a basket of poetry and writing from Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner

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Luerkoklik and the Role of the Land in the Climate Movement

Just last week I published a blog post to the site – this is a blog site of an amazing collective of Pacific writers sharing stories, poetry, and songs on struggle and activism. The blog I posted about is the role of the land in the climate movement. I had just been visited by a CNN reporter who asked me to explain the relationship of land to the Marshallese people. You can read my response here:

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Poem: 2 Degrees

Last month CNN reporter John Sutter came down asking me to write a piece about the importance of the 2 degree number to climate change, as a part of his series on 2 degrees:

I agreed to do it – with a little spin of my own, by challenging the 2 degrees estimate, which actually places more islands under water, than 1.5 (which is what our island leaders have been pushing for).

Here’s the video of the poem:

And here’s the full text of the piece:

2 Degrees

The other night my

1-year-old was a fever

pressed against my chest

We wrestled with a thermometer

that read

99.8 degrees

the doctor says



is a fever

but I can see her flushed face

how she drapes

across my lap, listless

LiPeinam is usually a

wobbly walking

toddler all chunks and

duck footed shaky knees

stomping squeaky yellow

light up shoes across

the edge of the reef

And I think

what a difference

a few degrees

can make

Scientists say

if humans warm the world

more than 2 degrees

then catastrophe will hit

Imagine North American wildfires increasing by 400%

animal extinction rising by 30%

fresh water declining by 20%

thousands, millions displaced

left wandering




At a climate change conference

a colleague tells me 2 degrees

is an estimate

I tell him for my islands 2 degrees

is a gamble

at 2 degrees my islands, the Marshall Islands

will already be under water

this is why our leaders push

for 1.5

Seems small

like 0.5 degrees

shouldn’t matter

like 0.5 degrees

are just crumbs

like the Marshall Islands

must look

on a map

just crumbs you

dust off the table, wipe

your hands clean

Today LiPeinam is feeling better

she bobs around our backyard

drops pebbles and leaves

into a plastic bucket

before emptying the bucket out

and dropping pebbles in again

As I watch I think about futility

I think about the world

making the same mistakes

since the industrial revolution

since 1977

when a scientist said 2 degrees

was the estimate

On Kili atoll

the tides were underestimated

patients with a nuclear history threaded

into their bloodlines, sleeping

in the only clinic on island woke

to a wild water world

a rushing rapid of salt

closing in around them

a sewage of syringes and gauze


they wheeled their hospital beds out

let them rest in the sun

they must be

stained rusted our people

creaking brackish from

salt spray and radiation blasts

so so tired, wandering wondering

if the world will

wheel us out to rest in the sun

or will they just

dust their hands of us, wipe

them clean

My father told me that idik

– when the tide is nearest an equilibrium

is the best time for fishing

Maybe I’m

fishing for recognition

writing the tide towards

an equilibrium

willing the world

to find its balance

So that people


that beyond

the discussions

are faces

all the way out here

that there is

a toddler

stomping squeaky

yellow light up shoes

walking wobbly

on the edge of the reef

not yet

under water

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About writing through writer’s block: one step at a time

I’ve been quiet lately on a lot of fronts. I saw the news on the destruction on Vanuatu, read the letters and pleas from a mutual friend on A week or so later wind like we’d never seen whipped through our backyard during my grandmother’s funeral in our home, ripping through the tents set up in the backyard for mourners, taking down branches and trees. We found out later that whatever caused that wind, had continued on to upturn and destroy houses in Yap, in Chuuk. I stayed quiet again, wondering what could be done, what kinds of donations could be made, whether or not we could arrange a fundraiser. I talked it over with my students, considered options. I had also heard of flooding on Kili atoll once again, a letter from the Mayor asking for donations. A few weeks later, my friends posted photographs of themselves with the #wearemaunakea hashtag. I did some research, found out there was a massive movement of Hawaiians and allies coming together to protect Mauna Kea against a massive telescope. I taught a lecture on the movement, had my students take photos of themselves with posters showing their solidarity. Then Nepal, another devastation. Then Baltimore.

Sometimes, I wonder how people can stay so in touch, with news, with facebook and twitter. How do we stay on top of all the different issues around the world? How do we show solidarity without just liking and sharing statuses, retweeting and favoriting? And is it ok to be exhausted? To unplug? It seems easier, instead, to focus on the right now. To look up recipes, start making green smoothies, play with baby, grade some papers, hit the gym, watch a volleyball game. But does that mean we’re shutting off our empathy? Does that mean we’re tuning out? I’ve always found my ability to empathize to be an important aspect of why I can write. I think to write well, you’d need to be able to understand other people, you’d need to be able to connect to yourself, to your emotions. So I deliberately try my best to stay in touch with my emotions, to stay connected to the world around me. I worry that if I were to shut off my emotions, I would shut off my writing.

