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Insular Iconicity and Utopian Immunity: Inoculating the Self in Tamsin Calidas’ I Am an Island (2020)

Iconicité insulaire et immunité utopique : l’inoculation du soi dans I Am an Island de Tamsin Calidas (2020)
Mathieu Bokestael


Cet article propose que I Am an Island (2020) de Tamsin Calidas se caractérise par un investissement idéologique dans l’immunité absolue du soi. Le récit repose sur une allégorie de l’inoculation par la nage en eau libre qui active à la fois sémantique biomédicale et politique de l’immunité afin d’invoquer un soi entièrement immunisé contre autrui. Cette invocation se manifeste par la déshistorisation de l’île et par des géographies imaginaires d’insularité que le texte attribue ensuite au protagoniste. Cette attribution vise à renier les interconnexions matérielles de l’île, mais finit aussi par les réaffirmer, révélant le caractère utopique de l’investissement idéologique du texte. En explorant ce paradoxe, cet article montre comment combiner une approche immunitaire à une approche dite « blue humanities » permet de reconceptualiser l’imaginaire insulaire et le pouvoir immunisant de l’eau.

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1Near the end of I Am an Island (2021 [2020]), Tamsin Calidas writes that “[a]n island will forever be a closely guarded and shifting domain, of which I and the birds are each an intrinsic part” (p. 268). This is a remarkable and programmatic claim which both emphasises and deconstructs the mythology of self-containment that has been associated with literary islands since Robinson Crusoe (1719). How can the island be both a closely guarded domain and a shifting one, and how are the narrator and the birds intrinsic parts of the island when both are characterised by their capacity to transcend the boundaries of the island, to migrate? And, what, then, does it mean to say that “I am an island”, as the title does, when such islands seemingly oscillate between boundedness and interconnection?

  • 1 See for instance Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk (2014) or Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path (2019).

2I Am an Island is the story of a young urban woman moving from London to an unnamed Hebridean island. The story, divided into three acts, recounts her move and the years of deepening hardship she experiences amidst allegedly inimical neighbours. At the end of the second act, this leads her to attempt suicide by drowning. In the third act, however, she turns to therapeutic wild swimming and finally manages to thrive on the island. Such narrative developments—in which isolation leads to personal re‑invention—are well-trodden tropes of contemporary life writing.1 What distinguishes Calidas’ work from similar texts, however, is the anonymised community’s alleged antagonism to her move. Hutchison for instance sardonically argues that if books like David Yeadon’s Seasons on Harris: A Year in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides (2007) or Anne Cholawo’s Island on the Edge: A Life on Soay (2018) have “one thing in common, it [is] the message that the natives are friendly” (2022). As he puts it, I Am an Island, on the contrary, is “the tale of a transplant which failed to take” (2022). It is a story of friction, in which the narrator emphasises her perceived unwelcomeness.

  • 2 See for instance Cohen (2009), Derrida (2005), Haraway (1990), Napier (2010), Sloterdijk (2013b).

3Hutchison’s observation and I Am an Island’s titular repudiation of John Donne’s reflections on illness—in which “[n]o man is an island” (1959, p. 108)—suggest that the text’s articulation of this community friction is immunitary. Such a deployment of immune discourse, however, has been criticised in a body of critical-theoretical work2 which deploys a genealogy of immunity in order to understand and critique how the concept shapes contemporary community relations. Roberto Esposito’s work (2010, 2011, 2013), especially, is generative for the present analysis through its dialectical integration of immunity and community, and through its understanding of immunisation as the incorporation of negativity in order to protect life. The Italian philosopher’s thought allows us to examine I Am an Island’s “immunitary unconscious”, and reveals how Calidas’ text is invested in constructing a utopia of absolute immunisation that ultimately depends on a disavowal of both the archipelagic and historical connections of the island on the one hand, and of the narratorial self’s interconnection with the community on the other.

4Such utopian immunity, however, bears no relationship to material reality and can therefore only be produced semiotically. In this article, I explore how a paradox between interconnection and boundedness shapes I Am an Island’s immunitary unconscious, and examine the ways in which that unconscious becomes legible in the book’s explicit three-act structure. The text’s narrative development, I argue, is predicated on an allegory of inoculation, in which the dual biopolitical semantics of immunity as political and biological are activated in order to construct a utopian fantasy of absolute immunity. The water territorialising the unnamed island is firstly depicted as threatening and alienating, as if it were immunising the island against “incomers”. In the first two acts, the narrator therefore experiences deep isolation from the community. Yet, after an attempted drowning in the final pages of the second act, the narrator turns to therapeutic wild swimming, and the narrative emphasis of the text shifts from the observation of the island’s immune defences to the narrator’s own inoculation from the community. This inoculation, moreover, turns the relational experience of loneliness of the first two acts into a self-sufficient solitude in the third one. Both the island and the narrator thus have an immune system, and both immune systems are critical to the narrative. In the first two acts, the island and its surrounding water are depicted as immunising the community against the narrator (legal-political immunity), whereas the final act emphasises the transformative nature of inoculation as the sea immunises the narrator against the other islanders (biomedical immunity).

