Author Interview: Greg Dvorak

Published since 1989, The Contemporary Pacific has featured hundreds of authors from across disciplines and incorporated a wide range of genres, including peer-reviewed research articles, political reviews, resource essays, and dialogues covering issues of profound concern to the region and the world, as well as book reviews, art features, and even the occasional poem. All of these pieces have moved through a robust editorial process and reflect the authors' unique experiences in communicating their expertise and creative and critical scholarship to a broad audience. Launched in January 2020, this new section of our website features interviews, one per month, with the scholars and artists who have published in our pages.



Mililani Ganivet (MG): You spent an important part of your childhood on the American military base on Kwajalein (Kuwajleen) in the Marshall Islands, and you write that this experience deeply impacted your scholarship in your recently published, beautifully written Coral and Concrete (2018). Can you tell us more about your journey from Kuwajleen to Tokyo via Pacific Islands studies?

Greg Dvorak (GD): I have spent my whole life crisscrossing the Pacific Ocean countless times, but my commitment to Oceania has been about learning to notice the messy contradictions of our world and to engage with them, somehow, in all of their messiness. I have also been extremely fortunate and privileged in my life so far—encountering exactly the right people at the right time and intuitively following the currents to where they would lead. Spending my teenage years in rural New Jersey after my family left Kwajalein Atoll in the 1980s, I was desperately homesick for the Marshall Islands and longed to go back there as I grew up, but I didn’t know how I would do that, nor did I have any certainty that I even ever could go back. My parents warned me that Kwajalein was a military base; it simply wasn’t real, they would say—just an idyllic youth in an American-made tropical paradise, not a place I could return to without special permission from the military. But when I took my first trip to Japan, I felt an intense and uncanny nostalgia; later I would realize this familiarity came from the traces of Japanese empire in Micronesia that I had taken for granted, as well as the varied Japanese influences in Hawaiʻi that I had experienced throughout my childhood.

It was through my deepening relationship to and time in Japan that my career would gradually connect to Oceania. Many unusual coincidences began to add up, like working for three years in a small fishing town that just happened to have a large fleet of long-distance tuna boats that frequented the Marshall Islands, or being appointed to the G8 Summit Promotion Council in Miyazaki, Japan, in 2000—the same secretariat responsible for hosting the Japan-Pacific Islands Leaders Meeting—where I was asked to facilitate the Marshallese delegation’s visit. This led to me eventually being sent on a diplomatic Japanese government mission to Majuro, which also took me back to Kwajalein for the first time in nearly twenty years. Together, these experiences raised so many overwhelming questions for me that, unsure of what this all meant, and trying to piece it all together, I decided to go to graduate school. Fortunately, the University of Hawaiʻi’s MA program in Pacific Islands studies and an East-West Center Degree Fellowship enabled me to take that path. And later I was also able to go on to do my PhD at the Australian National University, followed by a return to Japan on a postdoctoral study at the University of Tokyo, and eventually a position as a professor of history and cultural studies at Waseda University, where I am now tenured.

My graduate studies were an intense time of reconnection and realization, triangulating between the Marshall Islands, America, and Japan and confronting—personally and self-reflexively—the realities of what had happened at Kwajalein. I have been blessed with many wise mentors along the way—Terence Wesley-Smith, David Hanlon, Vilsoni Hereniko, Katerina Teaiwa, Teresia Teaiwa, Margaret Jolly, Greg Dening, Tessa Morris-Suzuki, Paul D’Arcy, and many others. My two years of multi-sited ethnographic and archival research between Honolulu and Majuro, Kwajalein, Jaluit, Pohnpei, Palau, Guam, Miyazaki, Okinawa, Seoul, and Tokyo brought me on extensive journeys all throughout the many islands of Kwajalein Atoll, diving on warships and plodding through jungles; introduced me to numerous Islander elders (sometimes even speaking with them in Japanese), bereaved families of Japanese war dead, former Korean forced laborers, Okinawan settlers, tuna fishermen, nuclear survivors, soldiers, and missile testers; exposed me to the dark archives of Japanese and American colonial and military violence; and made visible the otherwise invisible stories of countless souls who had passed through the unfathomable fathoms of Kwajalein lagoon. It was this research and reconnecting that led to my book, Coral and Concrete: Remembering Kwajalein Atoll between Japan, America, and the Marshall Islands (2018).

