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island conversations
podcast series

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"

Ilan Kelman  

Hello, my name is Ilan Kelman. I'm professor of disasters and health at University College London and also affiliated with the University of Agder in Southern Norway. It is my huge pleasure to be here with Elaine Stratford. 

 

Elaine Stratford  

Hi Ilan, how are you? It’s nice to talk with you again.

 

No, thanks for being here. But tell us, who are you?

 

Well, for the last 25 years I have been an island resident in Tasmania, Australia. I am officially a ‘blow-in’ if you like, or mainlander. And in my day job, I am Professor of Geography at the University of Tasmania, here in Hobart, which is the capital of the island state.

 

So, you're saying you're an islander first and an academic second.

 

I'm six years off retirement, so maybe I'm learning to think differently. I've always thought of myself as an academic first. One has to be careful about applying the word islander to a mainlander or blow-in. But I gave birth to one Tasmanian, and I gave birth to another Australian from the large island to the north [Australia]. So yes, Ilan, I think I might say I have an island-disposition now. Despite the fact that I was born as far from the sea as you can get in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, in Canada.

 

So, Saskatchewan is an island unto itself.

 

Well, look, you know a Minnesotan poet, whose name escapes me […] David Holm I think, no, Bill Holm. A Minnesotan, from just south of Saskatchewan, described the prairies as a kind of sea, with the settlements being islands. But I'm not sure I'm persuaded. The metaphor is beautiful, but I'm not sure I'm persuaded. 

 

At what age did you first see the ocean?

 

Well, I saw it when I was three. But I don't remember that particularly. My most profound first memory of seeing the sea was when my father, one of my older sisters, and I were on our way to New Zealand. My mother and two other siblings were still in Saskatoon for a period of time, kind of finishing up. And I remember standing on the shore of the Pacific holding my dad's hand, and I would have been nine. I remember looking up at him and asking him where it ended, because I couldn't see the other shore, as you might in, say, a lake in Saskatchewan—although some of the lakes are pretty big. So, that was a really interesting experience for me because we then took two weeks, three weeks, to get from Canada to New Zealand, where my dad started his doctorate. And we went via Hawaii, Tahiti, Samoa and Fiji—American Samoa—and Fiji. Looking back, it might be a bit of post-hoc rationalising, but looking back, that trip was transformative. 

 

Go on. 

 

So, it was transformative for a number of reasons, not least is because, you know, you live the life. It was kind of this archetypical paradisiacal three weeks. Sunshine, pretty new dresses, beaches, drinking out of coconuts, having mocktails. But in Fiji, we were in Fiji for over a week. And by this point, I was missing my mum quite a bit and I attached myself, like a duckling, to one of the maids in the hotel, we were staying at in Nadi. She was so kind, and she just let me follow her around. But one day she wasn't there, and so my sister and I went for a walk around, you know, the area; we were allowed to do that, she was 14. And we came across Mary and a group of people living in a settlement that was primarily constructed of corrugated iron, cardboard, and found wood, and I think it was one of the first times in my life I ever felt shame. Because I knew the difference was so stark. You couldn't help but notice. And I didn't quite understand. My dad was an academic; we went back to the hotel, we talked about it, and we talked about development and development studies in different places and different islands and different ways of being in the world and living in the world and the distribution of wealth. I mean, he was a great teacher. And I kind of, again it might be a post-hoc rationalisation, but it kind of marked my interest, certainly in geography from that time. I was an avid student of geography thereafter. But it took me a while to come back to island studies. I guess that's another part of the story.

 

Well, tell us. 

 

Yes, okay, great. So, I lived in Adelaide. So, we lived in New Zealand for three years from the time I was nine ‘til the time I was 12. My mum and dad had jobs there. And then, when I was 12, my mum got a job setting up speech pathology in Australia—for a bachelor's programme in Australia. So, we moved to Adelaide, which, although it was on the shore, because of the continental hot winds that come down from the desert, it certainly didn't feel particularly paradisiacal at the time. Although I came to love it and we lived there for a number of years; I was there for 20 years. And I did my undergrad and postgrad degrees there. And then my partner Philip, whom I'm still with, and I moved to Canberra for a year and in that year, I was asked to apply for a job at UTAS—University of Tasmania. So, when we moved, by this stage I was very heavily pregnant with our second child, Mikey; our first child Lewis had been born in Adelaide. And so, there we are, I couldn't fly. They wouldn't let me fly across the Bass Strait. So, I waddled onto the ferry, and it was an overnight ferry. And we landed on the shores of Tasmania in Devonport, and we drove to Hobart. Now you think, you know, your average person would probably recognise that they'd cross a strait from a mainland to an island and therefore they were on an island. But I was so busy being a young mum of two and starting a new job that it took me a couple of years to actually go, “Oh wow, I live on an island”. And it's interesting because it took a visit from Harry Baglole from the University of Prince Edward Island to visit my dear colleague Pete Hay, here at UTAS. It took Harry's visit in 1999 for me to go, “Oh, my goodness me, I live on an island, I'm a geographer, I could be studying islands”.