5Calidas’ work therefore deploys a metaphorical reading of immunisation in which the biomedical and legal-political semantics of immunity coincide unproblematically. Both semantics are deployed simultaneously in order to symbolically construct an always-already immunised and immunising self, one that is uninfected or uncontaminated by the community, a homo immunologicus as Sloterdijk puts it (2013b, p. 10). What distinguishes Calidas’ text from others in the (island) life writing genre, then, is its allegorisation of the relationships of immunity between the community and the protagonist. These define who is bound to the obligations of the community, and who is not. I Am an Island’s programmatic title illustrates how the text is vehemently invested in weaponising the biomedical and legal-political histories of the concept of immunity in order to construct a fully immunised self.

6In the following pages, I first show how the text’s imagined geographies emphasise insular self-containment, wildness, and spatial, temporal and cultural remoteness in order to construct the image of a fully-immunised island. They do so, I argue, through the activation of intertextual references, colonial discourses, and the anonymisation of the island and islanders. In their quest for the utopian self-containment of island and self, these semiotic gestures aim to deny the island’s material and historical interconnections with the Hebridean archipelago and the Scottish mainland, but simultaneously end up reaffirming them. In the second part of this article, I then show how the water surrounding Calidas’ island is also depicted as territorialising community relations and as performing inoculation through a wild swimming allegory. This inoculation, I argue, transfers the island’s aforementioned imaginary of immunity to the narratorial self, as the title of Calidas’ work also suggests. In performing this analysis, moreover, I show how marrying an immunitary lens to a blue humanities approach allows us to reconceptualise island metaphors and the immunising power of water.

Territorialising the self: immunity, individuality, and island intertextuality

  • 3 See for instance Cohen (2009), Haraway (1990), Napier (2010).
  • 4 See also Opperman (2019) or Ritson (2020).

7Like much critical work on immunitywhich invites us to reconsider models of immunity based on strict self-nonself distinctions in favour of more ecological and permeable models of selfhood3—scholars from the blue humanities similarly invite us to “seek out the maritime in order to reconsider standard discursive models” (Mentz, 2009, p. 997). Such “archipelagic” perspectives, they argue, offer “new analytical frames for scholars [and] a newly dynamic […] sense of ecological relationships and […] multicultural connections” (ibid.).4 Combining both approaches, I argue, illuminates the multiple immune functions which Calidas’ text ascribes to the water that surrounds the island. It reveals the importance of the core conceit of the title, allows us to more clearly discern the obfuscation of the island’s multiple archipelagic and historical connections, and, finally, permits us to understand these gestures as part of a strategy of immunisation.

  • 5 See also McMahon (2016, p. 36).

8Immunity’s biopolitical layering, its conflation of health and politics, is intimately connected to the island imagination. As Kearns and Coleman put it, there is a “widely-acknowledged therapeutic connection between people and water” (2018, p. 288). Islands, especially, are linked to health and wellbeing. They are presented as sanctuaries, or places to retreat to and vacation on, “places where longevity and increased health can be experienced” (ibid., p. 285). In addition, a relationship of iconicity between islands and immunity as spaces of self-containment also exists. Contrary to many other geographical terms, the category of “island” is not defined by any environmental, elemental, or topographic descriptors. Only insularity seems to matter to its categorisation, which leads it to become a “privileged spatial [figure] for the construction of seemingly self-contained worlds” (Riquet, 2017, p. 217).5 In combining these two imaginaries, then, islands, as Tuan puts it, symbolise “a state of prelapsarian innocence and bliss, quarantined by the sea from the ills of the continent” (qtd. in Riquet, 2017, p. 215). Surrounded and protected by water and unpredictable weather, they activate images of both self-containment and health, and, in doing so, become privileged icons of immunity, regardless of the degree to which specific islands materially produce self-containment and/or wellbeing. Such iconicity, then, must be examined for, both historically and more recently, islands have also been cast as spaces of exile and inequality (McMahon, 2016, pp. 26–29, 41).

