Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? An islander is someone who lives on an island. Both the Vineyard Gazette and the Martha’s Vineyard Times initial-cap “Island” and “Islander” when Martha’s Vineyard is referred to, and so do many people who live here.
The fact that I don’t raises some eyebrows. As far as I’m concerned, Martha’s Vineyard is no more “the Island” than West Tisbury is “the Town,” and when in my writing I refer to “the island” (as I do pretty often), you’ll know when I mean Martha’s Vineyard.
But back to “islander.” These days both newspapers regularly use “islander” to refer to anyone who lives here most of the time, but don’t be fooled: “islander” is what the academics call a contested term, and in some quarters it’s taken very, very seriously.
At the same time, it’s also somewhat shifty, and it means different things to different people. To avoid it, I generally refer to year-round Vineyard residents as “Vineyarders,” or “year-rounders” if context makes it clear what I’m talking about. Plenty of island cars and pickups have VINEYARDERS stickers on their back windows because that’s what the high school sports teams are called.
Nevertheless, the use of “islander” fascinates me because, among other things, it’s a way we talk about degrees of belonging, and even about who really belongs here. Identity politics, in other words, though I’m pretty sure that most Vineyarders wouldn’t call it that.
After I moved here in 1985, I was told that an islander is someone who’s lived here three winters. This seemed a very low bar to me, especially after I’d made it through my third winter. I suspect it dated back to the days when the island really did close down after Labor Day and reopen on Memorial Day weekend.
I was also told that you could call yourself an islander once a real islander had referred to you as one. This meant you had to do more than stick it out for three winters; you had to integrate yourself, or be integrated, into the life of the place well enough to be recognized by those who’d been here longer and whose island creds were, presumably, beyond reproach.
This is why I got weepy when I read the blurb that mystery writer Cynthia Riggs sent me for The Mud of the Place: “A sensitive, witty, and tightly plotted portrayal of life on Martha’s Vineyard that only a true Islander could have written. Nice going, Susanna!” (By the way, “Islander” is capped on Mud‘s back cover because Cynthia spelled it that way in her blurb and uses that style in her work.)
Cynthia’s creds are impeccable — she lives in the house that has been in her family since about 1750 — but I wasn’t at all sure that I was a “true Islander.” What I’ve been saying ever since is that only a true islander could have written it, but a true islander wouldn’t have written it because islanders get their names in the paper only three times: when they’re born, when they marry, and when they die. I heard this fairly often in my newspaper days, usually to explain why someone would be less than forthcoming in an interview, if they agreed to be interviewed at all.
Writing for publication, in other words, pretty much took you out of the running for “true islander” status, at least if you weren’t born here.
Besides, long before Mud was published in 2008, category “islander” had become less permeable. Around 1990 or so, little stickers depicting a green map of Martha’s Vineyard on a blue background started to appear on island bumpers. The first ones I saw said NATIVE in all caps. Pretty soon I spotted the same image with TRANSPLANT emblazoned across the map. To really belong, in other words, you had to have been born here. Otherwise you were forever a transplant or, more commonly, a wash-ashore.
The late Fred Fisher (d. 1998) of Nip ‘n Tuck Farm was sometimes heard to say that if a cat gives birth to her kittens in an oven, that doesn’t make them biscuits.
I have heard the exact same thing said of Vermont and other places uneasy with the growing influx of newcomers, who tend to be more affluent and better connected than those who got there first. By this logic, my friend Shirley, who came to the Vineyard as a young bride in 1947, is forever a wash-ashore, even though she’s known the island better and longer than people who were born here 20, 30, or 40 years ago. Not to mention — Fred Fisher, quintessential island farmer, came here from somewhere else.
Does it really matter who’s really an islander and how we use the term? Yes, no, and “it depends.” Some people come for a while, skim the surface of the place, and leave pretty much without a trace. Islanders? No.
Others come, put down roots, learn the history and gradually become part of it. That’s what I was getting at with Mud of the Place’s epigraph: “If your feet aren’t in the mud of a place, you’d better watch where your mouth is.” (Thank you again, Grace Paley!) Islanders? Yes, I think so.
But there’s a point at which this islander thing becomes less a way of describing a person’s commitment to and knowledge of the place and more a way of sorting people into in/out, us/them. A brief look at the national scene shows where that leads: Beleaguered “Us” is so sure that “Them” are the real threat that they don’t recognize the real challenges confronting them, and they can’t and won’t see who’s benefiting handsomely from their fears.
The island is less insular, and less insulated, than some like to think it is.