In October 2019, Adela from NIAS Press had the immense pleasure of talking to Pétur Mar Gudmundsson from Sigvaldi books, a specialised book service and bookstore in Iceland. According to their website, Sigvaldi is based on two things: ‘the old-fashioned idea that people like, want, need, love, cherish books and the supplying of Icelandic literature and academic literature to libraries and university institutions around the world’. Pétur and Adela spoke about Icelandic literature in a fast-paced world, the personal journey that led him to found Sigvaldi, literature as identity and much more.
NIAS Press:What is Sigvaldi?
Petur Mar Gudmundsson: Sigvaldi books began in March 2017. Before, I had been working at the University Books Store in Reykjavik, doing export of Icelandic books. In 2016, my girlfriend and I moved 40 minutes away from Reykjavik, but it became too difficult to commute twice a day, and my girlfriend was pregnant of our second child. So I resigned from the bookshop in Reykjavik, but I wanted to continue the work I had been doing at the store.
Icelandic books abroad have always been problematic for publishers and bookstores, just because it is such a small market. But I had found while working at the bookstore, that it is a niche market, … but it is a market and it has not been explored well enough. While I worked there, I always felt like it could be done better. Finding out how much, what the need was for Icelandic books abroad, both for individuals and for the academic market, libraries, universities… so this is what I wanted to explore and find: is there a market for Icelandic books? What is it like? Are those interested getting enough information, would they like to receive and order more Icelandic books? So, Sigvaldi began as a way to cater that need.
NP: So it has been a couple of years?
PMG: Yes, two years [at the time of the interview]. I have also been interested in how one could pair Icelandic academic literature with Scandinavian academic literature. Do they know each other? There is much that can be shared in beneficial ways between Icelandic and Scandinavian literature.
NP: I can imagine that you experience at the university book shop helps in that sense
PMG: Yes, also my interest in academic literature has always been there, since I was studying literature myself, in Iceland and in Helsinki. I have always been really interested in academic literature, and when I started working in the bookstore, I became more interested in how it all works. I find that in Iceland a lot of publishers are concerned with getting the materials published, and that sales and distribution is a secondary matter.
NP: It’s a complex market…
PMG: It is, it is… and understandably so. They are interested in selling the books of course but the main emphasis is on publishing. I do think that Icelandic material is very interesting for the world and for Icelanders as well. And that it needs to be presented more widely.
NP: Since the context seems so special, as a bookseller in Iceland, what does a regular day look like for you?
PMG: I have another job, at a kindergarten. But I usually start my day with Sigvaldi dealing with orders, looking over emails, subscriptions, standing orders, looking through Scandinavian titles that might be interesting for my customers in Europe and America and so on. I … I really like what I do!
NP: What is your relationship with Icelandic authors whose books you deal with?
When I was a student, I was writing myself, short stories and so on. When I moved to Reijkavik I wanted to continue doing that, and I was doing so, reading my poetry etc. Back then I met authors who have now made their name in Icelandic literature, which makes me happy. In Iceland, the community is so small that everyone knows everyone, or has heard of that person…
In fact, having a personal connection with anyone here is more than likely. And actually, a part of the Icelandic culture that I am trying to convey is that it is so small, and that is very encouraging. For example, I played drums for many years and it was so exciting to see that the band could make it to another city, gradually use those connections as well. Compared to other countries, this happens very fast in Iceland. It is different than in larger communities where the distance between the authors and the readers is larger. Here in Iceland, the distance really is not so large, and this defines Icelandic culture I think.
Here in Iceland, the distance really is not so large, and this defines Icelandic culture
NP: What is special about Icelandic literature?
There is always a dialogue about the state of the Icelandic language. There is not a very big population who speaks Icelandic, so we are always very concerned that it might just… dissolve into some English-Danish hybrid. But the language has really been kept alive in poetry and publication of books. The Icelandic literature is very rich, lots of small publications, and it is very passionate. It is a passion to publish in Icelandic language, people do it out of passion and genuine enthusiasm. Young poets and what they are doing with the language, how they are using it and keeping it alive… the younger generation is remarkable and admirable.
PMG: So you are not concerned about the future of the language, it seems.
Of course I am, of course. We should really be aware that it is a very small population who speaks the language, and we could lose a lot of vocabulary, history, cultural background and whatnot eventually. Icelandic must be kept alive, and literature has an important role in that endeavor.
It is a passion to publish in Icelandic language, people do it out of passion and genuine enthusiasm.
NP: Some of the NIAS Press books are about little-known worlds, cultures and languages. As a bookseller and avid reader from Iceland, do you think this is important?
PMG: Absolutely, I think it is very important. We would get dramatically poorer if we lost this knowledge, in the world in general. I think NIAS Press is doing a marvelous job, transmitting this sort of knowledge to a wide readership.