9If islands are icons of immunity, such iconicity is activated in the immunitary unconscious of Calidas’ text through an allegory of wild swimming as inoculation as well as through an emphasis on spatial, temporal, and cultural remoteness. In Western modernity, after all, immunity is not only a biomedical concept, but also a legal-political one. In order to territorialise community relations, the modern paradigm of immunisation therefore also deploys “a poetics of space” (Sloterdijk, 2013a, p. 310). Indeed, it is consistent with the dual biopolitical semantics of immunity that it would be precisely in the water bordering the island, its first line of immune defense, that the narrator would almost meet her end, and that in surviving this immune encounter in the water, she would also be inoculated. Thus, if islands are quintessential and enduring symbols for the discursive construction of self-containment and a capitalist-bourgeois individualism (Riquet, 2017, pp. 220–1), it is also worth examining how such symbolism participates in the immunitary unconscious of the text, and how I Am an Island further contributes to, but also transforms this cellular island imaginary for its immunitary purposes.

10As such, although Calidas’ island is anonymised, its insularity, inaccessibility, and remoteness is often stressed. In Calidas’ book, the island is very difficult to reach as multiple missed or canceled ferries illustrate (e.g. pp. 15, 31, 54‑5). This leads to increasing isolation as the “few short visits of friends falter” (p. 61). In fact, the narrator and her husband had initially resolved not to move to an island, agreeing that islands are “[w]ay too insular” (p. 7) and “too remote. Too impractical, difficult to do anything” (ibid.). The one they eventually settle in, moreover, is one that is also “lying just apart from the others” (ibid.), one that “feels more remote in landscape than any other place [they] have travelled to” (p. 23). It is “small and restrictive, held by a fiercely tidal sea”, an island on which “[it] is impossible to forget that you are surrounded by water” (ibid.). Throughout the text, then, the island is presented as thoroughly insulated and remote, leaving the narrator feeling “landlocked on this island” (p. 222) and “discomfited by being cut off from the rest of the world” (p. 229).

  • 6 Stroh offers an introductory overview of such discourses in Anglophone writing (2016). See, for exa (...)
  • 7 Ian Crichton Smith also offered a prominent critique of such discourses in “Real People in a Real P (...)

11Moreover, if the material island of Calidas’ text is abstracted by way of its thorough anonymisation as well as through an emphasis on remoteness and insularity, then it can conversely only be reconstructed semiotically. In Calidas’ case, this first means rehashing colonial discourses of an empty Scottish “wild” which have had a long and strong hold on the British imagination.6 As such, the island is not only cast as spatially remote, but also equally as temporally and culturally distant, as “a different world of myth, legend and folklore” (p. 285) and of “old beliefs, rites and rituals” (p. 287). Visiting a local Oban pub, the narrator for example notes, “is like stepping into another time, another world” (p. 5).7 In fact, the anonymous island is activated only through its imagined geography in the hand-drawn and romanticised map at the opening of the book. In the map, images of deer, seals, buzzards, and swallows participate in the construction of an artificial “wild” which is further primitivised through the presence of ruins, “ancient woodland”, and a headland aptly called “Ossian” in reference to Macpherson’s seminal projection of an ancient and Celtic—that is remote and “primitive”—Scotland. The “wild land” (p. 145) of the island, then, has an “aura of quiet abandonment” (p. 6); it is “disconcertingly bare[,] a space devoid of the usual distractions. There are no shops […] or social hubs” (p. 22).

  • 8 On this, see also Jamie (2008) or Ross (2013).
  • 9 On this, see the “Sea Swimming” (pp. 193–200) chapter in Liptrot’s text.

12Yet, as Dòmhnallach puts it, I Am an Island’s “wilding” discourses risk performing new kinds of symbolic clearance. He argues that “when land that’s been settled for centuries is called wildland, […] Scotland is entrenching and upholding a vision of Highland land use belonging to the age of Clearance” (2014, p. 59),8 and I Am an Island’s “insular wilding” and “symbolic clearing” of the Hebrides becomes even more salient when the text is compared to Amy Liptrot’s portrayal of the Orkney islands in The Outrun (2016). The latter is another Scottish island memoir in which wild swimming is critical to the process of healing and recovery,9 yet it offers a very different island imaginary to Calidas’ text. Liptrot’s islands are named and historicised, and their archipelagic nature is emphasised. Different chapters, for instance, take place on different isles, and their multiple interconnections can always be felt or seen: on Papay, for example, the narrator “can see all of the biggest North Isles apart from Stronsay” (p. 140), whilst from her family home she “can see the tip of the mountains of mainland Scotland” (p. 3). Contrary to I Am an Island, Liptrot’s text thus deconstructs the discourses of remoteness often associated with Scottish isles and instead rather emphasises their archipelagic interconnections. Symptomatically, The Outrun’s maps (pp. ixxi) are therefore much more realistic than the ones in Calidas’ text, and emphasise the archipelagic nature of the Orkney islands rather than their spatial, temporal, and cultural remoteness. Indeed, the biggest island in Orkney, the text emphasises, is referred to as the “Mainland” (p. 15), whilst London, in a reversal of roles, is described as an island (p. 148).

