Storying memories, interviews, and encounters along the route
Despite the electric tramway in Turku inaugurated at the beginning of the 20th century and permanently closed in 1972, its iconic yellow tram cars are still alive in the imaginaries of people living in or simply visiting the city. For elders, who often personally experienced the use of the tram, and even for younger citizens, who see the tram as a symbol of the past but also as a possibility for the city’s green future, the tramway represents a yellow reference point in Turku’s cultural heritage. While this way of moving is still recalled in citizens’ memories and visual culture, the tramway as a transportation means has been completely replaced nowadays by public buses, private cars, bicycles, and other greener ways of urban mobility - like the yellow kick scooters recently introduced by Foli. As noted, from a narrative perspective, the tramway, together with the iconic yellow buses of Turku, is the real protagonist of my geoGraphic novel Lines: indeed, the comics story develops along the lines of the public transport network that I interpreted as a narrative infrastructure with many ‘yellow’ threads and storylines to follow.
In fact, at the centre of the narrative there is not just the history of the tramway but also multiple stories that are told, experienced, and collected along its pathway. In my research practice, I interpreted the tramway as an archive of memories, where personal experiences, encounters, mobile practices, everyday routines, expectations, and affective relations as well as collective hopes, social practices, and public transformations are collected: thus, in the geoGraphic novel the tramline functions as a narrative chronotope, a space in which different individual and plural narratives formed and stratified over time. Lines hopes to let these mobile stories emerge and to make them visible, readable, and shareable. By representing personal memories as tiles of a broader collective vision, Lines wants to make explicit that urban archives are made of multiple personal and collective stories, and formal and informal materials that inform and cross each other. So, also the geoGraphic novel should be interpreted as an emerging archive and an ongoing collective storytelling practice that does not aspire to tell the whole (ln)story of the tramway in Turku but rather hopes to stimulate the emergence of further narratives and collection of other stories.
When drafting the multifocal narrative structure of Lines, I had many polyphonic urban novels from the modernist tradition in my mind that functioned as constant points of reference for the construction of the story, such as Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Doblin (2004) and Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos (2000). Not by chance, one of the first scenes of Berlin Alexanderplatz represents the protagonist, Franz Biberkopf, while he takes a tram to the city centre in 1929. The tramway, in Doblin’s novel, is a symbol of modernity and provides the protagonist and, consequently, the readers with a shocking sense of speed. Rapid movement pervades not just the experience of Franz on the tram wagon but involves the whole urbanscape around him. With its loud sounds, rapid movement, and the crowds of people stepping in and out, the tramline offers a polyphonic perspective on Berlin in the early 20th century and symbolises a city that was, indeed, changing quickly beyond the tram’s windows. Berlin Alexanderplatz is a plurivocal novel, where Franz Biberkopf is just one of the many protagonists of a collective urban epic. To make this plurality explicit, Doblin makes many voices audible all at once: during the narration, for example, when different citizens enter the same tram wagon, or tramlines cross each other at main interchanges and squares (like Alexanderplatz or Rosenthalerplatz), Doblin allows passengers’thoughts to overlap. When passengers depart in different directions, the narration follows their disparate existential routes, providing readers with a plurivectorial sense of narrative space. These ‘collisions’ and ‘accidental encounters’ between characters have a role to play in the narration as they often offer the narrator an escape route to leave the story of Franz Biberkopf behind and to explore other potential plotlines (Kneale 2011, p. 170). In Doblin’s novel, the network of public transport turns into a narrative infrastructure that provides readers with a sense of movement across space and time and between different possible narrative lines.
