrant." By "absence" I mean the sense that you are always without something essential; a fear that you have forgotten something important or left a part of you behind. Stephansson answers this sense of loss with an urge for freedom, courage, and progress — the typical feelings that drove the western pioneers on into the unknown. (2)
A sort of modern-day viking (she has explained to me that "viking" is a verb meaning to go out and see the world), Gunnars’s career has taken her great distances, geographically as well as intellectually. She identifies strongly with the positioning of what the Russians call the strannik — someone in "intracultural migration": as she explains, "only by 'leaving culture' can an artist gain it" ("The House" 20-1).
i»ve been given
the key to the kingdom
i come & go as i wish
(Wake-pick Poems 29)
Married in 1967 to Charles Kang, Gunnars moved with her husband to British Columbia in 1969. After working for a few years, they returned to Oregon to complete schooling, where their one child, Eyvindur Kang, was born in 1971. The family again moved to Canada in 1972 so that Gunnars’s husband could work on a Ph.D. at the University of Toronto. Not long after, Gunnars returned to Oregon with her son for a few months so she could complete her B.A. degree in English at Oregon State University in 1973. From 1974-75, Gunnars left for rural Iceland to teach high school for a year. Says Gunnars, "At the time I just wanted adventure and work, and I wanted to go home. I taught English, Danish, Geography, History, Meteorology, and of course I taught in Icelandic" (Email Interview). Returning from Iceland to Canada, she completed an M.A. in English in 1978 at the University of Regina, delving into late medieval and early Renaissance literature, specifically the writings of Edmund Spenser. Following her M.A., she worked in 1979 as a sessional instructor in the English department at the University of Regina. Gunnars found her time in Saskatchewan to be productive and rewarding. Although she had published her first poems when she was eighteen in the United States, the Saskatchewan writing community encouraged her to write and publish professionally, as did the poet and scholar Eli Mandel when he was writer-in-residence at the University of Regina from 1978-79.
With the publication of four books of poetry in scarcely two years, One-Eyed Moon Maps, Settlement Poems I and Settlement Poems II, and Wake-Pick Poems, Gunnars established herself as a powerful voice in Canadian writing. Each of these texts has strongly archival origins. Delving into the journals and daybooks of Icelandic pioneers in Canada, Icelandic myths and sagas, and the contemporary world around her, Gunnars brilliantly maps out relationships between the past and the present, the old world and the new world, the earth and the sky, the prosaic and the magical, braiding throughout "feelings of loss, homesickness, dislocation, nostalgia for the old country and the relief of being away from an old and heavy culture" (Casey 36). The journeys of the migrants in these poems, as Gunnars points out, are metaphors for the writer as well (Demchuck 35).
A similar strategy of reaching into the materials of the past in order to connect with the life of the present informs her first collection of short stories, The Axe’s Edge, published in 1983. With the metaphor of rescuing drawn from Joseph Conrad, Gunnars tenders the notion that her writing is resuscitative:
I feel more like a rescue worker than a writer, only it is hard to tell exactly what is being rescued. It may be a certain form of experience: the way in which the undefended exposure to an overwhelmingly new world of ice, dust, forest, blizzard and sun has penetrated the way in which a people thinks.[...] What was dead has a chance to live again, acquire a new kind of meaning. I wanted to observe the regeneration of a lost vitality. (Axe’s Edge 2-3)
Separated from her husband in 1980, Gunnars returned to Iceland where she worked as a journalist and as assistant to the editor at The Iceland Review from 1980-81. From there, she moved to Winnipeg to start a Ph.D. at the University of Manitoba, but ultimately left the academy to pursue her career as a writer. For most of the 1980s, she worked as a freelancer, selling her writing, editing for publishers and journals, doing frequent readings, and serving as a juror for a number of competitions and granting agencies including the Canada Council. Multiple awards from the Ontario Arts Council, the Manitoba Arts Council, and the Alberta Foundation for the Literary Arts recognized her accomplishments and made it possible for her to continue writing.
During this same period, Gunnars was making significant contributions to the study of Canadian literature. She translated Stephan Stephansson’s prose and poetry, edited the papers of Dorothy Livesay, a book of essays on Margaret Lawrence, as well as several other Icelandic-related projects. She published two books of poetry before she turned her creative attentions to the hybrid self-reflexive style of prose-poetry, "resistant to classification," of her highly acclaimed first "novel," The Prowler. The Night Workers of Ragnarök was composed between 1981 and 1985, a time during which Gunnars "travelled between the old world and the new many times and [...] had ample opportunity to speculate on homelessness, leave-takings and the loss of worlds" (1). These delicate poems travel over the terrain of memory, but the past here is more personal and more intimate than in her previous poetry, and the speaking voice is firmly located in the present. Her chapbook titled Water, waiting, published in 1987, turns to the movements of desire and longing.
