Transpacific Geographies

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

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.


he 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.

Rather 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.


Arvin, M (2019) Possessing Polynesians: The Science of Settler Colonial Whiteness in Hawai‘i and Oceania. Durham: Duke University Press.

In this newly-released book, Maile Arvin maps a critical history of white European and American encounters with Polynesians, arguing that white settlers’ racial logics entwined with a logic of possession to portray Polynesians both as ‘almost white’ and as exotic. In Possessing Polynesians, Arvin examines how white settlers used these entwined geographic imaginaries and racial classifications to justify their claims to Polynesia. Moreover, the book documents how Native Hawaiians and other Polynesians have long resisted these colonial imaginaries, generating instead their own forms of Indigenous recognition and place-making.

Chang, D (2016) The World and All the Things upon It: Native Hawaiian Geographies of Exploration. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press. 

David Chang offers an invaluable corrective to a long-standing scholarly tradition of narrowly foregrounding the exploits of colonial explorers across the Pacific world. Through a careful engagement with 19th-century Hawaiian language sources, Chang maps the geographical trajectories of key kanaka maoli who travelled throughout the broader Pacific region during that time period. In so doing, Chang clarifies how these transpacific geographies of kanaka exploration were intimately bound up with questions of labor, race, religion, sexuality, education,  and indigenous relation-making. These geographical experiences, in turn, went on to shape and inform subsequent kanaka maoli encounters with various manifestations of imperial and settler colonial power. 

Davis S (2015) The Empires' Edge: Militarization, Resistance, and Transcending Hegemony in the Pacific. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Sasha Davis’s book draws on over a decade of research in the Pacific islands to examine the devastating effects of militarization and geopolitical power struggles over, and in, the region. Highlighting social movements in Guam, Hawai’i, Bikini Atoll, Okinawa, and other sites, Davis demonstrates how struggles for demilitarization, indigenous land rights, and social justice pose critical challenges to external efforts for global hegemony in the Pacific, imagining alternative political futures for the region’s peoples.  

Hau’Ofa E (1993) Our Sea of Islands. The Contemporary Pacific, 148-161.

In this influential essay, Epeli Hau’ofa critiques pervasive Western representations of the Pacific Islands as small, isolated “islands in a far sea” which, due to their presumedly limited resources and distance from the centers of global economic growth, are inherently destined to be dependent upon wealthy capitalist nations of the Global North. Hau’ofa identifies the colonial and missionary roots of this ideology and its basis in economic and geographic determinism. He radically reframes geographic notions of Pacific islands’ smallness and isolation through his framework of ‘a sea of islands,’ a “more holistic perspective in which things are seen in the totality of their relationships” (153).

Hoskins J and Nguyen VT (2014) Transpacific Studies: Framing an Emerging Field. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

This edited volume pulls together work that critically engages with ideas and theorizations of the transpacific from multiple scholarly traditions and geographic locations. Positioning the book as a sequel to Arif Dirlik’s 1998 volume What is in a Rim? (that offers a critique of the idea of the “Pacific Rim”), here Hoskins and Nguyen similarly seek to look beyond the imperial stories of economic potential and “Asian miracles” that often underpin theories and scholarship on the transpacific. Instead, Transpacific Studies: Framing an Emerging Field aims to excavate the stakes of “key issues and problems around the Pacific and offer some ideas for what a transpacific studies may look like.“(3) From a number of entry-points, then, the authors gathered in this volume detail the activities that bind together, divide, and disperse cultures and diasporic populations across transnational geographies.

Kothari U & Wilkinson R (2010) Colonial imaginaries and postcolonial transformations: exiles, bases, beaches. Third World Quarterly, 31(8): 1395-1412.

Kothari and Wilkinson engage Edward Said’s concept of ‘imaginary geographies’ to examine how colonial imaginaries have been used to plan, implement, and justify the forced movement of populations in the Pacific region. As they argue, an ‘island imaginary’ has been central to practices of removal, detention, militarization, and tourism on Pacific islands.

Saranillio DI (2018) Unsustainable Empire: Alternative Histories of Hawai’i Statehood. Durham: Duke University Press.

In this important book, Dean Saranillio draws on a diversity of archival resources to retell the story of Hawai‘i’s fraught movement towards full statehood. Against revisionist understandings of statehood as a civil rights victory for the islands’ non-white populations, Saranillio instead argues that such forms of settler colonial nostalgia necessarily obscure longer histories of kanaka maoli resistance to putatively multicultural state-building projects. Statehood was neither a “liberal moral allegory about the important inclusion of nonwhite groups into the United States”, nor a simple story of geopolitical domination and conquest, but rather, a complex spatial fix to domestic crises of capital accumulation. Under such circumstances, the emergent Hawaiian state served as both a vehicle for further negating kanaka maoli assertions of jurisdiction and self-determination, as well as a key staging ground for subsequent rounds of imperial expansion across a rapidly decolonizing Pacific.    

Shigematsu S & Camacho KL (Eds) (2010) Militarized Currents: Toward a Decolonized Future in Asia and the Pacific. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Focusing specifically on the flows of US and Japanese imperial practices and ambitions across the Pacific, Shigematsu and Camacho’s text brings together scholars of color, indigenous, and feminist academics to demonstrate that militarization is “an extension of colonialism and its gendered and racialized processes from the late-twentieth to the twenty-first century.”(xv) The chapters in the book draw much-needed attention to the ways that a transpacific imperial framework built and sustained the militarized logic of the two countries. In doing so, this volume serves as a vibrant critique of the imperial narratives and epistemologies that “obscure the uneven effects of violence and the embedded heteronormative structures of militarized logics.”(xvi) 

Teaiwa T (2006) On Analogies: Rethinking the Pacific in a global context. The Contemporary Pacific, 18(1): 71–87. 

Originally given as a keynote address at the European Society of Oceanists in 2002, this article critiques Western knowledge production on the Pacific Islands, particularly its analogizing of Pacific political transformations to ‘Caribbeanization’ or ‘Africanization.’ Teresia Teaiwa, cautious of the ethical and political dimensions of comparison across geopolitical regions, proposes instead grounded theories of change in the Pacific that resist both ahistoricism and Pacific exceptionalism.

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).


Wesley Attewell

Postcolonial Grief by Jinah Kim

"Postcolonial Grief" explores the linkages between grief, loss, and struggles toward freedom across the “Pacific Arena,” a term Kim develops in the book. Kim, an interdisciplinary scholar grounded in Cultural Studies, Communication Studies, and Critical Race Studies, engages the space and spaces of the “Pacific Arena” through textual, literary, and visual analysis of a stunning array of texts, each of which she reads both along and against the grain.


Emily Mitchell-Eaton

The Interrogation Rooms Of The Korean War by Monica Kim

Using a variety of sources including interviews, memoirs of former prisoners, and close readings of an extensive range of US and Korean archival materials, Kim does a remarkable job breaking open these small, isolated spaces embedded within wartime carceral compounds, revealing their centrality to enormous shifts in the making of American military power in the wake of the Second World War. In doing so, she does not succumb to the territorial trap that plagues many histories of foreign relations so much as she exposes its simplicity (Agnew, 1994).


Richard Nisa