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date: 25 November 2020

(The) Transpacific Turnsfree

  • Tina ChenTina ChenDepartments of English and Asian Studies, Pennsylvania State University


The concept of the “transpacific” has inherent asymmetries that must be explored in order to generate a more nuanced interpretive logic of transpacific possibility. Such epistemic asymmetry should be considered not simply as a description of the massive inequalities undergirding the geopolitical arrangements of the transpacific world, but also as a catalyst through which transpacific knowledge and critical orientations of the transpacific are produced. Scholarship evidences three key turns—through militarization, the ecological, and indigeneity—that collectively work to map the uneven terrain of the transpacific. The poet Lawson Inada’s wry observation about the epistemic, economic, and aesthetic challenges posed by the transpacific—that “the problem . . . is water”—provides a starting point from which to trace a fluid genealogy of transpacific literary and cultural production. This fluid genealogy traces alternative versions of the transpacific as “imaginable ageographies” to counterbalance the existing architectural ideas about security, economics, and militarization that have delimited this arena. Analysis of a wide range of texts demonstrates that transpacific asymmetry and transpacific interconnection can both be usefully leveraged to disrupt hierarchies of knowledge and practice.

The Pacific Ocean is vast. Spanning a third of Earth’s surface, containing more than 25,000 islands, and bordering Asia, Australia, and the Americas, it is larger than all of the planet’s landmasses combined. This expansiveness is both a possibility and a problem, simultaneously offering the allure of boundlessness and rendering coherence impossible. As Lawson Inada wryly suggests in his poem “Shrinking the Pacific” (1995), it is tempting to think that the oceanic challenges the Pacific poses can be met by the space–time compression of neoliberal globalization or late-stage capitalism. Even after the poem’s speaker literalizes such compression—“I’ll hold the world in my hands, / and slowly, easily, appropriately / proceed to squeeze some land together, / proceed to make some water move elsewhere, / and there, without inconveniencing anybody”—it becomes apparent that, as at poem’s beginning, “the problem . . . is water.”1

What does the problem of water mean for the transpacific turn in Asian American literary and cultural studies? More accurately, what does the problem of water signal about the many transpacific turns which have been alternately embraced and critiqued in the geographic imaginations of American Studies, Asian Studies, Asian American Studies, and Native Pacific Studies as institutional formations? Conversely, what if water is not perceived as the problem so much as a possible solution and resource for the competing academic fields of knowledge production that operate to make legible political, economic, and cultural dynamics as they manifest in the ever-evolving, ageographically conceptualized site of the transpacific? Alternatively, what would it mean to follow the lead of poet Rita Wong, who “invoke[s] fluid wisdom” in non-extractive ways in order to “honour what the flow of water teaches us / the beauty of enough”?2

To tackle these questions, this article embraces the varied possibilities signaled by the terminology of “turns” and “turning.” The title of the article serves as a reminder that turns are both things and actions. Unsurprisingly, turns represent—and can be, or instantiate—countless potentialities. In this regard, such innumerability means that the critical imperatives circumscribing what and how these turns are named become self-reflexively evident. For example, transpacific turns could be understood as rotation, revolution, repression, relation, and recursivity—a clearly idiosyncratic route by which to chart the region’s conceptual expanse whose obvious constraints (so alphabetically overdetermined!) serve to illustrate the conditions under which transpacific knowledge becomes manifest. Through conceptualizing the turn as both thing and action, it becomes possible to glimpse some of the many outcomes generated by such orientations even as we admit their epistemic (rather than ontological) nature. Rotationally, some of the shifts in perspective signaled by a turn to the transpacific include re-directing critical attention from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, West to East, Asia to the Pacific Islands, and beyond nation-states to transnational alignments. Such shifts have sometimes produced epistemological revolutions in the form of insurgent knowledges and emerging academic fields of knowledge production like Oceanic Studies and Archipelagic Studies. In turning to the transpacific, scholars have observed the ways in which it undergirds a Cold War geopolitical architecture and imagination which have actively worked to repress decolonization and transborder redress. They have also signaled the ongoing significance of understanding the relational engagements—between political entities, between populations, between places, between cultures, between languages, between multinational corporations, between human and nonhuman subjects—engendered by transpacific exchange. And although by no means conclusively, turning to the transpacific highlights the recursive potential of such attention, raising specters of the past, the forgotten, and the overlooked that haunt the region.

