How are islands imagined?
Let’s try this out. I want you to think of the word “island” and then close your eyes for a few seconds. Now, what were three words that automatically came to mind? For some, it may have been “home.” But I bet some of you thought of “small,” “isolated,” or “paradise.” If you did, you are in good company, as much of the world thinks about islands like this.
The dominant imagination of islands is that they are small and isolated paradises we can use to escape the world. Many of us may disagree with this stereotypical imagination. Unfortunately, the world has largely put on this lens. For this month, I focus on these ideas of islands and why these matter to us here in Guam.
Islanders are consistently reminded of our smallness and distance. People look at maps of the Pacific and see tiny dots scattered in an ocean of blue. They see islands as specks of land destined to be dependent on the larger landmasses around them. They see islands as “over there” and in many ways, disconnected from the rest of the world.
Distance, difference and this feeling of being frozen in time are considered an island’s unique properties, which leads to others treating islands with a sense of geographical and political inferiority.
This has two effects we may be familiar with. The first is that islands are viewed as far-away paradises where one can relax or start over. We have all seen the movie where the family goes to Sandals in Jamaica or to the beaches of Waikiki to slow down and escape their mundane, WASP lives.
In itself, this paradise trope is not completely destructive and many of us actively engage in it. The way we talk about home and the way we advertise our islands to tourists perpetuates this paradise trope. Yet, we should understand that when we or others exoticize the islands and capitalize on our distance and difference, it does not stop there. Intimately entangled with the paradise trope is something far more insidious.
These isolated and “small” land masses are also places where one can experiment with little political resistance or headache. Scholars call this the “laboratory rationale” for studying the islands. Islands are places to experiment scientifically, politically, environmentally and socially.
The Pacific islands were once home to nuclear testing sites for the U.S., France and the United Kingdom as well as chemical weapons storage at atolls like Kalama (also known as Johnston Atoll). Beyond this, the region is also home to political status experiments or innovations such as U.S. unincorporated territories, British Overseas Territories and French overseas collectivities.
And herein lies the island paradox. For larger powers, we are important because we are unimportant. The fact that we are small and isolated means that larger powers can do what they want to us with the expectation that we will simply suffer what we must. Our importance for them lies in our ultimate disposability.
The rationale is that if things make a turn for the worse, what truly is the worst that can be done? As Henry Kissinger infamously said regarding nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, “There are only 90,000 people out there. Who gives a damn?” This is chilling and should be a warning sign of how our region is imagined. Islands often lie on the sacrificial altar for global waves.
What can we do about this? Well, if we, ourselves, buy into the myth of our isolation, smallness and unimportance, then we have internalized a brutal global wave. Teaching this perspective to our children is one reason (not the only one, however) that some children want to leave or get off the “rock.”
Internalizing this makes us view the island as something that traps us, rather than a garden where we can watch our dreams grow. There is much work to be done to make this soil more fertile, but surely, we can agree that it is not completely barren.
The renowned Tongan scholar Epeli Hau’ofa calls on Pacific islanders to challenge the way we are taught to think about ourselves. In his famous essay, “Our Sea of Islands,” Hau’ofa reminds us that Oceania is vast and expanding.
Rather than seeing this region as scattered islands in the ocean, we need to view ourselves as a connected sea of islands. We cannot be defined by our landmasses alone. We are anything but small. We are anything but isolated. We are Oceania. This is a paradigm shift that respects the ocean we call home.
So, let’s try this again. Think of the word “island.” Close your eyes. What do you see?
Kenneth Gofigan Kuper is assistant professor of Political Science, CHamoru Studies, and Micronesian Studies at the University of Guam and is director of the Pacific Center for Island Security. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.