Laura Steven: Tórshavn and Waters and Harbours in the North
When New Writing North first invited me to attend a week-long residency in the Faroe Islands, as part of the Water & Harbours project, I don’t think any of us fully appreciated how difficult Tórshavn is to get to. One quick look at Skyscanner told me that the cheapest way of flying there was Newcastle > Istanbul > Amsterdam > FAE. I wish I was joking. Still, after a lot of research we managed to cut travelling time from 46 hours to 13, flying via Heathrow and Copenhagen instead, which felt a lot more sensible.
The second I touched down, it was immediately worth the extensive travelling. The archipelago of islands is absolutely stunning – picture the landscapes of the Scottish Highlands crossed with the quirky, colourful architecture of Copenhagen. The people are friendly and passionate, and proud of their homeland; the taxi driver who picked me up at the airport delivered an eloquent and spirited lecture on local culture before dropping me off at the hotel. (I bumped into him the following morning at breakfast, before his shift at a nearby art gallery, and the next night in a restaurant where he arrived as part of an all-male choir to sing happy birthday to a diner. In the UK I would assume I was being stalked, but the Faroes are just small and bonkers like that.)
The next morning, I met my new colleagues at the Nordic House, a funky grass-roofed building with lots of glass atriums, leafy plants and a pop-up bookshop. Our residency group was comprised of young adult authors from Iceland and Sweden, plus both a visual artist and a children’s author from the Faroe Islands. After we all introduced ourselves and our work, we took a tour of some of the natives’ favourite places on the island, including the dramatic coastline and a shipyard turned artist’s studio. As magical as the day was, though, we managed to spend the whole time making friends, drinking coffee and taking pictures, and not a lot of time, you know… writing.
We only had two days left before our exhibition opened at Bókadagar Book Festival that weekend, and so we had to pull our act together sharpish. The brief was to create an audiovisual project around the theme of Water & Harbours, and, truth be told, we had no idea where to start. However, we were collectively intrigued by the idea of the sea as a common language, so we went our separate ways that evening tasked with writing a list of 30 words describing water in our mother tongue.
On Thursday morning, armed with a basket of groceries and 120 water-themed words, we loaded into a hire car and braved the snowstorm, heading up into the mountains to work in a beautiful house, owned (and built) by the Faroese artist’s family. His father had started collecting driftwood when he was thirteen-years-old, and eventually completed construction of the house in his thirties. It was cosy, quiet and warm, with a wood-burning stove and piles of handmade blankets; the very definition of ‘hygge’. And also, as it turned out, an environment conducive to creativity.
After a morning of brainstorming more ideas, we each holed ourselves up in a different nook and penned a poem inspired by either water or harbours – in our own language, and using as many of the words we’d come up with as possible. Here’s mine (the first poem I’d ever written in my adult life, so be gentle):
the language of waves
we drink coffee in a house made of driftwood
and speak the language of waves
cast away from the shore of differences
anchoring ideas in the sea
we break bread in a house made of driftwood
and talk in the tongue of tides
the flotsam of feuds and friction
sailing away on the stream
we tell tales in a house made of driftwood
and share the words of home
rarely lost in translation between
writers with salt in our blood.
We returned to Tórshavn proud of our day’s labour, but also vaguely aware that there’s nothing particularly ‘audiovisual’ about poems scrawled on flimsy sheets of A2 paper. So we vowed to meet up at the Nordic House early the next day to somehow transform our work into something festival-goers could watch, touch and listen to.
Ultimately our exhibition spanned three rooms. In the first, our poems were simply pinned to the wall and read as visitors entered the space. In the second, we showed a film shot by the visual artist – he spent all night filming the sea and the harbour, while we writers created a voiceover, reading aloud our lists of words and poems in our own languages and dialects.
For the third, we filled 48 glass jars with water, and inside each inserted a water-based word translated into each of our four languages. The words were written in black Sharpie on strips of overhead projector sheets, so they looked like they were floating and shimmering in the water. We arranged these jars on a white sheet on the floor, scrunched up into the shape of cresting waves, and then used a projector to cast a looped video of the swelling tide onto the installation. Keen to make the exhibition as interactive as possible, we surrounded the jars with sheepskin rugs for kids to lie on, as though they too were in the water. They were encouraged to pick the jars up, read the words inside, open the lids and dip their fingers into the water. It was one of the busiest rooms in the entire festival.
I learned several things on my trip to the Faroe Islands: taxi drivers have the best local knowledge; introducing yourself and your work is never as scary as you think; you haven’t seen real waves until you’ve visited Tórshavn; nearly everything edible in the Faroes is pickled; it’s amazing how much work you can accomplish in two days; and people who have grown up by the sea are connected in ways you can’t really put into words – but you can always try.
See images from Laura’s trip and read the blogs about the other exchanges at the Waters and Harbours in the North project page.
Laura Steven is an author, journalist and screenwriter from the northernmost town in England. The Exact Opposite of Okay, her YA debut, will be published by Egmont in March 2018. As well as mentoring aspiring authors through schemes like Writing In The Margins and Pitch Wars, Laura works for Mslexia, a non-profit organisation supporting women writers. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Northumbria University, and her TV pilot Clickbait – a mockumentary about journalists at a viral news agency – reached the final eight in British Comedy’s 2016 Sitcom Mission. Laura is represented by Suzie Townsend of New Leaf Literary and Media Inc.