NP: You mentioned global vision and local action, and you said you studied in Helsinki. I wonder how your experiences abroad have shaped your understanding of the world in general and of literature in particular.
PMG: I think it is very good for people to travel –in Iceland and beyond. To experience somewhere else and get a different perspective and experience. I was really lucky to be able to go to Helsinki, I loved it tremendously. I think that my experience there was mainly to deepen my love for Finnish literature. In Finland, they are really good at promoting and building their culture, and the economic significance of the art and culture… they are really good at it and that is brilliant!
And that was a valuable lesson that I learned in Finland and I brought this home to Iceland with me. To remember how much literature and language are valuable assets. It can be really economically significant, and there is a really great value to this. And I think Iceland has done pretty well in this sense.
NP: Let’s talk more about poetry. Can poetry and academic literature meet each other? If so, how and where? How about literature and music?
PMG: It is important that people understand literary studies so that they can better understand literary work. It is important that people know about Art History, art historians. And in that context, poetry and fiction can act as a vehicle to bring the message out there, the academic perspectives. A friend of mine said that there is a tendency to write to their own colleagues in their own language. And that is not a good situation, I think that academic work should be considered appealing to the general public as well, it should be for all, because their message needs to be delivered.
NIAS Press published ‘At a Moment’s Notice’ a book on Indonesian domestic workers working abroad. The editor wanted to write a book but was not sure how to approach the topic, and he felt he owed his informants, who he knew wrote stories. So he translated some of these from Indonesian into English, and they were published as an anthology of short stories by NIAS Press. Not only are these stories non-academic texts that transmit a very important message, but also it is the voices of the protagonists who conduct the narratives, which I think is very powerful. So I think it is a good example of what you are saying.
Yes! One book by my favourite publishers in Iceland is Vestfirska forlagið. They published the series Þorp verður til á Flateyri, about a village called Flateyri, and the letters that were written by women and men, when people were writing letters to each other. This series focuses on the idea of connections, how a community can be built through these letters. It is a fantastic publication.
NP: At NIAS Press, we notice changes in the people write, search for and read books. As a bookseller, what has changed most prominently in the past years? Where do you see literature going in the next years and decades?
PMG: There was this fear that publishing would automatically change to e-books and all publications would switch to electronic formats. But I do not think that will happen. I do think there is a problem regarding the competition around books, different from what it used to be. So I think that there is still a need and a market for it. We just have to find out and appeal to the market differently that it has been done before. For example, with Sigvaldi I am really focused on building one-to-one individual connections. It is a slow process and that is fine by me, I have a couple of years (we both laugh).
And in that way, at least I hope, I can build a community of people who I know and do a tailored service for them. And of course, Amazon does this, they put together books and so on… but I like to do this with Sigvaldi on a more personal level. In Iceland, the most popular Christmas present is a book, and that is great for our book market. It Is also a sign that Icelanders really appreciate literature and books, reading… they understand the huge value of literature, and I think that as booksellers, we need to be aware of that, let’s not get all gloomy and forget that book readers are out there. I do not think there is a crisis in people reading stories. I think people still like to read stories and be told stories, definitely.
Booksellers: let’s not get all gloomy and forget that book readers are out there.
NP: I would be interested in hearing what you think about what academic literature can do for the general public. What are its roles and responsibilities?
PMG: There is a fantastic academic author called Margaret Wilson. She published a book about Iceland women in the sea. In Iceland’s fishing communities, there are not so many women, and Wilson’s work became extremely important for the identity of women in Iceland, for women working in fisheries in Iceland. I don’t think anyone had ever published something like this. And this sort of story is important for the identity of people to better understand and appreciate their background, their identity. And this can be done in academic literature, through academic publications like presenting people’s historical backgrounds, cultural backgrounds, ideological backgrounds, to then get a picture of who you are. This can strengthen your identity. Margaret Wilson managed to strengthen the identity of people who lived in Stokkseyri.
How about Asian literature?
I am very Interested in Asian culture, particulary because it is so … so foreign for Iceland and our corner of the world! I am interested in Asian cultural ideas and their ways of viewing the world. In Europe we are quite Eurocentric, we often forget about the rest of the world. For example, earlier you were talking about that anthology of stories by domestic workers and that is just fascinating! I would really love to present this sort of thing in Iceland, too. In the future, Sigvaldi books will have a physical bookstore in Stokkseyri, with an art gallery and lots of wonderful books and a café. And I would love to include books like the ones NIAS Press publishes.
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Today, Sigvaldi has a physical store in the cooperative Brimrot in Stokkseyri. You can learn more about Sigvaldi books and Petur Mar Gudmundsson on their website: https://www.sigvaldi.org/.