This essay draws on the restlessness and open-endedness signaled by the act of turning to the Pacific and the transpacific’s inherent asymmetries as the bases for an interpretive logic of transpacific possibility. If, as many have noted, the transpacific is an arena of uneven contestation—with such unevenness undergirding the engagements between nations and regions and territories, land and sea, humans and nonhumans, among others—that unstable aqueous pitch might be usefully understood to be illustrative of the transpacific’s capacious incoherence, its ability to encompass much without becoming subsumed into any one single formulation. While “vast asymmetries” such as those that characterize the unequal power dynamics between the United States and the Pacific Islands are deeply troubling, they might also be conceptually leveraged to keep transpacific studies productively accountable—to its subjects and objects of study, as well as its critical methodologies—as it becomes an increasingly visible institutional presence at universities in the United States, Asia, and other parts of the world.3 In other words, while all fields of study undergo a process of critical consolidation around a set of operative assumptions and biases, the proliferating asymmetries of the transpacific and its existence as a space of triangulation might help transpacific studies to avoid the pitfalls that have dogged “the transnational turn” in American Studies. More directly, it is possible that the transpacific’s asymmetrical character and triangulated nature, along with the “hidden geographies” within the vastness of the Pacific, might help to produce transpacific studies as a field that avoids an “overdependence on a single preponderant logic that sidelines other trajectories and alternative thought in Pacific migrations.”4

This avoidance of a “single preponderant logic” encourages an attentiveness to the structural incoherence of the transpacific. As Tina Chen has argued in relation to the notion of Global Asias, structural incoherence is one way of naming “the multiple, overlapping, and embedded contradictions undergirding the cultural, social, political, and economic dynamics of a ‘place’ both real and imagined.”5 The “epistemic asymmetry” of the transpacific presents both a challenge and a promise, acknowledging such asymmetry not simply or even primarily as a description of the conditions of the transpacific, but as a catalyst through which transpacific knowledge and critical orientations of the transpacific are produced.6 This article draws into structurally incoherent relation some of the varied transpacific turns made possible by ongoing critical attention to the Pacific Ocean and its multiple shores. To make this argument, it first offers a brief recounting of the “geographical turn” in area studies and the economic regionalization of Asia that makes possible the emergence of transpacific studies before constellating some critically important insights generated by the transpacific as an object, subject, and field of study. Highlighting three key transpacific turns—through militarization, the ecological, and indigeneity—that collectively work to map the uneven terrain encapsulated by the transpacific, it then focalizes the critical insights of each approach through transpacific literary and cultural production. As will become apparent, these key turns can be differentiated from each other but also significantly overlap. Equally critically, they enact the differential perspectives that constitute one form of the transpacific asymmetry explored in this article. Collectively, then, these transpacific turns realize the shifting, evolving, and contradictory dimensions of literary and cultural transpacific studies as an institutional formation that reticulates American Studies, Asian Studies, Asian American Studies, and Native Pacific Studies.

Economic Regionalization and Transnationalism: Two Contexts for the Emergence of the Transpacific

In his story “A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel,” Ken Liu writes an alternate history that clarifies the transnational orientation and economic arguments that produce the transpacific as both route and region.7 The story is narrated by a Formosan named Charlie—thus named because his Hokkien name was deemed unpronounceable—who details both the construction of “the greatest engineering project ever conceived by Man” (352), a trans-oceanic pneumatic capsule line connecting Shanghai, Tokyo, and Seattle, and his role as one of the laborers who built it. The story opens in 1961 in Midpoint City, one of the underground stations of the tunnel, when Charlie begins dating an American woman named Betty whom he meets at a noodle shop. Their unfolding relationship is narratively interrupted by excerpts from various “non-fictional” accounts about the Trans-Pacific Tunnel (TPT) outlining the history of economic partnership between Japan and the United States during the global economic crisis of the 1930s. Tellingly, the TPT as embodiment of US–Japanese economic and political cooperation—President Hoover eagerly concurs with Emperor Hirohito’s suggestion that the project would be the perfect “antidote to the global economic contraction” (352)—signals not simply the creation of a new technological and engineering marvel but also the radical refiguring of history itself. In the universe of the TPT, Japan controls an empire including Formosa, Korea, and Manchuria and works with a collaborationist China to manage the geopolitical alignments of global Asia; Nazi Germany never comes into being and is literally turned into a footnote of history; the Second World War never happens; and the extraordinary engineering demands of the tunnel drive technological advances such as the development of personal electronic computers by 1938.

In this alternate history, though, some things have not changed. When Betty tells Charlie that her son is “traveling with his friends in the southern states of America, riding the buses together” (353), he learns about the racial segregation of whites and blacks, a segregation that “sounds familiar” given the ways in which Midpoint City houses “superior and inferior” races in different areas. In this alternate history, Liu makes increasingly evident how economic exploitation along racial, ethnic, gender, and class lines remains disturbingly stable. Being with Betty “unblocks something” within Charlie, who begins to remember that the work crews were segregated by race, comfort women were made available to crew members, and that once the economy recovered and labor costs rose, the paucity of young men “desperate enough to take jobs as Diggers” (359) resulted in the decision to use prisoners as slave labor. Charlie’s biggest secret is that as a shift supervisor, he not only had to hide the existence of slave laborers from the public, but once killed an entire crew to ensure that a leak in a side tunnel did not flood the main tunnel. These memories ironically reveal the exploitative and repressive underside of the transpacific’s promise of “co-prosperity” and economic improvement; given these revelations, the non-use of Charlie’s Japanese name, Takumi Hayashi, originally chosen because it could be written in characters that meant “open up, sea” (348), highlights the costs and consequences of opening up the ocean.

