In Conversation with Parker Yamasaki

Parker Yamasaki: The link between “travel and art-making” runs through the magazine. What of your own experience has led to your interest in these subjects?

KT Browne: I lived in Taiwan for a year before moving to Iceland. While I was there I taught English and finished a novel I’d been working on. It was a big, perhaps drastic decision to leave a wonderful circle of friends in Los Angeles that I had been a part of, but that move opened up new areas of interest for me, most notably, what it means to be an artist in transit. I was often alone in Taiwan, frequently traveling around SE Asia, and feeling both creatively inspired by the travel experience and deeply removed from much of the region’s political and societal realities.

 

What were some social and political realities at the time you were traveling? Can you think of any specific moments that you had this feeling?

I remember mentioning to one of my Taiwanese co-workers that I wanted to visit China while I was there. Her reaction was one of disapproval. “But why?” she asked me, as though I had just told her I had plans to visit Antarctica without a coat. I later learned that my arrival to Taiwan closely followed the cessation of The Sunflower Student Movement, which was a movement protesting the passing of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement between China and Taiwan—an agreement which essentially liberalized trade between the two economies. Culturally speaking, Taiwanese (especially the young) see themselves as Taiwanese, not as Chinese, and often resist being at all associated with China. The more I spoke to people, the more I realized how deeply this sentiment ran alongside a growing sense of Taiwanese nationalism and a desire to gain political and cultural independence from China after a long history of dependence. There was also a generational mindset-gap at play in this tension as well; the older generations were not as vehemently opposed to the agreement as the younger were, in part because they were happy with maintaining the status quo and didn’t see the need to rethink cross-strait trade relations.

It felt tender to speak about China to the Taiwanese, and so eventually I refrained. I also didn’t feel as though my cultural understanding was deep enough to be able to participate politically in an accountable way. This, plus not being Taiwanese, nor having strong connections to the country ultimately led me to feel removed from the sociopolitical climate, similarly to the way I felt removed from the recent Women’s Marches in the US during my time here in Iceland—I was able to observe, reflect, but could not partake. This thought train lead me to question belonging in a new way. To what degree does anyone belong to a place if they can only view it as an outsider? Must we participate in society—and if so, how, and to what degree—in order to be a part of it? Is it enough to simply exist?

 

Love the questions that you ask. So, did you ever end up visiting China?

Sadly, no. I lived in the southern part of Taiwan—Tainan City—and getting a Chinese visa would have required me to make the 3-hour trip up to Taipei during the week, which proved difficult in the face of my work schedule. I did end up getting rather close to China, however—some 2 kilometers away from it when I visited Taiwan’s Kinmen Island. After a failed attempt at renting and riding a moped (it’s not the same thing as riding a bike), I set out on foot to explore the island—a lush and storied place known for its decommissioned military sites and massive underground tunnels that were used during wartime. There is one particular spot on Kinmen that boasts the best view of Xiamen, so I headed there. There was exactly zero cloud cover that day, I remember, but still the sky could not seem to shake this hazy, grayish filter which grew heavier over the city’s skyline. So I saw China from Taiwan, knowing so little about the place before me and yet simultaneously felt a part of it, if anything, for merely being human with the right to clean air.

I was also lucky to have been able to get to Thailand and Malaysia; both stirring, kaleidoscopic places in their own right.

To backtrack for a moment, the discrepancy between my personal reality and the realities surrounding me got me wondering about the responsibility of art-making abroad—to what extent are artists responsible for representing or interpreting in the context of new cultural, social, or political climates? Should artists be held accountable for making work that somehow offers commentary on the current issues in their host country, or is it enough to make work that satisfies the individualistic impulse to simply observe, record, and create based on visual and behavioral happenstances?

Ultimately, these questions lead me to adopt a new angle to how I observed the spaces around me. I started to go out of my way to listen to the tones of conversations, for example, and to notice the way people embraced or shied away from the relentless East Asian sun, and I started to pay closer attention to my senses, to how I felt in certain public spaces, and how I imagined others felt there, too. All anyone can do is work with what they have, and I eventually decided to think of my cultural blind spots as a means to engage the unknown in a new way. This, in essence, is what it means to travel. Naturally, I’m interested in finding and publishing work that touches upon these ideas as well.

What also sparked my interest in the link between travel and art-making was my experience with community. Thomas Swick (a phenomenal travel writer) writes,

“Often, though, travel is sad because what we see doesn’t include us. Much of a travel writer’s life is spent watching other people have fun. Everyone who travels has the same experience; we’re all outsiders, excluded from the action. Being left out is never pleasant, but in travel it’s even more frustrating because a few days ago you were not just part of a group, of friends or family; you were the envied and celebrated member, the one heading off, as the travel brochures put it, for exciting adventures in exotic lands.”