It is a relief not to be writing a story. Not to be imprisoned by character and setting. [...] A relief not to be writing a poem, scanning lines, insisting on imagery, handicapped by tone. A relief just to be writing. (The Prowler 3)
A change is visible in Gunnars’s creative writing after the late 1980s. They are much less indebted to the archive and much more indebted to feminist and postmodernist critical theory. At the same time, the notion of exile becomes linked to a broader set of experiences: the loss of a loved one, the loss of the self through love, and the very experience of reading and writing. Two splendid essays published in 1988 on autobiography and exile treating Gudny Jonsdottir and Stephan Stephansson reveal the depth of her thinking about these connections. In her essay on Stephansson’s text, which Gunnars claims "is marked more by what it does not say — what it leaves out — than by what it does say" (110), Gunnars anticipates her own hybrid style. "Reality," Gunnars explains, "is a problem for the writer, and especially for the autobiographer. And since this is the case, life writing is best executed in fragments" ("Hypothetical" 119). In her essay on Jonsdottir, Gunnars expands on what it means to be in exile. Jonsdottir "writes from the position of the exile, but it is an exile of time and history rather than geography. The exile is defined by her love for her origins; it is only that love which can tie the exile to her origins. Without that love, the tie does not exist." Echoing one of the most central paradoxes that animates her own writings, Gunnars continues: "Love therefore becomes essential for the generation of narrative, and loneliness of voice becomes an inevitable consequence" ("Shepherding" 52).
From 1988 to 1989, Gunnars was writer-in-residence at the Regina Public library. In 1989, she published two moving books experimenting with the very idea of autobiography and of writing the self: The Prowler: A Novel and a collection of poetry, Carnival of Longing. Winner of the McNally Robinson Award for Manitoba Book of the Year and nominated for WH Smith / Books in Canada First Novel Award, The Prowler brought Gunnars into the spotlight and remains her most written-about piece. Critics have raved about her fragmented, aphoristic style which "suggest[s] more than it describes, sketching, probing, urging, yielding, and withdrawing meanings that are ultimately to be provided by the reader as much as by text" (Gheorge 43). Like The Prowler, the poems collected Carnival of Longing assemble "personal histories, family histories, national histories," asking questions about "the interplay between language and desire and absence, about referentiality, interpretation and power" (Lynch 64).
From Regina, Gunnars moved to Edmonton, where she was writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta from 1989 to 1990. Another move brought her to Okanagan College in Kelowna, where she taught for two years. Her exquisite 1992 novel about remembering and forgetting, The Substance of Forgetting, which reworks the tropes of retreat and contemplation posited in Thoreau’s Walden, is very much informed by the lushness of this landscape. Raindrops and fog, fruit trees and insects, all become emblems of the dual movements of thought and writing towards pleasure and loss.
Gunnars joined the faculty at the University of Alberta in 1991, where she taught creative writing until 2004. She published two books in addition to The Substance of Forgetting in her first years back in Edmonton: Zero Hour (1991), which was nominated for the prestigious Governor General’s award for non fiction, and The Guest House and Other Stories (1992), which competed for the Writers Guild of Alberta award. Zero Hour is a powerful memoir of her father’s demise from cancer, "turning grief into an art of remembering" (Garebian 33). In the short stories in The Guest House, Gunnars brings in some Icelandic materials, but turns her attention to characters who are in some way outside of themselves, dislocated and estranged. An epigraph from Garcia Marquez frames these separations in terms of an endlessly repeating process of self-birthing.
A visiting professorship in Trier, Germany during the summer of 1992 is the backdrop of her 1996 publication The Rose Garden: Reading Marcel Proust, which won the Georges Bugnet Award for Fiction. "Simultaneously aphoristic and glancing," The Rose Garden "offers fleeting glimpses of the narrator’s struggle to ‘inhabit’ places — the sheltered and fragrant rose garden, the resisting work of Mavis Gallant, the Proustian remembrances, women’s situation as translators of a world often closed to them" (Van Luven C4). In 1996, a powerful book of poems mourning the death of her mother, Exiles Among You, was also published. Both of these books were granted awards (for best fiction and best poetry) from the Alberta Writers’ Guild. Exiles, like The Rose Garden, treats places, but here, Gunnars sets the inner places of memory against a natural world which marks the changes of the passing of time.
