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"
Islands in my mind by Michaye Boulter
As we left by Michaye Boulter
Living at sea level
From Here for the Music (Acorn Press, 2012)
Living at sea level
Born without the ocean at my feet,
this living at sea level scares me.
I'm used to thin air,
wraparound sky so close you
scrape it with your fingernail, jagged
peaks on the horizon, my comfort zone, narrowing
My friend Libby sees a mountain
and is compelled to climb it,
just to see what's on the other side.
I see a mountain and I soar on the updraft,
swoop on the down
till I'm smack in the middle
of the palm of the valley
where dawn takes longer to get to
and day is quicker to leave.
There the edges are blurred,
where your land ends and
Here, at sea level, it's pruned and edged,
steadfast and bound by
a prairie of ocean,
limits constant, inevitable.
But it is only here, colouring in the lines
that bind me to this place
that my edges are defined.
I'm getting used to sleeping
with the roar of the ocean in my ears.
What a wonderful way to start our Island Podcast Conversations today with Dr. Laurie Brinklow. Island Greetings. I'm Dr. Evangelia Papoutsaki, SICRI’s co-convener and the host of this Island Conversations Podcast series. The aim of this podcast is to highlight the work of island studies scholars and practitioners who make a significant contribution to islands research, arts and cultural landscape. And today we are really very privileged to have with us not only a scholar but also a creative practitioner. Dr. Laurie Brinklow has joined us today from Prince Edward Island, where she is teaching islandness in the Master of Arts in Island Studies program at the University of Prince Edward Island, where she is also the Chair of the Institute of Island Studies and Coordinator of their Master of Arts in Island Studies program.
Laurie is an island poet or, rather, “poetess,” a writer, an editor, and a former book publisher of Charlottetown’s Acorn Press. She is the President of the International Small Islands Studies Association (ISISA). She graduated with her Ph.D. in Geography and Environmental Studies from the University of Tasmania in 2015. Laurie was the Publishing co-ordinator with the Institute of Island Studies until 2004, and before that, she helped co-ordinate the North Atlantic Islands Programme, which led to the formation of the North Atlantic Forum.
Laurie, welcome today to our forum. What a pleasure to have a poet today in our conversation.
Thank you so much, Valia. What a wonderful introduction, and I'm just absolutely thrilled to be here. Thank you.
Laurie, let's start on a personal note. What are some of your earliest memories of islands and islandness?
It's funny because I grew up on the mainland, as that poem said. I was a child of the mountains, growing up in British Columbia, but my father was a construction worker and construction workers always went on strike. There was always something going on. And we had family on Vancouver Island. Vancouver Island seemed to be this place where, when there was a strike and we had no money, my family would go back to the island. And we would be with family, and it would be easier and cheaper. And maybe it was cheaper to live there, I don't know, I don't remember. But it was always those memories, they're so ingrained, about going to the island and then leaving the island and going back to the island… that when I ended up on Prince Edward Island nearly 40 years ago, I got off the boat and said, “this is home.”
And it took another 20 years, and me joining the Master of Arts in Island Studies program as a student, to realize what it was… because I was always wondering why did I feel so attached to this place so immediately, and it was that talking about Islands and the imprinting that happens on young people, the “place imprinting” that can happen, it just, it came clear, just like that, that I realized all of those times, waiting in a ferry lineup or going to the boat or leaving, always having to plan your trip or the ocean, the smell of the creosote from the pilings at the ferry terminal, or, camp-outs on the beach and stuff, those were so much a part of my childhood. And I think, having to come and go like that, not just growing up on it, but actually, the coming and going really helped to distill that sense of what islandness meant. I find here on Prince Edward Island when I'm teaching islandness, that people don't realize they're living it. They don't understand the language. But they know it intimately. They know it innately. But they're not aware of what islandness is; they take it for granted. It's like breathing. It's like a fish in water. But I had that. As for me growing up as a kid, leaving it and coming back and going and coming back, that really helped distill that sense of what islandness meant. And so just talking about it now even makes it more clear, right? It's just amazing how every time we have these conversations, we learn something more.
You mentioned that you have been living on Prince Edward Island for 40 years.
So, here is my question about identity: Do you have to be born on an island to be an islander? At what point do you qualify as an Islander?
Oh, that's such a funny question. And it really does come into a lot of things here on Prince Edward Island, even today, the politics of who is an Islander. So when I first arrived in 1983, you had to be seven generations, born and bred, before you were considered an Islander. And so, of course, I would never be. And I was born in Ontario, I was born in central Canada, but moved out to British Columbia when I was five, and then had this whole 17 years of back and forth to Vancouver Island that really imprinted… but coming here now and seeing we have many more immigrants, now on Prince Edward Island, either from other parts of Canada or international immigrants and refugees that are coming and making up the population. We've had one of the fastest-growing populations in Atlantic Canada, in our province, recently, over the last, say, five years, and a lot of it is immigration. But how do you make it so that people feel like they belong, when there's that sense that you have to be seven generations born and bred?
