It’s been said that a person’s home is their castle, but that may not be entirely true. In the words of Italian-American chef Mario Batali, “The kitchen really is the castle itself. This is where we spend our happiest moments and where we find the joy of being a family.”
Mario Batali may as well have had in mind Guðjóna Albertsdóttir, the undisputed queen of her kitchen castle. In ‘Sounds From The Kitchen,’ an Icelandic sound poetry book compiled by Björg Sveinbjörnsdóttir, people are given intimate access to everyday life in a kitchen that was at the centre of a small fishing village’s universe.
Björg says her grandmother, who passed away in 2000, was lively and spontaneous, and in many ways the project is deeply personal for both herself and for the residents of Suðureyri, the fishing village of 300 in the Westfjords, where Guðjóna grew up.
“The house was full of people in the summer time. My sisters and I went there whenever we felt like it, and spent a lot of time there,” Björg says. “When we were there we also did a lot of singing. She really put a lot of effort into singing. We brought our friends to her house and just sang and sang and sang.”
Inside the kitchen
Guðjóna began recording sounds in her kitchen after she retired from working at a fish factory. She recorded partly to leave something for her family, and partly to document the work of everyday women that often went unnoticed. Björg says she thought of her grandmother as an oral historian, who in many ways captured the experience of a workingwoman.
“I started thinking about it, the sounds were all from inside the kitchen, all inside the home. She was from an era of typical gender roles, even though she worked hard as well,” Björg says. “Today we think of the kitchen and the home as something cosy and nice. But at this time, it was more of a workplace.”
Björg says her grandmother would just let the cassette recording run throughout the day, picking up chatter and conversations, sounds from the radio and the everyday hustle and bustle of life. Guðjóna used the recordings as a kind of diary too, often telling stories or talking about the weather or anything else that came to mind. In one particular recording, Guðjóna chatters to the recorder about putting up a new curtain earlier that day.
To make the book, Björg wound up sifting through more than 60 hours of sound recordings made by her grandmother from 1982 through 1990, picking out the bits she felt were especially important. The book comes with a CD or online access to these recordings.
“It is bits that I thought were poetic and sometimes really funny if you put them on the paper,” she says. “There are sounds that don’t belong to our reality anymore too, like a clock ticking or the phone.”
Finding the funds
After Guðjóna passed away, the recordings almost did too. As her family members were sorting through her things, deciding what to do with her possessions, they came across the recordings. “My relatives said, ‘ah we should throw it away. It’s just garbage,’” Björg says.
Björg, however, insisted on keeping the recordings, and when she began a Master’s programme in applied cultural analysis at the University of Iceland, she began thinking about how should could assemble the pieces to paint a picture not only of her grandmother, but of everyday life in the fishing village as well.
Because of the project’s unique nature, Björg wasn’t sure where to get the work published. “It’s sound and images and text so I thought it would be hard to get someone to publish it,” she says. “It’s in a miscellaneous category. It has historical documents, but it’s kind of personal. It fits in many categories.”
Then one day over coffee with Arnar Sugurðsson, who was at the time working on a start-up crowdfunding platform called Karolina Fund, it clicked. “She had this project that was already very far along, but she just needed the money to print the books,” Arnar says. “She had heard about Karolina Fund from somebody, and then like two coffee cups later, she was very enthusiastic to go ahead with it.”
Björg set up a page for Sounds from the Kitchen on Karolina Fund and asked for 2,500 Euros to finish and print the books. The project stayed up on the Karolina Fund page for a month and garnered 2,653 Euros in donations. It was the first successful project supported by Karolina Fund, which launched in October.
Björg says many donors were people from the village, and a large portion of funding came from a Suðureyri women’s association. Now with adequate funding, Björg says she plans to print around 150 copies of the book in the beginning of December, just in time for Christmas.
“I did it to finish something she started, even though she didn’t plan to publish it,” Björg says. “It’s in her spirit. She was a colourful character.”
Making the personal public
From the recordings themselves to the assembling the book to the way it was funded through a community effort, everything about the project is “homemade.”
While some have expressed doubts about publishing something so personal, Björg says that she sees the project not only as a record of her own family history, but also as a valuable documentation of social and gender roles and the individuals that characterised the town, which is something not easily described in a history book.
“We have this fishing village and we have a lot of documents about which boats came and went, when roads were built, and the way society was made,” Björg says. “But what women did was something else. It occurred inside the homes, with no documentation. These issues are not as concrete, so we have to use different ways to relay them such as using art or ways where people can use their senses. It’s not like concrete facts.”
The sounds—from a choir of children singing to the clatter of pots and pans and the gentle static hum of the radio—are as charming as they are ordinary. The sounds of everyday life are universal.
“We can all kind of relate, when people listen to the recordings. People think of their own kitchen or their own experience,” Björg says.
You can hear excerpts of ‘Sounds From The Kitchen’ on Stöð 1 around Christmas. Stöð 1 is broadcast by the State. It’s the one channel that everyone gets for free. Well, it’s sort of free. All individuals over 18 years old who pay income tax also pay a special TV and radio tax.
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