Putting the Margin in the Center: Discussing Transnational and Australian History with Professor Fiona Paisley

Fiona Paisley was born in Scotland, but she received her university training in Australia. Based in Brisbane, Australia, she is currently a Professor in the History Program at Griffith University. Our latest guest to the Global History Forum, Fiona Paisley, specializes in international history. Her work is about internationalism, settler colonialism, gender and race in the first half of the twentieth century, from an Australian perspective. Professor Paisley won a Magarey Medal for her biography of Anthony Martin Fernando, an Aboriginal protestor who lived for the second half of his life outside of Australia. The book is called The Lone Protestor: AM Fernando in Australia and London. Professor Paisley and Tiger Li, an Editor-at-Large at the Toynbee Prize Foundation, discuss that book in the second half of our interview.

Tiger Li (TL): Professor Paisley, when did you get interested in history?

Fiona Paisley (FP): Looking back gives me the opportunity to think about why I was interested in history from childhood. I spent my first school years in England, and I do remember as a child feeling that history was all around me. Coming to Australia made me realise that “deep time history” is everywhere about us as well, even if the traces are harder to see. The relationship between the distant and more recent pasts of occupation dawned slowly for me as a young adolescent in a settler society like Australia. By the time I was working on my PhD, I started to see more clearly the connections between British colonialism and settler societies and I used my interest in history to try to understand better what it means to be a settler colonial and thus implicated in that ongoing process.

Professor Fiona Paisley (Griffith University), our latest guest to the Global History Forum

Professor Fiona Paisley (Griffith University), our latest guest to the Global History Forum

TL: Did you have a transnational perspective from a very young age?

FP: For a long time, global or imperial history  positioned Australia at the margins. Transnational history has allowed us to put the margin into the centre. Being new to Australia as a young person gave me an outsider’s perspective;  I found that studying transnational or world history from Australian perspective is a good way to reframe my approach to global history. Moreover, thinking about perspective and location  through your own biography can help reveal connections between places and times otherwise overlooked, veiled, or forgotten. I guess it can be helpful if you move around a lot as you grow up. You feel you are not so much a member of one particular nation or national story but find yourself affiliated with many different places.

TL: I think it is something that I really understand, because I do not feel I belong to anywhere, either. I sometimes feel I am a global citizen. Maybe you can belong to more than one place.

FP: There are many ways to reframe what we mean by history through the transnational approach. On the other hand, simply moving around is not in itself an enlightening experience. In the end, you have to take responsibilities for where you are. And for the historian, that means working in the archives.…

Sandalwood Commonwealth? Traveling Across a Chinese-Australian Pacific with Sophie Loy-Wilson

Scan the news these days for news from the western and southern Pacific, and it doesn’t require too much reading for the outlines of a multipolar future to emerge. There are, of course, the obvious stories: competition between the United States and China; that relationship’s reverberating effect on the Korea-Japan-China triangle; and the effect of a dynamic and rising Vietnam and Indonesia on what is likely to be the main engine of global economic growth in years to come. Sometimes obscured through a focus on the areas of Northeast and Southeast Asia, however, can be the important role that Australia plays in the broader region. While party to numerous strategic agreements with other Commonwealth countries and the United States, the world’s twelfth largest economy plays a role as a key trading partner for China. Indeed, one of the major ongoing debates within Australian politics is how this former Dominion, so far from “old” British and former Imperial markets and so close to a region with a near-unlimited appetite for raw materials (plenty of those in Australia’s arid interior) should balance between the Angloworld and the East, China in particular.

Such debates about Australia’s economic, political, and to some extent cultural orientation have, of course, not only a history of their own but are themselves influenced by the work of journalist, scholars and activists on the meaning of Australia’s place in the world. And it’s precisely because of her contribution to these debates that the Toynbee Prize Foundation sat down recently with Dr. Sophie Loy-Wilson, a member of the Laureate Research Program in International History at the University of Sydney.

Sophie Loy-Wilson (Sydney), our guest to this most recent installment of the Global History Forum

Refreshingly for a country whose political culture can sometimes play up images of Australia’s aloofness from a wider Oceanic and Asian world, Loy-Wilson seeks to unearth the often obscure history of Chinese-Australian relations from the nineteenth century to the present day. Using Chinese, Australian, and British sources, her work locates business history and cultural history in a transnational context to examine the web of exchange and ideas about the other in which Chinese-Australian relations have formed for nearly two centuries. Such a package of skills and interests is no doubt likely to make hers a voice to watch from Beijing to Canberra for years to come. It also made for a stimulating conversation as we sat down with her recently to discuss her intellectual formation and her ongoing scholarly work.…