So think that now, as the older populations are … well, they're dying, right? And so you end up with a more modern type of mindset, that knowing. We've had the bridge since 1997. Before that, it was all ferries, and we're much more connected through the internet and mass media… that these kinds of things are now, not as prevalent maybe out in the real rural communities, you'll get that real sense that you don't belong, but there's still some really, systemic things that are happening where people don't feel like they belong, and so they end up leaving and so that's one of the things that the Institute of Island Studies, some of the work that we're doing, is trying to address that how do we make it so that on our island, people feel like they belong, and that they feel included, and they feel seen, so that they want to stay, because we need them.
The 12.9km Confederation Bridge linking Prince Edward Island to mainland Canada under construction (1993-97). It is the world's longest bridge over ice-covered waters.
We're an aging population, we're dying out, and we're not replenishing the way we used to with 14 kids in a family. Now you're lucky if you have two. And so in order to continue the viability, the habitability, of this island, we need those people and we want them, the place is richer with the diversity of the different cultures that come in through everything that they do. So it's become an issue here. It's one of those things that we are studying, we're hoping to continue and to contribute to the conversation on how, and looking at other islands, this has always been part of what the Institute of Island Studies has done, has looked at other islands for lessons that we might be able to adapt or adopt here on Prince Edward Island through public policy. So it's been an amazing time that I've been involved with the Institute and some of the work that we've been doing with other islands to just bring back stories and lessons and seeing if they might work here. And we have stuff to tell, too, things that work and don't work. That's also the other important thing - what doesn't work.
Thank you, Laurie; you raised a lot of issues there in terms of what constitutes an islander, and if you're a new arrival, how much does it take to become one. I live on a small island in the South Pacific, very close to a big metropolis, Auckland, 45 minutes ferry, where it doesn't really matter whether you have lived here all your life or not, what matters is that you live here now. You're making a commitment. So often, the question is, are you committing or are you just coming for a short period? Do you still have a house in town? Or are you actually here? Your commitment is made. So it depends on your commitment. And you mentioned the aging population that so many islands closer to mainland often face, and also, in the peripheries, people go away, and that is a big issue.
This is a good opportunity to move to your program, the Island Studies Masters. Could tell us about it; how did it come to be about and who is involved, and what is the focus that you take on?
It's very much an interdisciplinary program, with students coming in from all over the world, with various backgrounds, whether it be English literature, which was my background when I did the program, Political Science/Political Studies, Environmental Studies is big, Tourism. The idea of history, Prince Edward Island history, anthropology, sociology, it's just very, very wide-ranging. And so it started, probably, well the Institute really got going… It was created in 1985, by Harry Baglole, who was the original founder and director for many, many years, and I worked with him until probably 2004, when he retired.
And then we initiated the program, the master's itself, in 2003. I was in the first cohort because, I thought, I'm working at a university, I could get a master's degree, it wouldn't cost me very much, because you know, tuition is paid if you're working here. At that time, I was the publishing coordinator for the Institute and doing all of these research programs that you mentioned in the intro. And it was amazing, because at that time, Malta, the University of Malta, was also doing work on this. And we were able to attract Godfrey Baldacchino to come to UPEI as a Canada Research Chair in island studies. So his arrival coincided with the beginning of the master's program, and he was my first professor in Island studies.
We've since graduated probably about, oh gosh, I'm trying to think of how many… probably close to 100 students from all over the world. Recently, well, in the last five or six years, and it was always a thesis program at first and so we had theses, on some of those disciplines that I was talking about earlier. But we started a work-study program, and that boosted our numbers, so that you can come for a two-year program. You do two placements where you're actually doing some applied research project with an organization that has something to do with Island Studies. And so students are getting practical experience doing wonderful, wonderful research projects with islanders here on Prince Edward Island as well as research projects in Iceland, with Island innovation, in the Caribbean … well, with COVID, actually, the silver lining has been that many of our students have been able to do these placements remotely from here, but in international locations. So we're hoping that now with the restrictions lifting we might be able to start sending our students actually to the islands where they are doing these little six-week placements and learning so much and making connections and making their own networks.
This is an exciting program, especially because it attracts people from around the world, and I wonder how it is to bring people from different parts of the world into a small island, and a very peripheral island, if you don't mind me saying, and spending time studying in that island. What do you think that brings into their experience of studying about islands?
I think it's been very rich for so many of them. I think of the students who are studying Island tourism, Prince Edward Island is an amazing tourism destination; it feels like we're living in a case study all the time because it's such an amazing major part of our economy and our way of life here for tourism … much of it because of Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables, which everybody knows. If you’re travelling and you say you’re from Prince Edward Island, they might look at you blankly. But you ask, have you ever heard of Green Gables? Oh, yes. Now I know where you're from, right? It's one of those door openers, through her books. And the students come from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, the United States, many countries in Africa, we've had African students from Ghana and from Nigeria, especially, and China, and Taiwan.