Despite its brevity, Liu’s story offers a relatively comprehensive framing of some of the contexts for understanding the transpacific’s emergence as an economic and conceptual arena. The “beyond nation” orientation of transnationalism illustrated here—a turn driving much of the work in American Studies since the late 20th century—has often reified rather than undone the nation-state as governmental structure. The transpacific’s early iterations as “Pacific Rim,” “Pacific Basin,” and the “Asia-Pacific” were economically driven, designations created to map the triangulation between Asia, America, and the Pacific as “a locus of economic surge and trans-Pacific promise” even as that mapping often “entails ignoring the cultural micropolitics of the region as a source of dynamic opposition and local difference worthy of international recognition.”8 In this alternate history, the Pacific is a line of traversal whose transnational orientation operates to reinforce the economic cooperation between Asia and America, the United States and Japan, with the deliberate obfuscation of the racial, economic, gendered, and political inequalities that undergird such collaboration.

According to Christopher Connery, the idea of the Pacific Rim came into existence in the 1970s as part of a US geo-imaginary; was influenced by Orientalism, modernization theory, left-liberal humanist internationalism, and Cold War discourse; and “presumes a kind of metonymic equivalence” that describes “the world as an interpenetrating complex of interrelationships with no center: neither the center of a hegemonic power nor the imagined fulcrum of a ‘balance of power.’”9 While this imagined parity yields exciting economic potential—the “co-prosperity” promised in Liu’s story, which not only references the imperial concept promoted by Japan during the 1930s and 1940s to manage occupied Asian populations and establish Japanese dominance but also prefigures some of the later economic partnerships, like ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), EAEG (East Asian Economic Group), and APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation), promising connectivity and security through regional economic integration—it is a potential that denies the fundamental imbalances structuring global capitalism.10 Such denial is one reason why later critical scholarship about the transpacific, and the literary and cultural production generated out of and being studied to understand the transpacific, can be more productively approached through the notion of transpacific asymmetry being advanced in this article.

The transpacific turns examined here are informed not only by new geopolitical alignments and the drive toward economic regionalization but also by the increasingly transnational orientation of the interdisciplinary fields of American Studies, Asian Studies, Asian American Studies, and Native Pacific Studies, which has fruitfully expanded areas of inquiry beyond territoriality and the nation-state. The remapping of critical interest and approach has generated new mappings of spatial imagination (such as the Global South, Hemispheric Americas, the Oceanic, the Archipelagic, and Global Asias) and also created the possibility of charting understudied relationships such as the ones between Asia and Latin America, or the ones that create the Black Pacific as a contrapuntally imagined community.11

Critically, the remapping occasioned by such orientations has resulted not just in new maps but also in a questioning of the methods and functions of mapping itself, yet another instance of transpacific turns as both things and actions. Rob Wilson, in his theorization of the American Pacific, argues that “it is becoming clear, in attempts to map the dynamics of postmodern spatiality, that the motions and flights of transnational capital entail the disinvention of the bounded-nation-state as we know it into a less tangible, more fungible and heteroglossic entity,” a cartographic challenge that exceeds the representational fixity long associated with mapping.12 In suggesting “remapping” as a pedagogical strategy, J. Kēhaulani Kauanui cautions that American Studies scholars should not approach Native Pacific Studies “to offer better ‘coverage’ within the field of the former,” but rather to show that “taking up the Pacific is instructive for understanding multidimensions of US domination.”13 This refusal of “coverage” suggests an alternative relationship to the Pacific, one that does not mine the region as content or resource, but instead takes up Lisa Yoneyama’s demand that the transpacific can and should be “a critical methodology [that] must mean more than the resignification of movements and interfaces across and within the arena that happens to be called the Pacific.”14 To complement such critical efforts, Tina Chen proposes that we foreground the ways in which concepts such as Asian America, Global Asias, and the transpacific might be productively understood as imaginable ageographies:

built to reference the solidity of terrain but more grounded in the conceptual/imaginative realm than they are in specific terrestrial features or characteristics. Even more precisely: while they encompass or bring into visibility specific geographic features and characteristics (and acknowledge geopolitical structures), the conceptual realities which they signal and enact are enabled by the ways in which they simultaneously reference, exceed, and remake such topographies imaginatively.15

