Urban Oceania

Exploring Urban Social Change in Oceania

Homes of The Island Exile: Experiences of Place

Lucas Watt

In a previous article I introduced the notion that exile is not an unfamiliar experience in Oceania, and that a new form of tacit island exile is emerging in Oceania. This form of exile is tacit in the sense that some inhabitants of rural islands are encouraged, but not explicitly forced, to migrate to informal settlements in urban areas because of a lack of available rural land and opportunities. In this form of exile, they are not shunned by their kin living on their home islands, but they are also not welcome back. In this article I will further focus on how tacit island exiles’ experience of home is different from other exiles’ experiences of home, and the implications of this difference. I argue that the indeterminable relationship tacit island exiles have with home, along with the insecure position they hold within the urban informal settlements they have migrated to, affects how they perceive home and place in unique unprecedented ways. In particular, tacit island exile re-frames Fijian concepts of person-hood which has traditionally been highly attached to land.

Home:  It’s Complicated

                You are likely reading this article at “home”, but it is probably not your first and only home. You may have moved from the country to the city. You may have moved to a new country for work. You may have multiple geographically separated homes that you frequently come to and from. In this moment of history, it is increasingly more probable that you will spend time in more places across your lifetime that you will call “home” as compared to your parents. We live in a moment in history where unprecedented global mobility is made possible by air travel, international labor agreements, and changing social norms surrounding travel. The way you experience each of these homes will be fundamentally different. In each of these places you may develop a sense of self that may be different to another version of yourself in another home. The social contacts you make, your exposure to different cultures, work opportunities, different climates, and the local pubs you frequent, will all impact the way you are in ways that are radically different to elsewhere. You embody the place that you are now part of and develop a sense of belonging to that place in a way that makes it “home”. Sure, your upbringing and experiences of previous homes still influence your sense of self in ways that cannot be lost. You likely visit often, send gifts, or face time friends and family in these previous homes. In this way these homes are never truly lost, as you continue to care and cultivate your relationships and belongings in these places. In this way homes have become translocal (Appadurai, 1996). Your sense of belonging to a social community has become spread across multiple localities, but each place retaining its own significance and specificity.

                This expansion and incorporation of multiple locations of home can seem uncomplicated; a fact of our modern life. There is the common perception that the highly mobile can incorporate these different localities easily as they can traverse these boundaries frequently. Travelers can slip back into versions of self particular to each place. However, Butcher (2010) shows even Australian transnational professionals working in Asia have difficulty in managing their translocal concepts of home. Common in Butcher’s (2010) participant testimonials is the expression of different versions of self according to place that are not always harmonious with one another. One participant of Butcher’s (2010) study, Neil, an IT consultant brought up in Australia, felt confined by family expectations and perceptions of him in Australia. In Singapore, Neil’s lack of embedded social relationships liberated him from his socially embedded identity. In this testimonial there is a form of ambivalence towards Australia as a home due to the socially embedded relations particular to that place. At the same time, those very relationships also make Australia an unavoidable form of home. Even in the case of Australian transnational professionals, the notion of home can be complicated, each locality of home evoking different and not always positive emotional responses.

                For transnational professionals two geographical places may evoke different emotions and versions of self, however analytically it may not be useful to consider different locations and emotional responses to them separately. Our emotional responses to different homes are tied up in a field of emotional geographies (Davidson and Milligan, 2004). As in Neil’s case, a new experience and version of self may be sought out specifically because of an embodied identity experienced in a previous place. Memories, whether they be positive or negative, can also continuously impact experiences and version of self explored in new places.  In this sense two localities and experiences of self can never be totally separated. Indeed, this adds to the notion that home in this modern era is experienced translocally, and not merely in one location at one moment of time. Even in such a banal example of transnational professionals the idea of home can be complicated. This idea of home undoubtedly becomes more complicated when considering displaced peoples.

Home: The Displaced

Home for the displaced is even more complicated for several glaring reasons. Firstly, displaced peoples do not have the choice to physically return to their original homes like transnational professionals do. They may not be able to return home due to their homes becoming uninhabitable due to climate change, famine, warfare, or religious and cultural prosecution. Contact with home may also be hampered by local infrastructural and political conditions. Secondly, displacement often forces adaption to a new place that migrants previously had little contact or knowledge of. Communities develop in these new locations, but in ways that adapt to new place in ways that may be at odds with the original home. Thirdly, communities that are displaced from their homes may spread to many different nations across the globe. Such a dispersed network, adapting to many different places can obscure this diaspora’s relationship to one another. Second and third generation migrants may especially feel disconnected to their original homeland and broader diaspora. Based on these reasons, displaced peoples experience a translocal form of home as their social community is dispersed across multiple locations. Accessing these homes, however, is incredibly complex due to circumstances in which this community is spread, and how ties with the home they are displaced from are damaged or cut.

So how does a displaced migrant connect with a home they cannot physically return to? Christou (2011) emphasizes that displaced migrants embody their lost homelands through routinized practices of yearning. This yearning allows displaced migrants to maintain an emotional connection to home without physical presence. However, the yearning that takes place may not necessarily reflect the realities at play in these lost homes. First and foremost, idealized forms of home are constructed that gloss over recent developments in these homes. Displaced migrants yearn for a home that is likely radically different to the social/political/environmental circumstances of their home that created their displacement. More historically ingrained and equally undesired elements of home may also be overlooked in this reconstruction. For Christou (2011) this yearning is not about accuracy, but it is about a performative act that allows them to embody their homeland in a new and unfamiliar location. As Gunguly (1992) states; “The authority of the past depends on people’s present subjectivity and vice versa; the stories people tell about their past, have more to do with the continuing shoring up of self-understanding than with historical truth”.