 

So, at this point, presumably, you'd worked out that the ocean itself really never ends, right?

 

Really never ends.

 

What about the island? Does the island ever end?

 

Oh, isn't that such a live debate amongst us? You know, are we talking about networks or assemblages? Or archipelagos or, you know, rhizomes? My short answer is no. I think for me, as someone who uses space and spatial theory, the island never ends. It extends upward in columns of air above that circulate above a landmass. It extends down into the sea or continental shelf. It extends outward, biologically, biochemically, physically, culturally, symbolically, metaphorically. And I think that's one of the overwhelmingly seductive and powerful parts of islands and island studies, and possibly also one of its greatest pitfalls. 

 

In what way is it a pitfall?

 

Well, I think in some senses island scholars, island study scholars, in my experience have sometimes been—accused is possibly too strident a term—but I'll use it as a placeholder. They've been accused of being everything for everyone. You know, “this is the study of everything for everyone”. If anything is an island, if everything is an island, if the island is everywhere, if extends out everywhere, then it becomes a meaningless signifier. And, you know, Pete Hay, I think has been particularly articulate in this respect, saying that you know—and this is interesting coming from a published, and well-regarded poet—suggesting that, you know, the metaphor can be abused. Real island people, living on real islands, facing real dilemmas specific to island people, need to be accounted for and not lost in the metaphor.

 

So, tell us more about what you do and how you deal with these challenges.

 

Going back to ‘99, it was such a fabulously fertile time. It has—Tasmania had—been described as a basket case, economically, on a number of occasions, in the late 1800s, in 1926, in 1975, and again around 1996, in various royal commissions or boards of enquiry instigated by the federal government; the Australian Government. And so, when we arrived in the end of ‘96, beginning of ‘97, it had again been described as a basket case. In ‘98/’99 there was a change of government from the Rundle Liberal government to the Bacon Labor government. And Jim Bacon […] he spoke about para-diplomacy, about island people leapfrogging mainlands, to interact with one another. He was one of the foundational figures of our internationally known ‘Ten Days on the Island’ festival. It was a really fertile time in policy and in arts culture. I leapt on that train, and I never got off it. 

 

So, a lot of the work that I did initially was around trying to understand what island studies might look like. And my first foray into the International Small Island Studies Association was as early as 2002, for example, on Prince Edward Island. And a lot of my work has been about trying to rethink how we think about islands studies. Hence, the Rethinking the Island series with Rowman and Littlefield International, or the work we've done on envisioning the archipelago. But I guess one of the other pieces of work I've been really proud of—and I'm not sure whether that pride is warranted, but I feel that it has been good work—is that which is focused on children and young people, islands and climate change, because that work has involved theoretical, methodological, empirical, and non-traditional outputs. So, art exhibitions, and so on, and about a subject that I feel deeply passionate about, which is inviting children and young people to have a place and asking adults to ensure that they have that place and that voice.

 

How are you going to continue this work?

 

Well, the work that I'm doing at the moment doesn't involve children and young people very much, I have to say. Which is not to say it won't. And some of the work that I did, say between 2015 and 2019, was actually focused not so much on children, islands, and climate change, but on island children, specifically Tasmanian island children, and neglect, deprivation, and educational attainment. So, while Islandness took a kind of a conceptual backseat in that work that I did, it was always in my head, rather more than [it was for] my educational colleagues and collaborators. Because I know the history of Tasmania, they did too, but I knew and emphasised the history of Tasmania's island status as a basket case, you know, this apparent basket case. We have some of the poorest communities in the country, and there's a strong positive correlation between poverty and educational attainment, and a whole series of complications related to unemployment, under-employment, and all of the consequences of those, for example. So, some of the work on children and young people, for me in that period, was inflected with an understanding of the islandness of this place and the particular history of this place. My other work in islands at the moment is on different subjects. 