Transpacific Turning: Militarism, Ecology, and Indigeneity

The Pacific as territory, an arena of jurisdiction through which what Laura Stoler calls the “tensions of Empire” are managed, is intimately bound up with the geopolitical imagination and transnational architectures of the Cold War.16 As the historian Bruce Cumings has argued, the rise of America’s global power after the Second World War coincided with a “Pacificist” or transpacific orientation.17 In re-assessing the Cold War as a global phenomenon, Heonik Kwon asserts that the “analytical parameters of transpacific studies” can illuminate the ways in which the Cold War is “a globally shared but, at once, locally distinct experience” which must be further scrutinized in order to make visible the epistemological dominance of a Western perspective on the Cold War as a “long peace” or an “imaginary war.”18 While Cold War geography has crucially relied on the transpacific to consolidate United States–Asian geopolitical alliances and install a bipolarization of political vision, scholars such as Lisa Yoneyama and Yến Lê Espiritu have looked to the transpacific to produce “dissonant,” “conjunctive,” and “critically juxtaposed” alternatives to static Cold War geographies by focusing on figures of victimization, repression, and displacement. Specifically, Yoneyama traces transwar, interimperial, and transnational entanglements in redress culture and practices in order to pursue a “conjunctive cultural critique of the transpacific,” an interpretive project that calls for “critically situated historical thinking—that is, an ability to perceive different appeals for and failures of justice as incommensurable and yet interlinked as they have unfolded on a global scale within specific historical moments.”19 Espiritu offers the notion of “militarized refuge” in an effort to connect US colonial and military expansion with transpacific displacement, an example of what she has termed “critical juxtaposing,” the “bringing together of seemingly different and disconnected events, communities, histories, and spaces to illuminate what would otherwise not be visible about the contours, contents, and afterlives of war and empire.”20 Through such critical practices, scholars have pushed back against the territorialization of the Pacific, arguing that it is not a site to be traversed or subject to extraction but rather an originating point of critical and theoretical resonance—a claim that has long been made by Pacific Islander critics and that grounds the epistemic work of such fields as Native Pacific Studies.

The militarization of the Pacific manifests variously—as an “empire of bases” (Chalmers Johnson), through a “militarized organizing logic” structuring Japan’s comfort-women system and US militarized prostitution, in the inextricable connection between militarism and tourism (what Teresia Teaiwa has termed “militourism”), via the displacement and relocation of indigenous populations—but finds uniquely horrifying expression as nuclearization and a history of atomic detonation.21 After the Second World War, the United States pursued a strategy of territorial expansion in the Pacific by establishing the “Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands” (TTPI), a strategic trust giving the UN Security Council nominal control of approximately 3,000,000 square miles of the western Pacific, including the islands and peoples of Micronesia. In reality, the United States exploited the TTPI as part of a broader strategy of Cold War securitization, designating the area the “Pacific Proving Grounds” and using it to conduct more than a hundred high-yield nuclear tests between 1946 and 1962. This history “has largely been overlooked by the very metropoles that benefited from the economic, political, and technological products of nuclear weapons testing, such as the high-speed camera, color film, and radiotherapy.”22 Aimee Bahng calls this space and its history the “Irradiated Transpacific” and argues that if we are to look to the Pacific Ocean for our subjects, objects, and methods of study, then we would do well to acknowledge that the Pacific is broadly encompassing, its resistance to human control a result of its diverse totality, which is comprised of “the body of water, the aquatic organisms that inhabit it, the islands in it and their human denizens, as well as the nation-states and multinational corporations that parlay across it.”23

Integral to the concept of transpacific asymmetry are power imbalances and a calculated mode of non-engagement. Nuclearization scripts these topoi in specific ways, conditioning the subordination, repression, displacement, and harm to indigenous peoples of the Pacific Islands, not to mention overwhelming environmental destruction, as necessary aspects of securing international stability and conducting a global scientific mission to advance knowledge. In conceptualizing islands as laboratories, and promoting the concept of “the island as isolate,” nuclear physicists and ecologists exploited the oceanic expanse encompassed by the TTPI and its inhabitants as part of what Ward Churchill and Winona LaDuke call “nuclear colonialism,” which paradoxically employed Cold War science to both destroy and conserve nature.24 The transpacific asymmetry of nuclearization not only devalued the lives and health of indigenous people living in the TTPI; it also completely overlooked nonhuman marine life and the environment itself, an oversight that structurally conditions the ways in which the “visual production of nuclearization has amnesic effects.”25 Teresia K. Teaiwa has compellingly traced this structure of erasure through her critical attention to the “bizarre juxtaposition” of the bomb and the bikini in order to illuminate how both have served to erase specific (Bikini) Islander history.26

Ironically, the rise of environmentalism is intimately connected to the rise of nuclearization; as Elizabeth DeLoughrey has noted, there is a “multi-constitutive relationship between radioactive militarism and the study of the environment.”27 This transpacific connection between nuclearization and environmentalism includes not only the nuclear testing in the TTPI and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki but also the Fukushima Daishi nuclear disaster, a series of nuclear meltdowns and energy accidents initiated in the wake of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami that rocked Japan on March 11, 2011. The interconnections between nuclear radiation, environmental disaster, and transpacific relationality are explored by the novelist Ruth Ozeki in A Tale for the Time Being (2013), an expansive novel with broad interests including Zen Buddhism, quantum physics, environmental criticism, and generic hybridity.28 Such diversity of interests is most visibly crystallized through a relationship between the novel’s two main protagonists: an Asian American writer named Ruth living on a remote Canadian island, and sixteen-year-old Nao Yasutani, a Japanese schoolgirl who grew up in California but whose family relocated back to Japan. Despite never meeting in person, the women are brought into relation when Nao’s diary washes up on the shores of Whaletown, the island where Ruth lives. What Ruth initially dismisses as garbage turns out to be objects that catalyze the reordering of the time–space of transpacific relationality.