They come here and I think that they see, they feel, this recognition as well, many of them do. And the African students… it's been really amazing because they know they have islands where they are and they've been thinking about them. And then they come, and they're able to apply what they learned here back to their home places. And so it's been a really amazing experience having them being part of our classroom as well, the different cultures that they bring, the language, the literature, the customs and traditions and talking about Islandness. We know that Islandness, that sense of islandness, is different around the world. But trying to figure out is there enough commonality amongst these different places to say that there really is such a thing as Islandness? Well, they're helping to contribute to the discipline or to the research that's going into it. So I'm really pleased to have them be part of the program. And many of them want to stay, they want to commit themselves to this place and feel like they belong as well.
Master of Arts in Island Studies students gather in Cavendish, PEI, in June to present their learning portfolios.
This is what they bring and this is also what they get. And I wonder also, for such a small island, and you could tell us what the population perhaps is, what do you think the island gains from the presence of all these international students?
Well, we're a small population of about 165,000 people, maybe getting closer to 170,000. I'm finding that the students are just one part of this population explosion that's happening on PEI with the immigration and the refugees that are coming in. But some of them, they want to work, they want to give back. They're getting jobs in government, they're getting jobs in NGOs, they're teaching us, and it's just been an amazing contribution they're making to the island. If people come here… when I first arrived in the early 80s, it was so mono-cultural, even though we were, we are, an island of immigrants. And the original Mi'kmaq, people who have been here 10,000 years, as in many other places, were pushed to the side; they live on reserves like Lennox Island and a few other reserves around the island.
But there's always been a wonderful connection between the first founding peoples and the immigrants, not always great, and we're still working on it, as many places are. Early immigrants were the Scots and the French, and English and the Irish. And then, there was this Lebanese immigration influx in the late 1800s. And then, the Dutch came in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. So we're an island of immigrants and to have people from other cultures now, to really round it out and make it a more diverse place, and there's such richness in that; hearing other people's stories and other people's experiences to bring to a place. I mean, if you're a biologist, you know that diversity is what makes a place rich. And that's what we're finding with the cultures as well. I mean, I love Lebanese food. Some of the Thai food that is coming in is just amazing. And so it’s food, it’s traditions, it's just, yeah, there's so much that they're adding to this place.
I think what you're saying, very much provides evidence that islands, really against popular belief, are not isolated places; they have always been accepting people.
And think about the traditional ways of transportation; it was by the ocean. And so islands, you have the ocean, you have the road right at your feet, right out your door. And so this notion of Epeli Hau’ofa and his work that he did from his islands in Oceania, it was just incredible to think about applying some of those principles to the east coast of Canada. Thinking about why was Newfoundland - which is a small island, well, a much larger island, actually, than Prince Edward Island, northeast of PEI - so cosmopolitan. And it was because of the shipping. It was because they were so well connected to the rest of the world through the ocean. And it's only in recent years with roads and railways and stuff like that, that we changed that. And now air has changed all of that entirely. And then there's the internet.
The connections through different periods, yes.
But at the same time, that isolation, there is something that comes from that boundedness that creates that sense of independence and sense of distillation that helps to contribute to that sense of islandness and island identity. So it's always pulling, pushing and pulling.
That's a beautiful metaphor. You mentioned just now the First Nations people who used to live on the island, and now you say they're living in smaller islands around. How is their presence felt today on the island?
Little Fogo Island
I think we're doing a much better job than we used to, in recognizing and celebrating their cultures. I take my students to Lennox Island every year, and we hear the stories, we hear how they've been doubly and triply Islanded, on their islands, on those reserves, and in their culture that's been treated so poorly by the Canadian government. And there's such a sense of wonderful self-determination and the beautiful culture that's coming out of it and the way that we have so much to learn from their ways of doing things. Thinking about climate change, and how so many disciplines come into Island studies, but this is one of the ways that we're finding: how have the First Nations people handled millennia of climate change, and not technologically like we're trying to do. And so that learning going back and forth that they call “two-eyed seeing”. I think is so important and so here on Prince Edward Island, I think we're doing okay, there are other places in Canada that aren't doing so well. I'm not saying it's perfect by any means. But we're really trying hard to take keep that spirit of reconciliation alive and put it into practice.
Yes, and that's an ongoing commitment I think we need to make to First Nations people anywhere in the world. So you mentioned that you arrived on the island 40 years ago, and back then, you had to use the ferry to come. And now 40 years later, there is a bridge.
You arrived on the island as someone working in the publishing and editing space as a writer, and then you became a scholar. So the island has been changing in so many ways. You mentioned monoculture, or whatever that monoculture might have been defined as back then, to this influx of recent arrivals. So the island has been changing, and your work has been changing. And you are also having this double identity of being both a scholar and also a creative practitioner; a writer and a poetess. How do you bring those two together? How does the island inform both your creative practice and your work as a scholar?