 

Please tell us.

 

Interestingly enough, there's two elements to this, two arms to it, if you like. One of them continues the work around my interest in the visual arts, and my growing curiosity about what is being described as aesthetic force by really interesting American scholars such as Sarah Elizabeth Lewis. Now, she's applying this idea of aesthetic force to questions that pertain to Black Studies in particular. But, you know, how is it that we see the world? How is it we represent the world? How is it that those representations and our arts practices have aesthetic force that is also political? And have cultural dynamic and cultural effect and affect and influence? And how can aesthetic force be deployed to critique the present—what a lot of people are calling the Anthropocene and the climate crisis? So that's one part of the question. 

 

So, with my colleagues, Carol Farbotko, Taukiei Kitara, and Phillipa Watson, we've been working intensively with six island activists who are also academics and artists. And we've been speaking with them over many months now, asking them about their views on climate crisis, their views on the Anthropocene, and their views on decolonization. And some of that work has been published in Geographical Research [journal]. Some of it is in submission with another journal at the moment, and we have another manuscript in prep. But interestingly enough, Ilan—not that I think you could get a representative sample—but the six people with whom we have been speaking, to a person, have said that for them, on their islands, the imperative is decolonization. Because for them, all of the current crises stem from a complex colonial imperial past. And that's been really interesting for us, given live debates in island studies around the Anthropocene, for example.

 

Does calling it the climate crisis presuppose impacts and lead the interviewee?

 

We haven't used those terms with them. I guess that's my shorthand and it's one of the insights, kind of a post-hoc insight. We asked them specifically about the Anthropocene. But we didn't use words like climate crisis. We focused on the Anthropocene and decolonization and inevitably climate—climate change, sea level rise, and associated risks and hazards—came up in our conversations. We were expecting, and it's good to be wrong, we were expecting that these six would be particularly interested in and concerned about the Anthropocene. And for them, that term didn't resonate or register nearly as much as the need to decolonize: to decolonize knowledge, knowledge structures and systems, methodologies and process. So interestingly enough, they started off as participants, we had ethics clearances. They started off as participants, and now they're actually co-authors because we realised that to have them as “mere participants” (not that the participants are ever mere, but you know what I mean); to have them, in a sense, having a use value as participants was to perpetuate a series of colonial manoeuvres for us. And so, we invited them to be full co-authors on the papers, and again to a person, with one exception, they agreed. And the one exception was that the person just ended up running out of time to engage more deeply with the script.

 

This sounds like exactly what we need; rather than viewing ourselves as a leader, to know better.

 

We wrote about this in Geographical Research journal, and it has been published. And it was confronting for us because there we were, three white women, chuffing along, having a grand old time. And then we went, “Oh, my goodness me, look what we're doing”. Now Carol, who had done her PhD with me on Tuvalu, married a Tuvaluan man, Taukiei Kitara. And so, we asked Taukiei if he would be our mentor, our Indigenous mentor; again, through ethics clearances—so it was all quite above-board—we talked through conflicts of interest and so on, as you do. And so Taukiei, first of all started to talk through Indigenous knowledge systems. And then we landed on the idea of co-authorship, and then we asked them. Now again, that could have been seen as an imposition, or a post-hoc apology, and we surfaced all of that with them as well. But it was certainly confronting in the best possible sense of the word. It was a confronting, and highly productive set of insights. And we're still working with those. So that's one arm of research I'm doing around islands. There is another; I'm not sure if you're interested in hearing about it. 

 

Of course, please discuss, please go ahead.

 

Well, this one, interestingly enough, actually started with a child. And it started with an image of a child. And the aesthetic force of this image is one I'm sure you will both know and empathise with. And it's the image of Alan Kurdi, who is the three-year-old whose body was found on the shores of Bodrum in Turkey. And it was an image that went viral around the world. Little blue shorts, little red shirt, you know, curled up like he was sleeping on the beach. And, of course, he wasn't. And I saw that image during that terrible summer when over three and a half thousand people drowned in the Mediterranean. And of course, 350,000 people drown every year. But that was a particularly forceful set of events. 