Crucially, the relationship between Ruth and Nao, while significant, serves as only one model of transpacific relationality; Ozeki’s novel explores many other kinds of relational engagements as well, including between the characters and the environment. As Michelle N. Huang has argued, transpacific critique must take seriously the nonhuman capacity of what the Pacific encompasses. Huang proposes particular attention to the interrelationship between the novel’s characters and oceanic waste by asking us to focus on “ecologies of entanglement,” the “networks of circulation that diffuse the boundaries of the human by foregrounding the relationships between us and the world with which we interact, including the environment.”29 The novel’s environmental concerns are developed most pointedly through its referencing of plastic waste and the oceanic currents that direct its afterlife. Nao’s diary gets to Ruth by virtue of the North Pacific gyre, one of the five major oceanic gyres. The gyre is home to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), the world’s largest oceanic plastic accumulation zone. Located halfway between Hawaii and California, the GPGP is three times the size of France and is composed of microplastic, small particles of buoyant plastic that can be broken down but do not biodegrade.

In Tale, ecological entanglements between humans and the nonhuman are figured variously through oceanic waste, animals, the watery expanse of the Pacific itself, and the disparate yet related environments within which the characters find themselves. Both Nao and Ruth are transplanted—Nao from California to Japan, Ruth from New York City to Whaletown—and their relocations occasion sustained attentiveness to the myriad ways in which place shapes human experience. Nao endures ijime (bullying) at school and only finds a measure of peace when she moves outside the city to spend the summer at a temple with her 104-year-old grandmother Jiko, a Buddhist nun. Ruth, finding the relative isolation of Whaletown like something out of a “malevolent fairy tale,” yearns for an urban landscape in which “she could situate herself in human time and history.”30 Beyond the immediacy of environment impacting development, the novel also considers an ecologically informed “long view” of the environmental entanglement between people and places. Ruth’s husband Oliver is a “tree guy” whose “latest artwork, a botanical intervention he called the Neo-Eocene[, is] a collaboration with time and place, whose outcome neither he nor any of his contemporaries would ever live to witness.”31

This awareness of a scale beyond human witness is an integral aspect of the ecological entanglements of the transpacific, another dimension of the asymmetries structuring oceanic epistemologies. Ruth and Nao remain separated by both time and water, a disarticulation that preconditions the nonetheless real connection between the two such that Ruth is somehow able through her reading of the diary and her dreams to affect the outcome of Nao’s story. In recalling Inada’s pithy formulation of transpacific challenge—“the problem is . . . water”—Tale centers the reality of water’s radical uncontainability through its attentiveness to the environmental impact of nuclear radiation. The novel reminds us that the lesson learned by Tepco, the company managing the reactor vessels at Fukushima, is that “[y]ou can’t hold on to water or keep it from leaking away.”32 This uncontainable leakage is a fundamental characteristic of gyre memory, a conceit used in the novel to bring into nonrelational alignment the circulatory system of ocean currents that comprise planetary gyres and the massive waves of information generated by the Fukushima disaster and proliferated digitally by the internet. The oncoming waves of the Tōhoku tsunami, recorded on spotty cellphone video, embody a speed and immensity that confound onlookers and victims alike. Velocity, scale, and temporality become some of the measures by which the novel’s characters are made to realize their smallness and fragility, but also to acknowledge the outsized impact human activity has had on the environment—a dyad of asymmetric relations that undergirds the novel’s conception of environmental responsibility.

If the transpacific relationality of environmentalism is a central concern of Tale, one of the most striking sources of such conceptualization in Ozeki’s novel derives from the comparisons it generates between the island spaces inhabited by the characters. In one of the chapters narrated by Ruth, we learn that the name Fukushima means “Happy Island” and that the area “was one of the last pieces of tribal land to be taken from the indigenous Emishi, descendants of the Jōmon people, who had lived there from prehistoric times until they were defeated by the Japanese imperial army in the eighth century.”33 This information immediately precedes the description of the island where Ruth and Oliver live, which “was named for a famous Spanish conquistador, who overthrew the Aztec empire.”34 While Cortes Island is a “gemlike paradise” for two months in the summer, it also has a “churlish side”—and “a shadow name that was rarely spoken,” the Island of the Dead:

Some said the name referred to the bloody intertribal wars, or the smallpox epidemic of 1862 that killed off most of the indigenous Coast Salish population. Other people said no, that the island had always been a tribal burial ground, laced with hidden caves known only to the elders, where they entombed their dead. Still others insisted that the nickname had nothing to do with native lore at all, pointing instead to the aging population of retired white people who’d come to spend their twilight years on the island, turning it into a kind of gated community, like Boca Raton only with lousy weather and no amenities.35

