Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner

a basket of writing from author Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner

poem: History Project


History Project

at fifteen

I decide

to do my history project on nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands

time to learn my own history, I decide

I weave through book after

article after


all on how the US military once used

my island home

for nuclear testing

I sift through political jargon

tables of nuclear weapons with names

like Operation Bravo


and Ivy

quotes from generals like

                90,000 people are out there.




I’m not mad at all


I already knew all of this

I glance at a photograph

of a boy, peeled skin arms legs suspended

a puppet

next to a lab coat, lost

in his clipboard

I read first hand accounts of what we call

jelly babies

tiny beings with no bones

skin – red tomatoes

the miscarriages gone unspoken

the broken translations

                I never told my husband

                I thought it was my fault

                I thought

                                there must be something    wrong   

                inside me

I flip through snapshots of American marines and nurses

branded white with bloated grins

sucking beers and tossing beach balls

along our


and my islander ancestors

crosslegged before a general

listening to his

fairy tale

bout how it’s

“or the good of mankind

to hand over our islands

let them blast

radioactive energy

into our lazy limbed coconut trees

our sagging breadfruit trees

our busy fishes that sparkle

like new sun

into our coral reefs


as an aurora borealis woven

beneath a glassy sea


                                God will thank you

they told us


as if God Himself ordained

those powdered flakes

to drift onto our skin our hair our eyes

to seep into our bones

we mistook radioactive fallout

for snow

God will thank you they told us

like God just been


for my people

to vomit



all of humanity’s sins

onto impeccable white shores gleaming

like the cross


into our


scarred palms

At one point in my research I stumble

along a photograph

of goats

tied to American ships

bored and munching on tubs of grass

At the bottom a caption read

Goats and pigs were left on naval ships as test subjects.


                of letters flew in from America



                animal abuse.


At 15

I want radioactive energy megatons of tnt a fancy degree

anything and everything I could ever need to send ripples

of death

through a people

who puts goats

before human beings

so their skin

can shrivel

beneath the glare of hospital room lights

three generations later

as they watch their grandfather their aunty their cousin’s life drip

across that same black screen

knots of knuckles tied to steel beds

cold and absent of any breath

but I’m only


So I finish my project

graph my people’s death by cancer and canned food diabetes

on flow charts

in 3D

gluestick my ancestors’ voice

onto a posterboard I bought from office max

staple tables screaming

the millions of dollars stuffed

into our mouths

generation after generation after generation

and at the top I spraypainted in bold stenciled yellow


and entered it in the school district wide competition called

history day

My parents were quietly proud

and so was my teacher

and when the three balding white judges finally came around to my project

one of them looked at it and said


but it wasn’t really

for the good of mankind, though

was it?

And I lost.

Author: Kathy

Kathy Jetnil Kijiner is a Marshallese poet and activist. Her writing highlights the traumas of colonialism, racism, forced migration, the legacy of American nuclear testing, and the impending threats of climate change. Bearing witness at the front lines of various activist movements inspires her work and has propelled her poetry onto international stages. She has performed her poetry in front of audiences ranging from elementary school students to most recently over a hundred world leaders at the United Nations Climate Summit, where she performed a poem to her daughter, "Dear Matafele Peinam". Currently she lives and works in the Marshall Islands, where she teaches Pacific studies courses full time at the College of the Marshall Islands. She is also Co-Director of the youth environmentalist non-profit Jo-Jikum, which empowers youth by educating them on the importance of environmentalism and mobilizing them to work toward solutions for environmentalist issues. Check out their website: www.jojikum.org

5 thoughts on “poem: History Project

  1. This is an AMAZING poem! I first watched it on YouTube and thought I’d look you up to see if you had a following on the net! Your message is so strong and the way you deliver your poetry is just so strong and leaves a ling-lasting impact. Thank you for sharing your knowledge! Much loloma from Fiji!

  2. Pingback: 散亂與安定 | bricoleur

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