Welcome to SICRI’s “island conversations” podcast series.
The aim of these podcasts is to highlight the work of island studies scholars and practitioners who make a significant contribution to islands’ research, arts, and culture landscape.
The podcasts are accompanied by a curated transcript that is edited to read as an independent piece.
"Island Notes" composition in Cretan Flat Mandolin by Christophoro Gorantokaki @"Melody Box"
In this podcast we will be hearing from Professor Godfrey Baldacchino. One of the key figures in the field of Island studies described as “having done more work than any other scholar to establish and promote Ireland studies as a legitimate field of academic teaching and research” (quoting Lisa Fletcher). Godfrey is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Malta, where he served until recently as Pro Rector for International Development, and Quality Assurance. He also served as Canada Research Chair, and UNESCO co-chair in Island Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada. And this year, he was appointed ambassador for the Republic of Malta, for islands and small states. He is the president of ISISA, one of the leading Island studies associations, and also the founding editor of Islands Studies Journal, one of the leading journals in this field, as well as the editor of a new open access journal for Small States and Territories.
The list of significant contributions to the field of island studies is a long one, and I risk filling up this podcast’s time with just reading Godfrey’s achievements. So, it's better if I stop here so we can hear directly from him.
Godfrey, welcome to SICRI’s Island Conversations podcast series.
Thank you Valia, it's a great pleasure to be with you.
Before we go into greater detail on your contribution to Island studies and your views on Island Studies scholarship and future developments in this field, I would like us to start on a more personal note: your personal island connections, what makes you an Islander, and how growing up on an island has shaped your identity and worldview. In other words, what makes you a Maltese! As a fellow Mediterranean Islander, from Crete, I'm curious to know what it means to be a Maltese.
Well, of course, to a number of people, Maltese is associated with those lovely tasting chocolate balls Maltesers where the active ingredient is malt. And there are actually a number of beverages around the world. I have a collection of empty bottles and cans, whose name is Malta. But unfortunately, they have nothing to do with my country. It so happens that the active ingredient in those concoctions is malt. Malt and Malta don't go together very well. I don't think the climate is right to grow anything that can become malt. So, there you are. I mean this is an association that unfortunately happens with a number of countries. You may have a reputation out there as far as the name goes that has nothing to do with the country.
But the country itself, as you rightly pointed out, is a small island archipelago. It's not just a small island state. Let's make that clear. There are actually two main islands within the country called Malta. The main island, as happens again in many places, has the same name as the state: Malta. But then we have a smaller island called Gozo, with about 1/10 of the population or even less now, actually about 1/20 of the population of the main island, which is around eight kilometers or five miles away. It's a lovely 20-minute ferry ride across. But that ride makes all the difference. The island of Gozo is less heavily populated. There's a different tempo in terms of how people live their lives. It's more rustic, greener because it's hillier, and with less traffic. So for too many Maltese stuck on the mainland, and of course by mainland I mean Malta here, Gozo is their island. It is their periphery, it is their pleasure zone, their escape. When they want to go on holiday, like when they were on lockdown as many of us have been recently, that has been the escape valve for us, going to Gozo and winding down, letting your hair down (when you have hair!)
Growing up in Malta has in a way made me naturally look upon my country both as a small state. It is as far as land area is concerned the 10th smallest country on the planet, slightly smaller than Grenada in terms of size. But also looking at Malta as an archipelago, with this kind of dual and nervous relationship between Malta and Gozo, which is also manifested in politics and economics and social development in jokes. And Gozitans have jokes about the Maltese which are not very flattering. But of course, we paid them back in the same coin. So, this kind of geographical background in which I have grown up, becomes a kind of a natural, organic, seamless conductivity, that makes me realize every now and then that indeed, I have lived for most of my life on a small state. But I have also lived on an archipelago. And when I was deciding what theme to pick for my PhD thesis, I actually landed on a topic that looked at labour relations in small developing states. My supervisor in the UK was at least amenable to this kind of topic, even though it was not exactly a standard labour relations topic.