The transpacific resonance between Happy Island and the Island of the Dead is impossible to ignore. Both archipelagoes are multiply and reductively named, their monikers gesturing to but also obscuring long and complicated histories; both reflect the consequential environmental impact of human activity, Whaletown’s name a testament to the marine mammals hunted to extinction in its waters and Fukushima only the second disaster to be given the Level 7 event classification of the International Nuclear Event Scale; both are sites of decay and death, bearing witness to the costs and consequences of colonialism. In drawing attention to the similarities between two such distinct archipelagic sites, Ozeki suggests a transpacific environmental consciousness that emanates from water’s ability to both connect and separate, its fluid connectivity bringing into relation disparate histories and experiences.

Tellingly, both islands are haunted by “secret” histories of dispossession and indigenous depopulation, an indication of the important interconnections between environmentalism and indigeneity in the transpacific. As Erin Suzuki has noted, since architectural ideas (about security, economics, and militarization) of the transpacific have tended to elide other types of transcultural exchange and movement, it is imperative that the deployment of the transpacific as a critical cartographic term both “explores and calls attention to those obscured or silenced voices” and addresses the ways in which “transpacific discourse itself may alternately invoke or erase the indigenous histories of the region.”36 In his well-known treatise “Our Sea of Islands,” Epeli Hau‘ofa argues that indigenous knowledge and history respond to the issues explored here—of scale, of naming, of relationality, of devaluation, of dispossession, and of environmental concern—by offering alternative, deeply rooted, and capacious ways of knowing and being. Conceptualizing Oceania in contradistinction to the Pacific Islands, Hau‘ofa writes that “[t]he world of Oceania is not small; it is huge and growing bigger every day.”37 That bigness recalibrates the continentalism, economic determinism, and macropolitical perspective of Pacific colonialism and imperialism by remembering the scope, scale, challenge, and potential of the ocean itself. The “world enlargement” integral to Hau‘ofa’s vision derives from the “gulf of difference between viewing the Pacific as ‘islands in a far sea’ and as ‘a sea of islands’”—a perspectival shift that has been taken up in American Studies through nissology.38 Nissology involves “the study of islands on their own terms” and a critique of continental exceptionalism, and finds most visible expression in the 2017 collection edited by Brian Russell Roberts and Michelle Ann Stephens, Archipelagic American Studies.39

If, as John Carlos Rowe has advocated, transpacific studies should “bring into view the Pacific Islands and not just look to the horizon of Asia,” then indigeneity becomes a generative and indisputably crucial resource for the theorization and enactment of transpacific knowledges.40 Chadwick Allen proposes the sustained examination of indigenous-to-indigenous relationships—what he terms the trans-indigenous—as a means of challenging the “vertical binary” of settler colonialism.41 Although fully supportive of Allen’s decentering and recentering of periphery relationships via indigeneity, Hsinya Huang argues that his privileging of Native American and Maori literary and cultural production actually operates to “under-represent . . . the Pacific world of indigeneity.”42 In response to such underrepresentation, Huang demonstrates the possibilities of a transindigenous methodology for transpacific studies through her comparative work on indigenous ecopoetics. For example, by treating Linda Hogan’s People of the Whale (2008), Witi Ihimaera’s Whale Rider (1987), and Syaman Rapongan’s Eyes in the Sky (2012) as indigenous texts that collectively advance multispecies justice and the possibility of “oceanic co-belongings,” she charts the ways in which these representations of diverse indigenous eco-knowledge in disparate sites (Makah located on the North American West Coast; Maori in New Zealand/Aotearoa; and Aboriginal Tao in Taiwan) might be brought into relation as part of a “transpacific and transindigeous ecopoetics [that] bring[s] to the fore an alternative model of reckoning space, place, and time.”43