I have to admit something else. I’ve been suffering from some serious writer’s block. I’ve owed articles, poems, etc, and haven’t been able to write a damn thing. Who am I to write on what happened in Vanuatu? Who am I to say anything about Yap and Chuuk, when I couldn’t organize a fundraiser to support them? All these questions, insecurities, and hell maybe just life – being busy, being a mom and a full time faculty, all have contributed to a very dry well of inspiration and creativity.

Either way, this blog post was my attempt to dig myself out of this writer’s block. One step at a time I’ve been telling myself this past week. I’ve been feeling that itch – a consistent itch these past few months, and weeks. This itch to write. But I blocked it off for so long, told myself whatever I have to write is not worthy, not smart enough, not brave enough. Not sure where that voice came from. But it was only this past week that I told myself hey – just write a blog post. See where it can go from there. Put yourself out there once more, make yourself real and vulnerable, a tangible object of flesh and thoughts, memory and sound. Even if you’re not inspirational. Even if you don’t have the answers. Even if it means exposing yourself as human, as flawed, as real. Why not?

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Ally is a Verb: A Whale’s Song


Beautiful writing from a friend on what it means to be an ally amidst the Mauna Kea movement, and how it’s linked to cultural erasure in poetry and in personal landscapes

Originally posted on KE KAUPU HEHI ALE:

“Humpback Whales” by Christopher Michel is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Ally is a Verb: A Whale’s Song
by Rajiv Mohabir

I have had my land erased from me, he is being erased from his own land. When I was younger my family called my Raimie—a British name. When I first went to India I started going by Rajiv, my Indian name my parents gave me. I wandered my traditional fields feeling out for the calling of where they buried my ancestors’ navel string.

Bryan refers to himself as Kamaoli when he speaks Hawaiian.


To ally I must pectoral slap and fluke thrash against the ideas of “ally” and “settler.” These are convenient terms—they should be verbs. To ally: an action. It must be intoned in active voice.

These terms don’t hold the complexities of identity in assemblages—but they are a place where I can start my migration.


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Lavender Saltwater (a poem)

These past few weeks I’ve been totally swamped with preparations for Global Divestment Day (which you can read more about here:, prepping for a few trips coming up, and also, most importantly, preparing for my daughter’s first birthday.

For those who don’t know, first birthdays are a HUGE deal for Marshallese. First birthdays, or kemem, as we call them, are the superbowl of marshallese parties. We go alll out. Most kemems cater to over a thousand people. Ours is considered “small” (we’re expecting 200-300 people). When the kemem is announced, pigs are roasted, fish are cooked in the earth, pineep or coconut oil are bottled as gift giveaways, family members spend weeks practicing dance routines for the big night, and baby’s face adorns stickers, huge banners, balloons, tshirts, invitations, cakes and cupcake toppers. And everyone – and I mean everyone – is invited. It’s all about coming together as a community – all to celebrate this beautiful child in our life.

In honor of baby’s kemem, I’m posting a quick poem I wrote about her birth. Some of these lines were actually written in the delivery room (I typed them into my phone). It’s dedicated to my friend Grace who was our family’s doula, who helped guide me through the scariest, most painful, most rewarding journey I’ve ever been on.

Lavender Salt-Water

Waves of



into me

crack me

open split

down the middle

I imagine

the eruption: a bulging

sack of slime and blood and


Do not measure

the breaths the minutes

the hours of clenched

fists curled toes

eyes pinched

shut tight


Just inhale

the saving


of hot towels

dipped in sweet lavender

Dream of saltwater

orange fruit and sunsets

uncle clyde aunty kaka

mom hetine tamera

baby dukie all of us

that one picnic afternoon

that ordinary sunday

just think

of her

seeing it all


and when she

is pulled

from my body

an army of white

coats shout

an order:




And there she is.



there’s a journalist here

So I know in my last post I mentioned not wanting to be pigeonholed as a climate change writer. But I wrote this poem last night and yup – it’s climate themed, or more accurately it’s a reflection on climate change, the media, and how stories are framed.