A lot of the art and literary worlds are defined by the notion that they are communities, which is great. I think that having a community as an artist is a pretty crucial part of making art in general, but that’s not to say that being part of a community is always a given. Being part of a community is a privilege. And sometimes, artists—like everyone—are very alone. This can be especially true while traveling, as Swick observes. So while I was living in Taiwan, alone for most of the time, I also started to become curious about the implications for artists without a community, in places where art isn’t so readily apparent, perhaps in cultures or environments where you’re working against the grain, so to speak, without the feedback of like-minded individuals, or in situations where you’re trying to be recognized and appreciated by a population that just has different interests. Living in Iceland has extended this curiosity. And though the cultures of Iceland and Taiwan are quite different, the notion that you’re a foreigner making artwork outside of a certain sociocultural norm is still apparent.

I would often head to a local park during my breaks between teaching classes. It was a beautiful spot with benches surrounding a pond, shaded by bamboo trees and mangroves. I loved watching the way others spent their time there; I noticed that many would spend hours just walking around the park in circles, a small radio slung around their neck. Those who sat in the sun sheltered themselves with umbrellas, which I thought of as a happy medium between embracing and rejecting the sun; between sunlessness and sunburn. Taiwan has a subtropical climate, and so the sun can be extremely strong, not to mention physically draining. To avoid the sun while riding a scooter, for instance, people wore specially made sleeves to cover their arms. Although more interesting to me was the secondary reason for this general aversion to the sun—untanned skin is deemed more sophisticated in Taiwan, as it implies you work inside, in an office, or so a friend of mine explained. Tanned skin implies manual labor, outdoor work. I found this fascinating, as it’s essentially the opposite of how we view sun-tanned skin in the west, which signifies travel, vacation, but perhaps more pertinently, an ability to do those things. Still, both views similarly relate to wealth and privilege.

 

You mentioned in your e-mail that the articles are published in both Icelandic and English in attempt to bridge the growing divide between locals of Skagaströnd and residents at Nes listamiðstöð. Have you witnessed this divide firsthand?

I have. I think it’s a difficult thing to describe, since this ‘divide’ is not so quantifiable but rather felt. Skagaströnd is a small (roughly 500 people) close-knit community with a deep history and an industry that’s largely based around fisheries. Artistic incentives sometimes go unnoticed here, especially if they involve visitors rather than locals. Nes listamiðstöð holds an exhibition once a month, and though there is a solid group of regulars who attend, they represent only a small fraction of the community. I’m even guilty of not attending as often as I should, and to that end, I think it’s easy to shy away from the unfamiliar when you’re so comfortable with the status quo; it’s easy to hide inside your home and forget that you’ve got to make an effort to reach out to newcomers and embrace change. Generally speaking, however, there doesn’t seem to be too much interest in the temporary residents of Skagaströnd, perhaps because they are, by nature, temporary; they have no familial ties to the town (which seems to be an important aspect of ‘belonging’ here), nor to Iceland in most cases; to invest in them means an eventual goodbye, and sometimes it’s easier to see the difficulty in this reality rather than the upside, which is not to say it’s the right way to go about it.

This is a tricky subject to navigate analytically, because on the one hand, measures are being taken to highlight the importance of the arts in these remote parts of Iceland; local funding organizations are investing time and money into cultural initiatives—ICEVIEW is generously supported by one of them—for example, but without similar enthusiasm on the community level, things tend to stop short. That being said, I believe that we could be doing a lot more individually. We could be caring more about integrating different populations residing in the same place—not just in Skagaströnd, but throughout Iceland—by investing ourselves more in the arts, and in the idea of difference in general. In an environment that’s so remote and already so socially rooted, it’s absolutely essential to get to know who you’re living around and with—and going the extra mile to have a conversation with them—if only for a short period of time. We can learn from one another, to put it simply. We can show up. It’s about making people feel welcome, whoever you are, wherever you come from, whatever you do. Community dynamics are absolutely critical to one’s experience in a place, for better or for worse.

 

What indications did you have that this was a situation requiring attention, and when (in that process of thinking) did ICEVIEW come to play?

I felt like a bit of an outsider when I moved here and definitely noticed a lack of interaction between the locals of the community, and the artists-in-residence. In other words, the permanent and temporary residents. It could be that the two populations have so little in common, which is fine (and a fact of life sometimes), but I also believe that you don’t need to have anything in common with someone to benefit from their existence. And further, you don’t really know whether or not you connect with someone until you get to know them. 

I just recently met a long-time resident of Skagaströnd who makes these beautiful handmade fish leather books. Why have I just met him recently, after I’ve lived here almost two years? Why have we not involved him more with Nes? What could I have done differently? I also frequently notice that large portions of the town’s population turn up for church or school-organized events (packed parking lots are a dead giveaway), but far fewer show up for Nes events. The the pendulum does swing both ways, though. Artists frequently come here with the desire to meet the locals, often with an attitude of amazement and wonder. Sometimes, this awe enters the realm of investigation, which I’d imagine could arise feelings of discomfort within the local community, who—like anyone in a similar position—may notice themselves being closely observed and shy away from interacting further.