13Liptrot’s reversal of centre and periphery moreover also reveals that its depiction of Orkney is much more historicised than Calidas’ depiction of the unnamed island is. For instance, whereas Liptrot’s final chapter is called “Renewables” (pp. 269–76) and focuses on tidal and wind energy, I Am an Island’s final chapter is simply called “Wild” (pp. 283–9). Where Liptrot’s final chapter is thus oriented towards the future and puts the island at the very centre of new globalised energy regimes, Calidas’ final chapter rather brings the abstract island’s wilding and symbolic clearing full circle by reiterating the map’s initial projection of animality and atavism. It reaffirms the island’s immunised status by representing it as uncontaminated by humans, history, or modernity.

14Through I Am an Island’s titular metaphor, the island’s projected uninfected purity and inaccessibility moreover also extends to the narrator. In repudiating John Donne’s reflections on illness, in which he asserts that “no man is an island entire of itself” (Donne, 1959, p. 108), Calidas’ text not only spatialises the narrator’s immune system on the island from the get‑go, betraying the latent dual semantics of immunity (politics and medicine). Rather, the intertextual reference also develops a radically opposed conclusion to Donne’s original, and programmatically casts it as the title for the book. Indeed, the island-body analogy is reiterated in earnest multiple times throughout the text. As such, whereas Liptrot’s text concludes that “my body is a continent” (p. 219)—a large and connected area encompassing multiple cultures and peoples—Calidas’ narrator rather asks whether she is “destined always to be here alone, an island in a sea of solitude” (p. 289) on the final page of the book. The island’s inaccessibility, it seems, thus also extends to the self.

  • 10 Throughout the text, the narrator also often suggests that the islanders’ reluctance to accept her (...)

15Yet, when Hutchison notes that there is only one “well-cultivated island eight or nine miles long, with fewer than 200 people, running parallel with the mainland in the middle of a narrow sea strait a short drive north of Oban” (2020), and identifies it as Lismore, such remoteness and insularity, and its associated projection onto the narrator, becomes increasingly untenable. The anonymising, “wilding”, and insulating of Lismore therefore participates in the immunisation of the narrator against the historicised island, and in particular against her interconnection with local histories of property, land, and inequality. Indeed, such histories must be disavowed since what sets the story in motion and produces friction with the islanders—the narrator’s move north—could be understood as not only producing new forms of symbolic clearance as Dòmhnallach puts it, but also as generating new forms of “economic clearance” (Dziadowiec, 2021). With this term, Dziadowiec points towards the process by which local island communities are incapable of competing with outside capital for land and housing, resulting in further community depletion, a vulnerable aging population, and an accelerating loss of Gaelic language and culture. Put tersely, the acknowledgment of land and property inequalities in Calidas’ text would require the narrator’s actions to be contextualised within histories of structural inequality which would justify the islanders’ resistance to accepting the narrator in their midst and disrupt their portrayal as perpetually immunising against her. The dehistoricisation of the island, then, serves to naturalise this behaviour by removing all history that might contextualise the islanders’ reticence.10 It transforms such historically-dependent immunisation into an immutable, ontological given, casting human beings as homines immunologici rather than as people merely trying to negotiate socio-economic inequalities. Instead of avowing these histories, the text therefore weaponises narratives of settling the Scottish “wilds” in order to produce what Torcuil Crichton in a Daily Record column astutely called a “sterilised” view of the land, “a Highland landscape and seaboard preserved in aspic but empty of people and the jobs that keep them there” (Crichton, 2013). The book’s title and the map’s imagined geography thus already produce the immunitary unconscious of the text, even before the proper narrative of inoculation—which transforms the relational experience of loneliness into self-sufficient solitude—sets in.

16Yet, as Donald Dewar puts it, “[r]ural Scotland is not immune to the pressures which are bringing change to the rest of Scotland” (1998), and in activating familiar colonial tropes of settling the Scottish “wilds”, the text also betrays its inextricability from these histories, and shows how Scotland is not “sterilised” or “immune’” as Crichton and Dewar respectively put it. Rather, as Riquet notes, “the tension between island purity and island intertextuality is closely related to a second tension that characterizes countless fictional islands, namely that between boundedness and interconnection” (2017, p. 220). He argues that “the pervasive intertextuality that characterizes many Western island narratives” (p. 219) challenges ideas of island self-containment since “the purity and originality of the island is […] undermined along with the purity of the text” (ibid.). As such, the intertextual references to Donne or Macpherson as well as the reliance on historical discourses of wildness suggest that the insular self-containment the text prescribes is more ideological—that is, born from its investment in immunisation—than it is material in two ways. Not only is it precisely because this utopian insularity is not material that it must be asserted in other, symbolic ways, but such intertextuality is also only made possible by the historicity which the text tries to disavow. These semiotic gestures, in short, underline that the narrator’s move not only reproduces the symbolic discourses of British internal colonialism, but also its patterns of material dispossession.

