Reykjavík: City of Literature

Book mural Reykjavík
© Kjartan Már Ómarsson

Iceland has a strong literary tradition and its capital Reykjavíc alwasy identified as a literary city. In 2011, the UNESCO title City of Literature made it official. Kjartan Már Ómarsson, the project manager, talked with Annika Depping about international connections, creativity as a motor for change and Werder Bremen.

What makes your city a City of Literature and since when does it have the title?

Reykjavík, the capital city of Iceland, holds the prestigious title of a UNESCO City of Literature. This designation was bestowed upon Reykjavík in 2011, making it the fifth city that was part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network in the field of literature, and the first non English speaking city to be designated. The City of Literature title recognizes Reykjavík's rich literary heritage, vibrant literary scene, and its significant contributions to the world of literature, such as its historical literary heritage. Reykjavík boasts a strong literary tradition that dates back centuries, with its famous Icelandic Sagas being one of the most notable examples. Reykjavík also has a bustling contemporary literary scene that includes a diverse range of authors, poets, publishers, and literary events. The city is home to numerous bookstores, libraries, and literary festivals that celebrate the written word and foster a sense of community among literary enthusiasts.

Book Fair Reykjavík
© Kjartan Már Ómarsson

More about the UNESCO City of Literature Reykjavík

Reykjavík City of Literature places a significant emphasis on promoting reading and writing among its residents and visitors. Initiatives such as public readings, writing workshops, and literary events help nurture a culture of literature appreciation and creation. Reykjavík is further home to various literary landmarks, including the National Library of Iceland, which houses a vast collection of Icelandic literature and manuscripts. The city hosts various literary festivals throughout the year, such as Iceland Noir and the Reykjavík International Literary Festival, where both local and international authors come together to share their work and engage in discussions on literature and related topics.

With which projects did your city apply for the title City of Literature?

Since Reykjavík came in early on the process wasn‘t like it is today. Kristín Ingu-Viðarsdóttir, who was my predesessor put together a dossier why Reykjavík was qualified for the designation. One might argue, in fact, that Reykjavík had always been a literary city, it just hadn‘t been designated – a bit of an chicken and egg conundrum.

The title provides a platform for the city to showcase its achievements, collaborate globally, and contribute to the broader conversation on how creativity can drive positive change in urban environments.

Authors on stage Reykjavík
© Kjartan Már Ómarsson
Reading in Reykjavík
© Kjartan Már Ómarsson

What does it mean for your city to be part of UNESCO’s Creative Cities?

For Reykjavík, being a part of UNESCO's Creative Cities holds significant meaning and brings forth a multitude of opportunities and advantages. As a member of this network, Reykjavík becomes part of a global community of cities that are committed to harnessing creativity and cultural innovation for sustainable development. Being designated as a Literary City by UNESCO acknowledges Reykjavík's vibrant creative scene and its contributions to various creative fields. This recognition places the city on an international platform, fostering collaboration, exchange of ideas, and partnerships with other creative cities around the world. It provides a platform for the city to showcase its achievements, collaborate globally, and contribute to the broader conversation on how creativity can drive positive change in urban environments.

What were your first steps after receiving the title?

Creating the City of Literature Office and start developing the projects. A lot of effort was put into literarty landmarks like these, international cooperation and grassroots projects were also eminent – and still are a large part of your day to day.

Through the network, our city has found a platform to partake in collective projects and undertakings, elevating our global influence and enabling us to contribute to the broader dialogue surrounding creativity and culture.

How did it continue from there?

Well I wasn‘t there at the time. However, its been ten years and we are still going strong, trying to help out the best way we can. And we fully plan to keep it up.

Which international relations and projects emerged for your city after joining the Creative Cities Network?

I wouldn't like to pinpoint anything specific, really. The network is an ever-active community that consistently extends opportunities to members, promoting collaborative efforts for mutual advantages. Post becoming part of the Creative Cities Network, our city witnessed the rise of diverse international relationships and ventures that have enriched our cultural and creative landscape. These endeavors have entailed partnerships with fellow Creative Cities worldwide, nurturing exchanges of concepts, methods, and experiences across domains like culture, creativity, and sustainable urban advancement. Through the network, our city has found a platform to partake in collective projects and undertakings, elevating our global influence and enabling us to contribute to the broader dialogue surrounding creativity and culture. These affiliations and projects mirror our dedication to channeling creativity for affirmative transformation and progress within our local community and beyond.

Writer thinking
© Kjartan Már Ómarsson
Book Fair Reykjavík
© Kjartan Már Ómarsson

In your opinion, what are the benefits of such a cultural exchange?

Cultural exchange, encompassing various forms, literary as well as beyond, yields a multitude of benefits. It fosters mutual understanding by providing insights into distinct customs, beliefs, and values, thereby nurturing empathy and dismantling stereotypes. Alongside this, these exchanges refine communication skills and broaden perspectives, leading to personal growth and adaptability. Furthermore, cultural exchange fosters language proficiency and stimulates innovative thinking by exposing individuals to diverse viewpoints. It contributes to tolerance and acceptance, operating as a means of soft diplomacy that bolsters international relationships. Ultimately, cultural exchange enriches both individuals and societies, facilitating connections, propelling economic expansion, and constructing bridges of comprehension across boundaries. The opportunity to learn from the network, whether it's the project managers at Reykjavík City of Literature or our local writers collaborating with other creatives from the network, is truly exceptional.

RVK poetics Reykjavík
© Kjartan Már Ómarsson

What tips and suggestions do you have for Bremen’s application?

Your application is an opportunity to highlight your city's literary strengths, aspirations, and dedication to nurturing a dynamic, culturally enriched literary environment.

I‘d recomend getting to know UNESCO's criteria for City of Literature designation to align your application. Showcase your historical literary achievements, notable authors, works, and events. Discuss contemporary literary vitality, local authors, libraries, festivals, and writing communities. You could detail your engagement with the community through reading, writing, and educational collaborations. Emphasize international cooperation, diversity, and potential contributions to the global literary network.

Outline lasting impact on cultural growth and economic development. Include support letters from stakeholders. Present future plans, well-structured and concise. Learn from UNESCO Cities of Literature connections. Utilize local assets to underline literary significance. Express your city's passion and vision. Collaborate widely with stakeholders. Articulate your city's long-term commitment to the designation's responsibilities and opportunities.

What do you associate with Bremen?

The Icelandic National Broadcasting Service used to show football matches from the Bundesliga. They had a team called Werder Bremen. That‘s the only thing I know, if I‘m supposed to answer truthfully.

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