Gunnars, Kristjana

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GUNNARS, Kristjana

Nationality: Canadian. Born: Reykjavik, Iceland, 19 March 1948. Education: Oregon State University, B.A. 1973; University of Regina, Saskatchewan, M.A. 1978. Family: Married Charles Kang in 1967 (separated 1980); one son. Career: High school teacher, Althyduskolinn, Eidum, Iceland, 1974–75; instructor of twentieth-century literature, University of Regina, Saskatchewan, 1979; editorial assistant, Iceland Review, Reykjavik, 1980–81. Since 1981 freelance writer, editor, and translator. Awards: Ontario Arts Council awards, 1981, 1984; Manitoba Arts Council awards, 1983, 1985; Alberta Foundation for the Literary Arts award, 1986, 1987; McNally Robinson prize, 1989, and Manitoba Book of the Year, 1989, for The Prowler.Address: Turnstone Press, 607–100 Arthur Street, Winnipeg, Manitoba R3B 1H3, Canada.



One-Eyed Moon Maps. Toronto, Press Porcepic, 1980.

Settlement Poems. Winnipeg, Turnstone Press, 1980.

Wake-Pick Poems. Toronto, Anansi, 1981.

The Night Workers of Ragnarok. Toronto, Press Porcepic, 1985.

Carnival of Longing. Winnipeg, Turnstone Press, 1989.

Exiles among You. Regina, Saskatchewan, Coteau Books, 1996.


The Prowler: A Novel. Red Deer, Alberta, Red Deer College, 1989.

The Substance of Forgetting. Red Deer, Alberta, Red Deer College Press, 1992.

Short Stories

The Axe's Edge. Toronto, Press Porcepic, 1983.

The Guest House, and Other Stories. Concord, Ontario, Anansi, 1992.


Zero Hour. Red Deer, Alberta, Red Deer College Press, 1991.

The Rose Garden: Reading Marcel Proust. Red Deer, Alberta, Red Deer College Press, 1996.

Night Train to Nykøbing. Red Deer, Alberta, Red Deer College Press, 1998.


Critical Studies: "Icelandic Rhythms" by George Johnson, in Canadian Literature (Vancouver), 92, spring 1982; "Troll Turning: Poetic Voice in the Poetry of Kristjana Gunnars," in Canadian Literature (Vancouver), 105, summer 1985, and "Ground of Being," in Canadian Literature (Vancouver), 111, winter 1986, both by M. Travis Lane; "Arctic Miracles, Dethroned Fables" by Patricia Keeney Smith, in The Canadian Forum, LXVI(758), April 1986; "Transformation of the "I": Self and Community in the Poetry of Kristjana Gunnars" by Paul Hjartarson, in Canada and the Nordic Countries, edited by Jorn Carlsen and Bengt Streijffert, Lund, Lund University Press, 1988; "The White Inuit Speaks: Contamination As Literary Strategy" by Diana Brydon, in Past the Last Post: Theorizing Post-Colonialism and Post-Modernism, edited by Ian Adam and Helen Tiffin, Calgary, University of Calgary Press, 1990; "Staring into Snow: Subjectivity and Design in Kirstjana Gunnars' the Prowler" by John Lent, in Recherches Anglaises et Nord-Americaines (Strasbourg, France), 24, 1991; "Intertextual Notes in a Metafictional Autobiography: The Prowler by Kristjana Gunnars" by Cristina Gheorghe, in Scandinavian-Canadian Studies (North York, Ontario), 4, 1991; "Gender, Narrative, and Desire in The Prowler" by Daniel Coleman, in Textual Studies in Canada, 4, 1994; by Janice Kulyk Keefer, in Brick, 51, winter 1995; "Kristjana Gunnars and the Book of Small" by J.S. Porter, in Antigonish Review, 113, spring 1998; "Icelandic-Canadian Literature and Anglophone Minority" by Daisy Neijmann, in World Literature Today (Norman, Oklahoma), 73(2), spring 1999.

