In conversation with Giada Peterle | Postgrad Urbanists
Dr Giada Peterle joined Postgrad Urbanists’ PhD Life Workshop in March for a conversation with PGU Chair Sidra Ahmed about Giada’s research and illustrations, PhD experience, and Narrative Geographies blog. This piece recaps the conversation and is written by PGU committee members Sidra Ahmed and Lu Mirza, PhD Researchers based in UCL Geography. For a full post-workshop report on all four sessions, click here to read.
Dr Giada Peterle is a geographer, research fellow and lecturer in ‘Literary Geography’ and ‘Creative Communication and Landscape Storytelling’ at the University of Padua, comics illustrator and author, newly appointed Director of the Museum of Geography, and Editor of Narrative Geographies.
Giada has a PhD in Human Geography which was entitled ‘Enacting Literary Geographies’ from the Department of Historical and Geographic Sciences and the Ancient World at the University of Padua. Her research looks at the city by employing narrative forms such as literature, comics and creative maps to understand how we represent and live in place. Giada is author of Lines, a geoGraphic comic novel, of the Italian book La Geografia spiegata a bambini (Geography Explained to Children), and her new book Comics as a Research Practice (Routledge 2021).
Sidra: Giada, thank you so much for joining us for this conversation. I want to start with the journey to the PhD because you have an interdisciplinary background. You have a BA in Literature, MA in Literary Theory and Criticism, and a PhD in Human Geography. Can you tell us about that journey — how one thing led to another, and what role urban space and geography has played?
Giada: These experiences were all linked by interdisciplinary explorations of representations of urban space and entangled relationships, enacted through literary geographies as varied as postmodern dystopias and Alfred Doblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz.
My PhD ‘Enacting Literary Geographies’ was a collection of 6 papers looking at different urban contexts and literary genres. It evolved in unexpected ways. Initially it aimed to reflect on the current state of literary geography, and the common vocabulary and concerns between cultural geography and literary studies. Gradually my focus and set of narratives expanded from literature to other areas where urban landscapes are represented like comics and graphic narratives. The idea of enacting geographies came from a seminal 2003 article about presenting and enacting the world by producing rather than reproducing. I thought those insights needed to be part of literary geographers’ practices too, to go from reading to producing urban texts.
During your first year, you were also a student at the International Comics School of Padua. Was this when you started to incorporate the visual element of your own illustrations into your research?
While being a student at the International Comic School in Padua, I learnt how to write for comics while looking at the narrative architectures of comics. Illustrating came later. This added new unexpected perspectives to my research and gradually let the two spheres of my life blur into each other.
This is of course the PhD Life Workshop. What was the biggest lesson you learnt during your PhD?
The biggest lesson I learnt was that research is a wonderful journey but also a hard process of failures, mistakes and dead ends. Before the PhD I was a real perfectionist. But when you do multiple projects at the same time, you need to calm down and accept your work is good or excellent even if it is not ‘perfect’. So be lenient to protect your mental health and don’t ask too much from yourself.
I want to talk about Narrative Geographies. In the digital space and in academia, you have really carved out a niche as the Creator, Editor and illustrator of Narrative Geographies. That’s how I first came across you. And it’s more than a blog. It’s a specific methodological, visual, creative perspective through which to look at and narrate urban space.
Can you define what narrative geographies is?
Narrative Geographies is about the narrative essence of spaces. I search for narrative geographies everywhere especially by moving through the material world. I see the city as a narrative archive containing palimpsests of stories which are there to be intervened in. For these stories to be created, you have to imagine them, plan them, reshape them somehow. I engage with these narratives as research practices, drawing them out and drawing on them and drawing spaces around them.
And in terms of your illustrations, are you self-taught? How did you develop your illustrating skills?
Although I loved to draw as a child and doodled rather than wrote in my high school diary to keep the details on the page, I stopped doing this as an adult. I started experimenting again while finishing my Master’s thesis and submitting my PhD proposal as it provided me with new perspectives. At this time, getting a new iPad and Apple Pen happened to give me new tools with new possibilities.
I’m thinking about your tag ‘telling stories, drawing spaces’ and your amazing illustrations. There’s often an interesting device in these images which is a hand drawing the illustrations. is that a key component you try to include?
I often depict hands as narrative devices, whether pointing to something or doing something or illustrating human presence. They are fascinating to me for their material and symbolic meanings representing the possibility to intervene and change urban landscapes with your positionality; to make a person’s physical presence and bodily engagement visible; to illustrate the difference in scale between the hands and the environment; to ‘draw’ in that narrative essence.
In many of your projects, you’re bringing together a figure, maps, mapping practices, urban space, stories. What’s the creative process for you in terms of deciding how you’re going to draw and represent or practice urban space?
I always think of spaces as polyphonous assemblages of different timescales, voices, materials, activities, animate and inanimate actors. So, my work always starts with ethnographic research, interviews and walking with people in the neighbourhood to collect memories and stimuli about the urban experiences there.
If you had to give one key piece of advice for a PhD Student aspiring to building their own online presence be it a blog, website, Instagram profile, or writing for other platforms, what would you say?
