Interview with Katrina Gulliver

Katrina Gulliver calls herself a Cultural Historian, and is a research fellow in Germany, at the Historisches Seminar of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich. Katrina has a strong presence on Twitter and has produced the ultimate directory of historians on Twitter, “Twitterstorians”.

 

So, Katrina, you’ve lived in both Singapore and Munich. Historically, these must be two places with very different identities. Tell us a little about the attractions of Singapore and whether it’s a place that takes pride in its history?

Singapore is a fascinating place. It’s actually where my parents met and were married so it has personal significance for me. For a long time, its history wasn’t a big focus as it developed economically. But now, heritage is a major focus. The government is maintaining heritage buildings and the museums there do an excellent job of showing both the island’s history and the cultural diversity of Singapore. It’s definitely a country that is very proud of how it has developed, in such a relatively short time.

And how does it compare to Munich?

Singapore is definitely more go!go!go! It’s much more of a 24 hour lifestyle, with things open late. In Munich, I’m still getting used to not being able to go shopping on a Sunday! Architecturally, Munich is stunning, and for a historian the wealth of museums is pretty impressive. The library collections here continue to amaze me, so for my research I am very fortunate.

You say on your site that you are working your way through all the National Book Award and Man Booker prize winners. Is this still an ongoing project, how are you getting on with it, and what have been the highlight books so far?

That was only semi-serious, but I always try to read. I set myself a goal of 100 non-work books per year – I never achieve it, but it’s good to have a challenge! Recently I joined Audible, so I’m listening to some classic novels that way. Currently The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever.

You’ve written much about Gabrielle Vassal. Tell us who she was and why her story and her adventures appeal so much to you.

She is a very interesting character. An Englishwoman, who married a French doctor, and spent much of her life living in different parts of the French empire. She was in IndoChina in the early years of the twentieth century, and in West Africa in the 1920s. Her books are very entertaining – she published accounts of her life in these places – and it’s a shame she’s not better-known. In her time she was something of a celebrity travel writer. She was also awarded the Legion d’Honneur for her work in the French Resistance: her life would make a great film!

My work looks at her ethnographic writings, and her collecting as a naturalist. She had no formal training, but collected birds and small mammals for the Natural History museum in London. Some of them are still in the museum’s archives, and some species were even named after her.

Tell us about your current project.

I am writing a book about colonial port cities. The cities I focus on are Malacca, Havana, New Orleans and Pondicherry. They represent in a way two phases of European expansion (the early 16th century: Malacca and Havana) and the late 18th century for New Orleans and Pondicherry. In this time, ideas about colonial governance, and urban arrangement, had changed a great deal: and this is reflected in the cities themselves. I’m particularly interested in the development of local identity in each of these places. It’s striking how quickly you find people relating themselves to the city, and having other elements of distinctive culture (foodways, costume, architecture) appear.

You set up a list of “Twitterstorians” on your site, an excellent service. As a historian how does Twitter benefit your work? And how does Twitter help spread the word of history?

I love the fact that I’ve heard about other people’s research through twitter, and been able to chat with historians I would not otherwise have met. For those working with digital research tools, twitter is fabulous, with ideas such as THATcamp. It’s also great to just ask for research information – people come back with great suggestions so quickly, it’s like google but better informed.

You mentioned the need for “celebrity historians” on Twitter and on your blog recently you’ve come up with a Top Historian concept, not dissimilar to Top Chef. Is it entirely tongue-in-cheek or is there something more?

I was kind of joking. But I think in the English speaking world we don’t have as much of a culture of public intellectuals as perhaps in France, for instance. There is such a great readership for books on historical topics, I think it is important for those of us in the profession to try to share what we do with the public. At the moment “academic history” is kind of fenced off from general discourse as arcane, and obscure, and we need to overcome that.

On your Twitter bio you list photography as one of your interests. Tell us a bit about your photography. Colour or black and white? And do you use sharing sites, such as Flickr?

Before I started my PhD, I had a couple of solo shows as a photographer. My work is film, not digital (and I’m rather stranded now Kodak have stopped making Kodachrome). Mostly I took landscapes and buildings. I talk a bit about it here http://katrinagulliver.posterous.com/photography-1353

I still use photography a lot in my work, in my next book I will be using a lot of pictures to show architectural features and styles.

You say you are “fascinated by histories of cultural exchange”. In a few words, can you give us an idea of what you mean and how it relates to your work?

I am interested in points of encounter, where different groups or individuals have influenced each other. In my work on cities, this emerges in the development of local cultures that could only have been created in that particular place, with that particular mix of influences.

What is this project you contribute to called Frog In A Well?

It’s a group blog on Asian history, set up a few years ago by Konrad Lawson. You can visit it at www.froginawell.net

In your role as a film critic what is your favourite film either from or based in East Asia?

Without a doubt, my favourite Asian film is 2046.

And finally, Katrina, if you had to choose one film director who would you choose, and why?

Aki Kaurismäki – I love his sense of humour, and his films are so subtle, and unique. He manages to create this strange and so plausible world.

Many thanks, Katrina.  

Katrina’s website: http://www.katrinagulliver.com

Katrina’s blog: http://katrinagulliver.posterous.com

Katrina on Twitter: http://twitter.com/katrinagulliver

List of Twitterstorians: http://katrinagulliver.posterous.com/tag/twitterstorians

Frog In A Well: http://www.froginawell.net