What a wide-ranging question, wonderful question. I'll come at it through my story. And because storytelling is always such a beautiful way of trying to get at the heart of something. When I was taking the master's program, and the poem that I started with actually, was an assignment that Pete Hay from the University of Tasmania gave us. He had come to teach at UPEI. He did it a few times, it was just a coincidence that we got to meet him. He came to a conference that we hosted in 1998 called ‘Message in a Bottle: The literature of small islands’. And he was able to bring to us, to let us know more about Tasmania, and that they were interested in what we were doing. And so, I’d heard of the Tasmanian devil, and that was probably it. I don't think we knew about Blundstones then - the boots that are made in Tasmania.
So he came and he ended up teaching in our program. And one of the assignments that I did for a course was writing a suite of poems on islands. And so that was the first part of the suite of poems that I read from. So when the time came, I had finished the master's program and I thought I wanted to teach. I’d worked in a university, I loved islands. I loved the whole notion of doing research on islands. But if I wanted to teach, I needed a PhD. So I approached Pete and I said, if I were to get myself to Tasmania, would you be my supervisor? And he said, Yes. So I managed to get myself there, it was a fantastic scholarship. It was called the Endeavour International Postgraduate Research Scholarship that Australia offered and I lived with a family that were connected to University of Tasmania as well. And so I got myself there, in the fall of 2010, and started working on my research. And what I thought I would do was compare Newfoundland and Tasmania.
Both of them are subnational Island jurisdictions of a larger country. They're a similar size, although Tasmania is a bit smaller than Newfoundland, a similar population size, similar population stock, that Irish English, Scottish thing, the convict thing was happening in both places. And both of them had “wiped-out”, I put that in quote marks, their Aboriginal populations. And both of them were the butts of jokes on their mainland and I thought there must be something here. And so I went to Tasmania. I was there for 10 months and started interviewing writers and artists and musicians about their experience of islandness and how they express it through their art. Having been a writer and a book publisher and part of the arts community in Prince Edward Island, I felt like I knew the language, I could ask the questions and knew that through their artwork, they tell stories, and they can get at something that you might not be able to get out through traditional academic means, but through art and the language of art.
Tasmanian shoreline and Tasmanian devil
So they were so generous, and I spent the 10 months there interviewing people. But the first time I thought, Okay, I'm going to test my questions on my supervisor who was a poet, himself, Pete. And so I did. And my first poem, my first interview with him, I thought, Oh my God, that sounds like a poem, what you've said, sounds like a poem. And that kept happening over and over again, all these people I would talk to, they would say something, and it was just so beautifully poetic. And so I was able then to take some of their words and make them into poems, that I called it a braid, almost where it was their words and my thinking, and it came out to be this beautiful book of poems that I published called My island’s the house I sleep in at night. And so that was in addition to the dissertation to get the PhD. So I did the Newfoundland or the PEI, or no, sorry, the Tasmanian interviews, and then I spent some time in Newfoundland as well interviewing people there. And a similar kind of thing happened. And so out of that came the whole idea of how you can use art as a way of knowing, a way of communicating things … and islands, just there's something that lends itself to poetry. There's this beautiful connection that we have to place.
The identity that we get from being nurtured by place that is so unique in the world. I hate using the word unique, but most islands are unique. So it continues that … it's a conversation that keeps happening over and over again, no matter where I go. And it seems that these islands all have a story to tell. And there's poetry in it. There's art in it. And so how can you get that story out? Using that way of knowing?
So you use poetry as a way of conveying the findings of your research?
Yes, very much so! And it is totally Corrine Glesne, and there are other folks who have been doing qualitative research, Laurel Richardson, there are people who are doing these kinds of things. So I delved right into it and have been doing it ever since. It's a totally legitimate way of doing qualitative research.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but was it the island then, that made you a poetess?
Probably, although, when I was growing up in the mountains of northern British Columbia, I was writing poetry, but it was pretty bad poetry and I was a teenager; most of it is teenage angst and all, but it was that place. It was the sense of place when I came here that actually unleashed the poetry that was … it was percolating, it was always percolating. I always loved words, I read as a child, I was what my mama called a bookworm… and “get your nose out of that book, get your chores done!”, but no, I was such a reader and a writer, always doing those kinds of activities. But it was here, when I arrived, that I became really inspired to be able to tell the stories that had been part of my growing up and then being able to engage with this place.
