Egill Bjarnason On How Iceland Changed the World

In his first book, Icelandic reporter EGILL BJARNASON sets out to explain how Iceland’s position had let to it having a surprising place at the world decision making table…

Egill Bjarnason

I’m from Selfoss, in the south of Iceland. It’s one of our only inland towns, serving a farming community with a large dairy plant. I moved north to work on sailboats. Then I met my wife here. Currently, I’m looking over a grey harbour leading to the open sea. When I drink coffee here, I remind myself that this is the last cup you can have on this latitude. If you continue north, you continue into never-ending ocean. I live in Húsavík, and in front of me is a red carpet, put up during a grass-roots campaign to increase tourism after the song (bearing our town’s name) from Eurovision: The Story of Fire Saga was nominated for an Oscar. It didn’t win, but I like it, and it was a good idea!

Iceland has changed the world by being in the centre of things. It was the country located between North America and the Soviet Union. Now, it’s located between North America and Europe. Maybe, in the future (when the Arctic shipping routes open), it’ll be located between North America and China. Iceland had a strategic importance during the world wars, and it has a population that stepped up to responsibilities when they arose. My book is about Icelandic history, but it’s the history of Iceland told to people who don’t necessarily have a stake in that story. That’s why I came up with the angle of connecting it to major world events: to make it relevant.

President Reagan meets President Gorbachev in Reykjavik, October 1986

I studied in the United States, but far away from our legacy in North America. I was in California, where the only thing people knew is that “Iceland is green, and Greenland is ice”. Settlers came during the nineteenth century when slavery ended, and workers were needed. They headed for the Midwest and Canada, and that’s why people say many pockets of these areas tend to be left leaning. It says a lot about Iceland at the time that people were willing to swap it for North and South Dakota. We call them the ‘West Icelanders’, but today we don’t really consider those descendants Icelanders… they’re part of our history, not our country. So much of the country moved away, and even now we’re a long way from having a million people… I think in my lifetime, people might outnumber sheep. But we certainly like to brag about our per capita writers etc!

The fun part about being a reporter in Iceland is that volcanoes erupt every five years, and I’m paid to visit them. Of course, even if Iceland doesn’t pull much economic weight, its ideas tend to be picked up. Reporting on Iceland for the Associated Press and other foreign media is always appreciated, and I found that stories from Iceland do pretty well. That’s partly because we never had someone here to report on them… I was one of the first freelancers to be hired. I’ve been working on local papers since I was at school, and I even worked on an entertainment/gossip magazine. I went to study in the United States, and I found it hard to get a job in Iceland when I came home, so I started pitching to the AP and other foreign media outlets. Now, all of my reporting, is for people outside Iceland.

EGILL BJARNASON is an Icelandic reporter.

How Iceland Changed the World: The Big History of a Small Island is available to buy now.

This article is a Fika Online exclusive.

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