I’ve worked with a few journalists and documentary film makers since I performed this past September, and I’ve been inundated with even more requests then I can keep up with. I’ve been grateful for each interaction, and I’ve had no problem helping them out – whatever I need to do to help raise awareness on this issue.  But there’s something about selling the right story – framing that story for a specific audience, for a specific reaction. I’ve written a few articles here and there so I understand the struggle to have the perfect pitch, how it’s an art form in and of itself to draw in an audience and have them come away with a different understanding of the topic, and how important it is to be short and straight to the point. But the topic of climate change is so much more complicated than a 600 word story. It has so many facets. What kinds of opinions and stories are being left out?

A few months back, I put my cousin on the phone with one of the journalists, because of the fact that she experienced climate change first hand during the last king tide – her whole house was leveled by the waves. Only debris was left. Remarkably, though, she thinks of it as a fresh start, not as this tragic incidence. And this is what she told the journalist.

What is a journalist to do then? Not enough anger or outrage to fuel the plot.

Her story didn’t make it into the article.

In truth, I actually loved the article – it was incredibly well-written. But it still bothered me a bit that they didn’t include her story. I wondered – was it for space? I’m willing to bet that this is the most likely possibility. But a small part of me wonders. Was it because she was too positive – no drama, no anger? Did she not fit into the character she was supposed to play?

So here’s a first draft of the poem, still rough.


there’s a journalist here

who wants to interview you


they want to hear

about your old old house

older than you

its cracked plywood walls

like dry, sunburnt skin

how it collapsed

like a lung

as the water rushed in

they want to hear

about your journal

how you awoke

to soggy pages – ink

staining the floor

staining your hands

they want to hear

about the glass shards

from your window

how they carved

jagged pathways

along your stepmother’s leg


they want to hear

how you blame yourself

the way the neighbors

blamed you


shouldn’t stare

at the ocean 

too long 

they said

it was your


that dared it to come



what they want to hear


they don’t to hear

that maybe

you’re imaging

a house

with new doors

new windows

on a grassy hillside

they don’t want to hear

that, weeks later

you found your breath

filling and expanding your lungs

that all you want now

is to move




A few thoughts on pacific literature

Recently I was asked by two former poetry mentors of mine to be interviewed for their research. Their research focused on the art of spoken word in the Pacific, with an emphasis on the organization that I count myself a part of – Pacific Tongues. One of the questions they asked struck me. They basically asked what are some of my ideas on how we could get Pacific youth to incorporate their identity and their culture into their writing.

I had a pretty straightforward answer: anything and everything these youth write will be representative of their culture and identity. They could write about walking down the street, attending a kemem, flunking out of school, fishing with their father, spraying graffiti across the underbelly of the bridge, giving birth to their first son – all of these will represent facets of their identity as Pacific youth. What many Pacific writers and scholars have argued and demonstrated through their own art and research is that there is no one way to be “Pacific.” There is so much more to our identities than the coconut trees ocean navigation canoes and tourist destination (although those are integral factors for sure).

It always bothers me when people try to create such a tight confined box for what it means to be an islander – what it means to be Marshallese or Samoan or Hawaiian. More and more of our youth are growing up and living outside of their islands – but that doesn’t mean their identity is any less Pacific than their cousins living in their homelands. That doesn’t mean they aren’t riding along subways with the awareness of their mothertongue tucked neatly into their pockets, singing traditional songs while drinking a 40 and strumming ukuleles over a freeway. This awareness of the self, the homeland, the culture, the family. It will always be there. It never disappears. I’m speaking from years of experience.

Since going to the United Nations, I’ve been asked to join multiple campaigns on climate change. And I have no problem joining forces, lending my support in whatever way I can because hey – it’s for the cause. Whatever will wake people up to save my islands.

However, I’ve also been worried that I’ve been pigeonholed into an expectation that everything I will write about from here on out will be climate change related. That I will become “The Climate Change poet.” Nothing wrong with that, but here’s the thing: there’s more to my islands than the threat of being drowned.

This isn’t to downplay the divestment campaign from my past post – I still believe strongly in this movement (there’s actually still quite a bit more work planned in that department – stay tuned). And I also still strongly support every effort for climate activism. I will always feel a strong sense of responsibility to do everything I can to raise awareness.

But it did feel like I freed myself a bit, at least creatively, when I answered the question so assuredly. “Everything these youth write will be Pacific literature,” I had said, without even pausing to think. And in the same strand, everything I write will be Pacific literature. Because each of us are living breathing writing pacific literature.




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