Another thing I've heard people talk about is writing yourself into the story. So if you feel like you don't belong, you can sort of write yourself in or you're giving yourself back to a place through your art. And so then you become part of the story. I know, one of the people that I interviewed, John Steffler from Newfoundland. He felt that way. When he went there from Ontario, he was teaching at Memorial University in Corner Brook and felt that there was just no place for him. So he decided to go to the Grey Islands, which were these beautiful resettled islands off the coast of Newfoundland. Resettled, meaning that they took the people off and resettled, put caribou on, because it was too expensive to keep them on the island. And so he wrote this beautiful book of poetry called The Grey Islands, but he talks about it being his way of being able to write himself into the story, to become as much as he could, a Newfoundlander. And it happens, and I feel that I've done that here. I've given myself to this place enough that they have accepted me. And so I feel like I'm an islander, a Prince Edward Islander, even though I wasn't born here! Plus, I'd given them two daughters. I gave birth to two daughters, to two little Islanders. So, yes.
Tilting, Newfoundland and Labrador
You have directly contributed to the repopulation of the island. What are you working on right now, both scholarly wise and creatively-wise?
Well, scholarly-wise, I have been working on, through the Institute of island studies, work on population well-being. We've been doing some qualitative research through focus groups around the island, as well as some surveys and stuff to think about what it is, well-being being so important to people's sense of well-being, obviously, and so indicators of well-being. But one of the things that we've discovered is that islandness is an indicator of well-being here. It's something that we're adding to the… different organizations have different suites of indicators, but this is a unique one to Prince Edward Island. What does this Island mean for well-being here.
And a lot of it has to do with social cohesion, being able to count on your neighbour, the closeness that comes to our politicians and to being able to influence public policy, as well as the attachment to land and our care of the coastlines. We were very much affected by a post-tropical storm last fall called Fiona. And it wiped out a whole suite of dunes on the North Shore, took down thousands and thousands of trees, we lost power for 16 days here in downtown Charlottetown. We had no electricity, it was just, you know, the power of the place, being able to connect with your neighbors, to help get each other through the hardship that that ensued. It is all part of that sense of islandness and an indicator of well-being. So how well you are connected.
And there were people who did not have those connections, who really, really suffered. So I think that was one of the findings that were... that's coming out of this research that we've been doing. And then that leads into retention, and how can we keep people here so that they feel like they belong? And we're finding that this is a concern of many islands across the world. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association had a meeting last summer in Halifax, Nova Scotia. So I was asked to come and speak about well-being and retention. And out of that has come some other little research projects that we're hoping to become part of. The other thing that we're doing is being part of a Thematic Network on Northern and Arctic islands Research, through the University of the Arctic. So this is across the northern hemisphere. And so we are looking for some research projects that we might do there to do with climate change, or First Nations, energy, environmental issues, those kinds of things, as well as cultural. And one of the things we've been doing is a “Yarns and Yarns” series. So it's knitting and storytelling. And the first one we had in January attracted over 100 people it was out of Newfoundland, and the people, they came from all across the north, just tuning in to hear about knitting, because knitting is one of those beautiful things that that pulls people together. And the stories that were told. So there's another one coming up very soon in April, from I think it's from North Uist, Scotland, they're collaborating on it. So we're hoping to have one from PEI at some point as well. And then end during Shetland “Wool Week”. I think it'll be an amazing way of binding people together all across the north.
What a wonderful network! Who else is in this, the University of the Highlands and Islands?
Yes, Dr. Andrew Jennings, who is the coordinator of their MLitt Island Studies program. And we have some folks from the Faroe Islands, Iceland, but other people like Saaremaa in Estonia, we've had them join us, Newfoundland, of course, Iceland, I think I said, so yes. We have a couple of scholars from Scotland who have become part of the network as well. So it's just amazing, there's this real sense of familiarity and camaraderie that comes out of the work we're doing and knowing that the work we're doing is really important.
The Islands Experience
This is a nice segue way to your work as the new president of the ISISA, International Small Islands Studies Association, because you just mentioned a smaller network that has a thematic binding element to it. And also, you're working, representing a global network. Can you speak to us a little bit about the importance of having the global as well as the regional or the local, when it comes to islands representation and work?
Yes, […] It's funny how these things have been going on separately, but haven't come together as much as we should be. I mean, yeah, we've been working in our little silos, but at the same time doing this pan-world connection with SICRI, and with the ISISA, and I've been involved with both. I was at the very first SICRI conference in Kagoshima in 2005, I think it was amazing to get to go to Japan, and meet the scholars from Europe, that side of the world. And then ISISA, that was in the 1990s, that we got involved with that through Godfrey Baldacchino and Grant McCall, and those wonderful pioneers in Island Studies research from around the world.
But then, there's these little clusters, there's the Caribbean, there's the North Atlantic, there's the Indian Ocean, and the Mediterranean. And I'm not quite sure how we can do that to bring these people… and I think that's going to be our challenge over the next few years is to how, if we do have these regional meetings, but then you have people that poke out into the pan organisations, and so I think some of us… yes, we’ll really need to work on how to bring those more closely together.
And also, do we need to do it in such a sort of formalised way, that perhaps there is a need to have, yes that global space where we will convene and compare notes, so to speak and share experiences from different regions, but also maintaining those local hubs of inquiry? [...] it is extremely important for these cultures and islands. So you have that common thread, so to speak.