Following Doblin’s example, my goal was to embrace the perspectives of different users at different times, providing the readers of my geoGraphic novel with a polyphonic reading experience in which the stories of public transportation means are always multifocal and never fixed. Given this stratigraphic and multifocal perspective on the tramway, I needed to organise the plotline through the interconnection between a plurality of time-spaces and voices. In fact, the geoGraphic novel does not develop along a linear temporal line that moves from the past to the present; on the contrary, the plotline imitates the way in which our memory works and makes use of recurring images, colours, and sounds as well as objects and bodily movements as narrative triggers. Followingjames Kneale’s analysis ofBakhtinian types of literary chronotopes (2011), I argue that the chronotope of the tramway functions a kind of threshold in Lines, since it offers the possibility of crossing the borders between disparate characters and times, past and present, public and private spaces, and intimate memories and collective experiences. As Kneale observes:
The threshold becomes a general metaphor for the sorts of encounters that might happen on the road. These encounters allow the ‘bringing-together of that which had traditionally been kept distant and disunified’ (Bakhtin 1981, p. 170); public spaces may ‘become meeting- and contact-points for heterogeneous people' (Bakhtin 1984, p. 128). Bakhtin was interested in these kinds of ‘encounters’, ‘collisions’, ‘meetings’, and ‘intersections’ because he believed that they encourage dialogical relations, the clash of different points of view, and perhaps the development of an ethics of hospitality.
(2011, p. 180)
The tramway, like the road in Kneale’s analysis, brings together people and stories that may be distant. Moreover, the narrativisation of the tramway as a public space of encounter allows for new potential encounters to happen: for example, it allows the intersections between characters’ trajectories that meet on the page even though they have never met in real space (as shown in one of the final pages of Lines, in Figures 5.16 and 5.17). Public spaces too are thresholds that bring people together, create contacts, and suggest dialogical relations: their chrono-topical narrativisation allows these aspects to become explicit. Therefore, my aim was to let the collision between multiple perspectives on the tramway in Turku become a narrative tool in the geoGraphic novel and invite readers to recognise the importance of transportation means for the co-existence of different people, languages, cultures, and points of view in public space.
During the two weeks of fieldwork in Turku, I tried to meet and interview as many people as possible, starting to schedule meetings and visits even before my arrival in the city. In general, wherever I was, working at the university, drinking in a small bar or pub in the city centre, shopping at the market square, in a small design or souvenir shop, in a museum’s bookshop, or in an archive, I attempted to embrace a dialogical behaviour and open approach in order to come more easily into contact with local people despite the linguistic barrier. This helped me to collect narratives about public transport in the city from very different urban actors. As the geoGraphic novel testifies, the open approach of the people I met, their kind helpfulness and generosity' in sharing their personal thoughts and often intimate family memories, beyond their time, of course, also played a fundamental part in the research process. When planning interviews, given the fact that I do not speak a word of either Finnish or Swedish, I had to make clear that they should be carried out in English. Many interviewees, though, moved even a step forward and helped me to overcome the linguistic barrier by not just communicating with me in English but also translating for me significant information, texts, signs, postcards, and excerpts from books and newspaper articles, local sayings, and typical idioms. Meeting these people, from the scholars and colleagues at Abo Akademi University to the archivists at the Museum Centre of Turku Archive, and from tram experts to private citizens living, working, and studying in the city, has been a significant part of my fieldwork experience. From a dissemination perspective, their effort to translate local microhistories and ethnographic materials into English plays a significant role: they made this information accessible not just to me, as a researcher, but to a broader audience of people who will read the geoGraphic novel, this chapter, and other research materials deriving from those interviews.
As we saw in Chapter 3, I had already worked with interviews for a creative and narrative research purpose, as these were fundamental sources for the composition of the comics story about the Arcella neighbourhood, in Quartieri. In previous chapters, we have also seen how much interviews as a method for qualitative research are influenced not just by the researcher’s positionality and relation with the interviewee, but also by the spatio-temporal context where interviews take place. The city itself plays an active role, as it constructs the interview and shapes the collected data (Dowling et al. 2016, p. 684). I have also used interviews to explore everyday practices of mobility, to understand the ways in which movement takes place, and to have access to the meanings, affective relations, and symbolic values that are attached to urban mobilities (Berg et al. 2014). When doing comics for research, interviews work as means for collecting individual memories, feelings, affects, and experience: they have the double effect of collecting qualitative data and providing authors with narrative ideas, characters, and situations that can be easily translated into the storyworld. In Turku, I collected memories from people who used the tram in person or who were told by their relatives about their own experience. The interviewees generously shared their stories, feelings, concerns, and hopes connected to the public transport network in Turku in non-structured interviews that were conducted at different times and in different locations. I have met tram enthusiasts and experts, like Mikko Laaksonen (Figure 5.11), who is the author of the most popular book about the history of the tramways in the city. I have heard stories from people working at the customer office of Foli, like Maijastiina on page 22 (Figure 5.14), and members of the Turku Region Public Transport Committee like Emma, on page 20 (Figure 5.12). Many of them have become characters in the comics story, and their everyday life episodes, the details about the sensorial perception of sound on the tram they shared with me, and the descriptions about how people interact today or used to in the past in public transportation means helped me to develop the narrative line of the comics story.