Godfrey and Anna Baldacchino in Gozo with the rest of the Malta archipelago in the background, 1983
So I went down that road and I realized that, out there, there's already been quite a number of initiatives concerning mainly small island developing states. Moreover, I also realized early on that some of the assumptions about post-colonial states don't necessarily fit where small jurisdictions are concerned. I remember being once, this was even earlier before my PhD, I was still doing my master's, I was in The Hague at the Institute for Social Studies, which has a very strong radical development orientation, and we were asked by our professor to sit down and think about our struggle for independence. And to honor my wife who happened to be in the same session with me, we looked at each other, and we suddenly realized, hey, did Malta struggle for independence? No, we didn't really struggle for independence, if anything, our most recent struggle with the United Kingdom, our former colonial master, was actually to extend the military base in order not to get them going from the area and sending them out, or firing a shot in that direction, not at all! We actually negotiated with them to “please stay longer and give us more money”, before they go away. And that's exactly what happened. And then you realize, of course, that there are other countries, Mauritius is another one, Seychelles is another one, where again, there was a kind of a hesitation to go independent. And there are still jurisdictions out there, which absolutely refuse to go independent, like Martinique and Aruba. There are many countries that are very jealous of their relative autonomy, but which would dread to think that at some point in time, they will need to cut off their links with the Netherlands, United Kingdom, France, Portugal, Spain and strike out on one’s own. So, I think it's a story of very starts, sometimes cul de sac, false leads. And it's a story that's still going on. By the way, this is a work in progress. And you realize you build up, let's call this, a repository of episodes of experiences that suggests to you that in some instances, islands are idiosyncratic. Small states are idiosyncratic, but just as much, you also realize that islands and small states may not be idiosyncratic at all. They're just the same as larger countries. And this is, I think, a very important thing because when we deal with islands and small states, you always find the radicals who tell you islands are exceptional in everything, just because they are. And then you have the skeptics, on the other hand, the diehards, who will tell you: nah, forget it, islands are just part of the planet and that's it. And that's a very long, long winded introduction.
So, coming from Malta then, what do you think? Is Malta just any other part of this planet? Or is Malta, because of its islandness, different?
The answer is definitely yes, Valia, because Malta is an archipelago not an island, I remind you. It was excised from the Kingdom of Spain in the 16th century, became its own separate jurisdiction under the Knights of St. John, who effectively ruled the island as a theocracy for almost 250 years. And that laid the basis for Malta eventually becoming its own independent state. So had not Malta being an archipelago, had not Malta been cut off, as it could cut off very easily from the rest of the territories of the Kingdom of Spain at the time, Malta would never have become its own sovereign state. And this also explains why around the world of course, many small states are indeed islands, irrespective of the size of their population. Tuvalu, Nauru are countries, sovereign states, members of the United Nations with populations less than 15,000 people each.
But I am curious, still very curious, because I am asking this question and you seem to sort of bring it out there, and I want to bring you back into the personal experience of being a Maltese, and how that has shaped your worldview.
Let me try and stop avoiding the question!
I'm just giving you a background. I'm teasing you. I'm giving you a background but I'm zeroing in on what you want me to say. So we can say that being Maltese is being Mediterranean first of all, this is where we are, just like you. This is the center of the Mediterranean Sea. It's a sea of turbulence. It's a sea where civilizations meet, and there have been tensions and there continue to be tensions. Even as we speak, we have undocumented migrants coming to our shores on a regular basis. We are at the southern edge of the European Union, we are at its southern frontier, but we also speak a Semitic language that has non-European origins. We are the country with the only Semitic language that's an official language within the European Union. That is part of our identity. But at the same time, we are very much within the Roman sphere of things. We have been Roman Catholics for centuries; the church still has a very strong role culturally and socially in Malta. One third of kids study in church schools, for example. But at the same time, there's also a very strong English streak. The last foreign colonizing power in Malta was the United Kingdom; and Britain has left with us a strong and deep legacy, including English as an official language. This is of course, I think, one of the huge advantages of our population, even in our single public university, because it's one of only three public universities in the Mediterranean where English is the language of instruction. Is that closer to your expected answer?
We are actually getting closer here, narrowing it down to how it is that a bigger collective identity might be reflected in yours, the language, the religion, the former colonial influences. And now we're going to zoom further into the personal. And I would like to ask you, if there were any, any memories of growing up in Malta as a child and what would these memories signify to you now that you are an island study scholar?
What usually happens is that the memories associated with childhood and adolescence related to place don't come to the fore when you are in that place. Usually, you need to distance yourself a bit, you probably know exactly what I mean, because you've done this yourself. Valia, when you are in your native Crete, you don't think nostalgically about Crete because you're there. But if you are in the center of Asia, suddenly the olive trees, the beaches, the weather … it comes to you very, very strongly. So, I remember being in the UK, in Coventry, one of the places where you are least likely to remember being on an island within Britain, as far away from the sea as you possibly can imagine, it's bang in the center of that large island. The reason I was there was because I was a student at University of Warwick for my doctorate. And reminding myself for example of some really banal experiences in Malta like picking snails after the first rains, you know, we have a tradition here I try to deal with at least once a year: you go out into certain areas, you don't disclose these areas to others, because otherwise they'll pick your snails before you arrive. So you go to these secret spots, other people have mushroom spots for the same reason. And you pick up the snails, you fast them for three weeks to clean and purge their intestines and then you boil them very fast. I first soak them in beer or wine, so they're completely drunk and intoxicated. They are wonderful to eat with pasta with tomato sauce. Anyway, I won't make you salivate.
