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Island Poetry, Manifestos, and Short Stories

Writer(s): 
Godfrey Baldacchino

 

Islands lend themselves to researchers because of their manageable size. What goes to an island and what leaves an island can be readily observed. What happens on islands can teach us about what occurson continents. Consider the seminal work on finches by Charles Darwinon the Galapagos Islandsthat led to the theory of evolution.Fieldwork with people in the Samoan Islands and Papua New Guinea led Margaret Mead to find convincing evidence that gender roles are determined by education and society.The confines of an island inspiredstirringstories such as Golding’s Lord of the Flies(1954) and H.G. Well’s The Island of Dr. Moreau.Godfrey Baldacchino is the Canada Research Chair in Island Studies and an editor of the Island Studies Journal. His undergraduate studies were in English and Social Studies and his graduate work was in Labor and Development. He combined these two fields to write a doctoral thesis on labour relations in Lilliput, the name of a township in the UK and a fictional island nation that appears in the first part of the 1726 novel Gulliver’s Travelsby Jonathan Swift.

Baldacchino and his colleagues in the Master of Arts in Island Studiesprogramat the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada conduct fieldwork and teach classes in Kagoshima every year. The inhabited islands in KagoshimaPrefectureattract these sociologists because each island has its own attractive identities: Tanegashima launches rockets for the Japan AerospaceExplorationAgency, Amami is home to island music, Yoron hides an underwater paradise for scuba divers, and Yakushima is a World Heritage Site.

In 2011, Baldacchino conducted five experiments with graduate students at the International University of Kagoshima.The university draws its student body from nearby islands, Okinawa, Kyushu, and internationally.His classes appeal not only to students of language, linguistics, and literature, but also history, politics,and international relations.

His sessions were task-based, where participants undertook a practical task either alone or in small groups. For example, they were asked to write a poem, a short story, and apolitical manifesto relating to island projects. Murphey (2010) has done similar work in encouraging first-year university students in Japan to constructand promote political manifestos as suggestions for changing English education for future generations. Murphey’s students developed manifestos for studying abroad and demanding that tuition fees not be levied by universities in Japan while students study at institutions overseas. In a similar way, Baldacchino (2007) has developed classroom activities and fieldwork that encourage islanders and students to voice their own concerns.Baldacchino (2007, p.2) cautions his colleagues to avoid situations “where the subject matter—the island, or the islander—becomes a “looked at” reference group.”In response to a call for haiku about the bonds of friendship between Europe and Japan, he posted the following haiku at facebook.com/haikucontest:

It gives and takes away

This mighty ocean

We are all islanders

Baldacchino explains that islands are sometimes conceived as inert, material objects—but, in the very act of conception they are also imagined, desired, attributed with powers, secrets,and mysteries. Islands are primarily metaphysical objects. They are like clay: malleable to our whims, desires,and fantasies, often without us realizing this. Islands thus call us and lure us to experiment with them.

His first experiment was designed to encourage students to writecreativelyabout islands in the English language. He explains that stories about islands typically involve protagonists (usually male) on a journey which takes them to the island as dreamers, castaways, rejects, losers, or zealous missionaries. Once there, they either succumb to the bestiality and savagery of nature or they commit the island inexorably to the discipline of enterprise, capitalism, industry, modernity,and utopian ideals.

Another experiment he conducted with students involved framing the island. Most cultures conceive of a special, perfect place like the Shangri-La, Paradise, or the Garden of Eden. He asked students to describe the characteristics of this place and how it interacts with its residents and its non-residents. He then tries to get the students to connect this framed image of a paradisal island with the powerful messages associated with the tourism industry, which areso much about experience, enrichment and transformation.

In a third session he asked studentsto try to assimilate to life on the island. Heintroduced proverbs from Barbados such as “Small town, big bell”and “Behind every bush there is a man.”Island life can be far from idyllic for it involves managing private information about oneself and others. He led a discussion by asking these three questions: What do you want others to know about you? What do others know about you that you may not know that they know? How does “knowing”someone make life easier?

In an experiment about how to best govern an island, Baldacchino set up a role play in the classroom similar to classes that emulate the proceedings of the United Nations. The United Nations oversees a Small Island Developing States program and manages special agencies such as UNESCO’s Small Island Voice and the 43-member Alliance of Small and Island States (AOSIS) who are active in the General Assembly of the UN (Baldacchino, 2010). Ascribed social status and prestige, charisma and personal contact remain key qualities for leadership in small island societies even in the modern age. Who you are and who you know, remain critical assets in political life. According to Baldacchino, networks and anti-networks are better explanations of political behavior than notions of one big happy family. Collusion of bureaucratic, political,and economic elites is commonplace. The division of powers expected in a democracy is riddled by considerable and unavoidablerole conflicts and overlaps.

In his final experiment students discussed how islands can serve as “geographies of hope”for humankind. Students were asked to think of ways to combine visions of economic health and ecological wealth to development. He drewuponlessons from nature reserves, such as the World Heritage Site of Yakushima in Kagoshima Prefecture and privately owned islands that are carefully managed by their owners.

Research findings from thefive experiments were brought together in a one-day symposium where graduate students made presentations and further debated issues raised during the experiments in the classrooms, followed by Baldacchino makinga final address to contrast the cultures of people living on islands located in Japan with several islands around the world,such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tasmania, and Prince Edward Island.

Baldacchino(2010, p. 18)claims “the cultural history of ‘the West’ is primarily an island story. Such islands became the ‘loci’ of imagination, desire, hopes and fears.”The western world is enraptured by deserts, mountains, forests, gardens, coasts,and islands.Part of the great success of stories/movies (like Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter,and Castaway) or TV serials (like Survivorsand Lost) hasto do with these locales or tropes that suggest metaphysical and mythological qualities. Thanks to these deep, widely shared, and firmly anchored meanings, every year millions visit islandsfor vacations, seeking adventure, escape, pleasure, mystery, some kind of refreshment and transformation. They swarm to beaches, museums, clubs, restaurants, and souvenir shops. There they perform various rituals,such as sunbathing, eating, drinking, shopping, or just gazing at the landscape. How do these “Western”notions of an island contrast with Japanese notions? Baldacchino discussed and unpacked this “contrast of cultures”, while reminding students that the idea of a holiday or vacation is itself a recently invented ritual.

As an example of his writing style, while swimming in the Mediterranean near his hometown on the island of Malta, Baldacchino penned the following poem.

MEDItating MEDIum

Welcome exercise to dispel tedium

and to cleanse myself with salt and freedom

 

References

Baldacchino, G. (2007). A World of Islands. Charlottetown: Institute of Island Studies.

Baldacchino, G. (2010). Island Enclaves. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Murphey, T. (2010). Real voice: Suggestions for changing Englisheducation for future generations from 1st year university students. Retrieved from www.eltnews.com/columns/mash/MasterEngRepFresh2010Complete.pdf

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