Sally Breen’s response to The Promise of Iceland by Kari Gislason

Words by Sally Breen

Published on May 11, 2012

Dear Kari,

One question surfaced a lot for me while reading your memoir The Promise of Iceland  and sparked off many others … what is it about fathers?

Why do they remain so enigmatic even when they are by our sides, more so, perhaps when they are not? Why is our love for them somehow fiercer and different to the love we show and experience with our mothers? Why do families and women so often forgive fathers for their failings, tie rings around the rosy, make excuses, and keep them safe, mostly from themselves. Sometimes I feel as if the ‘father’ has had such metaphorical power, such gravitas across time and landscapes and cultures, that they are predestined to disappoint us; that no mythology can’t withstand the truth – that in the end, they are not our winged or bronzed or shielded heroes, they are only human too.

I think about you on your paper run, still a kid but all independent and proud and wanting to share that with your dad. How you used the paper run as a pretence to turn up to his hardware supply store and he didn’t buy a paper from you but his best friend Ragnar did. And you were only young but you knew what you were doing and what that lack of exchange meant. Such a tiny gesture to be refused. He was so afraid. And I wondered what he did after you left. How much he carried you around in his head. And you riding home, bereft.

You’re mum called him a ‘rotten bugger,’ and I was angry at him too.

Our dads were different. When you spoke with your father for the first time in person as a grown man and you noticed your face in his face I wanted him to take your hand, to get you out of the wind, to treat you like his boy and not his secret. He never really did. And I thought about my father’s eyes and how they were so much like mine and how much I miss them.

Our dads may have been different but their effects were the same. They defined the shape of our words and who we thought we were. What it meant to be a daughter or a son to a generation caught in a world cleaving from old ways to the next; certainly our dads were more lost than they ever liked to admit. It must have been easy on that day when you entered his store, that day he drove you out to the edge of the peninsula, and on many other occasions, to think he didn’t love you. Does love exist undemonstrated, undeclared or in silence? I wonder about this often now that my father is gone and you wondered about it for most of your life until the confirmation became irrelevant. You found another way through. And after meeting your half sisters and brothers you said that perhaps one of the greatest lessons in life, ‘was that you were never as far from being included as you thought you were’, that you weren’t alone. Your persistence, your will to claim a space that was no longer imagined, or solitary meant you found a place with your siblings that your old man would never give you.

You say writing is how you make sense of things. I think that too. And in reading The Promise of Iceland I felt powerfully, the unravelling of the messy, bitten off strings of your memory; in the beginning you were carrying this landscape around with you, Iceland, both real and imagined, a haunting place, that as readers we come to understand. You wrote about mountains which ‘fell into the sea like splayed book covers’, and I felt the words spilling, melting, the glacial like impenetrability of everything that wasn’t said, the frozen edges, the cold secrets inside the warm things. That space you found yourself in, so close but so far, reminded me of Eliot’s words – ‘shape without form, shade without colour, paralysed force, gesture without motion’.

This is what it means to feel fatherless.

And that I share with you. Our losses, though visited on us in different ways, are the things that have driven us to write.

The Iceland of your heart was a confusing place, a place that resisted introspection but which also, inexplicably, felt like home. The journey you made in this book was hard, living it probably harder. You write that making a memoir can bring you closer to yourself but that ‘you also lose some of the old certainties’, the stories we tell ourselves and it is hard to be certain of what it is we think we know.

You weren’t home yet, you said, but you would be.

Towards the end of the book when the course of your life shifted and you transitioned quite naturally from being a son to being a father, you found meaning in the gaps, in the spaces between the worlds you moved in and you liberated yourself from concerns of either or, from Australia or Iceland, from he loves me, he loves me not and instead this duality became a mode of being, an acceptance of a more fluid movement between things, and places, and loves, and not a limit or a restriction. Even in the face of death and desertion we continue to make maps in our heads. You showed us that the ‘tall and evergreen’ canopies of Brisbane existed for you in perpetuity and not instead of Iceland’s ‘rice paper light’.

You had always been a story maker – bestowing wildly glamorous vocations for your dad in the schoolyard because you could and as a young man having affairs and ending them to wallow in the poetry; words were for you ‘another room you could occupy’; your dad was a man, a ghost and your first character. If I could sit down with you now I probably wouldn’t bother with the questions I opened this letter with. What does it matter? The distance between a story, a life and a reading; between fiction and truth, between being there and not being there when the fathers and the places we call home will always be different and shifting and, of course, never ending and the same. You wouldn’t need to answer. You already understand this.

Thank you, Sally.


To celebrate the launch of our new website, Stilts hosted, ‘Brisbane Authors write letters and other things’: a chain letter for novels, memoir, poetry published in 2011.

Sally Breen is the author of evocative memoir set in the 90s, The Casuals.