Cooking couple: Anna and Godfrey in their kitchen
Godfrey singing in Corsica 2012
You see, I shouldn't be asking that question because I am actually thinking of snails and Crete now. But I do get it, you're absolutely right. Yes, that connection to the place requires a distance.
I like swimming a lot as well, if you want to be personal. It's a very important physical exercise for me, I try to swim for as long as possible, I will probably continue swimming as the weather permits until around December, and then start again in May. I'm very lucky to live in Marsaskala, which is a coastal town on the southeast coast of Malta, with a population of about 15,000 people. I've been here since I got married, so that’s 35 years, and all I have to do is walk 200 meters to a fantastic bay, and I swim across the bay. So, this is also I think, part of who I think I am, wedded to my identity.
Yes, I also remember growing up in Crete, the other for us was the mainland, and that would be the ferry that would take us to Athens. When you were growing up in Malta, you were the mainland to Gozo. I understand that but what was the closest big mainland for you? And was there a connection where you used to visit? And how was that and how did that shape your [relationship] to the mainland?
Very good question. There are multiple mainlands to the Maltese. The most immediate one would be Sicily, which is the largest island in the Mediterranean. And for a number of years, when imports to Malta were restricted because of government policy, many Maltese would go to Sicily to purchase chocolate, to purchase toothpaste and all these odds and ends. The major mainland continues to be a tension between Italy and the United Kingdom. So for obvious reasons, Italy being the closest geographically but Britain being the closest culturally, and being the former colonial power. So: even when it comes to, for example, choices of people going on to do their postgraduate studies abroad, the choice has traditionally fallen to either Italy, but post Second World War, increasingly to the United Kingdom. There is also North Africa, but North Africa is a study in itself, because even though it's relatively close in a physical and geographical sense, it's relatively absent from the local imagination. It might as well be even further away than it actually is. Tunisia is not so far away, Libya is not so far away. We remind ourselves and are reminded rudely at times that we are very close to them. So, when there was the Arab Spring, and there was a revolution in Libya, you know, we ended up welcoming refugees from Libya, we ended up welcoming fighter pilots who escaped with their jets and landed in Malta. And this is something where we have to watch the space because I was reading yesterday that Muammar Gaddafi’s son is returning to politics in Libya.
And all the refugees and illegal migrants that continue arriving in Europe also through Malta.
Exactly. Oh, yes, for sure. So last year, we had an interesting standoff with the government deciding that just by rescuing people, doesn't necessarily mean that you take them straight away to a port and you disembark them. So we had 400 men, literally men, in this case, males being saved and kept on boats for 40 days on high seas while the government was trying to get its so-called partners in the European Union to express solidarity and take on some of these people and accept them in their own countries. It didn't happen; so the government had to back down and land these people in Malta and then and then at that point, some of the countries did say yes okay, we're going to take a few. I just published a paper about this.
It's interesting how Africa, as you say, remains almost absent. However, Africa is a constant reminder that it is there through the arrival of undocumented migrants.
From a prominent international relations point of view, the future of Malta might actually be in and with Africa, because it is the fastest growing continent with the fastest growing population with the fastest growing middle class. So, who knows? I mean, one fine day we might find ourselves with the bulk of our tourists coming from Africa.
And when you look at the greater span of history, in Malta and Crete and Sicily and all these islands in the Mediterranean, with various influences coming and going, everything is possible.
Yes, and this is what has made us who we are. You take a look at family names. Mine is Baldacchino; that has its origins in Sicily. My wife's name is Schembri, which is at the core a Spanish name. My mother's maiden name is Garrett, which is English. We have this huge concoction of names coming from different parts of the world, which is perhaps what makes us who we are: a fairly vocal, fairly vibrant population, trying to make a name for ourselves in the wider world.
Well, I think I finally managed to get something really personal out of you. Now I have a definition of what a Maltese is! On that note, let's move on to your background in Island studies and research. What brought it while studying? What islands have you focused on over the course of your scholarly career and why? And if there are any interesting highlights or anecdotes that you could share along the way, that would be really interesting.
