Thursday, September 27, 2012

Multicultural Perspectives: "Food in the Moorland," Iceland's Children's Lit Festival

A sad realization struck me none too recently--despite my own ethnic and religious heritage I know very little about international and multicultural children's (and adult) literature. This certainly will not do! I've decided to tackle this with a new series of posts, simply titled "Multicultural Perspectives" so that I may educate myself on the vast scope of literature that crosses through cultures, and share with you my discoveries.

I start with the crossing of two of my passions—children's lit and food—that unfolded at the biennial Children's Literature Festival in Iceland with the theme of "Food in the Moorland." The festival took place from September 15 - 19 and hosted a myriad of events from traditional scholarly panels to workshops for children, readings and exhibitions. Having no knowledge of Icelandic arts or language, I perused the program of events with curiosity and gratefully was able to correspond with two participants of the Festival: Dr. Anna Heiða Pálsdóttir and Dr. Ármann Jakobsson, both from the University of Iceland.
Dr. Palsdottir, one of the organizers of the program, shared with me a brief history of the festival, explaining that this was the 6th conference organized by the Mýrin Association, comprising representatives from IBBY Iceland, SÍUNG (Association of Children’s Book Authors in Iceland), The Writer’s Union of Iceland, The University of Iceland, Reykjavík City Library and the Nordic House. Authors, illustrators, and scholars were brought together to form panels whose titles give just a taste of their tantalizing material.

The panel "To Eat or Be Eaten" featured authors and illustrators discussing and sharing their work. Renowned Norwegian writer/illustrator Svein Nyhus shared illustrations from his book The Greedy Kid (Den Grådige Ungen), where a girl who eats her whole family before cracking (don't fret, her family returns). The book demonstrates the zeal and in some ways anxiety of the child while focusing on the lesson of limitation. 

"Dieting, Cannibalism and Denial in Icelandic Children’s and Young Adult Books" (how would that not intrigue anyone?) was a scholarly panel featuring both Dr. Pálsdóttir and Dr. Jakobsson.  Jakobsson kindly described his presentation to me, "The focus of my talk were Maria Gripe's Josefin books... translated into Icelandic in 1973-1975.These are complex psychological novels which include a discussion on identity as reflected in given names and childish rebellion against various authorities, including God himself, whom Josefin believes has come to her home."  Jakobsson further describes the nature of rebellion as reflected "in her personal relationships with all other major characters of the novels but also in smaller things, such as how she treats food and gifts." Ultimately, the book concerns "temptation and fall, exile and rejection, loyalty and treachery." It would be worthwhile to explore these novels to better understand the psychology of the Nordic child, what pains of identity would spur rebellion, and how it can be resolved.

Pálsdóttir presented on the correlation between food and sex in YA literature. She spoke directly on the relationships boys and girls have with food, with particular emphasis on young girls needing to deny themselves the pleasure of food because it leads to obesity. In her examination, food many times can be replaced with sex which, if yielded to, can result in pregnancy.

One other discussion of interest centered on Father's Big Secret, by Thorarinn Leifsson (presented by Professor Dagný Kristjánsdóttir), about two children trying to hide the truth that their father is a cannibal.  I took a glance at some of the illustrations and what struck me, along with the colors and very evocative expressions, were their wide strained eyes. It's quite ironic to have a secret at the heart of the story where everyone seems to be watching intently, and that seems to be part of the point. If cannibalism represents serious family dysfunction, then here is a tale where people are aware but no one really acts on it, and the children must cope with contrasting feelings of love for their parents and shame for their actions.

Numerous other presenters were featured, but like I mentioned earlier, this is a festival that engages children as well; among the many activities they held was a short story contest, whereupon the four winners read their stories to the audience.  Jakobsson noted that "it was particularly pleasant to notice around twenty teenagers in the audience. Reykjavík has a dedicated audience which attends most events which concern children's books. It is not a big field in Iceland, there is still no position in children's literature exclusively, and the people interested probably see the same speakers again and again... but there is certainly a lot of interest." If the quality and scope of material discussed continues at this level, then surely the field will grow larger and we'll see a stronger presence of Icelandic and Nordic literature here too.

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