The Taiwanese writer Wu Ming Yi picks up on a number of the transpacific topoi discussed here in his novel The Man with the Compound Eyes.44 The text itself—originally published in Taiwan as 複眼人‎ (Fuyan Ren) in 2011 and translated into English by Darryl Sterk in 2014—emblematizes the heightened exchange and engagement made possible by the concept of the transpacific; the novel’s ability to draw interest and be legible in Chinese literary studies, environmental studies, genre studies, and transnational Asian American studies reflects its textual preoccupations with, and embodiment of, the connective and relational aspects of a transpacific orientation. Wu’s generically experimental novel combines realism with the speculative and the fantastical to trace the unusual relationship between Atile’i, an inhabitant of Wayo Wayo, an island in the South Pacific, and Alice Shih, a literature professor who is contemplating suicide in the wake of her husband’s death and her son’s mysterious disappearance. Because Wayo Wayoan culture dictates that all second sons must sent out to sea, never to return, Atile’i leaves his native home, gets caught up in a Trash Vortex that smashes into eastern Taiwan, and learns to communicate with Alice despite the two having no shared language. This relatively straightforward narrative is complicated, both diegetically and formally, by many other plotlines and perspectives, with the novel bringing into relation the disparate experiences of European scientists studying engineering and environmentalism; Austronesian characters navigating the cultural and political disjunctions between indigenous and non-indigenous cultures and practices; and animals—figured mythically and realistically—who cohabit the planet with humans. The novel’s environmental message is intimately interlinked with its attentiveness to the stories of the indigenous characters and cultures it includes. In an example of what Yi-Ting Chang calls “archipelagic optics,” Wu foregrounds the significance of multiple islands and compound vision in the novel, tracing the overlapping ways in which islands—man-made of plastic and garbage, like the Trash Vortex; invented, like Wayo Wayo; metaphoric, like those describing the increasing isolation and containment of the Pangcah and Bunun aboriginal people, who have witnessed encroachment on their lands and the diminishing of their cultural practices; and internationally unrecognized and unsanctioned islands, like Taiwan itself—figure a “multi-centered and multi-scale” approach to understanding the geopolitical alignments which have historically privileged continentalist ways of understanding the world.45

The Interconnections of Transpacific Asymmetry

Craig Santos Perez embraces the interconnectedness of the three transpacific turns highlighted in the section “Transpacific Turning: Militarism, Ecology, and Indigeneity” in his poetic triptych “Crosscurrents (Three Poems).”46 The first poem imagines a “horizon of care” that links his bedtime ritual with his sixteen-month-old daughter to the tireless efforts of refugee and migrant parents fleeing the war in Syria, a “crossing” made imaginatively possible by “Pacific trade winds suddenly be[coming] helicopters.”47 The second poem is radically different in tone and approach, a parodic Seussian jingle about the “One fish / Two fish / Plastics / Dead fish” that index the massive environmental degradation inflicted upon the Pacific and its inhabitants.48 The last poem is titled “Praise Song for Oceania,” a liturgical tribute to the resilience of Oceania and its “capacity” to encompass hope, history, pain, war, violence, environmental destruction, indigenous despair, and indigenous promise, its capacity to encircle “our trans-oceanic past, present & future flowing through our blood.”49 As those familiar with Santos Perez’s creative writing and scholarship will know, he regularly utilizes the metaphor of the current to imagine and reimagine the possibilities and limits of the transpacific. Currents mark water’s directionality, and tracing the currents of transpacific possibility makes visible the ways in which the transpacific marks the intersection of dominance and resistance, its vastness an uneasy home to innumerable moments of exchange, oppression, and defiance, moments that register the epistemological conflict between indigenous and colonialist-imperialist ways of knowing. Indeed:

[m]apping territoriality within the Pacific draws attention to the surface and rip currents of American colonialism, capitalism, militarism, nuclearism, tourism, urbanism, missionization, and plantationism throughout the islands, which resulted in profound depopulation, dispossession, displacement, and disenfranchisement of Native Pacific Islanders.50

The overlaps between militarism, ecology, and indigeneity usefully illustrate the layered dimensionality of transpacific studies. Transpacific asymmetry operates as a multiplicity of uneven distribution (of resources, power, attention, and opportunity) that concatenates both to reflect and to disrupt rigid hierarchies of knowledge and practice. Such porosity reminds us of the perspectival differences concerning water thus far charted—its radical uncontainability conceptualized as both problem and guide—and encourages the tracing of connections between disparate people, practices, and locations that might otherwise be overlooked. For example, Rapongan grew up on Orchid Island, located 40 kilometers southeast of Taiwan, which serves as home to a predominantly ethnic Aboriginal Tao community whose economic, cultural, and environmental management practices are deeply rooted in an oceanically informed indigenous ontology and epistemology. Orchid Island is also the site of a series of Tao-led protests against the Taiwanese government’s decision to allow the state utility Taiwan Power Company to build the Lanyu nuclear-waste storage facility at the southern tip of the island in 1982. The long-standing concerns raised by Aboriginal leaders and community members, who were not consulted about the decision to house nuclear waste on Orchid Island, were taken up with new energy after the Fukushima meltdown in 2011.

In Khairani Barokka’s multi-media poetry chapbook Indigenous Species (2016), the innocuous image of a single lipstick emblematizes some of the issues of asymmetry and interconnection that this article has emphasized.51 The book traces the kidnapping of a girl who, forced to travel along a polluted river through a nightmarish landscape of deforestation, witnesses the environmental destruction generated by the world’s insatiable demand for palm oil. She records and resists the damage wrought by inequality—the voracity of global capital pitted against the flora and fauna, and the indigenous peoples—in Indonesia:

I bet you, from the raucous Machinery I’m hearing And the smell of rashness, That this is where the grease deals Are siphoned into miners’ food, And where they are packing down Eons of intricacies and strength From the forest to molecular form On a woman’s lipstick bottle in Iowa.52