Kristjana Gunnars comments:

Since we are living in a world wherein change takes place faster than our ability to absorb it, the writer's task is more urgent than ever. Writers are there to absorb new realities and examine how our lives are impacted by shifts in consciousness and understanding. A careful writer will allow the forms of literature to respond to changing needs of readers. Rather than adhering to centuries-old divisions between genres, new writers are better off interrelating prose and poetry, fiction and nonfiction, in ways that allow the reader's imagination to be open to new realities. It is worth remembering that the categories of "novel" and "poetry" and "nonfiction" are market-driven terms. It is up to the writer to make the market respond to the work, rather than the other way around.

*  *  *

If there is a key to Kristjana Gunnars's writing, both poetry and prose, it is the following sentence: "I am enamoured of … the rediscovery of life" (from the chapbook Water, Waiting, issued in 1987). Many poets have expressed their love of life, and some have lamented its loss, but few have given expression to their love of its rediscovery. For Gunnars the past is there to be brought back to life through the act of remembering those who went before. This is the act of turning one's predecessors into one's ancestors, and it is an important act for this poet because she has staked her poetry and prose on the act of remembering the lives of the hardy pioneers from Iceland who settled along the shores of the lakes of Manitoba in the second half of the nineteenth century. Gunnars herself is a latter-day immigrant from Iceland. Along with the story writer W.D. Valgardson, she has made it her mission to draw to the attention of Canadian readers this square in the country's multicultural patchwork quilt.

Gunnars's poetry seems to reverberate with the heavy stresses of Old Norse. The poet George Bowering has written that "Gunnars's poems sound and feel as if they have lasted a few thousand years, they are that careful." Her early work, found in the two volumes of Settlement Poems (1980), makes use of documentary technique and the so-called found manner to bring back to life the early pioneer settlers. Some of the poems reproduce lines from settlers' journals and other documents, as in the following:

   july 1, 1877: the first
   rain may 5, grass
   sprouts, leaves burst

Other poems are more expressive of the poet than they are of the lot of the settler. In "From Memory II" Gunnars wrote,

   You want to know the trick of fertility
   want to know the trick of infertility
   to know how to stay together
   know if the other is faithful
   I'm forgetting fast
   it's a long trip from glasgow to Quebec
   this is the last story I'll tell

At times Gunnars's poems recall the first-person narratives of Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology. The thirty poems that comprise One-Eyed Moon Maps (1980) are "shaped by ancient Norse myth, the mystery of runes, and the magic of modern technology." Rather in the manner of a meditation on the tarot cards, Gunnars free-associates on rune stones. The results are enigmatic, inconclusive. Here are some lines from "Wall":

   the grave of rest
   the doors that open
   i don't want to look at earth
   but up, at moon…
   in the north, up there
   you can't die

A grim and remorseless humor is expressed in Wake-Pick Poems (1981), where in "Changeling XV" Gunnars writes that

   it isn't easy to be troll
   trolls take everything you've got
   take your innocence
throw it away

The poem "The Silent Hand" from The Night Workers of Ragnarök (1985) seems to imply a shift in the author's concern from the past and even the present to the future:

   we cannot be sure where
   we come from. all
   that matters is
   where we long to go
   the silent hand that draws us

Later books offer more personal poems. One example is "Gullfoss" in Carnival of Longing (1989), with its contemporary sentiments about the danger that lurks in apparently harmless words:

   I have written words to you
   and I imagine they have become knives
   that my words injure

In the journal-like contents of Zero Hour (1991) there is a sense of looking ahead to a future fraught with the threat of global or even celestial conflagration:

   I have come to that place in life where there
   is nothing below. There are no
   lower numbers.

In her writing Gunnars has embraced the distant past, the difficult present, and the unforeseeable future. She has celebrated nearly forgotten heroes of the nineteenth century and contrasted their almost mythic lives with the ironic lives of denizens of the late twentieth century. She writes with an intensity that, given her spare, lean style, is surprising. Her achievement lies in her willingness and ability to imbue Canadian poetry with a sense of the passing of generations.

—John Robert Colombo