Transpacific Geographies

Introduction by
Wesley Attewell, Emily Mitchell-eaton, And Richard Nisa

The spaces of the Pacific have long been a tangled riot of circulation and exchange, as central to the machinations of empire as they are to imperial resistance and the constitution of indigenous life-worlds. That is, transpacific space, made up of the more than 25,000 islands, shipping routes, and the territorial places and populations of the Pacific Rim, shapes the contours of historical and contemporary geographies in important ways.


ather than having multiple authors read and review a single text, the authors in this forum, all geographers, bring together reviews of three recent books by nominally non-geographers — Simeon Man’s Soldiering Through Empire: Race and the Making of the Decolonizing Pacific (2018), Monica Kim’s The Interrogation Rooms of the Korean War: The Untold History (2019), and Jinah Kim’s Postcolonial Grief: The Afterlives of the Pacific Wars in the Americas (2019) — with the goals of highlighting the spatial contours of their work and provoking more geographers into the important conversations currently happening in transpacific studies of society and space.

In recent years, the term “transpacific” has attained new significance as a way of naming and theorizing the cross-hemispheric circulations of bodies, commodities, capital, and discourses that have historically been constitutive of the spatial imaginaries like the “Pacific World,” the “Pacific Basin,” the “Pacific Rim,” and the “Asia-Pacific.” Imperial and capitalist actors have long considered the spaces of the Pacific as a territorial substrate for geopolitical intervention and geoeconomic accumulation, as evidenced by the fraught diplomatic processes surrounding the now-defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership. While largely absent in the discipline of geography, scholars in American Studies, Pacific Studies, and other cognate disciplines have pushed back against these seemingly frictionless visions of transpacific connection, emphasizing instead the frictions and conflicts that have emerged in the contact zones between indigenous and imperial conceptions of the Pacific. Pacific Islanders, in particular, have traced and attended to the indigenous modes of life- and relation-making that have always preceded and shaped the US empire-state’s ability to exercise authority and claim space across the region (see, for example, the work of Maile Arvin, David Chang, Hi’ilei Hobart, Tiara Na’Puti, Alice Te Punga Somerville, Vicente Diaz, J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, Haunani-Kay Trask, and the late Teresia Teaiwa, to name only a few examples). One of the effects of this crucial work, in other words, is to expose the fundamentally reactionary nature of US imperial power; to show how US imperialists have always operated from what Manu Karuka identifies as a position of countersovereignty.

What this work makes evident is that the critique of transpacific spaces is not merely an intellectual project, but one that is constituted by and constitutive of material politics and activism on the ground. This is to say that whether one is focusing on the imperial practices of the US, China, or Japan; interrogating the intersections and resistance movements at the Latin American-Asian nexus; or highlighting Pacific Islander cultural and economic exchange, thinking critically about transpacific geographies matters.

In the present moment, such a politics finds its most urgent expression in the current blockade of Thirty Meter Telescope construction at Mauna Kea; in the ongoing effort to bring the Korean War to a close, thereby reunifying North and South Koreans (see Nodutol); in the enduring struggle to demilitarize and demobilize the US military-industrial complex’s transnational network of bases and camptowns spread across South Korea (Pyongtaek), the Philippines (Lumbia, Basa, and Antonio Bautista Air Bases), Japan (Naha), Hawai‘i (Schofield), Guahan (Andersen), the Marshall Islands (Kwajalein Atoll), etc.; and in the current transnational efforts to secure redress and restorative justice for former Korean comfort women, as well as the Pacific Islanders whose bodies have borne the brunt of the toxic half lives unleashed by US military nuclear weapons testing in places such as Bikini Atoll.

This review forum follows a series of paper sessions and a panel on “Transpacific Infrastructures” at AAG 2018 in New Orleans, LA, organized by the authors of the book reviews included here. We sought work that would highlight the importance of interrogating these gaps between the myriad intimate encounters across the Pacific and imperial spatial imaginaries.  The work presented at the conference explored topics as wide-ranging as internment and detention, imperial infrastructures and engineering, indigenous repossession from Okinawa to Hawai’i, and the gendered dimensions of militarized intimacies and military violence. The sessions revealed two things to us: first, that compelling and diverse work is being produced on transpacific geographies, and second, that most of that work is being advanced by non-geographers (with notable exceptions like geographers Sasha Davis, John Paul Catungal, Laurel Mei-Singh, and May Farrales, who all participated in the sessions; other participants came from history, American Studies, and Asian American Studies).

In the same vein, each of the three books reviewed in this forum are authored by scholars working outside of the field of geography. Despite their extra-disciplinary orientation, or perhaps because of it, each author brings a novel perspective to the ways in which transpacific space is produced, contested, and given meaning.

In particular, these books offer spatiotemporal reframings, unboundings, and remappings of transpacific geographies. Together, they extend our conceptualization of the transpacific outside of “the usual Cold War binary formations” (as Rich Nisa discusses in his review) and beyond linear or teleological temporalities that history as a series of key events or “single moments” (as Wesley Attewell writes in his review). The books’ authors also make use of an astounding range of primary and secondary sources, including interviews, oral histories, memoirs of former prisoners and transcripts of their prison interrogations, films, documentaries, short stories, and archival materials from the US, Korea, Vietnam, and Japan, to name only a few. It is our hope that these three books encourage readers of Society & Space to engage more explicitly with the circulations and contestations that underpin and reproduce transpacific geographies.

In addition to our more substantive reviews linked below, we have also included here a short transpacific geographies reading list, offering scholars in geography a suite of critical entry-points into the vital literature that is emerging to some degree from within the discipline, but mostly from beyond the limits of geographic scholarly publications. While this reading list is by no means exhaustive, we hope that it will offer geographers a few key entry points from which to familiarize themselves with transpacific studies.

essays in this forum

Soldiering Through Empire By Simeon Man

Simeon Man’s (2018) Soldiering Through Empire: Race and the Making of the Decolonizing Pacific makes a number of essential contributions to the fields of Asian American studies, critical ethnic studies, and history. Soldiering Through Empire combines extensive archival research with oral history interviews to map the everyday work of US empire-building as it unfolded across the geohistorical formation that Man names as the decolonizing Pacific (see also Yoneyama, 2016).

Postcolonial Grief By Jinah Kim

Jinah Kim wants us to think about the transpacific politics of mourning. She opens her new book, Postcolonial Grief: The Afterlives of the Pacific Wars in the Americas, with this provocation: “Politicizing the structure of grief simultaneously requires the recognition that the force of grief does not itself imagine or desire freedom. And yet it is impossible to think about grief and mourning without imagining freedom from loss and thus the impasses and the incommensurability facing the insurgent drive for freedom.” (p. 9)

The Interrogation Rooms Of The Korean War By Monica Kim

In 2017, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick released their highly anticipated ten-part Vietnam War documentary on PBS. Bringing together scholars, veterans, government officials, and civilians to represent a broad range of political and geographical perspectives, the series was subsequently discussed on numerous editorial pages, Sunday morning political talk shows, and social media.