17In fact, although the text’s desire for absolute immunisation is only fully realised through the allegory of inoculation at the heart of the narrative structure, such inoculation is paradoxically also dependent on the transgression of immunitary boundaries. Not only does the narrator’s move constitute a transgression of the territorial immunity of the island, but it is also only by overcoming the island’s numerous immune responses in the first two acts that she is able to realise her own inoculation and thrive on the island. As I show in the next section, this is the crucial incorporation of negativity which immunisation requires, and it allows for the critical reversal of narrative emphasis in the third act (from observation of the island’s immunitary defences to the inoculation of the narrator). Indeed, even her admitting that she wants to “feel self-reliant” (p. 233) rather than that she is self-sufficient reveals that the ideological investment in immunisation revolves more about (utopian) desire than ontology. Thus, I Am an Island’s core conceits—the titular refutation of Donne, the cellular island imagery, and the allegory of inoculation—are intent on restoring a projection of insular and individual self‑sufficiency, but in doing so end up revealing the island and self’s interconnections. The abstract island, Calidas’ text seems to suggest, can be utopianly immunised, but only as long as it is not historicised and remains discursive and imaginary, erasing all historical inequalities.

Islands as icons of immunity: insularity and inoculation

18If the projected spatial, temporal, and cultural remoteness of Calidas’ island serves to insulate it from its historical and archipelagic connections, the pervasive water symbolism in the text is critical for the transference of that insularity from the island to the narratorial self. It allows for the sea to transform from the location of immune struggle to the purveyor of immunity by investing the water with the power to inoculate the narrator against the community. In this section, I argue that the text deploys the dual biopolitical semantics of immunity in order to inoculate the narrator from the islanders’ perceived immune responses through a wild swimming allegory. If the blue humanities, then, allow us to examine the obfuscation of the island’s archipelagic and historical connections in the text and the therapeutic enchantment of the water surrounding it, the literature on immunity allows us to understand how such insular imagery and such an allegory of inoculation participate in the construction of an immunised self.

19In many ways, Calidas’ narrative, after all, is a story of immunisation, a story in which an encounter with negativity—or multiple such encounters in Calidas’ text—eventually reaps positivity through what Roberto Esposito calls immunity’s “homeopathic principle of the similar”, in which, as with many forms of vaccination, “the cure against a poison is poison” (2011, p. 125). Musing on her perceived alienation from the community, I Am an Island’s narrator for instance asks

[W]hy is it that we are so immune or resistant to another’s grief, or simply unable to cope with it[?] Is it because we are trying to avoid our own mortality? Do we become defensive instinctively when we see another’s weakness, for fear of opening wide the door to our own vulnerability? (Calidas, 2021, p. 136)

20By suggesting that people immunise themselves from others, the text proposes an immunitary understanding of community relations, one that is read through the semantic layering of biomedical and legal-political immunity and that aligns with Esposito’s understanding of immunisation as an attempt to ward off death. To Esposito, it is the awareness of our own mortality, of our capacity to be killed at the hand of others, that introduces in us a fear of the munus that lies at the etymological and conceptual heart of the community-immunity dialectic. The munus, Esposito argues, is “the law of a unilateral gift to others” (2013: p. 84); it denotes the obligations, duties, and gifts we either owe to the community or immunise ourselves from. In Esposito’s reading, it is the fear of mortality and the desire for self-protection that ultimately inform our decision to immunise ourselves from the munus, and to reject the relationality and interdependence of the community’s life lived in common (2010, p. 13). Similarly, in Calidas’ proposition above, it is the avoidance of mortality which motivates people to immunise themselves from others. Following the death of a loved one, for instance, the narrator muses that “[d]eath brings you into stark proximity with your own life, with your loved ones and with those you are about to lose” (p. 123). In doing so, she foregrounds that facing mortality has the capacity to reveal the interdependence from which one desires to immunise oneself. Indeed, elsewhere, she writes that “[t]here is nothing like a storm to bring to front of mind your own vulnerability and to prompt you to toughen up your resilience” (p. 230), revealing the necessity of protection in the face of mortality.