That's a lot of questions compressed into one. Let's jump to island studies. Island Studies in a way came to me, or perhaps, how shall I say, I justified my Canada Research Chair, because it was a Canada research chair in Island studies, so I had to invent Island studies as I went along. So like many people interested in islands, I never studied islands. I studied sociology and English for my undergraduate degree. I studied development studies for my masters. And I studied business and sociology for my postgraduate. Never have I actually been exposed rigorously to any theory or epistemology of islands. This is something that I kind of developed and learned as I went along. But I think it's important also to state and this is where my islander credentials come in, much of what I do, let me put it personal, much of what I do in island studies is actually common sense. In fact, this is perhaps my main mission, I'm trying to get people to think about being islanders first and foremost. Because unfortunately, there is a politics of exclusion here. Very often, we are so bombarded and socialized and trained in the methodologies developed in larger places, that we kind of feel obliged that we have to toe that line. And then if something doesn't fit that box, it's not the box that’s wrong, it's us, right? So when people speak about the mantra of free competition in economies, and will have to make sure that their supply and demand and the market regulates itself, and if you have enough people competing to produce goods, then the price will automatically go down, that's fine in larger countries. But when you look at Malta and say you look at the Gozo Channel company which has a monopoly on the ferry service from Malta and Gozo, the prices on that ferry aren’t going to be regulated by market forces. So the issue of monopoly in economics, the issue of intimacy in society, and the issue of ubiquity, and totality, and politics, are three of the key dimensions that I realized early on. In fact, I identified them in my PhD thesis, and they continue to be benchmarks and measuring rods of the extent to which a place is indeed small or not; a place lives up to its Island credentials, or not.
So, Island studies is also this anxious conversation with oneself about the extent to which the received wisdom that we have all benefited from needs to be critiqued or not, because island studies is unsettling. It's confusing. It destabilizes our knowledge frameworks, but I think there is a huge benefit to be derived from that. And when you do that, you also realize that you're not alone. So even though again, one of the problems of islanders, we talked about one problem that of just accepting mainland dogma, the other problem is that they think that you are unique. There's no other place like Malta, okay, to a certain point. But that's dangerous. It doesn't really, just makes us all more comfortable in our little cocoon. So when you dabble with island studies, one of the benefits and relief associated with this is the realization that there are islands and there are many islands in the world, and there's solace to be taken from this fact because you are not alone. Many of the challenges and many of the opportunities also exist in other similar small island places.
UNESCO chairs in Island Studies and Sustainability:
James Randall and Godfrey Baldacchino at the University of Prince Edward Island campus
What was that crucial moment where you became aware you're actually an island studies scholar, that you are contributing to Island studies? Because you come from a sociology background, you did Development Studies. At what moment did you get yourself thinking “I'm doing Island studies”?
It's a good question. I think I owe this primarily to two men who unfortunately are not with us anymore. One is Harry Baglole, who was the director of the Institute of Island Studies, the founding director of that Institute at the University of Prince Edward Island. And the other was Barry Bartmann, who was the chair of the political science department of that same university. They got together, one was the wheeler and dealer, the lobbyist; and the other was the academic, so they got together very well, they made a great team. And the duo secured funding for a major conference back in 1992, in Prince Edward Island, it will be 30 years next year, called an Island Living. And it was a conference that brought together academics, but also politicians current and former to discuss anything under the sun that dealt with islands. I attended; I was invited to this conference. I had an interesting clash with the former prime minister of Malta at this conference. I ended up co editing the proceedings of this conference. And gradually I became much more in tune with the work of this institute and the way in which this institute was going trying to make the case for an Island Studies Program at the University of Prince Edward Island, and this actually happened. It started with a minor in Island studies. And then eventually 2003 with a Master of Arts in Island Studies, which is still going strong. This year, I had the fortune of being in Charlottetown in PEI to actually welcome and deliver the initial lecture of the incoming cohort, 17 students starting a master's program which is fantastic. In the meantime, for the year 2000, the Federal Government of Canada introduced the Canada Research Chairs program, 2000 research chairs were financed by the federal government and distributed amongst all Canadian universities on the basis of size. The University of Prince Edward Island got five of those research chairs. And of course, there was a process of discussion, consultation internally and it was decided that one of those five chairs would be dedicated to, guess what, Island studies. There was an international call, I am told 26 people applied, five people were shortlisted and I was selected. So of course, when you get selected as a Canada Research Chair in Island studies, you have to do Island studies, and (laughs) you have to think hard, so how do you do this? And, of course, the answer is diverse, let me just restrict myself to a couple of things that I decided very early on to do as part of my strategic plan. One was to edit as many books as possible. When you edit books, you enter into a conversation with 20-30 scholars for at least a couple of years. So, you build the community. You make people aware that they're doing islands, you make people aware of each other, you build scholarship, right? So that's one of the things I did. Secondly, you set up a journal. There was no really dedicated academic journal with a global reach for Island Studies, so in 2006, once again, thanks to a community of scholars that I assisted in building we launched Island Studies Journal, which, as you say, is now going pretty well.