‘So to speak’ – nice one! But there's a metaphor there, too, for islands being islands, by their very nature, yet connected. And so how do you… that organic process of sharing knowledge and information and it just happens, we have a scholar who's just arrived from Hainan Island, and I'm getting together with him tomorrow for coffees, coming to study, to be based at the Institute of Island Studies and do some research here. And I'm so excited to have people come and for us to go out into the world and have these exchanges and think about how we can do it. And technology is making sometimes, yes, it's making it so much easier as well to be able to do these things. So I love the way that you think, yes, well, it's just happening. And that's the way islands do. It just happens. There's so much synchronicity amongst Islanders, and so I think things were happening here at the Institute of Island Studies in the late 1980s. Just as they we're happening in Malta, at the same time, thinking about islands. And so the fact that we actually came together and started talking about these things is kind of a miracle in a way.
And also your university is hosting one of the very few, or perhaps the only, at the moment, UNESCO Chair in Island Studies and Sustainability. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
The UNESCO Chair in Island Studies and Sustainability was created in 2016 and Jim Randall and Godfrey Baldacchino were the co-chairs for the first four years. The main purpose was looking at shared experiences of islands, but through the lens of subnational Island jurisdictions, which hadn't been really looked at much. You have islands like Iceland and Malta, which are small states, and we have lots of them. But we also have way more islands that are like Prince Edward Island, a subnational Island jurisdiction. And so what are those relationships with their metropoles? And how can you use some of the powers that you have to go outside of the metropoles reach and make connections with other islands? So I love what Gerard Prinsen from Massey University has called an ‘Islandian Sovereignty’, where you, because of the nature of your islandness, you're able to use some of those characteristics and some of your powers, your jurisdictional powers, to live your life as an independent island but yet still be dependent if you need to be on a mainland or a metropole. So yeah, there's so many arrangements around the world. So it was to dig in more deeply.
In 2022, Jim Randall retired from UPEI and Dr. Jean Mitchell was named the new UNESCO Chair in Island Studies and Sustainability, and her work for the last number of years has been in Vanuatu and the South Pacific. And so she really wants to look at climate change, and social change and how people are, especially in the Pacific, dealing with some of these issues. And she cites the group of young lawyers out of Vanuatu, who have taken this challenge to the International Court of Justice. And even here in on our local CBC Radio, the minister from Vanuatu, Ralph Regenvanu, was on the news talking about some of the work that they've been doing. And so I think what she's trying to do is really super important.
So what we're organizing right now is a conference in Aruba in October with the University of Aruba, UPEI and Aruba, looking at climate change, social change, and islandness, and how do the things come together? And so we have a whole list of different parts of it that, hopefully we can bring scholars together, we had over 90 people send in abstracts already, which is amazing. So I think we'll be able to craft a beautiful conference, looking at these elements. And because you can't have climate change, you can’t have all the science without the social science and the humanities, so it's how do we bring these things together? Climate change, islands, etc., in a more holistic manner. So that's the goal of the conference.
10 Days on the Island 2011
[Impressive]. So the center is really keeping you busy, and also making a significant contribution to Island studies and island lives, sustainable lives.
I think so, yes. We've been doing it for a while and I hope to continue for a very long while after.
It's so important that that work comes from a small island, on the North Atlantic, East Coast of Canada. You spoke so well about your involvement with the centre’s work as a scholar and I wanted to ask you about your current work as a creative Islander and whether you have anything cooking in terms of new poetry to inspire us.
Well, I wrote a poem yesterday because we're on strike. So I thought, we… okay, I'm going to get active here. And so I read it about a few hours ago at our rally and it was well received. Thinking about, my childhood as a child of a construction worker who was always on strike. And so what that meant to us and also the state of universities now with the corporatisation of university administrations, and how education seems to have been given such … yes, it's not treated very well. I think that the idea of making money is more important sometimes than teaching our young people which is so unfortunate, and that's got to change. And so this is what we're striking about and it's been happening all across the country and probably around the world.
Indeed, but I applaud your engagement as a scholar, and as a creative person in such matters because they cannot be separated and they are really very vital in small islands when education is such an important element. You know, if the universities are not sustaining that life, then who else is going to do that? So, I would love to read the poem that you read at the strike.
Ah, right now?
If you have it available, why not? That's what we call fresh poetry!
It is very fresh. It's not an island poem, except it's Prince Edward Island. So yeah, I can. Yeah.
So it's called “Two thumbs down.