First you need to think about whether you really need an online presence e.g. to promote research outputs and who you would like to reach and to impact. It’s very time-consuming because it needs care to choose the right images, tones of voice, platforms or channels. I wanted to share small visual daily experiences from urban landscapes and photographs, and didn’t want to work on long texts in a second language like English, and wanted an international audience — so Instagram was perfect. And it was more reactive and engaging than a blog. But I also opened a Twitter account and was coincidentally able to engage with an editor at Routledge! [Giada’s new book Comics as a Research Practice is published by Routledge.]
I wasn’t keen or well trained in using social media but got started when I needed to use them. You learn as you go along.
The city is a big source of inspiration. As a network we’ve just launched this year and we’ve run a #myurbanlab initiative where we share what ‘my urban lab’ means to us individually as researchers. What is Giada’s ‘urban lab’?
My urban lab is currently urban mobility and infrastructures of sidewalks, roads and bus stops. I see these urban spaces as narrative archives. The city is a palimpsest of city dwellers’ stories accumulated over years like Michel De Certeau writes the city in The Practice of Everyday Life (1984).
What cities have you had the opportunity to research?
I have engaged with Padua, where I work and live, and its diverse mobility infrastructures. Turku in Finland. I’ve been recently working with an interdisciplinary team coordinated by the Royal College of Music to represent refugees’ lives and music performances during internment on the Isle of Man.
In the past we’ve spoken and you’ve mentioned how you’ve encouraged your students to use literary figures like the urban flaneur to enact narrative geographies. Can you tell us about the flaneur as a narrative guide?
So, I teach an entire course in Literary Geographies but there are some key points I would make! I see the flaneur as a problematic figure because the flaneur is both a 19th Century-born city dweller and literary type. You also have the flaneur and his less known but extremely fascinating female counterpart, the flâneuse. I choose to adopt the practice of flânerie rather than a figure, to be more inclusive and to think about a practice that could be enacted by different subjects in disparate urban contexts. It is a mindset and way to be attentive and receptive to the small details of urban life.
Do you have any book recommendations that include the flaneur?
Some of my favourite examples are Will Eisner’s (1987) The Building and Erin Williams’ Commute following the author on a day’s commute on the train to New York.
You have a background in literature. Do you have any favourite books that comprise of narrative geographies?
Walter Benjamin’s Berliner Kindheit, Alfred Doblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz which is an immersive historical journey into city life in 1930’s Berlin: these are both books that changed my approach to the city and which start from Berlin, a city that I love. Also Paul Auster’s City of Glass (1987) and Italo Calvino’s (1972) Invisible Cities.
You’ve written and illustrated various books and urban research projects. You’re author of various comics, essays, La Geografia spiegata a bambini (Geography Explained to Children), and most recently Comics as a Research Practice.
I’m currently reading your new book and when you talk about your earliest childhood memory of comics, it’s so interesting to think about how many geographers do end up drawing on their life experience as their fieldwork. Any geographers here who are familiar with Yi Fu Tuan will know that he has said that your life experience is your fieldwork. It’s amazing that that was a foundation for the research and art you’re now creating.
And now your book is thinking about comics in a new way as doing. You’ve emphasised in the book that this is a book about bringing comic book geographies into practice. Can you tell us a bit about that practice emphasis?
So far, geographers have mainly engaged with comics as texts to study rather than as research practices. There has been a long gap in existing research since [UCL Geography’s] Jason Dittmer’s seminal book on Comic Book Geographies which was published in 2014. Starting from there, my book [Comics as a Research Practice] is about putting comic books into practice, starting from my hybrid perspective as someone who’s also worked with comic authors as a researcher. The book has lots of auto-ethnographic reflections on my positionality and presence as an author which changes the way the book is organised even though I didn’t intend to put myself at the centre of the book. In fact, I believe comics are an extremely useful method to conduct place-based research both because they allow you, first, to show the three dimensional interactions between human and non-human actors in space, but also to work on your reflexivity as a researcher. Doing comics is about being aware of both what you represent and the process that led you to represent it.
I wanted to finish with a quick look at some of your urban research projects. Would you like to talk us through a few of your illustrations?
Though not a comic, the illustrated book La Geografia spiegata a bambini (2020) allowed me to use fantasy and imagination to think about geography as if I was a child again. It also forced me to think about how to make complex geographical concepts accessible to a different younger and non-specialistic audience.
Lines (2021) is a geoGraphic novel written specifically as part of a postdoctoral project about the Turku tramway which disappeared in the 1970s but is still a lively presence in people’s urban imaginations. It is available as a pdf download from my website. With a project like this, I use a comparative approach bringing together some historical and contemporary sources that I was able to collect during my fieldwork in Turku, in January 2020, to see how the memories of the ‘tram period’ changed over time.
When I co-authored a comics anthology, Quartieri (2019), Adriano (the other editor) and I decided that our presence as researchers needed to be explicitly visible, especially to help non-specialistic audiences to understand how research works. We wanted to let the neighbourhood speak for itself. So, we used a drawing of a neighbourhood map depicted with human feet as the narrator as a way of bringing together multiple voices: here, the map of the neighbourhood is the non-human narrator that tells the story from its perspective.
Thank you so much Giada! Please check out more from Giada via her Instagram blog @narrativegeographies, Narrative Geographies website, and read her new book Comics as a Research Practice (which is also available at the UCL Library here!)
For a full post-workshop report on all four sessions, click here to read.
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