MG: Your article published in The Contemporary Pacific (TCP) in 2008, “‘The Martial Islands’: Making Marshallese Masculinities between American and Japanese Militarism,” explores the complex dynamics of the multitudinous, often enmeshed, oceanic masculinities in a militarized place like Kwajalein and its interrelations with colonial histories, layered like concrete. For those unfamiliar with your article, can you trace the chain of key ideas that led you to write this piece?

GD: That essay about making masculinities in the “Martial” Islands was my first attempt at applying gender theory to these histories of empire and Indigenous resistance in Oceania, and it was in response to an invitation by my supervisor Margaret Jolly to participate in a conference titled “Moving Masculinities” in 2005 (see Jolly 2008, 17), which was part of a larger grant in which we were all involved. The key ideas there emerged around a conversation I had with a friend who had said that, as a Marshall Islander living in the worker community of Ebeye, he felt as if he had to “morph” into a different kind of man every time he crossed over to Kwajalein. I started observing how, indeed, men of all ages held their bodies differently and assumed almost a different persona when they traveled between the base and their home island, and I began to wonder what kinds of ideals or ideologies of masculinity were held up by Marshall Islander men in the twenty-first century.

It came from asking these questions to a wide array of Marshallese men and women that I began to look at the public discourses around manhood and machismo that pervaded the American community of Kwajalein and the vision of manhood prescribed by Japanese colonialism and militarism back before the Pacific War, when Japan had dominated Kwajalein. The Marshall Islands is a matrilineal society, and I wanted to honor women’s power, wealth, and wisdom while shedding light on how Marshallese men working on Kwajalein navigated between that social sphere and one in which they had to enter into a patriarchal bargain with American power—in which they were respected as legitimate and powerful only so far as they could be subordinate to American men. These juxtapositions and gaps troubled me, and I wanted to get a sense of how space and place could be gendered and how people might need to “pass” in their gender performativity from one place to another for visibility, power, and effectiveness. I was also intrigued by how Marshallese notions of masculinity seemed so much more about a gentle embodiment of cleverness and wit as opposed to muscle and physical strength.

MG: TCP is one venue among many others in which scholars in and of Oceania publish their work. What made you submit your work to TCP as the potential publication venue for this piece?

GD: In the case of that particular article, I was very fortunate to be asked by Margaret Jolly, who was serving as guest editor on that issue, to contribute my essay, and I agreed without hesitation, because for me, TCP was always about being part of a bigger conversation. Greg Dening always asked his new students “What conversation are you joining?” as a way of getting them to reflect on their own subjectivity, as well as on the legacies and the limitations of the fields and disciplines they were citing in order to “do history,” as he would say. I see TCP as one of the finer examples of a respectful, reflexive, and perpetual conversation on Oceania.

As a matter of fact, I had already been listening to that conversation since I was a frustrated teenager trying to return to Kwajalein. Seeking out whatever I could find to learn more about Micronesia, in 1989 I wrote a letter to University of Hawaiʻi (UH) Press requesting their catalog. In it, I remember seeing advertisements for a new journal called The Contemporary Pacific: A Journal of Island Affairs. And so, at the age of sixteen, I was actually one of the journal’s first subscribers.

MG: TCP is known for having published groundbreaking essays over the years, often leading to significant transformations in our field. Do you recall reading an article that greatly inspired your work and made you rethink the field? (Maybe one that may have gone slightly unnoticed compared to ultra-famous pieces, such as Epeli Hau‘ofa’s ‘‘Our Sea of Islands” [1994].)