Among all the other things that you have done of course, not to underestimate that significant contribution, but equally more importantly, if I may say so, what legacy would you like to leave behind as an island studies scholar in such times when islands are becoming prominent foci for the Anthropocene?
Well, islands go through bouts of fashion. They are the flavour of the month or the flavour of the year for various reasons. Many islands take solace in having this kind of fashionable trend, because that means that they're on the map. And if they're not on the map, they are invisible. So islands and islanders struggle very often between relevance and irrelevance. Unfortunately, the relevance may be highly stylized and highly stereotyped. In this particular moment, also thanks to Island Studies scholarship, we are realizing that islands are back again, because of their contribution to the blue/green agenda, which I think is a good thing overall, unless it gets out of hand and suddenly, every interest every investor, every politician simply wants to do, I don't know, climate action projects, because that's what brings in the money. That will be a shame. So yes, I think I think this is important. But the fashion will go away. There will be other trends coming up, I have no idea what they are. We are also witnessing islands remaining extremely important in terms of geopolitics, ever since the Law of the Sea came into fruition. Countries that have outlying islands or island states have realized that there is another car to be played here, another bargaining chip, because islands that are considered to be islands by the United Nations under this law can also extend their exclusive economic zone. So conflicts are emerging in various parts of the world, neighboring states are not going to let go of Island claims easily. And one hopes that such dissension does not boil over into actual violence and conflict. I think we need to be extremely careful here, there is a lot of nationalist pride in place. Nationalism is strongest at the periphery. So countries are extremely jealous of their borders and islands, unfortunately, happen to be on these borders. Let's make sure that islands don't become synonymous with conflict.
I sincerely hope so but we know from history, that's not going to be the case. So tell me a little bit about your current island research. We're What are you doing right now?
Right now, I'm very happily co-authoring a book with two fantastic colleagues from Australia, Elaine Stratford at University of Tasmania and Elizabeth McMahon, at the University of New South Wales. We are actually co editors of a book series [Rethinking the Island] with Rowman and Littlefield and we are nearing the end of our term, it's been 10 years or most that we've been co editing the series, and we're kind of delivering the capstone project, the crowning text to this series by concocting a book that really looks at the why and how Island Studies. I think it's about time, in order for a discipline to be a discipline, it needs to have a journal, which now Island Studies has, it needs to have an encyclopedia, which Island studies has, or handbook [The Routledge International Handbook of Island Studies]. I think it also needs a primer of how to do things. So we're putting together this book. It's co-authored, so not just edited in this case. We are writing all the chapters together, we've all decided which chapters to lead and then of course, we'll support each other. But it will be a fascinating text, I think, which continues to enrich Island Studies scholarship.
Godfrey Baldacchino handing over the editorship of the Island Studies Journal to Adam Grydehøj, November 2016
What is different with this book? What's its contribution?
It's about, I don't want to use heavy words, but it's about ontology, epistemology, axiology methodology, it's all the ologies you know what technology is because you are Greek and all these words are Greek. But in simple words, this is about the things that we should think about when we do islands. So when we come to an island, we are already on an island, and I'm going to do research, then what are the implications? What are the consequences? What are the behavioral dynamics and processes that differentiate doing islands from doing other places, including the business of location, for example, when you are an insider, whether you like it or not, to the island that you're studying? What are the implications of that on your other subjects, on your response, on your data, on your anonymity of the data, or the confidentiality of the data? I think they're very serious questions. And they have been treated, you know, on and off by different individuals in different papers, but usually, specifically to particular locales, we're now trying to do this now on behalf of the island community.
So essentially, islands have or need their own epistemological frameworks because their ontologies are different […] In that sense, [this book] will make a major contribution to further consolidate island studies as a discipline that stands on its own.
Correct. So many of us have Google Scholar profiles. If you go into Google Scholar, scholar.google.com and in the search bar, you write Island Studies, I think you will come up with about 30 to 40 names. There are at least 30 to 40 colleagues, I'm not sure whether you were one of them Valia; you can easily find out, but I'm one of them. So you will find that there are 34 people who at least associate themselves with Island Studies and think it is important enough to have it as one of their search terms on their Google Scholar profiles.