An artist recently submitted their work to ICEVIEW and included a statement which used the term “genuine Icelanders”. On the one hand, I found this word choice amusing, but also recognized it perpetuating the notion of the other, making Icelanders out to seem less like regular people and more like rare objects encased in glass in a museum. I think one of the difficulties artists face when they’re traveling is figuring out how to go about engaging with environments and populations in a respectful, informed way.

All this seems to highlight the disparity between the permanent and temporary communities here, and indicates a certain lack; whether that’s within our communication strategies, attitude, or mindset it doesn’t really matter, since of utmost importance is that this lack be recognized. From there, we have something to work with. Such observations led me to further develop ICEVIEW as an attempt to break down this divide within the community and make all residents—whether permanent or temporary—feel more welcome.

I also recognized that language barriers could be contributing to this divide as well, which is how the idea to make the journal bilingual came about. There’s so much wonderful Icelandic literature that never gets translated into English, and vice versa. By translating our magazine’s content, we are literally breaking down the language barriers and increasing accessibility to the arts.

At the same time, I’m wary of implying that change is needed simply because I observe this to be so. At most, what I can offer is one perspective, and perhaps through sharing that, contribute to a wider understanding of a place and a people.

 

Was it your first time in Iceland when you moved to Skagaströnd? Or had you visited before? Also, if I may indulge in the classic: why Iceland?

No, it wasn’t my first time in Iceland. Originally, I came here as a writer-in-residence with Nes, in 2015. I left when my visa ran out after three months, spent some time at home in New York, and then moved back in 2016 (I had fallen in love with an Icelandic man I’d met during my initial trip there). 

 

Can you tell me about your very first impressions of Iceland? Did you go straight to Skagaströnd for the residency or did you first spend time in Reykjavík? How did you get to Skagaströnd and what were you thinking along the way, and once you got there?

I landed in Keflavík sometime after midnight at the beginning of August, so I was prepared to witness the midnight sun, which isn’t to say that it awed me any less. To spend a whole life going to sleep at night in the dark and then suddenly experience the opposite really shakes up your sense of time in a way that no level of jet lag can ever do. I was due to stay in Reykjavík for two nights before heading to Skagaströnd. When the taxi dropped me off at my hotel, I did not enter the hotel. I instead followed the sound of music and the noise of a crowd towards the city center—I had arrived smack in the middle of Innipúkinn Festival. It was a fabulous welcome to Iceland. Despite my travel-induced weariness, I wandered into the middle of the crowd, luggage in tow, and ate a taco, mesmerized by the serendipity, by the beer-brightened crowds, and by the reality of having finally, finally (!) gotten to Iceland.

I took Strætó to Skagaströnd a couple days later. It was a special moment when we passed beyond the city lines and into the country: my recognition of Iceland’s terrain from photographs met the newness of the firsthand experience of actually being there, and this conjured a profound sensation within me, almost as if Iceland had been long awaiting my arrival, a feeling that was not dissimilar to returning home after a long stint away. I was, of course, smitten with the landscape initially. I think it’s difficult not to be.

I was warned that the driver who would take me from Blönduós to Skagaströnd could not speak English, so I wrote out my address for him on a piece of paper. He nodded with total confidence, shifting into drive. Seeing Skagaströnd emerge as cozy nook against the sea was not just picturesque, it felt borderline unreal. It seemed like a place that didn’t realize how beautiful it was, perhaps because the absence of signage depicting tourist attractions and natural landmarks kept the town’s presence unassuming; initially, it felt like some kind of hideaway, a place beyond all places. The red, yellow, and green double-story house that I was staying in only added to this surrealness, as did the absence of people on the streets and the total, almost obliterating silence at nighttime; all of which also contributed to my rising suspicion that time, in Skagaströnd, had stopped.

I discovered the band Sigur Rós as a teenager and remember thinking, What is this…this incredible noise?! Where does it come from? Even earlier than that, though, I recall flying to Spain on a family vacation and looking at the in-flight moving map as we crossed over the North Atlantic. Reykj….avi…what? I distinctly remember a mounting sense of confusion as I attempted to sound out the impossible arrangement of consonants, yet also a sense of wonder at how anybody could possibly live that far north. From then on out, Iceland was on my radar. By the time we landed in Spain, I was already proclaiming to my parents, “I need to go to Iceland.” And when they asked me why, I said, “I just do.”

So Iceland became this point of curiosity for me a long time ago, one that grew over the years and eventually turned into a fierce sense that I had to get there. Turns out my gut was right.

 

Do you remember exactly when you took this trip to Spain? How old you were or anything like that?

I must have been about twelve when I took this trip to Spain. I say this because I distinctly remember being fifteen when I first discovered Sigur Rós, bought a poster from their fourth album ‘Takk’, and hung it up in my bedroom. I actually think it’s still there today, sort of as a quiet reminder that life tends to leave clues about where you’re headed if you look for them.

 

Published interview available in The Reykjavík Grapevine, July 2017.