In 1998, following a visiting professorship in Oslo, Gunnars published another hybrid text with metafictional and autobiographical overtones, Night Train to Nykøbing. Tracing a journey away from a relationship and towards self-understanding, Night Train uses an elaborate choral structure to deal with the difficulties of speaking and being silent. Gunnars most recent book of poetry, Silence of the Country, offers another response to the problem of silence prompted by this migration. Her trip to Norway was a kind of cultural homecoming, since, as she says, Iceland was built on Norwegian foundations. Nevertheless, Gunnars describes how Oslo and Norway caused her to "lose her grounding" to the extent that she virtually forget how to speak or write. The poems, composed on her return to B.C., helped her "write [herself] back into [her] own existence [...] declaring that I am here and I am a writer" (iii).
It is impossible not to be impressed with the breadth and the consistency of Gunnars’s writing. A remarkable poet, novelist, essayist, translator and scholar, she writes with generosity, with courage and with love. Hers is a writing that emerges not from ego but from a confrontation with the silences of her selves, both ancestral and present. Inviting us to "reach for eternity" ("Pensive" 35), her careful negotiation of paradox itself prompts us to think and feel freely about the nature of self, about longing and belonging, about language and time, about "the many small ways of being human / [...] the many ways of going on and on" ( Silence of the Country 53).
1I am grateful to Kristjana Gunnars for helping me sort through the "facts" of her life.
Casey, Jane. "An Interview with Kristjana Gunnars." Contemporary Verse Two 8.3 (1984): 36-39.
Demchuk, David. "‘Holding Two Ropes’: Interview with Kristjana Gunnars." Writers News Manitoba / Prairie Fire 5.2-3 (1984): 32-37.
Garebian, Keith. Rev. of Zero Hour by Kristjana Gunnars. Quill & Quire 57.4 (1991): 33.
Gheorghe, Christina. "Intertextual Notes in a Metafictional Autobiography: The Prowler by Kristjana Gunnars." Scandinavian Canadian Studies Etudes Scandinaves au Canada 4 (1991): 43-49.
Gross, Konrad. "The Burden of Memory: Ethnic Literature in Germany and Canada." Multiculturalism in North America and Europe. Eds. Hans Braun and Wolfgang Klooss. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 1995. 115-131.
Gunnars, Kristjana. The Axe’s Edge. Toronto: Press Porcépic, 1983.
____. Carnival of Longing. Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1989.
____. The Guest House and Other Stories. Concord: House of Anansi Press, 1992.
____. "The House at the End of the Fjord." Prairie Fire 21.3 (2000): 14-22.
____. "The Hypothetical Text: Stephan G. Stephansson’s Autobiography." Canada and the Nordic Countries, Volume 2. Eds, Jørn Carlsen and Bengt Streijffert. Lund: Lund UP; Chartwell-Bratt, 1988. 109-22.
____. The Night Workers of Ragnarök. Toronto: Press Porcépic, 1985.
____. Email interview. 18 Dec. 2001.
____. "Pensive Nude." Going Some Place. Ed. Lynne van Luven. Coteau Books, 2000. 25-35.
____. The Prowler: A Novel. Red Deer: Red Deer College Press, 1989.
____. "the real postmodern." Prairie Fire 22.1 (2001): 53.
____. The Rose Garden: Reading Marcel Proust. Red Deer: Red Deer College Press, 1996.
____. "Shepherding the Self: Love in the Autobiography of Gudny Jonsdottir." Canadian Women’s Studies / Les Cahiers de la Femme 9.2 (1988): 50-53.
____. Silence of the Country. Regina: Coteau Books, 2002.
____. Wake-pick Poems. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1981.
____. "Words on Multilingualism." Prairie Fire 5.2-3 (1984): 7-8.
Lynch, Deirdre. Rev. of Carnival of Longing by Kristjana Gunnars. Journal of Canadian Poetry 6 (1991): 63-68.
Van Luven, Lynne. "Contemporary Voices Strong in Polished Collages." Rev. of The Rose Garden: Reading Marcel Proust by Kristjana Gunnars and Taken by Daphne Marlatt. The Edmonton Journal Feb. 9 1997: C4.
Note: This essay is published in Kristjana Gunnars: Essays on Her Work. Ed. Monique Tschofen. Toronto: Guernica Press, 2004. 21-33. Copyright Monique Tschofen, 2003.
Updated February 12 2015 by Student & Academic Services