Well, it's very interesting, isn't it, what you say. […] I found myself often, when people asked me “so what do you do”, I sort of, you know, scramble together a few disciplines that I have in my background, and I then I say, and I also do Island Studies. And there's an oh, wow. But recently, I find myself more and more, putting that island studies first. But then […] I don't take […] very lightly this island studies perhaps because I'm an Islander. I don't approach the study of my place that has defined my identity from a purely intellectual perspective. And sometimes I feel rather annoyed and I'm saying this to fellow Islander in hope that you will understand what I mean, when others intellectualize, attempt to intellectualize what to me is real, not just an object of study.
It's a different type of knowledge, Valia. A French colleague, Françoise Péron, used to work at the University of Western Brittany, in Brest. I think she's retired now but she has a fantastic paper in French, which I had the privilege of translating into English, about The Lure of the Island. In the introduction to her article, she describes how two different teenage girls describe one particular Island. This is the island of Ushant, or Ouessant in French. It's the only Island in that part of the world that has actually two names, one in French, one in English. And the island girl, the girl who was actually born and bred on the island, marks different places and things on a map of the island, from the girl who comes to the island in summer, and is only a seasonal resident, so they both know, in inverted commas, their island, they both have a sense of ownership and entitlement to their island. But it's different. One is more intellectual, as you said, one is more rational cognitive. One is more about, say, names of towns, names of roads, officiant public markers and signposts. Whereas for the [island] girl, it's more about “where my aunt used to live”, “where the shop used to be”. So it's a wonderful complementarity of different knowledges. And it's the layers of these multiple knowledges that make an island what it is, it's not just what the islanders know about that island, but also what our visitors, tourists, permanent residents, second home residents, consultants who come in for a day and leave … all of them have these views and takes on the same thing. That's part of the richness of Island Studies. We need to acknowledge this diversity. Woe if there comes a time when people or scholars can claim some kind of monopoly on knowledge of what an island is.
Absolutely not, I totally agree with you. It's just that I find myself often now asking myself “Do you really want to study islands” or “do you want to experience islands”? And you know, being an islander doesn't automatically give me the license to do that.
Let's be honest here. You can ask the same question to somebody doing research on the mainland. You can also experience a mainland. The difference with an island is that psychologically the island, especially with small [one], will make you think that you can get to know it faster and more easily. This is one of the dangers of Island Studies. It's a danger also associated with the mother of anthropology, Margaret Mead, who did a lot of new things in her time, for which she deserves credit. But at the same time, you know, she had this idea that you could go to an island, spend a few hours on an island and come back and think that you know it, right? Because it's small. So because it's small, it's simple. No, not at all, perhaps because it's small, it's even more complicated.
Godfrey Baldacchino at The University of the Ryukyus with (from left) Vice-Rector Tomiko Hokama, University President Hajime Oshiro, Ms Anna Baldacchino, Dr Yoko Fujitain Okinawa, Japan, 17 February 2015
Over the course of your career and doing research in different islands, what are some islands that you have visited and done research that have stayed in your memory and why?
Definitely Prince Edward Island which is now a second home to me. My wife and I look forward every summer to going there by ourselves, winding down, breathing clear air and staying in a place that you can hold your arms around. Because it has a population density of 24 people per square kilometre, the highest for a Canadian province, the locals worry about it; whereas here in Malta we are now approaching 2,000 persons per square kilometre, and the resident population officially has now gone over half a million. Iceland is another fantastic place. I have a great respect for Iceland and Icelanders, not just for their country’s surreally beautiful landscapes, but even for their respect for the national language, the way in which they straddle the world with competence and confidence, and the ingenuity of Icelandair, in organising flight schedules so that it the country serves as a stopover place for people traveling across the Atlantic. There are lots of things for which I respect Iceland a lot. There are many other places that I like. I'm going again to the Seychelles, hopefully in 2022. I'm very privileged to have been to the young but brave University of the Seychelles. And various members of its staff are actually have entered into a relationship with University of Malta, some of them are PhD candidates at our University. I'm also going to Mauritius again, after a long time. It's another very interesting place with a fantastic University. It's also one of those countries that have suffered from traffic congestion, like us [in Malta] and they have invested in a monorail. So I'm really keen to see how this mass transit system has actually relieved some of the pressure on their island roads.
Reaching toward the end of our conversation today, I wanted to ask you, what are your thoughts about the future of island studies? I didn't want to ask you the obvious question of, you know, why are islands important to study? But perhaps we need to go there first, even if it's obvious to you and me.
10 percent of the world's population lives on islands. So shouldn't 10 percent of the world scholarship be dealing with islands?
That is the shortest and most efficient answer ever!
