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Some Lines, Island Lines

Godfrey Baldacchino

The Line Islands are a string of 11 atolls stretching across over 2000 kilometres, and crossing the International Date Line. My focus here is more trite. What happens when one is asked to 'draw an island, any island … and not a particular island'?

Anthropologist Tim Ingold invites us to take a pen or pencil and a sheet of plain paper and draw. We place our tool somewhere on the sheet and we are led by the trace left by the movement of our hand as, holding the instrument, it starts meandering on the surface of the paper, leaving a trace. The ink or graphite marks out a line; and then an ever longer line; but this line must, at some point, start curving inwards. The designer concurs: onlookers soon notice that the line is heading back to its starting point. At which point, to them it somehow morphs: it ceases to be a line, and becomes instead a border, a marker of enclosure, of ‘in’ and ‘out’. As undertaken many times, the ‘island’ I end up drawing is framed by the paper and bears a clear affinity to a circle; but I also deliberately avoid a near-to-perfect circular form, thus adding a cove or a bay. (I need to be able to sail to and from ‘my’ island, after all.)

In the act of drawing this ‘island’, Ingold sensitises us to an ‘act of inversion’: the transformation of the line, via an act of logic, into a figure of an entity – an island – which now has an inside and an outside. Ingold contends that this transition has a central place in the structure of modern thought. Hence, there is the foundational power of the concepts of the inside and outside in discussing islands.

The self-evident geographical specificity of any island is a trick of mapping, scale, and perspective, yet powerfully alluring and deceiving.

It is a trick of mapping because maps tend to essentialise islands as static, hard-edged, self-evident, and stable. Like the uncompromising edge of ink or carbon produced by my pen or pencil as I draw my island. But, as any islander would tell you, we know island edges to be porous, ecotonic, tidalectic, fractal, ebbing and flowing under the effect of tides, storms, erosion, accretion, reclamation, landslides, sea level rise, climate change, tectonic movements, volcanic eruptions.

It is a trick of scale because, when represented, islands typically come neatly framed. Alone in the world. Essentially whole and indivisible. Like my drawn island, resiliently alone in an empty white field. But we know that islands rarely come in singles. They form part of archipelagos, with power relations and ‘pecking orders’ between islands. They form parts of complex, ‘core-periphery’ relations, usually with adjoining mainlands, but also amongst themselves. And islands harbour divisions within them too. As any islander would also tell you, islands – even the smallest – are also riven by internal tensions, longstanding rivalries, domestic antagonisms, parish pump politics, fault lines and conflicts, which can also turn violent. Realistically, the only way out of the oppressive economic monopoly, stifling social surveillance and the ‘1984-ish’ political gaze that abounds in small island life may be ex-isle/exile.

It is a trick of perspectivebecause we easily conflate the material dimensions of an island with its society, economy and community. Not so. As any islander would also tell you, it is very difficult for any island – especially the smallest – to survive on the basis of its own resources; it needs to lure in investment, tourism and income from elsewhere for its inhabitants to eke a decent living. Meanwhile, island diasporas straddle the globe. Indeed, there may be many more islanders living in metropoles than on their own island(s). Dutch anthropologist Karen Fog Olwig had to go to New York to thoroughly study the island(ers) of St Thomas, in the US Virgin Islands. And successful small islands typically count many immigrants and ‘come from aways’. ‘Non-belongers’ are welcomed as workers but not necessarily as citizens.

In spite of its obvious essentialism, the ‘outside-inside’ binary occupies a central place in island discourse and narrative.  References to island identity, culture and tradition are evoked to construct a pseudo-ethnic ‘Us’ that contrasts with the equally stereotypical ‘Other’. While they may decry invasion and cultural pollution, one easily forgets that most native islanders would trace their own lineage to immigrants.

The simplest of lines hides serious issues.