21In I Am an Island, the inoculation required for such immunisation is performed by the water surrounding the island, for if the text’s title metaphorises the body as insular, so too the island can productively be read as possessing an immune system designed to protect against “incomers”. It is no coincidence, for instance, that during her initial move north the narrator was forced to take the ferry journey to the island alone. The lorry’s tailgate was too low for the old boat, forcing her to cross the sound without her husband and without any possessions. As she puts it, “[a]rriving alone, as a stranger, was one of those unnerving twists of fate that only holds a deeper resonance in later years” (p. 19). Indeed, it is hard not to read this “first test” (p. 19) and “most terrifying challenge” (p. 18) as the island’s first immune response, as a form of allograft rejection as Hutchison would put it, for a powerful water symbolism pervades the text throughout. Grief, for instance is consistently described as a “wave [that] keeps on rolling and breaking” and in which “[d]rowning is easier than you think” (p. 195). Meanwhile, solitude “engulfs [her] like a great wave of water” (p. 111), and dissociation is “like being underwater, or floating on a dark, silent, cold sea” (p. 120).

  • 11 There are countless examples of such misogyny in the text: from the suspected spiteful killing of a (...)

22Moreover, this initial solitary crossing foreshadows the isolation that so deeply characterises the rest of the text. Throughout the first two acts, especially, the narrator depicts herself fighting every kind of adversity and tragedy: “I had no idea that those early years would only be the start of a fiercer, wilder, intensely difficult period that would tax my courage, resilience, and endurance to breaking point and beyond” (p. 19). Indeed, traumatic events abound throughout the text. In particular, the narrator is “hungry for warmth, kindness, companionship” (p. 193) as the island’s immune defences seemingly perpetually reject her. The bulk of the book therefore reads as a litany of aggravating encounters with allegedly ill‑intentioned islanders, whose misogynistic antagonism towards the idea of a female crofter is depicted as the foremost cause preventing any form of meaningful community building.11 The island is therefore consistently represented as rejecting the narrator, as immunising against her, until finally, at the end of the second act, it pushes her back to its boundaries where she will attempt to take her own life. “[G]iving up on life”, she muses as she is about to drown herself in the sea, “can feel like the only sensible resolution to a grind that has become untenable” (p. 206).

23Ultimately, however, the narrator survives this immune crisis. On the first page of the third act, in a chapter simply called “Water”, and a year and a day after her attempt on her life, the narrator muses: “[e]ach day I throw a few lost hours into the water. Each day it renews my strength, fires an inner resilience inside and gives me a sense of gratitude for my warm breath and beating heart” (p. 215). In a characteristically immunitary turn that embraces “the negative as the only form that can save humankind from its own negativity” (Esposito, 2011, p. 84), daily wild swimming becomes one of the narrator’s most significant coping mechanisms. Addressing the sea, the narrator whispers, “I am an island, and you have carried me home” (p. 211). The language of this narratological reversal is strikingly embodied and emphasises the self-protective nature of immunisation. Wild swimming, the narrator writes,

[…] tests your limits, stretches tolerances and slackens and strengthens a core fibre that quivers through your whole being, like some inner thread being tensioned. Blood courses through my body like a protective shield against the cold; breath animates every cell. (pp. 218–9)

24However, the “protective” nature of this inoculation extends beyond the biological or somatic roles of the immune system, and rather provides what Sloterdijk calls symbolic immunisation, the kind of “practices on which humans have always relied to cope […] with their vulnerability […], including mortality, in the form of imaginary anticipations and mental armour” (Sloterdijk, 2013b, p. 9). Specifically, it allows for the narrative to move towards its cathartic conclusion by turning the relational experience of loneliness and isolation in the first two acts into the more positive notion of self-sufficient solitude in the final one. Emphasising the transformative nature of the sea, the narrator writes, “[t]hese days I am alone, but I am not lonely. I am gentler to myself. Solitude, like the sea, draws you to it, but my relationship with it has changed over the years” (p. 220). Indeed, the inoculation provided by the water not only immunises her from the relationality implied by the notion of loneliness. Rather, the passage also emphasises change, stressing the transformational act of inoculation that allows the third act to move towards its conclusion.

25One sea dip, in particular, further highlights the way in which the water surrounding the island—first encountered during the attempted drowning and now providing protection—performs inoculation. This rejuvenating swim marks her body forever with “a small section of frostbite on the knuckle of [her] right index finger … like scar tissue, or a burn” (p. 224). The “talismanic” mark reminds of smallpox vaccine scars, and the whole encounter foregrounds vaccines’ propensity to introduce weakened or neutralised pathogens—“silent venom” in the passage below—in order to provide protection. This particular sea swim is

[…] a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will always remain seared into my heart and my flesh. For weeks my knuckle burned with an itching, aggravating sensation, like a boring inside my skin, so irritating that I could not bear to touch it. Now it is a talisman. That day, the sea kissed me and bit my hand, sending its silver venom coursing through my veins. In this brand I feel that the sea will forever be with me. (p. 224)