Some displaced migrants prefer to look forward than back to the difficult circumstances they left behind. Pineteh (2005) found that for some Cameroonian migrants living in Johannesburg, the ancestral notion of home was discounted in narratives of home. Many Cameroonian migrants defined Johannesburg as home due to the stable economic and political climate in which they could thrive going forward. This is not to say that they completely disconnected from the translocal aspect of home. Rather they connected with other Cameroonian displaced migrants and their reintegration into a new place. They rallied behind the collective experience of re-grounding in new locations. In examples such as this, migrants tend to favor the “being” rather than the “longing” aspect of “belonging”. Of course, there can be a combination of these two approaches at different moments and settings as displacement and the narratives created don’t need to hold a uniform and resolved pattern.

Home: Tacit Island Exiles

Tacit island exiles experience home in ways that are significantly different to transnational professionals and the displaced. This fundamentally comes down to the nature of their departure from their home islands. To put it into overly simplistic binary terms, transnational professionals had a choice to leave their homes, the displaced had no choice to leave their homes. Tacit island exiles sit in a grey area. Leaving was not really a choice in the sense that forms of marginalization experienced on their island made living on these islands untenable. In stories recounted to me, those without land rights due to overpopulation were not provided suitable food and shelter, as well as opportunity to participate in island sociality. This form of marginalization was a prompt to encourage outward migration. However, this form of prompt did not necessarily make living on the island unlivable. There were no political, environmental, or violent incidents which forced the immediate fleeing from home. They were certainly not asked to leave overtly. In this sense, and as I stated in my previous article, tacit island exiles are not forsaken, but they are also not welcome. It is this nature of exile that places tacit island exile’s experience of home in additionally complex territory, because home is both inaccessible but also not lost.

To add to this complex notion of home, many of these tacit island exiles live in informal settlements in urban centers. The status of urban informal settlements as a form of home is also tenuous. Residents of informal settlements reconstruct a version of home in what Jones (2011) defines as urban villages. These urban villages reconstitute kinship relationships, support traditional agricultural practices, are formed using traditional land tenure, and host traditional ceremonies. However, residents of these urban villages have no formal legal protection and can be evicted at a moments notice (Bryant‐Tokalau, 2014). They are not formally provided electricity and water and have historically been considered by Oceanic governments to not belong to the urban landscape. The status of urban villages as suitable substitutes for home are hampered by Oceanic government policy and attitudes (Bryant‐Tokalau, 2014).

Home but for how long? Bulldozer clearing a road behind local rugby field in a Fijian urban village

In this context home becomes an indistinct term. Home is not a lost term, not a place one necessarily longs for, not a place that is forgotten; but an indistinct place. In conversations with urban village residents there is a form of ambivalence in defining where they belong. Urban village residents will tell you of their island of origin often in favorable terms. They may also even mention some previously valued kinship relations on the island, and entertain ideas of return, but in the same breath tell you their experiences of social exclusion that drove them away and keep them away from the island. They will also talk favorably of their life in urban villages and the lifestyles that it offers. Yet they will equally lament their lack of tenure security, especially in the face of encroaching residential development schemes that seek to restructure their communities. In the urban village where they have attempted to recreate a “home”, they do not know what their future will be. Will they be able to remain in the settlement or will they need to move elsewhere? In this equation, the notion of “being” in “be-longing” is indeterminable. There are no clear-cut boundaries of where they do and do not belong going forward, even if their current life is viewed positively. The fact that a return to home islands, residing in urban villages, or relocating somewhere, are all tenuous options but not fully barred, complicates tacit island exile’s field of emotional geographies in ways that have implications for social and cultural life in Oceania. Namely, it unsettles Oceanic sociality attached to “place”.

Home: Oceanic Implications

                In the Oceanic context,there have been many debates in anthropology that argue that place is not bounded by any form of natural geography. Casey (1996) argues that place is defined by “porousness of boundaries”. Bodies experience place and impact place based on culture they carry to and from other places. This is especially relevant in this era of globalization where movement and connection are easier and more accessible. Boundaries in Oceania have always been porous before European arrival. Place in Oceania has always been in flux as people, goods, and ideas frequently flowed between the porous boundaries of the islands. There have also been debates surrounding how Oceanic peoples’ identity are composed according to place. Strathern (1988) argues that the identities of highly mobile Oceanic people have always been comprised of the multiple people and places they encounter. These reconceptualizations of place in Oceania however do not necessarily discount the importance of place. Indeed, it has been equally conclusive that social practice, organization, and morality are highly attached to land, distant or ever changing they may be. Furthermore, land binds Oceanic peoples, past and present, in a moment of time of shared sociality (Jolly, 1992).

My argument is that new forms of individualized Oceanic personhood are potentially being developed as tacit island exiles’ attachment to place is becoming increasingly indeterminable. As tacit island exiles contemplate and reflect on home within a field of emotional geographies, their subjectivity of home is increasingly removed from land and any form of sociality on it. This raises some initial questions: how will tacit island exiles of Oceania engage with or adapt tradition that is typically centered around land? Will Oceania cities develop to become a place of disconnected individuals over time, or will Jones’ (2011) vision of the “village city” be realized? More simply, where will tacit island exiles eventually consider home? I would love to hear your opinions on this matter!


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  • Lucas Watt

    I am a Post-Doctoral researcher on the ERC-funded TransOcean Project at the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI), Norway. My portion of the project sets out to analyze maritime mobilities, exchange, and conservation, in the increasingly securitised region of Oceania. I graduated with a PhD from the School of Media and Communications at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University. My ethnographic fieldwork in Suva Fiji analyses how rural-urban migrants living in “informal settlements” articulate tradition in urban spaces.

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