I know it's a bit rich, but we really have to go there. As editor of journals, and I'm also a member of editorial boards of other journals, it's always a problem to encourage good scholarship from people from small island places. Unfortunately, journal pages continue to be hogged by good scholars. Of course, I'm not demeaning their quality, but they tend to come from the obvious places. These are the usual suspects: US, UK, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Germany sometimes, France. These are the scholars that have continued to secure the pages, even when they're dealing with islands. These are visitors to islands and obviously, their take on the islands that they're studying is significantly affected, let's not say compromised, by the fact that they're coming in from outside and looking at things from an essentially external, ‘outsider looking in’ perspective. We need to build Island studies with an emphasis that is both Islander and non-islander driven. So critical reflections about what is going on are needed; we need to be able to speak truth to power as well. So one of the advantages of island jurisdictions is that many of us know the politicians who are ruling our countries. They were students in our classes, we grew up together, we may have had professional relationships with them even before they entered politics, right? The former President of the Republic of Malta lives down the road, who was my lawyer for a number of years; his son is now Prime Minister […]; the immediately preceding Prime Minister was my student at university. So all these connections perhaps give us an added responsibility. We don't worry about not being included in politics. We worry about being included too much in politics.
Godfrey and Anna with Sophia Karampela and Prof. Ioannis Spilanis, members of the Lesvos planning group, 2016
That's right, [you know] you're in a very small place when your neighbor's son is the prime minister; you know clearly, you're really embedded there. But how do we create opportunities for Island scholarship within these small islands?
First of all, there is this initiative around many small jurisdictions to have their own centres of quality tertiary education. Even small countries like, say Samoa, today is proud to have its own University. Trinidad and Tobago, even though it has a campus of the University of West Indies, also has its own university and we can go on and on like this. So I think this is important. Seychelles, as I mentioned earlier, with a population of 100,000 people, has its own university.
Increasingly, apart from that, we also need to support the ability of scholars from these universities to partake in regional and global Island Studies scholarship. ISISA - of which I happen to be president since 2014 - does its best to support postgraduate students, Masters, or PhD students working on something to do with islands. And we support their travel to our major international conference because they come with ideas, with enthusiasm, they meet each other, the scholars of the future if not of the present. So, let's try to build opportunities to encourage these scholars to partake, preferably physically, from these opportunities.
Thirdly, let's also try to mentor these people in how they write. Academic writing is a skill, it doesn't come naturally. Some people also have issues with the English language, which is the language of science and scholarship in most parts of the world. So once again, this is an appeal for people like, you know, like you like me and others, to dedicate some time to individuals who may have promised or may have potential but need a little bit of mentoring and ironing out tissues and hand holding in order to get them up to speed and being able to publish.
What I'm hearing you saying is that one thing is to say, Yes, we would like to have the islands contributing to islands scholarship from within but we also really need to take care of the practicalities, create structures, opportunities, mentorship, as you mentioned, putting words into action.
We have to walk the talk. I could pontificate, I could preach about what we ought to do and should do; but at the same time, also offering the solution to the problem. Other organizations and associations presumably will do the same thing if they realize that this is one way of making sure that island studies scholarship is also a fiefdom, in which islanders partake, and they're not just observers.
Partake but also lead because if they are going to write about their islands in a way that influences policies, it should be driven by them. Now, of course, we can do mentoring and we can include people, young scholars, Emerging Scholars coming from the islands to international fora, but we know that there is another subtle sort of power play over the situation. Most of these islands often tend to be former colonial spaces and in navigating the [international] scholarly space often it’s very difficult to cross those very thin boundaries between Western academia and nurturing the local scholarship which deals still with the aftermath of colonialism and the ramifications that this has on local thinking.
Very true, the post-colonial present is going to remain with us for long. What we are seeing of late is a kind of a renaissance of indigeneity all over the world. This is perhaps part of the backlash, being able to claim space and cognitive space as well in a terrain that has been very much monopolized over long periods of time by people from the mainland, from the Metropole, from the respective Metropole, as you say, from Paris, from Washington, from London, from Canberra, and also from Sydney and Auckland. But it's more complex than this because even the people who write with an Indigenous claim tend also to be individuals who have studied in these very same metropoles. So their whole identities are ‘glocal’. Let’s take a look at Epeli Hau’ofa, people quote him of as one of the paradigm-shattering island studies scholars of the Pacific. His Our Sea of Islands is quoted in many islands studies courses. But he himself studied and spent time in New Zealand and Australia, not just in Fiji and Tonga and Samoa. Who he is, what he is, what he has done is also a product of this mélange, this mixture between being local and being global. Islanders are by definition glocal: it would be a shame for them to develop a love-hate relationship with the global or the colonial or the Metropolitan because that is also who they are and what they are. And at the same time, I think that it will be just as bad to simply become obsessed with navel gazing about who they are locally, and speak about their own local culture, local traditions, because they are also infused and defused with things that are coming from somewhere else.