GD: Aside from the old standards by Epeli and other milestone works by Konai Thaman, David Gegeo, and others, the most influential essay for me in TCP has been, by far, Teresia Teaiwa’s “bikinis and other s/pacific n/oceans” (1994), which I marvel at even today. Her other writings, too, every single one of them, were profoundly influential to me, and I think all of us in the field feel this way and miss Teresia very much, as we also appreciate her timeless wisdom and integrity. I have also gotten a lot of mileage out of reading and rereading April Henderson’s work on flows of dance and culture between different metropoles of Pacific diaspora and Kalissa Alexeyeff’s work on gender between islands (see, for example, Alexeyeff 2008; Besnier and Alexeyeff 2014). Most recently, I am smitten with Holly Barker’s devastating essay on SpongeBob Squarepants and the appropriation of nuclear violence in Bikini (2019). This last article and its brave author were attacked fiercely by right-wing online commentators, whose baseless defenses of this animated figure only revealed just how ignorant so many Americans remain about this terrible chapter in Marshallese history and underscored the important role that TCP can continue playing in educating the public. 

MG: Apart from that, is there any particular section of the journal that you always revel in reading?

GD: Since 2015, when I began branching out into curating contemporary art from Oceania and acted as a curatorial advisor to the inaugural Honolulu Biennial in 2017 (HB2017), serving Nanjō Fumio, its Tokyo-based curatorial director, I have been a huge fan of the featured contemporary artists on the cover and the accompanying text about the art. I remember the old tapa/siapo/ngatu–colored covers of the journal before Vilsoni Hereniko became editor, and the shift to full-color covers felt revolutionary at the time. It was also quite an honor to work alongside TCP art editor and curator Katherine Higgins, who also served on the curatorial advisory board with me during HB2017, as her knowledge of Oceanian art was quite vast. Moana Nepia’s recent work on this section has also been excellent.

MG: You’re now based in Tokyo, teaching at Waseda University. What is your experience teaching Pacific Islands studies there like? And how does it shape and expand your view of Oceania?

GD: My teaching at Waseda is thrilling. It’s a very liberal university, and I teach in the School of International Liberal Studies and the Graduate School of Culture and Communication Studies, both divisions being places where we lecture in English. I also lectured in Japanese for many years in my previous position at Hitotsubashi University, but here in this more international space, where we have thousands of students, the energy is far more dynamic. My students are mostly young people who have Japanese, Chinese, or Korean roots, combined with other international students who come from all over the Asia and Pacific regions, as well as from North America and Europe. I find that in this space I have a lot of leeway to foster conversations that seek better solutions to the unequal discourses of “development” or victimhood in the colonial engagement. Likewise, from this vantage point, it’s easier to open up dialogue around US hegemony in Oceania and the American-Japanese entanglement that perpetuates Japanese interests throughout this region as well. We can also have very productive and nuanced conversations about Chinese power too. Right now, there is a lot of nationalistic historical revisionism unfolding in Japan, especially around Pacific War memory. I am hopeful that Pacific Islands studies in Japan can challenge and nuance this, while also promoting urgently needed attention to pressing issues around climate change and cooperation.

As I’ve said, my journey in Pacific Islands studies has been about realizing how messy these contradictions of imperial and military encounter in Oceania are, and in this regard, Japan is a very messy place indeed. The awareness I cultivated while doing Pacific Islands studies in Hawaiʻi and Australia, both places with horrible histories of settler colonialism and Indigenous struggle, really opened my eyes to the need for critical postcolonial approaches, and my return to Japan in 2008 was with a different sort of consciousness than I’d had before in all my years living in this country. I wanted to know more about the Indigenous people of this archipelago—the Ryukyuan (Okinawan) people whose kingdom had also been ruthlessly overthrown like the Hawaiians’ had been, or the Ainu people whose lands had been forcefully confiscated and used for agriculture in much the same way that Māori lands had been taken in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Teaching at Waseda enables me to explore these themes, as well as the history of Japanese colonialism in Oceania, quite centrally in my approach to self-reflexive research and learning from Japanese perspectives. I have had many opportunities also to go to many Pacific nations and territories with Japanese academic teams and have gotten to see how Japan is perceived in these different sites. Here in Japan, though, there really is comparatively little postcolonial awareness about Oceania or Japan’s connections there, and beyond Japan there is so little awareness about these linkages that is written about in English so that Pacific scholars could know what has happened and what is happening in this country. So there is a lot of work to do, but I hope eventually to establish a Pacific Islands studies curriculum here and at least a research center that attracts much deeper learning and understanding.

MG: Congratulations again on publishing Coral and Concrete with UH Press! Any clues about what you are working on for your next project?

