Sarah Moss: As a bike-riding vegetarian feminist I can see why people might disagree with everything I think

My views are probably mostly of the sort you’d probably expect, but I’m certain about very few of them

Once or twice a year, I go to Copenhagen to give a guest lecture to creative writing students. Since I’ll never now belong anywhere in the way of people who spend their lives in one country or city, I treasure my collection of cities I can navigate without a map, without thinking about it, and I was pleased to find this time that Copenhagen is now one of them. As in Dublin, London, Manchester, Edinburgh, Reykjavik, Kyoto and a few more, my feet and my eyes know the way without giving my thoughts much trouble.

I’d been invited to talk about a memoir I wrote 15 years ago, about the year my family and I spent living in Iceland. That year, 2009 wasn’t the cleverest to choose – the economy collapsed and Eyjafjallajökull erupted around that time – but it was interesting and I learnt a lot, partly about being an immigrant in a small island nation with a strong and proud sense of national identity. (This may have come in handy in a more recent immigration.) I’d had no reason to look at that book again for many years, and it turned out we didn’t even have a copy in the house; I probably doubled the year’s sales by buying the e-book to read on the plane.

The opening pages filled me with pity and disdain for the narrator, my 34-year-old self. She was so sure of herself, that woman, so certain that she knew what was important and that her readers would share her knowledge. She knew her opinions – politics, economics, child-rearing, cooking – and knew them to be correct. She knew which elements of her family’s old life were to be retained and which could be allowed to alter, and it took her many months to begin to understand that she didn’t always get to choose how and what might change – that her agency was far more limited than the old life had allowed her to believe.

I messaged a couple of friends from the airport: I was insufferable, how did you put up with me? I admired the adventure, one said, I’d have liked to have the balls to move to Iceland with two small children because I felt like it. Maybe I envied your assurance, said the other, who has always seemed to me far more assured than I am, and with far better reason.


I’m not even certain about uncertainty, because there are obviously times and places for convictions, moments when it’s imperative to stand up and be counted, put your body on the street

Looking out as we crossed Scotland, I had the unnerving idea that perhaps in 15 years’ time – fates willing – my 63-year-old self will be as dismayed by the memoir I’m publishing this year as I am by the Iceland book. What I have learnt in the last 15 years seems to be mostly what I don’t know, how uncertain I should be, and how little I can rely on my own perceptions and ideas of the moment. I value this hard-won agnosticism highly, especially in the classroom, where it is a mark of confidence and competence to say happily to students that I don’t know, I don’t have the answer, let’s get curious and see what happens.

If you want to make art not war, curiosity is far more interesting than conviction; as Keats wrote admiringly of Shakespeare, “the ability to remain in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” is the font of creativity, and a sensible aspiration for a novelist who must see through many eyes and speak with many voices.

I wonder uneasily about my commitment to not-knowing when it seems that every individual is required to have a foreign policy, an immigration policy, an agriculture and environment policy, as if each of us were a nation state poised to send in the army or sign off a nuclear power plant. Naturally I have opinions, mostly of the sort you’d probably expect from a bike-riding vegetarian feminist academic, but I’m certain about very few of them and I can see why other people might disagree with almost everything I think.

I’m not even certain about uncertainty, because there are obviously times and places for convictions, moments when it’s imperative to stand up and be counted, put your body on the street. I’ve been doing that since my mother pushed the pram on Take Back the Night marches in the 1980s, but less so recently, since finding it harder to commit fully to one side of most – thankfully not all – debates.

If this goes on, in 15 years I’ll know nothing at all.

Sarah Moss is a novelist. She moved to Ireland in 2020 and teaches Creative Writing at UCD