26Crucially, and as this encounter with the water shows, the core narrative of the text and its immune perspective also simultaneously start to shift once inoculation is performed by the water. No longer is the narrator interested in recounting the story of how the community’s immune system perpetually rejects her. Rather, in the third act, the narrative seemingly performs a U‑turn and starts centering around her own immunisation, one that is dependent on the inoculation she achieved in the immunological struggle of the previous two acts. As such, although the water territorialising the island initially appears threatening and dangerous, it also ends up providing healing. In I Am an Island, the water thus provides the narrator with immunity from her relationality with others by introducing, as inoculation does, “a taste of death” (Esposito, 2011, p. 9) in order to protect life. Both the visceral experiences of the frostbitten knuckle and the attempted drowning, in short, immunise the narrator against further suicidal ideation, and do so precisely by incorporating negativity.

27Reading the three-act structure of I Am an Island in such a manner reveals the centrality of the inoculation allegory to the narrative structure of the text: it performs the critical reversal of narrative perspective that is necessary to propel the traumatic story towards its cathartic conclusion by both transforming loneliness into solitude and moving narrative emphasis from island to self. As such, I Am an Island’s inoculation allegory and associated water symbolism also map onto the book’s triadic table of contents. The inciting incident of the initial move is marked by a first immune response (the refusal of the lorry across the same sea that will later provide inoculation). This initial immune response is recalled at the end of the first act in “a recurring dream that takes me into cold, dark water. I am deep below the surface but I keep struggling to reach it. I have to get there or I will run out of breath” (p. 101). Finally, the second act further builds towards the greatest immunological crisis of all (the attempted drowning), which reverses the narrative emphasis from the island’s immunitary defences to the inoculation of the protagonist and allows the story to conclude.

28This territorialisation of immunity and its associated water symbolism, moreover, is also illustrated in the paratextual iconography of the book. Each of the twenty-four chapters and each of the three acts is accompanied by a photograph, many of which deploy water iconography. Whereas the picture for the first act shows an image of a peaceful sea and landscape, taken from solid ground and symbolising the narrator’s early optimism on the island (p. 1), the one for the second act shows a stormy seascape taken amongst violent waves, and simulates a drowning narrator (pp. 112–3). The third act’s photo may seem surprising at first but is equally programmatic. It shows a woman standing up to her knees in a calm body of water as she stares at the horizon, her inoculation completed (pp. 212–3). In developing this iconography, however, the pictures associated with each act not only summarise the inoculation allegory at the heart of the book’s plotline but also show how the narrative emphasis shifts in the third act. If the photographs for the first and second act depict the island and the sea from a first-person perspective, and without a human soul in sight, the third act’s photo puts the narrator at the centre of the image. Like the textual shift in perspective—which moves from the narrator perceiving the island’s immune responses to her own immunisation—the images’ focus similarly moves from landscape to body, from the first-person observation of the island to the third-person observation of the self.

29In performing this shift from island to self, the inoculation allegory moreover strengthens the title’s core analogy by reaffirming that both islands and individuals have immune systems and that, therefore, “I am indeed (like) an island”. The inoculation allegory’s narrative reversal thus performs the title: it allows for the fantasy of absolute immunisation to be transferred from the island’s defenses against “incomers” in the first two acts to the narrator’s defense against the community in the final one. If from a blue humanities perspective, therefore, Mentz can argue that “[a]lthough our bodies are approximately two-thirds water, water is [also] a hostile element that threatens human life” (2009, p. 1002), a critical-immunitary perspective can show how that paradox performs the dual nature of immune systems. In I Am an Island, the sea appears both a place of hostility and threat on the one hand—when the narrator contemplates suicide—and of health on the other—when wild swimming becomes protective. The sea is imagined as both a place of healing—as the blue humanities have shown—and as providing inoculation through the incorporation of negativity/death—as an immunitary lens reveals.

30Moreover, if a blue humanities perspective would note the erasure of the unnamed island’s archipelagic connections, a critical-immunitary lens can show how this erasure participates in the metaphorisation of the island’s boundaries as the first line of immune defence. This remoteness, after all, is essential for a spatialisation of immunity in which participation in the community is determined by a territory that strictly distinguishes between self and nonself, as occurs in the many ill‑fated encounters between the narrator and the islanders in the first two acts. The text’s emphasis on spatial, temporal and cultural remoteness and inaccessibility, in that case, are symptoms of the absolute immunisation which the text fetishistically projects onto the anonymised island and then extends to the narrator through the titular association of island with self. If the cellular island imagery in Calidas’ text therefore already produces a sterilised utopia of uncontaminated insularity, this is only confirmed through the allegory of inoculation at the heart of I Am an Island’s plot. The latter, after all, precisely transforms the narrator’s relational experience of loneliness and isolation in the first two acts into the individualist experience of a self-contained and self-sufficient solitude in the final one.