GD: I don’t have a big book project coming up in the immediate future, but in recent years I have become more and more involved in Project Sango, the art and academic consultancy network I founded many years ago. Stepping into the field of art, and working with art museums, exhibitions, and artists, has enabled me to gain new insights around the same questions I was asking before, but in ways much more creative and playful and that reach a wider public. It has been a pleasure and quite humbling to collaborate with Marshallese poet/artist/scholar/activist Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner on a number of projects so far, for example, and we hope to do something together in Kwajalein Atoll in the coming years. Most recently, I was asked to curate and coordinate a special program of documentary films at the 2019 Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, which I entitled “AM/NESIA: Forgotten Archipelagos of Oceania,” and which explored the twin empires of Japan and the United States in the region. Also, I am now working as cocurator for art from Northern Oceania in the tenth Asia Pacific Triennial of Art, which will be held from 2021–2022 in Brisbane; this entails holding an extended artists’ workshop, probably in the Federated States of Micronesia, at some point in the next year, which will lead to exhibitions and various new insights for everyone involved. I am working toward helping to curate contemporary art from Oceania here in Tokyo as well and have concurrent grants that look at art from Oceania on a global stage in conversation with Japan, as well as from queer Pacific and Japanese artists. I am hoping to eventually work these conversations into articles, a book, a film, or an exhibition project in the next few years, so stay tuned!

References: Alexeyeff, Kalissa. 2008. Globalizing Drag in the Cook Islands: Friction, Repulsion, and Abjection. The Contemporary Pacific 20 (1): 143–161; Barker, Holly M. 2019. Unsettling SpongeBob and the Legacies of Violence on Bikini Bottom. The Contemporary Pacific 31 (2): 345–379; Besnier, Niko, and Kalissa Alexeyeff, editors. 2014. Gender on the Edge: Transgender, Gay, and Other Pacific Islanders. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press; Dvorak, Greg. 2018. Coral and Concrete: Remembering Kwajalein Atoll between Japan, America, and the Marshall Islands. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press; Dvorak, Greg. 2008. “The Martial Islands”: Making Marshallese Masculinities between American and Japanese Militarism. The Contemporary Pacific 20 (1): 55–86; Hau‘ofa, Epeli. 1994. Our Sea of Islands. The Contemporary Pacific 6 (1): 148–161; Jolly, Margaret. 2008. Moving Masculinities: Memories and Bodies Across Oceania. The Contemporary Pacific 20 (1): 1–24; Teaiwa, Teresia. 1994. bikinis and other s/pacific n/oceans. The Contemporary Pacific 6 (1): 87–109.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dr Greg Dvorak graduated with an MA in Pacific Islands studies in 2004 from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and a PhD in interdisciplinary cross-cultural research from the Australian National University in 2008. Having taught previously at the University of Tokyo and Hitotsubashi University, he is now Professor at Waseda University’s School of International Liberal Studies and Graduate School of International Culture and Communication Studies. His transdisciplinary teaching and research focus on historical and contemporary themes of militarism, decolonization, gender and sexuality, and Indigenous resistance through art in Oceania and Japan. Having grown up between the legacies of American and Japanese militarism in the Marshall Islands, he has published frequently in both English and Japanese, and his monograph Coral and Concrete: Remembering Kwajalein Atoll between Japan, America, and the Marshall Islands was published by University of Hawaiʻi Press in 2018 (released in paperback in May 2020). His current research considers how artists from Oceania and other Indigenous communities connect to channels of global art to decolonize, build solidarity, and educate the public about the issues that matter most to their communities. He also advises various art exhibitions on Pacific history and art and is cocurator for art from northern Oceania for the tenth Asia Pacific Triennial at the Queensland Gallery in Brisbane.

An MA candidate in Pacific Islands Studies at UHM's Center for Pacific Islands Studies, Mililani Ganivet has served as an editorial intern with The Contemporary Pacific since spring 2019. Sustained by the Pacific Ocean and hailing from Taravao, Tahiti in French Polynesia, Mililani's research interests include the histories and legacies of nuclear tests in French Polynesia and in wider Oceania. Mililani proposed the idea of this interview series to the TCP Board and was instrumental in seeing it launched.