 

At the time, I vowed that I was going to do something about it. I wasn't sure what. And it took me between 2015 and the beginning of this year [2022], to seed that project. But I'm in the process of writing a book over the next two years, which is entitled ‘The Drowned’ and it's a cultural and political geography of drowning and the drowned. And, as you would appreciate, inevitably, islands will have a reasonably significant part to play in that work. Not solely: people die in bathtubs from drowning, in lakes and rivers, on mainlands, but that one is going to occupy me for the next two years, at least. And that little boy and my understanding of the importance of islands had been absolutely front and centre the conceptualization of that project.

 

What else are you working on for the future?

 

That's such a delicious question because, as I mentioned to you, for the first time in my life, I'm actually looking to create my last five year plan, which doesn't mean to say I won't stop writing or thinking. I'd like to perhaps have an honorary position in my university, and I'm still hoping to travel to conferences and so on. But I am actually looking to officially retire sometime in the next six years. And so having a five year plan has taken on rather […] you've had to do those things for performance management discussions. Well, this time, it's taken on rather more of a legacy project; what are the things that are really important to do in these five years. ‘The Drowned’ is one of them. 

 

But interestingly enough, the other project that I have taken on this year involves my much loved University. I've been here 25 years, and, if you can love an organisation, I have to say, through all the ups and downs of any organisation, I feel a great deal of loyalty to this one, and a great deal of commitment to it. And I can explain why in due course, if you like, but some time ago, a decision was made, or discussion was started about the role of this university. It's a state university. It is the comprehensive university of Tasmania; the island state of Australia. And it is an island University. 

 

And if you look us up on the web, ‘island’ is very much part of brand, and I don't mean brand in a commercial sense; I mean in a symbolic sense. So, that discussion about the University of Tasmania and its future has involved quite specifically a decision to move from what were suburbs of the capital city of Hobart and the second city of Launceston and the third city of Bernie, and to move the campuses, the physical campuses, into the central business districts of those cities. And in a couple of hours, I'm going to go on attend a public meeting at the Hobart City Council, where 1,700 signatories to a petition will gather saying they don't want the university to move from Sandy Bay—which is a blue ribbon, highly privileged suburb—to the centre of the city, which is only three or four kilometres away, and over a third of the universities is there already. 

 

So, I am involved in trying to develop for the Vice Chancellor a 10-year research programme that would see us studying the effects of the transformation of the University of Tasmania, on its cities, the effects of the city's transformations on the university, but also the effects of the transformation on island communities around the state. So little regional centres where we do online education or the very remote settlement of Strahan, which takes about five hours to drive to through pretty rugged, very windy roads. And we've established a kind of a campus there looking at Antarctic and island and extreme condition medicine and health and well-being. So that's going to be a really fascinating project or programme of works. My hope is that we will be able to ensure that islands are front-and-centre, and an island mentality is front-and-centre in our thinking. [And] I'm not quite sure what I mean by an island mentality […]

 

Well, that leads directly to the next question. And yes, please do elaborate on your loyalty and support for your dedicated employer within the context of what you mean by that last phrase and particularly your thoughts on the future of island studies.

 

Yes. Thank you. Great question. So, the University of Tasmania, I mentioned before, is a comprehensive university. I don't know how many students we have now, but it's well over 20,000. And there's a large international cohort; China, India, but also Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and so on. Interestingly enough, not many from the Pacific and not many from South America, despite the fact that we're really, you know, a South Pacific—Southern Ocean/South Pacific—location. A university that is intended to serve its people. And as I mentioned before, the educational attainment challenges mean that the fact that we are a comprehensive university is really important. 

 

One of the very interesting findings that we made when I was leading the Peter Underwood Centre between 2015 and 2017—that's a research centre here at UTAS—one of the interesting findings was asking Tasmanians about—older Tasmanians about—why they hadn't gone to university or why they didn't encourage their kids to go to university. And until 2016, Ilan, it was only compulsory to go to grade 10 in Tasmania. Until 2016, It was only compulsory to go to grade 10. And many schools in Tasmania didn't actually offer grade 11 and 12 in the schools; you had to travel to a major centre to what was called a college to do grades 11 and 12. Well, if you live two hours’ drive from college, what are you going to do? You're going to finish in grade 10. 

