Islands Mellow Me Out – Gundega Repše
Where did the idea of a book about the islands of Riga come from, and how did the collaboration with photographer Kaspars Goba begin?
It’s been ten years since I first had the idea to draw public attention to our overlooked treasure: the islands that were gradually becoming – later also due to factors motivated by technocracy and greed – inhumane, scary places. However, I was unable to find the focus of the idea. I didn’t want to write a story or novel taking place on an island, and it would be just one island in that case, while we are still rich in islands. But when Riga was declared the [European] Capital of Culture in 2014, I had the same idea again. I turned to Gundega Laiviņa [curator of “Riga 2014” thematic line “Road Map” – ed.] for advice, I wanted to find someone who was photographing more than just pretty eyes or buttocks, who would be prepared to participate in expeditions and would not imagine himself to be a great artist or put his genius before our joint project. Gundega Laiviņa named three, but I stuck with Kaspars Goba as I had seen some of his work and read about him, and I had vivid memories of the film “homo.lv” – very eloquent vivisection of the prejudices of contemporary society. We arranged a meeting and it turned out that Kaspars had also thought about the islands – we struck a deal and submitted our bid.
How many islands have you visited, and does the book offer descriptions, stories, or sketches; perhaps it has been written in some other genre?
I have been visiting the islands for many years, including those parts that used to be islands but have now been merged with the continent. It was very important to me to visit these still-breathing, romantic nooks that softened my attitude to the continuing urbanisation of Riga, the ideology of usefulness and consumerism.
The islands mellow me out for a moment. No, I don’t nourish syrupy nostalgia for times long gone that I have not experienced myself – I dream of what Riga could have been. A unique city with oases – the islands if they were wisely transformed into special territories, respecting history, environment, and the individual, which could each develop in their own, unique way, acquiring specific properties. Natural landscapes in a city are of a great value after all.
But the feeling, atmosphere, lights, smells, unusual views of Riga – that must be too much for the contemporary person. You have to be simpler! Nuances have completely disappeared from the palette of qualities that people care about. Well, it seems there will be even less complexity soon. Zaķusala and Lucavsala islands have been privatised all the way down to groundwater. Krievu Island is dead. The port is destroying what is remaining of Kundziņsala Island, local residents are being poisoned so they would get out of their own free will and not stand in the way of capital. Money, power and greed have paved these inconvenient areas over.
We went on just three expeditions together with Kaspars as we both had our own approach and professional tools, and we both may be considered individual islands, but I have been visiting a lot of islands on my own for two years. What I have written should rather be seen as essays.
Furthermore, I was changing the concept depending on the amount of material we were looking at – which turned out to be huge and poor at the same time, as we had to “dig” in several directions. However, I didn’t want to pretend to be an expert historian, likewise, I didn’t want to retell documented stories.
As I result, I have even included excerpts from Latvian literature that deal with islands – there’s Vizma Belševica, Andrejs Upītis, Aleksandrs Čaks, Kārlis Zariņš, Zigmuds Skujiņš, Ojārs Vācietis and others. Anyhow, my romantically-thorny, yet elegiac texts and the realities captured by Kaspars are like sandpaper to each other – which is part of the project’s concept. And that, I believe, is where the appeal of the book lies.
What surprised you the most as you were working on the project? Maybe you have made new discoveries?
The fact that I know so little – something I had to promptly rectify, and the surprising human nature. As usual. Also – the views of Riga that can only be seen from Mīlestības Island, which we reached by boat.
What about the most interesting story of Riga islands?
I cannot single out any of them. During these two years I, of course, had a chance to speak to more island residents than ever before. Something from these conversations has been included in the book, something I have written down for my notes, but there are no stories of people in the book as I wanted to keep the idea of islands at the forefront. Certainly, I was also looking for language pearls and etymological riddles, I took a great delight at seeing that, indeed, people who live on the islands compare other people and their traits to fish, just as their ancestors did when fishermen lived here. There were lamprey-heads, eels, and fat catfish.
The bathing rules for Daugava beaches from 1939 were also very touching – no spitting, no dressing or undressing outside the cubicles.
May we expect some other stories or a novel on the theme of the islands of Riga, where the main character would be based on some of the people you met on the islands?
No, I don’t steal people’s lives like this. But I have identified myself with an island since my childhood – the first book I read myself was “Robinson Crusoe”. Later on, Astrid Lindgren’s “Seacrow Island” became my favourite book. And, oddly enough, I discovered this past summer that I had written a long story twenty years ago, an anti-utopia titled “Charisma”, which was set on an island to which all artists, composers, writers and other – in the tyranny’s opinion – parasites were banished.
I am still fascinated by the way people live on skerries, be it in Finland, Sweden or Norway.
Each on their own, but still together. That’s the main difference from the traditional homesteads. The Daugava, of course, is always enchanting, even hypnotising. But stories of the river would have been different.
Have you considered taking your friends or groups of people on tours of Riga islands?
I don’t know, it’s always suspicious to me when other people are forced to look at something through the eyes of the omniscient guide. It also happens in literature, but the reader can, after all, snap the book shut. And still, I have taken a few friends along on my journeys. But that was rather a kind of watching, feeling, and being silent together. The greatest luxury you may have.