Davíð Rafn Kristjánsson was never one for writing.
It took a move to another continent, on the other side of the world for the 34-year-old to start expressing his thoughts and ideas through the written word. The result is Burning Karma (Wild Pressed Books), which tells the story of Böddi, who wakes up in a hospital bed one morning with no idea of what has happened to put him there. While still in hospital he has an intense psychological experience which leaves him realising it is time to change his whole way of life and sets him off on a search for spiritual truth.
Since publication, Burning Karma has received some rave reviews in both Iceland and the rest of the world. We caught up with Davíð to find out about growing up in northern Iceland, travelling the world and what made him write Burning Karma.
When you were young, you lived in Akureyri, in northern Iceland. What was it like to grow up in Iceland before it was a tourist hotspot?
It was great in many ways. There was a lot of freedom from a young age maybe due to a relatively low crime rate, small population and spaciousness. But living in Iceland was a strange mix of isolation and freedom. Since I was a kid, Iceland has changed quite a lot in terms of opening up to the world. I remember that tourists were rare and meeting a foreigner when I was a kid was very exotic for me. With Iceland growing in popularity as a tourist destination I think the younger generations are meeting people from all over the world, exchanging ideas and communicating with the world, which I think is great. The sad thing I see in Iceland now is the greed in the tourist industry. When politicians, businessmen and others involved in tourism talk about the numbers of visitors and merely statistics, seeing them only as consumers. Forgetting that these are actual people visiting our country with sincere interest in our history and culture. We are somehow forgetting the human part in all this. Talking of foreigners as “them” vs. “us” forgetting that we all essentially live under the same sky and maybe we can share and learn something from the individuals visiting our country.
You left Iceland after the Global Financial Crisis in 2008. What do you think your life would have been like had you stayed?
First of all I don’t think that I would have written Burning Karma. It has nothing to do with Iceland but has to do with myself in Iceland. It was very important for me to go out in the world and detach a bit from my home country, to see things from afar and get a different perspective. We tend to be tangled up in life, relationships, debt, work and forgetting sometimes why we are living this life. If I had stayed, I think that I would not be the same man I am today. Travelling allows you to ask questions about your own country, culture and relationships. If I had stayed, I probably would have lived my life entirely on other people’s terms, too scared to follow my dreams, and trying to keep up with society’s expectations.
How did you first get interested in writing? Was Burning Karma your first attempt at a novel?
I was living in Beijing at the time in a community of artist and spiritual people and I started to challenge my fears, false identities and breaking away from the David that was from Iceland. I had never written anything in my life except some school essays when I started writing Burning Karma. When the book was born I was in a very secure environment to experiment with open-minded people pushing me and supporting me with each step. Now I consciously try to put myself in conditions that allow me to grow as an artist, because at this point in my career it’s essential to have artistically supportive people around.
The main character in Burning Karma, Boddi, undergoes quite a journey. Reading your biography it seems like you have also done a lot of emotional and spiritual travelling. Are there any parallels between his story and yours?
I get asked a lot if I am the main character, Boddi. I have thought about how my life story would look in a novel and I think it would be way too strange of a story – even unbelievable. Sometimes real life is stranger than fiction. But, yes of course there are similarities but the story is fiction. Actually I think there is a little bit of Boddi in all of us. I was trying to capture how it is to be a human being: our greed, our aversions, our insecurities and suffering. In my writing now I follow certain work methods that have to do with involving myself in the story by going out and experiencing things in order to get insights and inspiration. For example, I am writing my second book and it’s about a contemporary visual artist and now my life is moving in that direction, I am experimenting with different things and meeting people involved in arts.
It seems like Iceland really values writing and its writers. For example, in Akureyri, I see the names of famous writer’s houses signposted in the streets. This is very different from my country, Australia, which is all rather sport-obsessed. What’s your view?
Yes, I think Icelanders value writing very much. In Iceland, many writers are public personas. Our history is built on the written form, the sagas, poetry and oral story telling. Maybe it has to do with the weather; our lives are very much lived inside our houses. I have also noticed other art forms in Iceland where we neglect artists, like in contemporary fine arts. We have a few Icelanders becoming huge on the world stage as visual artists but they barely get any attention or respect from the general public in Iceland. Every Icelander could name 10 writers, but if you ask them about visual arts, few could name more than one or two.
You’re currently based in Berlin. Has this changed the direction of your writing? Would you consider moving back to Iceland?
I think each city or country will affect you in some way. Berlin is surely affecting my writing, but not only my writing it is also allowing me to explore other areas in creativity such as painting, performance art, filming and music. Berlin is a great place to experiment. I am currently obsessed with the world of contemporary art and diving into that scene with similar enthusiasm as I did when I researched, read and experienced the world of spirituality for Burning Karma. Iceland will always be my home and I will probably live there again at some point, but the world is big and exciting.