Before starting the interviews, participants received a consent form and were all informed of the fact that I was collecting stories for a research project that implied the realisation of a comics story. Therefore, the consent form mentioned also that I would have made use of both the audio and the visual recordings taken during the interviews to compose the comics story: their words but also their faces might appear into the drawn pages of the geoGraphic novel. They were all curious and intrigued by the idea of being part of a creative research project, and almost every informant gave me permission to take pictures during interviews. Others shared their very intimate memories and allowed me to use them for the construction of the story but preferred to remain anonymous. Even if their stories and voices are still in the geoGraphic novel, I had to find a narrative and graphic way to represent their particular contributions: in fact, the speech bubbles recalling their words simply float on the page and are not connected through tails that point the speaker, as happens on pages 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 of Lines (section partially reproduced in Figures 5.2, 5.3, 5.4, and 5.5) and later on in the story. This way, their personal stories are made accessible for the audience, in the text, but not their identity, which remains anonymous, in the drawings: we ‘hear’ voices, yet, cannot see who is speaking. Precisely one of these informants offered me the narrative starting point for the first part of the story: the voice of a lady remembering using the tramway when she was a young girl suddenly appears on page 3, and then proceeds with her storytelling on pages 4, 5, and 6. Afterwards, on pages 7 and 8, the person speaking changes as the old lady leaves the floor to the memories of a man. He remembers when he was a 10-year-old boy and was almost ‘frightened by those ladies’ that were working as conductresses on the tram, in their grey uniforms (Figure 5.8). Speech bubbles play a distinct narrative role: whereas captions display information about the history of the tramway that are told by an apparently neutral voiceover, which reports significant dates and historical information through a minimalist font displayed on a white background, conversely, balloons host intimate stories, personal reflections, and emotional memories shared by informants during interviews. For this reason, balloons are coloured in grey and interviewees’ voices are quoted through an original hand-written font that I realised to stimulate readers’ empathy through the humanisation of their graphic voices. These two different graphic and narrative levels inform and complete each other, with the small stories in the speech bubbles becoming part of a broader collective history of public transport in the city that is displayed in the caption boxes.
The way in which different stories overlap suggests a multiscalar and relational conception of urban space. The non-linear storyline, as noted, imitates the way in which memory works through holes, repetitions, and recurring images. At the same time, I decided to play with different spatio-temporal layers through creating an apparent discrepancy between the story that is told in the texts and the one that is displayed in the drawings. This happens especially on pages 4 and 5, where we hear the voice of the already-mentioned mature lady remembering her adventurous experience of taking the tramway alone for the first time, when she was only 5 years old. Her story unfolds along Tramline number 1, the one connecting the harbour of Turku to the city centre. Through her memory, we experience the noisy sounds of the tram wagon approaching the stop, empathise with her sense of liberation, and have the impression of being in a safe space, because in the tram ‘you were never really alone’. Yet, even if the story is set in the past, in the drawings
FIGURE5.2 Past memories and new practices cross along the Linnankatu. Authors illustration. Page 4, from Lines, by Giada Peterle, BeccoGiallo, Padua, 2021.
FIGURE 5.3 Bus No. 1 follows the former tram route. Author’s illustration. Page 5, from Lines, by Giada Peterle, BeccoGiallo, Padua, 2021.