Two thumbs down
My father was a union man
Operating Engineers, Local 115
Heavy equipment and crane operator building pulp mills and pipelines
when he wasn’t on strike
So many lean times with fat cats versus workers
Knowing young that if only I had the courage
I would have marched up to those mill owners and been the headline next day:
“Ten-year-old girl ends strike”
I still have the plaque the union gave me
at the luncheon in the fancy hotel
$300 scholarship to the first-generation kid in both families
to graduate from high school, let alone go to university
And the photo of Dad dressed up in his best jeans and checked pearl-domed shirt
string tie and cowboy boots
and me in my long green corduroy dress with the gingham trim
holding the plaque
I remember only picking at the stuffed Cornish game hen
because I thought the wild rice was its guts
Now, a half-century later, if I’ve learned anything
courage is not what we lack, it’s the life blood of this place
The beating heart that keeps us marching University and Belvedere
knowing right from wrong, integrity from cowardice
waving our orange pool noodles at the fat cats crossing the line in their big fancy cars
watching them take both hands off the wheel to give us two thumbs down
in their sorry attempt to take this place with it
So, that was Laurie getting political!
And as a scholar living in a small island community, can you not, not be political?
It's very easy to not be political. And many people keep their heads down. And because you know, if you put your head up, you get lopped off, right? There's also that sense that you have to be able to get along. Even if I criticize somebody, I still have to be able to meet them in the street, the next day, I'll meet them in the grocery store. I'll meet them wherever, because it's a small place. And so there's this, here in Prince Edward Island, and I think Canadians are really good at being polite, because they don't want to rock the boat. But then you get these moments where you really have to speak out and you have to stand up for what you believe in, and take the chance that you're not going to have repercussions.
I love talking with Pete Hay in Tasmania. He said, "Here we aren't polite, we just say what it means, we just say what we mean, and if we meet somebody on the street, we'll cross the street, we won't even, you know, we'll just avoid them or we'll have another fight with them. We’re not polite". And I love that about Tasmania, that sense of being real and not covering up those emotions.
Shed Party by Adam Young
It's actually interesting because just simply making that reference to the island that you are belonging to now and Hay’s Tasmania description just tells us how every island has its own idiosyncrasies and unique character. And it's just a combination of all the circumstances and conditions that make it.
Now it's quite amazing, and you keep thinking, well is there enough? I mean, every place is different. Every Island is different. Is there enough to say that there is such a thing as Islandness? And one of his articles talks about it all conduces to the sea. We're all surrounded by the ocean and what does that ocean do? The ocean binds us; the ocean separates us. The ocean shapes everything that we do. And it just depends on our unique circumstances, but history or the colonial history about place or the industrialisation of a place, there are so many factors that may shape how we navigate islandness, but I think there is enough to say, yes, there's such a thing as islandness.
Yes, and that sea defines it.
Yes, it does.
On that note, Laurie, you've been on the island for 40 years, you've been engaging as a scholar, as a poet; what would you like your legacy to be, in both of these spaces that you occupy? Or I would say one, because what I see is that you actually bring those two together so beautifully.
I have always been a connector. So bringing those two things together, for sure. But in Island Studies in general, I've been the person to connect so many people and so many islands and so I love if that were to be part of my legacy - that I have brought islanders together from around the world and in a meaningful way.
People come together at conferences. It's just what I found when we had our very first Island Studies conference in 1992. It was called “An Island Living” and we brought 52 Islanders from 24 different islands to Prince Edward Island, we met for four days, we picked them up at the airport, and they started talking. And they talked the whole time. And when I was taking them back to the airport, they were still talking. And it was just so beautiful to be part of that, and I've since called it a family, and we are all part of that family. And when we get together on various islands, there's that instant recognition that you have something in common. And it's not just superficial. And it's not just cocktail talk. We're talking about real things in real life. And the veneer is gone, right? There's no pretense. The conferences that I was at in 2022, in Zadar in Croatia, some of the best networking was done in the water. We were swimming together, and we were on boats together. And we had such wonderful conversations. And then in Shetland, where I saw you, just the beautiful place, it just brought this richness out of all of it, it fed us and it just kept the conversation going, and we talked and talked and talked. And so yes, it's a family. And so I'm really happy to be part of that… I won't say grandmother of the family… I'm getting close!
Well grandmothers are revered in so many cultures, and we'll be revering you! May I invite you to share with us one last poem in closing this rich conversation we're having today?
Oh, I would love to do that! The first poem that I had read written when I was working on my dissertation, that came out of my conversation with Pete, it captures so much of what we were talking about. And with immigration and with place attachment and story and stuff like that. So if you don't mind, I'll read that one. It's called “The Language of Seashells”, for Pete Hay.
The Language of Seashells
I know seashells you say,
as you walk Nebraska Beach
head down, hands behind back
The vernacular names, anyway
painted ladies, flower cones, doughboys
cart-ruts, hairy arks
It was simple, you say,
I’d pick up something beautiful
and want to know what it was
A man who knows his place
on an island off an island
at the edge of the end of the world
Where the sea writes its story
on dolerite and mudstone
revealing the lines and the distances
between blood and carbon, breathing and not
Where the absences make you ache
and you're forever reminded of them
as you walk the bush or shore
Where the tragedy, you say,
is not that our young people leave,
but that they don't come back
Just up ahead you catch movement on the cliff
a blackfella caught in the Black Line?
a thylacine, extinct?
a child long gone?