Getting out of Marsaskala Bay, Godfrey's hometown (on a December swin)
Godfrey with Tycho Brahe, on the island of Ven, Sweden, 2010
I'm speaking more about creating this phase or holding the space for different ways of Island narrative islands, narrating Island studies. Recently, I've been involved in a journal, editing an issue, and we had some submissions, and some of them were from Pacific Islands and they were taking this very narrative way of engaging with the subject matter. I could see the reviewers had difficulty accepting that. And to me, it was music to my ears. I loved it, I thought: wow, what a wonderful way to hear the subject matter from this particular island.
This is part of the problem with island studies. You have referred to it as a discipline, but usually a discipline has its own methodology. Now, island studies straddles many disciplines, each of which has its own methodology. And I think this is part of the democratic aspect of Island studies. I take pride in listening to people saying that there's no Island studies canon. Meaning that there's no Dick or Harry or Mary or Jane, that you obviously need to acknowledge or bow to, and pay homage to, in Island studies, we don't have that. And that's great, because that keeps the field more democratic, more open. But this needs to extend also to journals. So journals need to be open and flexible enough that if they're really dealing with island studies, they really must appreciate and indeed, they must encourage different forms of engaging with the subject method. Right? So just because people are autobiographical sometimes in some aspects of their work, doesn't mean that it's wrong. If you come from the natural sciences, I know it's not natural to follow such a praxis. It's not normal for you to come across papers that are autobiographical. But in the arts, in language and literature, it is. So yes, this is part of the problem. I was engaged recently with a discussion. I'm on the editorial board of the International Journal of Bahamian Studies, and we had an issue about one particular article based on one person's commentary. It was a running commentary of the effect of Hurricane Dorian, on one of the islands of the Bahamas. So it's really poignant and reflective, and we finally agreed that it was worth publishing. But of course, it doesn't fit the template. So we need to be brave here as well.
This is kind of linking to what you were saying earlier on about your recent engagement [in] theorizing further Island studies and engaging with all these -isms, and -ologies, that you mentioned. At the same time, you say island studies is multidisciplinary and that's what makes it a strong scholarly space. So looking into the future of island studies from where you stand right now, and looking back into the last 20 years that were crucial in setting up this space, […] [as] you are engaging in consolidating the theoretical and conceptual framework of island studies, what do you see from this standing point? What are your thoughts about the future of island studies? What else do we need to work on? What is up on the horizon?
On the horizon is a situation where we need to amplify the methodologies that we bring to bear to the subject matter. But at the same time, we also need to remain focused. The diversity and the opportunities are enormous, but they are upstream, if I make any sense. They are dealing with the multiple ways of knowing spaces and places that we need to engage with. There's still a lot of work to be done there. How do we get to know islands better, more deeply, more intimately, more differently than what they have been so far? So the islands are there, they're going to be there. Well, as long as climate change permits, perhaps, right? Because of course, that's another story to be told. But as long as Malta is there, hopefully there will be other people, other ways of engaging with what Malta is, right? So this is Area Studies. It's one aspect of various studies, which is very rich in disciplinary inspiration. But as far as island studies is concerned this richness needs also to extend in terms of the methods of engagement, I think we're still a bit poor in that context.
My last point would be succession planning, Valia. I'm 61. My children like to remind me that I'm old, though being 61 means I am still with the ‘young old’ (laughs). Anyway, I'm also very conscious that I need to move on, and other people will come over and take over some of the things I've been doing. I'm very open to mentoring, supporting, assisting, guiding, co-authoring, co-editing things which enthuse me and keep me going. Because the flash in my eyes also depends on the motivation and the excitement associated with my work, which is also your work. So I want to take this opportunity to thank you for coming into my life professionally. I remember the time when we met for the first time, I think it was in Cape Breton. Sydney, Cape Breton for a SICRI conference. And that's what conferences are for: they put you in touch with great people like yourself, people that you enjoy associating yourself with, and I hope that our collaboration will continue.
That's a wonderful way of bringing our conversation to a conclusion Godfrey and I would really like to thank you very much. I feel greatly honored to have held this conversation with you today. And on a personal note, a real pleasure in connecting with a fellow Mediterranean Islander. Perhaps in another conversation, we can explore what that means!