 

So that's now changed, the Education Act is reformed, there are what we call extension schools. So, the schools that didn't have grade 11 and 12, many of them now do. There's more online offerings. But when we were asking people, “why don't you encourage your kids to go to university?” a not insignificant number of people would say, “Well, they’ll get qualified and leave the island. And why would you want them to do that?” So, there was a significant emphasis on people going and getting jobs in small to medium enterprises, getting apprenticeships—those are perfectly fantastic ways of being in the world. I don't deny it. I don't feel hierarchical about university the way some folks do, but it was a very interesting finding. And so, for me, one of the things that we can deploy island insights and island mentality and island studies for, is to say, “Yeah, okay, but there are plenty of other islands that they can go to and learn from”. James Ellsmoor exemplifies that in the island innovation space […] SICRI is another example and ISISA is another example—learning organisations. 

 

But the other thing we know from demographic studies is that young Tasmanians go, and they do, they leave. But if they can get home, in their childbearing years, they come home, if they can get a job in the childbearing years, they come home. So, there's out-migration, and then they come home. And they bring with them all of the things that they've learned. And there's this kind of engagement with innovation. And increasingly, Tasmania is becoming a kind of a sea-change bolt-hole for people from the mainland. So, we're going to need, I think, very significant perspectives on how to work with all of the opportunities and risks that those patterns of in and out migration will present us.

 

To do so, what recommendations would you have for early-career scholars, particularly those interested in island studies?

 

Well, for a long time, my dear colleague, Godfrey Baldacchino and I talked about whether or not it would be feasible to create a master's degree in Tasmania that mirrored the Master of Arts in Island Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island. And at one point, we discussed that and the market research here—which is inevitably part of proposing units and subjects and courses—didn't have proof of concept, which is interesting, isn't it? But nevertheless, we in geography have a third-year unit, which I started in which my colleague Andrew Harwood now runs, on island geographies. And our current vice chancellor, Rufus Black, has appointed a senior legal scholar Margaret Otlowski to be the University of Tasmania’s European ambassador working on community engagement projects. And the first three people that she's contacted, at my recommendation, are island people. So, Godfrey, Baldacchino, James, Ellsmoor, and Adam Grydehøj. Because she's really interested and Rufus, our Vice Chancellor, is really interested in extending the possibilities for work and into Europe specifically.

 

Any basic words of wisdom to inspire those who want to come and join us in this field?

 

Yes, because I think the other part of the answer to the last question should have been something like, one of the reasons that the proof of concept didn't fly so well here is that students are really focused on the question: “Where will this get me a job?”, “How will this provide me with a job?” So, I'm not surprised, you're probably not going to be surprised, that when we look at the top 10 courses in universities in various parts of the world at the moment, what we're seeing is medicine, information and communication technologies, architecture and design and construction, nursing and health care. Those sorts of jobs are in demand. Arts and science less so; island studies is both. It could be designed around curriculum for arts or science or both. So, my question, I guess, for all of us is not only how to create curricula and research projects that show the strengths of island studies as a deeply interdisciplinary endeavour, but/and/also provide practical skills that enable graduates and research practitioners to, for instance, be useful in consulting companies or local governments or as planners. And this, I think, is one of the key challenges for us, Ilan, in terms of education and training, in higher-ed and also in how we formulate research that may have policy relevance.

 

Well, thank you for doing so. Thank you for leading us. Thank you for inspiring everyone. We hope to continue using your experience, expertise and approaches not just for the next five years, but for the next 50 years. Thank you again for being with us. This is Ilan Kelman in London with Elaine Stratford in Hobart. Thank you again.

 

Thank you so much.

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In this podcast, we will be hearing from Elaine Stratford. Elaine is Professor of Geography in the School of Geography, Planning, and Spatial Sciences in the College of Sciences and Engineering at the University of Tasmania. Elaine is internationally recognised and valued for research in human geography, and works to understand how people flourish in place, in their movements, in daily life, and over their lives. Studies with children and young people in island places have been a feature of Elaine's work. Elaine is editor-in-chief of the journal Geographical Research, on a number of editorial boards, and co-editor of the ten-year book project Rethinking the Island (Rowman and Littlefield). She is active in the American Association of Geographers, Royal Geographical Society/Institute of British Geographers, and International Small Island Studies Association. A Fellow of the Institute of Australian Geographers, in July 2021, she was recognised by that organisation for distinguished service to the discipline of Geography in Australia and awarded its highest honour, the Griffith Taylor Medal.