Sjón in the study of Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen | Photography by Thomas A.
In his latest acclaimed novel, Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was, Sjón begins with a detailed description of a blow job. “We have no queer literature in Iceland,” the author explains, “so I made a decision to include quite graphic sexual scenes in the book. This came as a shock to many readers, but it was very important to me that I was absolutely honest about the life of this character.”
The book, about a 16-year-old gay kid in 1918 Reykjavík, when the town was struck by the Spanish flu, is not yet available in English (the translation is expected to be published next year). But it’s been a huge hit in Sjón’s homeland, as have his earlier works — including the three available in English: The Blue Fox, The Whispering Muse, and From the Mouth of the Whale — which have won devoted readers as well as awards. His historical novels mix dreamy surrealism with naked realism and poetry, and Sjón says he’s heavily influenced by the high drama of Icelandic sagas from the 12th and 13th centuries. For this book, however, he also wanted to introduce something new to the culture, which he says can easily slip into self-censorship and shyness.
“In 1962, I was born into a society where everything queer was heavily suppressed or hidden,” Sjón says. “But I’m also of a generation when people in Iceland started coming out. I experienced some of my older school friends slowly but hesitantly making their way out of the closet, so I realized what a struggle it was. It became obvious that some were living half lives — they never could be completely whole.”
One of Iceland’s most popular authors, Sjón is also Björk’s longtime friend and collaborator. After the two met as teenagers, he joined forces with the Sugarcubes, performing as Johnny Triumph, and even collaborated on the soundtrack for Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, for which Sjón was co-nominated for an Oscar along with von Trier for the song “I’ve Seen It All.”
“We discovered the power of the weird and the erotic,” says Sjón, who, although straight, identifies with queer culture, crediting David Bowie and William S. Burroughs as early influences. “We took the rebellious, DIY spirit of punk, but were more interested in the ridiculous.” He'll also be working with Björk on her upcoming retrospective exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 2015.
Sjón dedicated Moonstone to his uncle, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1993. The last few pages of the book tell his story. “To [acknowledge] someone who had been denied a place in our history was a very strong experience for me as a writer,” he says. “But this is not only a historical novel. I brought it to our times to leave no doubt that this is an ongoing story.”