But it is only the light
a reminder of what's missing
and what's here
Back from the beach
you add a warty rock-whelk to your shelf.
brush off the grid of a thousand years of waves
on rock and bone and glass and shell
Out the corner of your eye
the glimpse you carry
like sand trapped in the seams of your pockets
Pete Hay walks Nebraska Beach, Bruny Island, Tasmania.
So that was for Pete. And it was just yet one of the many, many beautiful gifts that those people gave me when I went to Tasmania and Newfoundland. And can I tell you one more little quick story. I wrote a poem in the book called “So it begins at Hastings Bay.” And it was for Don Kay, I had interviewed a classical musician and was asking him about his process about how he uses landscape to create music. And so I wrote him a poem. And I love it, it's really quite wonderful to be able to think about that crossing of boundaries between different artistic media. And so he took it, along with three other of the poems from the book, and has made a song cycle, which is going to be performed on March 11, here in Charlottetown, by a string quintet, and a mezzo soprano. And I'm so excited. I mean, thinking about how things turned. It started with me asking him questions, writing a poem, him turning it into music, and now it's going to be performed on the stage. And it's just, it's so incredibly beautiful. I love it.
You're not only contributing as a scholar and as a poet but also as an "inspiratrice", to other people's island work. I cannot really meet you at that level of creative practice. I wish to gift you back a poem from one of my favorite poets, David White. Speaking in your poem about all these young people leaving the island, just leaving the island, whether as a visitor or you leave the island because you have to, for whatever reasons. This small excerpt from "Leaving the Island" comes from his edited collection of the Bell and the Blackbird.
Above all, the way afterwards,
you thought you had left the island
but hadn’t, the way you knew
you had gone somewhere
into the shimmering light
and come out again on the tide
as you knew you had to,
as someone who would return
and live in the world again,
someone granted just a glimpse,
someone half a shade braver,
a standing silhouette in the stern,
holding the rail,
riding the long waves back,
ready for the exile we call a home.
Islands and home, it’s one, it’s beautiful!
I was reading this poem as I was leaving the island I am now living on full-time on my return to the mainland after the first lockdown; I felt I was in exile, even if I was returning home - that home was in exile, and the island was the home where I should be. And on that note, I would very much love to thank you for this wonderful conversation we had today; rich both scholarly and creatively, and with so many beautiful thoughts from your rich experiences living on the island. Hopefully, we meet soon face to face on an island.
I think it will happen, Valia, I know it will. I look forward to it very much. Thank you so much. This has just been so fun. Lovely.
Links to Laurie Brinklow's relevant papers:
Foley, A., Brinklow, L., Corbett, J., Kelman, I., Klöck, C., Moncada, S., Mycoo, M., Nunn, P., Pugh, J., Robinson, S., Tandrayen-Ragoobur, V., & Walshe, R. (2023): Understanding “Islandness”, Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 0(0) 2023, pp. 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1080/24694452.2023.2193249
Brinklow, L., (2022). Studying islandness through the l
anguage of art. Geographical Research, special section edited by E. Stratford, G. Baldacchino, & E. McMahon https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1745-5871.12534
Kizos, T., Russell, S., Brinklow, L., Sentas, S., Randall, J.E. (2021). Island identities? Comparing the perceptions of islanders towards governing institutions and quality of life, Small States and Territories, 4(2): 325-348. https://www.um.edu.mt/library/oar/handle/123456789/83369
Connor, H., Brinklow, L., & Fenech, A. (2020). An icy layer of isolation: Prince Edward Island’s sea-bound particularity. Shima, 14(1). https://doi.org/10.21463/shima.14.1.08
Brinklow, L. (2016). A man and his island: The island mirror in Michael Crummey’s Sweetland. Island Studies Journal, 11(1), 133-144. Retrieved from http://www.islandstudies.ca/node/478
Brinklow, L. (2013). Stepping-stones to the edge: Artistic expressions of islandness in an ocean of islands. Island Studies Journal, 8(1), 39-54. Retrieved from http://www.islandstudies.ca/node/407
Brinklow, L. (2012). The geography of the psyche in Wayne Johnston’s The Story of Bobby O’Malley and Alistair MacLeod’s ‘The Boat’ and ‘The Lost Salt Gift of Blood’. Shima: The International Journal of Research into Island Cultures, 6(1), 132-146. Retrieved from http://www.shimajournal.org/
Brinklow, L. (2007). A ‘subterranean river’ to the past: The importance of inheritance in creating an island identity in the fiction of Alistair MacLeod. In Refereed Papers from International Small Islands Culture Conference 3, Prince Edward Island. Retrieved from http://sicri.org/ISIC3/index.html