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Introduction: Islands and Identities
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Islands and Identities

[Published Summer 2013]

This special issue comprises a selection of articles given at the conference “Islands and Identities: Creolization and Diaspora in Comparative Perspective” held at the University of Oxford, 6–7 December 2012. We convened the conference to advance our project entitled “Diaspora and Creolization: Diverging, Converging,” part of the Oxford Diasporas Programme funded by the Leverhulme Trust (see Acknowledgments below). The event involved the participation of international scholars from the islands of Réunion, Mauritius, and Guadeloupe, as well as from South Africa, the United States, and Europe. With pre-circulated papers leaving ample time for discussion, the event provided an ideal forum for the stimulating exchange of knowledge and ideas on the themes of islands, identities, creolization, and diaspora. The papers and conference discussion have allowed us to distil key themes addressed in this special issue, including the extent to which islands represent particularly salient spaces for the emergence of creolized and/or diasporic identities as well as some of the social, cultural and spatial factors that give rise to various forms of identity construction and expression, notably creolization and diaspora.

Before we convened, we had three starting points. First, we had already sketched out the idea that “creolization” and “diaspora” could be seen as just two of a number of possible “identity trajectories,” the others being subnational loyalties (to clan, tribe, ethnicity, region, or locality), nationalism, supranational affinities (to world religion or language groups), or cosmopolitanism (Cohen 2010; Sheringham 2012). Second, we were alive to the debate about the universal and particular uses of creolization. A number of scholars had expressed uneasiness or outright opposition to the idea that creolization could be transposed from its supposedly singular moorings in Caribbean plantation contexts and deployed as a way of understanding mixture and cultural intersections elsewhere. Though we were already convinced that confining [End Page 1] creolization to the Caribbean was an excessively narrow position, we thought it important to investigate space or context as an enabling or constraining element in the articulation of creolized forms of social behavior. Third, we wanted to address the question of whether diaspora and creolization were contradictory trajectories, the first implying a “there and then” sensibility, the second a “here and now” response. All these issues are amply addressed in the articles in this special issue.

We center our article on the question of space and, more particularly, islands. We identify some of the factors particular to island spaces that make them potentially fertile places for the emergence of certain identity patterns. Drawing on the insights of spatial theorists, we examine the temporal dimensions of both creolization and diaspora (including the special historical factors that give rise to these processes) and the spatial realm within which they emerge. We sustain the theories advanced by social geographers that valorize the salience of space and show how spatial and social relationships are mutually constitutive. We argue that “islandness” and creolization have an elective affinity but that they do not necessarily emerge uniformly across islands (only parts of islands and islands with particular characteristics may be affected). Islandness also influences the particular ways in which diasporic identities are formed and reformed, especially the way islands switch onto, or are insulated from, global circuits of power and influence.

Looking more explicitly at the theme of creolization, Christine Chivallon explores some of the diverse ways in which anthropologists, historians, and cultural studies theorists have used the concept over the years. Using a four-box matrix, she illuminates the varying interpretations of the term creolization, drawing attention in particular to the clear distinction that exists between scholars who use it to refer to a process and those who use it to refer to a “product” or essence. Moreover, she notes how scholars in each camp seem to diverge on whether creolization is a process that began prior to the encounters in the New World or one that emerged in response to that violent encounter. Parenthetically, but importantly, she demonstrates how various types of diaspora map onto the different understandings of creolization she has demarcated.

In her article on “Dark Arts and Diaspora,” Aisha Khan brings the theme of diaspora centrally into the...