Every family has secrets. Academic Kári Gíslason is about to release his to the world.
Born from a secret liaison between an English-Australian mother and an Icelandic father, Kári Gíslason was the subject of a promise - a promise elicited from his father to not reveal his identity. In this absorbing memoir, The Promise of Iceland, Kári tells the story of his decision at twenty-seven to break the secret of his father's identity - a secret that had survived since his birth. What follows, and what led him there, is a riveting journey over landscapes, time and memory as he connects with his birthplace, Iceland, in ways he never imagined.
Kári was born in the city of Reykjavík, his father's hometown - as well as the home of his father's wife and five children - none of whom knew of Kári's existence. Moving regularly between Iceland and Australia, Kári grew up aware of his father's identity, but understanding that it was the subject of a secret between his parents.
As a child, Kári travels from the freezing cold winters of Iceland to the shark net at Sydney's Balmoral, to an unsettled life in the English countryside and the harsh yellow summer of Brisbane, and back again. As a young adult, he traces the steps of his mother, who answered an ad in The Times for an English-speaking secretary in 1970 and found herself in Iceland among the 'Army of Foreign Secretaries', and the arms of a secret lover. Iceland becomes the substitute for the father Kári never really knew as he looks for the meaning of 'home' and develops his own understanding of what it means to be a father.
The Promise of Iceland emerges from Kári's twin obsessions - one with Iceland and the other with the complexity of family life. In it he questions the nature of love and fidelity, secrets, family loyalty, home, and one's sense of belonging in a place.
He says, 'Reaching Iceland and contacting my family there have been defining parts of my life so far, a life that for the most part I've spent in Brisbane - a very long way from Reykjavík. And, for my mother, who has often told me that she wasn't in love with my Icelandic father, her relationship with him has, I think, been the defining event of her life. In a sense, then, this is a book about desire and longing and our capacity to understand ourselves through these emotions.'
This exquisite memoir is a contemplation of complex, sometimes unsolvable riddles - riddles that most families encounter in one form or another. From the very first page, The Promise of Iceland asks us to question the connection between parenthood and cultural belonging and how we define home. It is certain to appeal to anyone interested in Iceland or who enjoys reading family memoir and non-fiction books that use stories as a vehicle for analysis.
After graduating in English and Law, Kári Gíslason wrote his doctoral thesis on authorship in medieval Iceland, and has published scholarly articles dealing mainly with the Icelandic family sagas. Kári has taught English Literature and Writing at the University of Iceland, the University of Queensland, and Bond University, and currently lectures in Creative Writing and Literary Studies at Queensland University of Technology.
As part of his teaching approach he maintains a blog about travel and writing, www.aremyfeetintheway.blogspot.com. The blog also reflects his enduring interest in travel writing. Kári has published travel articles and essays in literary journals and in the mainstream press and is author of the chapter on travel writing for the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing. He is a judge for the Steele Rudd Short Story Collection prize and is currently writing a second book based in part on the travels and personal reflections of former UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld.
Kári lives in Brisbane with his wife Olanda and their two children, Finnur and Magnús.
The Promise of Iceland
Author: Kári Gíslason
Question: What inspired you to write the memoir, The Promise of Iceland?
Kári Gíslason: I have always been the sort of person who writes things out, in order to understand them. It seemed a natural step, to write about my own life, at some point. I was also keen to try and write about Iceland and write about the stories that exist there and tie that to my own experience of the country and my experience of leaving the country and then returning in stages.
Question: There are several issues raised in this book. Was this deliberate or did the story evolve this way?
Kári Gíslason: I think I was hoping that the book would have a layered quality to it and there would be a few elements or aspects going at the same time. I was keen to catch a sense of Iceland and use the book as an investigation or series of questions to my parents. Also something that we all do is try and form an understanding of our parents before we are born, that enigmatic relationship our parents have before we come into the world.
Then, joining all of the aspects was me; I hadn't initially intended to be a central character in the work, as I ended up being. As I was writing it, it became clear that I needed to play a bigger part, in the narrative, if it was going to hold all of these things together.
Question: When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
Kári Gíslason: I never, not wanted to write but I'm not sure I even think of myself as a writer yet, when I was at school I was always the kid who wrote stories, everyday. As I grew up into a slightly frustrated young man I was the guy who was writing poems all the time. When I went to University, I went to study literature and I became more of a reader than a writer. In recent years I have started to write creatively again and The Promise of Iceland is the outcome of that.
To answer the question, I have always been writing and now it has become more formalised than it was in the past.
Question: Can you tell us a little bit about your next book, Zambia?
Kári Gíslason: Sure, the research is going to be taking me to Zambia, in the next month, for the 50th anniversary of the death of Dag Hammarskjöld, he was the UN Secretary-General and he died in a plane crash, in Northern Zambia in 1961. The book I am writing isn't about him, it's about two characters whose lives are touched by Dag Hammarskjöld and some of the things he wrote in a collection of reflections titled Markings.
I am writing another book that like The Promise of Iceland is about family, returning, taking things back and leaving things behind; although this time it is fictional works which gives me a little bit more room to play with.
I am quite passionate about travel and I think that is something I have inherited from my mother, she was a traveler and that may be why she ended up in Iceland. I am very keen to connect travel and writing, I am a fan of books that give you a strong sense of place in the work, it's not just action and character -there is also a really strong sense of setting. No place is more remote, in that respect, than Iceland.
I was really concisions, as I wrote The Promise of Iceland; you have to feel that you are an English speaking secretary arriving in a windy, dark, always cold and wet, volcanic island in the middle of the North Atlantic.
Interview by Brooke Hunter