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Árni Matthíasson's interview with Ásta Kristrún in MBL

Shortly before last Christmas, the book What Stays in the Silence was published, where Ásta Kristrún Ragnarsdóttir traces the life of her ancestors all over the country and around the world. In the book, she tells about the number of her relatives that she bases on childhood memories and the stories of her parents, Jónín Vigdís Schram and Ragnar Tómas Árnason. The stories go back more than two hundred years, but the largest chapter is about the author's grandparents, Kristrún Tómasdóttir and Árni Benediktsson.


- I spoke to a writer this autumn who mentioned that as we get older, the desire to know where we came from, what shaped us and why we are the way we are becomes stronger. Was there such a desire to get you started on the project?


"It was part of it, but no less so that I grew up with rather unusual things  conditions outside the city on a horse farm, with storytelling parents. Their stories that they were unspoken on colored my upbringing. I agree with what you say about the interest in the past increasing with age. I feel it around me and I have heard from many who have read my book that it acts as an incentive to look for a source. What shifts for me, though, is the title of the book. On the one hand, I write about significant forefathers who have had little to do but have known for as long as I can remember. I also try to get to the bottom of the silence that enveloped the life experiences of my father and his father.

Silence is often familial, something that is never discussed between relatives but affects us individuals.

- Another thing you notice as you get older is the need to tell, communicate to those who come after, to even break the silence.


"There you hit the nail on the head, it can be a great relief and at that age we start to see the context of things clearly when we look back.


Valgeir and I have traveled extensively with his show Saga Music and through them we met, among other things, Indian women on a journey. After listening to Valli sing about the people of the settlement age, one of them said what it had reminded her of her childhood experience. There was no school in the village where she grew up. The older people passed on knowledge to the young people through song and stories. It sat in the activity on the steps or in the square, singing and humming songs and tunes that contained information about history, culture and other things related to the wisdom of life.   


When I have story lessons for our guests here in Eyrarbakki, I am busy focusing on the fact that we all have our stories. It's so rewarding to see how people open their eyes and connect my stories with theirs.


- One thing is what you remember yourself, but the family memory is another, the memories that the family creates together, hones and refines. When you began to tread the path into the past, as you put it in the introduction to the book, you must have come across that this common story was not always accurate.


"Yes, everyone has their own personal experience and vision, so do not remember the same as the others. The life story of my paternal grandmother Kristrún Tómasdóttir has left its mark and affected all the descendants. It is a great blessing that my cousins and the children of those who have read the book are happy and satisfied with my writing.

The story I worked with is our common story and therefore the positive reactions of the relatives are very valuable to me. More than one person in the family has said that the book heals certain wounds, wounds that were experienced through our parents' wounds. But also closed the big wound that opened at the turn of the century when a book about our grandfather was written. That book was a novel, but the foundation is still based on my grandfather's life and written by an author outside the family.


I went out on the writing field alone when I started with this family novel. I felt I had to follow my heart and was afraid that I would get confused in the rhyme if I started asking my relatives for their versions, many of which could conflict. I kept thinking about them all the time, though, and I was afraid that the book would not fall into place with them. It is an indescribable experience to receive beautiful feedback from readers and not least from the relatives who I least of all wanted to respond to.


My oldest brother, who is nine years older than me and his wife, called me after reading the book to congratulate me. I held my breath, but released it quickly when I got these also beautiful strokes from them, they were overjoyed with both the content and the narrative. It turned out, however, that my brother said that there was one thing that had doubted him a bit ... Oh! I thought, of course, I must have done something wrong. However, I was immediately relieved when Kristján said it was when he did not know if we would do things differently or if it meant that what he remembered was not part of the fiction.


- The memory in us is not storage, it is a processing plant that is constantly changing and improving.


Yes, memory has been one of my favorite subjects in my profession.

After I quit my job at the University, I started a course called "Wealth of seniors". It taught us how to deal with life as we grow older. I read about aging psychology and talked to experts about what really happened to us in that new age.


As most people know, we have a left hemisphere and a right hemisphere. Storage takes place in the left hemisphere, while reception and processing take place in the right hemisphere. What we receive in the right hemisphere and process is preserved in the left hemisphere. As we age, we gradually reduce our intake of new substances and then our right hemisphere becomes sluggish. This is one of the reasons why older people are more active in reporting on the past. Those stories are true riches for those who listen.


When I am on the scene reading from my book, people often come to me expressing regret for not listening when it was offered. Unfortunately, I think this is happening more and more in our fast-paced society where we have access to most things except the experiences and feelings of our loved ones. Hopefully there will be a revival in this regard because life tends to go in a circle.


- In the introduction to the book, you say that you hope to be able to evoke understanding and empathy among readers with the people you tell. Didn't that also apply to the author himself ?.


"Certainly, because during the writing process, many doors of understanding opened and I saw a better connection between the parts. It can therefore be said that the writing and analysis of the story was thus a definite cure.


My dad was an absolute tough guy and an absolute marvel, but he was also very sensitive and closed when it came to it personally. He never talked about his childhood because of the pain that came to him only about the good memories. After Dad's death, Mom told me that Dad's biggest childhood years had gradually led to the silence he had struggled with for the last 15 years of his life. She had promised him not to talk to anyone about what had come so close to him, so his life was a mystery to me. That mystery was one of the main reasons why he needed to write the book in 2017, just 100 years after his birth.


Readers of "What Stays in Silence" no doubt perceive common patterns that I seek to draw out. Here I am referring to the influence of my father from his childhood and the influence of his father when he was a young boy. Then I try to connect the patterns of the two Kristrúna, Kristrún Tómasdóttir my paternal grandmother and Kristrún Jónsdóttir her paternal grandmother. The continuity of generations and its effect on those who come after it is the basic tone that I sought to strike.

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