Conclusion. – Utopian immunity

31Despite the many negative experiences depicted in Calidas’ text, I Am an Island can therefore still be read as utopian in the sense that it invests in forms of utopian self-containment, which it however cannot help but undermine. Through a pervasive allegory of inoculation through wild swimming, the text’s three-act structure is both somatised onto the narrator’s body, and spatialised onto the island in order to conjure fantasies of triumphant immunisation. Such conjuring, however, remains largely semiotic: a game of intertextualisation and allegorisation which activates both the biomedical and legal-political semantics of immunity and which is further strengthened by the water iconography of the book. What the text produces, then, is a symbolic act of utopian wish-fulfilment (Jameson, 2007, xiii) that invests in the island as an “illusion of a pure space untouched by temporality” (Riquet, 2017, p. 218). Indeed, it is this illusion that is then mapped back onto the narrator’s body by the title, and naturalises the self as always-already immunised and always-already immunising.

32Reading the text through the immunitary lens and the blue humanities allows us to notice the biopolitical metaphors of immunity in I Am an Island. If the core narrative development of the text concerns the narrator’s inoculation from the community, such inoculation is territorialised onto the island’s border. In I Am an Island, imaginaries of the cellular and prophylactic island thus not only serve to obscure the archipelagic network of the Hebrides and the multiple crossings to the Scottish mainland that do occur in the book, as a blue reading might suggest. Rather, such imaginaries also serve to obscure histories of inequality and interdependence in order to uphold a fantasy of the always immunised and immunising self. Yet, the intertextual references to Donne or Macpherson and the reliance on literary island imaginaries and colonial discourses of “wildness” also gesture towards the history the text tries to disavow. They reveal the fantastical nature of such an immunised ontology of self, and remind us that, despite the text’s title, we may in fact not be isles in seas of solitude but archipelagos in oceans of relationality.

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1 See for instance Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk (2014) or Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path (2019).

2 See for instance Cohen (2009), Derrida (2005), Haraway (1990), Napier (2010), Sloterdijk (2013b).

3 See for instance Cohen (2009), Haraway (1990), Napier (2010).

4 See also Opperman (2019) or Ritson (2020).

5 See also McMahon (2016, p. 36).

6 Stroh offers an introductory overview of such discourses in Anglophone writing (2016). See, for example, pp. 17, 74, or 129–30 for more information on the discursive primitivisation and “wilding” of the Gàidhealtachd.

7 Ian Crichton Smith also offered a prominent critique of such discourses in “Real People in a Real Place” (1986, pp. 13–70).

8 On this, see also Jamie (2008) or Ross (2013).

9 On this, see the “Sea Swimming” (pp. 193–200) chapter in Liptrot’s text.

10 Throughout the text, the narrator also often suggests that the islanders’ reluctance to accept her are rooted in misogyny and racism. As Dziadowiec shows, these accusations too serve to obscure property inequalities (2021).

11 There are countless examples of such misogyny in the text: from the suspected spiteful killing of a tup whose “sacred phallus … continues to be protected by the men with vigilance and circumspection” (p. 187) to the numerous suggestive comments assimilating the narrator to the ewes being sold at the auction mart (e.g. pp. 154–5).

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Mathieu Bokestael, « Insular Iconicity and Utopian Immunity: Inoculating the Self in Tamsin Calidas’ I Am an Island (2020) »Études écossaises [En ligne], 23 | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2024, consulté le 25 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Mathieu Bokestael

University College Dublin
Mathieu Bokestael is a PhD candidate at University College Dublin’s School of English, Drama, and Film, a Resident Scholar at UCD’s Humanities Institute, and a co‑founder of UCD’s Viral Imaginaries Network. His dissertation, funded by the Irish Research Council, develops a literary theory of immunity and immunofiction through the study of contemporary Scottish texts. Prior to joining UCD, Mathieu held multiple lectureships in Dutch Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University (2016), the Latvian Academy of Culture (2016–2019), and the University of Strasbourg (2019–2021).
Mathieu Bokestael est doctorant en lettres anglophones à la University College Dublin, chercheur résident à l’Institut des sciences humaines à la même université, et co‑fondateur du UCD Viral Imaginaires Network. Sa thèse, financée par le Irish Research Council, développe une théorie littéraire de l’immunité et de l’immunofiction à travers l’étude de textes écossais contemporains. Avant de rejoindre l’UCD, Mathieu a enseigné les études néerlandaises à la Jawaharlal Nehru University (2016), à l’Académie lettone de la culture (2016‑2019) et à l’Université de Strasbourg (2019‑2021).

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