By Janet Rowe
Portrait by Lisa Smith
Eliza Reid ’98 would never have guessed she would become First Lady of Iceland. After growing up on an Ottawa-area farm and studying international relations at Trinity, Reid met her husband, Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, at Oxford University. The couple moved to Iceland, where Reid works as a writer and editor and, in 2014 she co-founded the successful Iceland Writers Retreat for literary fiction and nonfiction (guest speakers have included the likes of Susan Orlean and Madeleine Thien). Then, people started urging Guðni, a modern history professor often called on by the media for political commentary, to run for public office. He was elected president— a position comparable to that of Canada’s Governor General—in June 2016. Reid chats about her journey from student days to state dinners.
JR: The grapevine says you made the most of life at Trinity.
ER: I have incredibly fond memories! I lived at St. Hilda’s the whole time, and I played intramural football, sang in the chapel choir, helped with the yearbook, was co-president of the Trinity College Dramatic Society in my third year, and Head of College in my final year. And all my closest friends are people that I met when I was at Trinity more than 20 years ago.
So when is the Iceland Trinity Retreat happening?
That would be fun, right? We have had a few little Trinity connections so far: One of the first featured authors who taught at the Iceland Writers Retreat was Randy Boyagoda [’99], who I know from Trinity.
The Retreat features writers from many countries. What is that dynamic like?
We wanted to bring together like-minded people—people who enjoy writing, in whatever capacity. So we get professional writers in literary fiction and non-fiction and in some other fields—we’ve had cookbook authors come. We get people who self-publish, and people who just keep a diary and think that’s fun. It seems to work well. People are in a new environment, and in a mindset where they want to share that experience together.
What’s your recommended reading for people new to Icelandic literature?
The sagas are for people who might like something older and classic. Then from the last century, there’s Halldór Laxness, an author who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955. But then there are a lot of novelists getting an audience in the English language now. People like Sjón—he’s done lyrics for Björk songs, and he has several novellas out in English. And there are quite a few popular crime fiction novelists. Iceland has one of the highest book publishing rates per capita in the world, so there is a lot of material to choose from.
Why is Iceland so literary?
Like many others, it’s a storytelling culture. And unusually—or not!—many of the stories have been written down rather than being told exclusively orally. In the Renaissance, when other countries built architecture or developed music, Iceland had no money and materials for things like that. But they wrote books and shared stories. I have been told that children were confirmed in the Church only if they could read. So there’s always been a strong emphasis on being literate.
After the Second World War, it was difficult to import goods. Books became the most popular Christmas presents, and remain so today. In fact, most of the new books for the year get published for the Christmas season, and authors are very busy doing readings. My husband, who has written several books, has done readings at the edge of one of the outdoor geothermal hot tubs, at a fish processing factory—all over the place.
You must be getting more public attention yourself, now that you are First Lady. How are you coping?
It’s a great adventure. Iceland is a fairly informal society, and within the country I’m more recognized, but not bothered— people aren’t coming up and talking to me. I can in many ways lead a pretty similar existence to before.
But not identical. Do you now have greater opportunities to champion charities important to you?
Yes! I’m patron of four charities right now: the SOS Children’s Villages, which raises funds to care for abandoned children around the world; Eyrarrósin, an annual arts and culture award for areas outside the Icelandic capital; the Alzheimer Iceland society; and a group called Pieta Iceland, which is working to build a house to do suicide-prevention counselling. I want to be active in the areas of community involvement, in volunteerism and gender equality. One of the nice parts of the job is that I am able to shape it as I’d like.
Have you had to give up your journalism work?
I stopped editing Icelandair’s inflight magazine, mostly because I want to be able to devote a lot of time to this project of being First Lady. I also felt it might be strange to be writing about one area of the country and not another. But it was very important for me to keep up something of my own professional background, so I do the Retreat still. I think that work, a lot of which is promoting Iceland’s literary heritage abroad, fits very nicely with my First Lady role.
When you meet other heads of state, are you tempted to interview them?
I’m an extrovert. I like people and I like talking to them. I studied international relations at Trinity, and I have an interest in diplomacy, so that’s certainly a very interesting dimension of the job for me. We haven’t really met that many heads of state so far, though. We had dinner with Ban Ki-moon, the former head of the United Nations, and his wife Yoo (Ban) Soon-taek. We’ve met Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland. And soon we’re going to Denmark on our first state visit, and we’ll stay at the palace and have a gala dinner with Queen Margrethe. Maybe it will all start sinking in then!
Are you drawing on any experience from your Trinity days in this adventure?
Obviously because I was studying international relations, now that’s very helpful. But I always say that most of my learning went on outside of the classroom—I picked up things like interpersonal skills, time management, leadership, public speaking, the benefits of creating a personal network. When I became Head of College, I had to help decide what projects to allocate money to, for example. There were innumerable opportunities to make significant decisions, deal with faculty and fellow students, and feel like I was making a real contribution to student life.
Trinity, like most universities, gives you exposure to people of different interests and backgrounds than your own. And that’s a good thing. It’s really fascinating to see the different paths people take. Twenty years ago, my group of five friends said we should write down what we think we’re going to be doing when we’re really, really old—like 35. And most of us are today doing completely different things than we imagined back then. That’s the great story of life. You don’t know what’s going to happen around the corner.