FIGURE 5.4 Riding the bus, nowadays. Author’s illustration. Page 6, from Lines, by Giada Peterle, BeccoGiallo, Padua, 2021.
the tramway is suddenly replaced by a contemporary yellow bus. Here, the Foli sign indicating the bus stop and showing the route between the centre and the harbour of Bus No. 1 functions as a graphic bridge that connects the present bus route with the old tramline. Through the speech balloons, we imagine the protagonist of pages 4, 5, and 6 (shown in Figures 5.2, 5.3, and 5.4) when she was a young girl using the tramway; nevertheless, the drawings show something different, and the clothes of the girl drawn on the same pages place her in the present time. In comics, drawings and written words do not necessarily proceed together or show the same scene: in this case, for example, the combination of images and words helps to make the relational conception of space and time visible, creating a double narrative level, where the story told in the text happens in the past and the one in the images is happening nowadays. This way, stories of disparate transportation means and set in different eras overlap along the same route, showing repetitions and differences in mobile practices and creating spatio-temporal connections that move beyond a linear conception of time.
The geographer-cartoonist decides where to stop this narrative process and change the spatio-temporal direction - as symbolised in the second panel of page 6 (Figure 5.4), where I drew my hand pressing the STOP button to get off the bus. Stop. The narrator’s voice changes on page 7 (Figure 5.5) and readers now hear the memories of a man; the era and the transport means change, too, since we are moving back to the past, when the tramway was still operating. By leaving the present and the bus ride behind, the framing (in the panels) places the readers within a tram carriage and in the past. While a man is ‘sitting in the front driving’, readers are sitting (or standing?) towards the back of the car, looking at the city of Turku through the windows: through the panel’s framing, readers of page 7 embrace the point of view of the many conductresses that used to occupy the same position in the tram cars. The urban street view is divided by the three small rectangles of the tram window, which resemble three panels in the comics page.
Notes from a geoGraphic fieldwork diary: at the city library
Day 2 20 January 2020
It’s Monday, and I wake up at 9 a.in., before the sun rises. After breakfast I head to the Abo Akaderni, where I meet Jason Finch,3 who kindly introduces me to some members of the Department of Comparative Literature and gives me the keys to my temporary office.
At 3 p.m. I’m at the Foli information desk to buy a couple of bus tickets and a map of the public transportation network of Turku for only 2 euros. Unfolding the map, I have for the first time an impression of the extension of the urban area of Turku. The bus routes create a thick network of orange lines, starting from the city centre and covering the surrounding suburbs, from Pansio on the western side to Varissuo on the eastern urban outskirts, connecting Turku with the islands of its archipelago and with other urban centres like Kaarina, Raisio, Lieto, Naantali, and Rusko. In my mind, I start to compare the network of orange bus lines on the map in my hands with the maps of the tramway I’ve collected. The city has expanded beyond where the end of tramlines 1, 2, and 3 were located. I start reading the map as a narrative infrastructure made of narrative nodes and potential plotlines. I see overlaps and crossings, I read existential lines and affective experiences that are stratified along the bus routes, and I imagine characters moving across the map, animating its traits with sounds, laughs, tears, and fears. I refold the map, put it in my pocket, and walk away.
At 4 p.m. I’m at the city library, in a beautiful newly restructured building. It’s dark outside but the warm and gentle glow of the library makes me feel at home. Here, on the shelves of the section devoted to the city’s history, I finally find the book Turun raitiotiet. Abo sparvagar. Turku Tramways by Mikko Laaksonen (2009). I'm surprised by the fact that the introductions to the single sections are translated into English, as arc the captions of the many photographs and figures reproduced in the book. Leafing through the pages, the blurry black and white image of a woman in her grey uniform captures my attention: this is Birgit Telenius, the first conductress to receive tram driver instruction during the Winter War in 1939, I learn from the image’s caption, where her story is summarised. How is it possible that women employed as wartime tram drivers were sent back to their original duties, afterwards, when men came back from the front? I know that Birgit’s story is just one of the many stories of women working in and commuting by the yellow tram cars. I know these stories are entangled with the ones of women doing the same thing today following the routes of yellow buses. I’m sure I’ve just found another tile of my story: from now on, women will play a central role in mygeoGraphic narration.