The lipstick bottle will be discarded eventually, a piece of trash that might very well end up ensnared in the zones of accumulated garbage that litter the Pacific Ocean. But it also marks a series of engagements and histories that operate to limn the contours of transpacific exchange. Its smallness is intimately linked to the “Eons of intricacies and strength / From the forest,” an asymmetrical relation that signals both the incommensurable scales brought to bear in thinking about the Pacific and the interconnections between the people, places, cultures, and objects that are brought into non-relational alignment through transpacific exchange. In acknowledging transpacific asymmetry not simply or even primarily as a description of the conditions of the transpacific but as a catalyst through which transpacific knowledge and critical orientations of the transpacific are produced, this article has brought into structurally incoherent relation some of the uneven and overlapping histories, power dynamics, and cultural forms that collectively compose the transpacific as both grounded geographical area, arena of economic contestation and cooperation, contact zone, and conceptually driven imaginable ageography. Such asymmetry manifests in diverse ways, paradoxically serving as the conditions for both the perpetration of injustice and the possibility of pursuing a more just world.

Discussion of the Literature

Turning and returning to the transpacific runs the risk of drifting along many different currents. Crucially, it is not simply the critical embrace of the region that proliferates meaning but also the space itself. For every notion of the transpacific that has been reified, there are numerous “alternative transpacifics” that jockey for visibility, meaning, and epistemological sway.53 As Viet Thanh Nguyen and Janet Hoskins noted in their 2014 attempt to define the field of Transpacific Studies, the Pacific has been both a space of “exploration, exploitation, and expansion” and “a contact zone [whose] history [is] defined not only by conquest, colonialism, and conflict but also alternate narratives of translocalism, oppositional localism, and oppositional regionalism.”54 If the transpacific is the conceptual designation of oceanic possibility materialized by the Pacific, then it has variously (and often synchronically) served as a void to be traversed (Huang), a space of imperial projection and fantasy (Wilson), a zone of economic development and capital flows (Dirlik), a site of Indigenous world-making and praxis (Epeli Hau‘Ofa), a semiotic space for the development of counterpoetic artistic practices (Huang), a militarized space (Shigematsu and Camacho), and a mediated network whose “thick environment” makes conceptual and cultural engagement possible (So).55

Significantly, the myriad transpacific turns explored in this article are linked tangentially to the “Pacific Pivot” of US foreign policy, though they are by no means synonymous with, or even in support of, that particular turn. If one turn to the transpacific by the United States can be read as a policy response to “the rise of Asia” (and, most recently, the emergence of China as a world power) and part of a strategic effort to “dominate the ocean,” the scholarly turns to the transpacific explored here have recognized those dynamics without necessarily capitulating to them. Indeed, as Greg Dvorak notes, concepts such as the Pacific Pivot “belie a deeper presumption that the Pacific Ocean is always already available to serve US interests and little else,” a presumption that Native Pacific Studies scholars especially have challenged.56

Links to Digital Materials

Further Reading

  • Cumings, Bruce. Dominion from Sea to Sea: Pacific Ascendency and American Power. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010.
  • Dirlik, Arif, ed. What Is in a Rim? Critical Perspectives on the Pacific Region Idea. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998.
  • Durr, Eveline, and Philipp Schorch. Transpacific Americas: Encounters and Engagements between the Americas and the South Pacific. New York: Routledge, 2015.
  • Dvorak, Greg. “Oceanizing American Studies.” American Quarterly 67, no. 3 (September 2015): 609–617.
  • Hau‘ofa, Epeli. “Our Sea of Islands.” In We Are the Ocean: Selected Works. By Epeli Hau‘ofa. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2008.
  • Huang, Yunte. Transpacific Imaginations: History, Literature, Counterpoetics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.
  • Kauanui, J. Kēhaulani. “Imperial Ocean: The Pacific as a Critical Site for American Studies.” American Quarterly 67, no. 3 (September 2015): 625–636.
  • Nguyen, Viet Thanh, and Janet Hoskins, eds. Transpacific Studies: Framing an Emerging Field Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2014.
  • Shigematsu, Setsu, and Keith L. Camacho, eds. Militarized Currents: Toward a Decolonized Future in Asia and the Pacific. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
  • Shu, Yuan, and Donald E. Pease, eds. American Studies as Transnational Practice: Turning toward the Transpacific. Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2015.
  • So, Richard Jean. Transpacific Community: America, China, and the Rise and Fall of a Cultural Network. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.
  • Suzuki, Erin. “Transpacific.” In The Routledge Companion to Asian American and Pacific Islander Literature. Edited by Rachel C. Lee, 352–364. New York: Routledge, 2014.
  • Wilson, Rob. Reimagining the American Pacific: From “South Pacific” to Bamboo Ridge and Beyond. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.
  • Yoneyama, Lisa. Cold War Ruins: Transpacific Critique of American Justice and Japanese War Crimes. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016.
  • Yoneyama, Lisa. “Toward a Decolonial Genealogy of the Transpacific.” American Quarterly 69, no. 3 (September 2017): 471–482.