Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner

a basket of writing from author Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner

A word about my mother

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For this week’s post I’ve been asked to reflect on the influence that my mother has had on my writing. Talk about a tough assignment! I could write an entire book about my mother – and eventually I plan on doing so (expect a biography in maybe 6-10 years). But for this blog post, I’ll stick to the basic facts which explain one of the poems I’ve written about her.

For those who aren’t aware, my mother is Hilda Heine. That name might not mean that much to those who aren’t in the Pacific, specifically the education world of the Pacific, but in that world and in the Marshalls, she’s a pretty big deal. That might sound arrogant and condescending but hey – I’m just really proud to be her daughter.

My mother gained some pretty well-deserved attention when she became the first and so far only person in the Marshall Islands with a PhD. Before that, she was Secretary of Education in the Marshalls, and before that she established and became the first President of the College of Marshall Islands (got it WASC accredited and everything). Before that, she had years of experience as a teacher and a counselor. Her PhD studied what factors made for successful Marshallese high school students in America. She knows Marshallese education, from the top to the bottom and all around it. And she did all this while raising me and my brother. Two years ago, she decided the only way she could really make changes in educational system the Marshall Islands was to run for senator and to take on the institution of education itself. The year I returned from Mills College after receiving my bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing, I was thrown into helping my mother campaign for the Aur Atoll Senator’s seat.

Helping my mother campaign exposed me to the nitty gritty world of Marshallese politics – one that is incredibly narrow and restrictive for Marshallese women (Out of 33 senators, only 1 woman is ever voted to become a senator for the past 2 terms).  It also exposed me to another layer of my mother’s strength and pretty much all around amazingness. It took guts and tough skin to take on all these men and put yourself in the running, and to also put up with the slanderous lies of some of the opponents and mistreatment of even some supporters.

I helped weave banninur, or Marshallese woven baskets of food along with my all my aunties and cousins so we could sell them and fundraise for Mom, along with helping to run a big Bingo game with a bunch of prizes (one of the best ways to raise a lot of money in the Marshalls can I just tell you). While running around amidst money hungry Marshallese grannies and aunties all sprawled out on the floor with their bingo cards and cardboard boxes, selling tickets, taking money, selling food, announcing winners, it struck me that we were straight up hustling.

Besides hustling, I also helped her design her campaign fliers, and took a six hour boat ride with her from our home atoll of Majuro to Aur atoll, the island she was running to represent. I filmed and photographed her as she gave speeches on why the ri-Aur should vote for her, and helped fill all the plates of food. I walked house to house with her and listened as she introduced herself to each ri-Aur. The trip to Aur was especially eye opening to me. I wasn’t only impressed with my mom’s strength – I was impressed with her entire campaign army of women – my aunties and grandmothers who came to support my mother who were miles more useful than I was with cooking, cleaning, talking story, organizing, arranging, etc.

I came away from that experience with a newfound respect for the ingenuity, beauty and strength of my mother and of all Marshallese women. And I’m happy to add that Mom actually won – again as the only female senator in the entire Nitijela, or RMI government. And she became appointed Minister of Education.

So what kind of influence has my mother had on me? Her drive and work ethic has definitely rubbed off on me, if only slightly, as well as her respect and admiration for education, and all that it can afford us in this life. It also made me realize that anything really is possible – that if a girl from the outerislands of Jaluit who used to run around barefoot with scabs on her legs could grow up to get a PhD and become the first female Minister of Education, then I’ll be damned if anything stops ME from achieving all of my dreams. She has not just been an amazing mother, but she’s been first and foremost my inspiration and my most important mentor in life. She has guided me in making all of my decisions in my career, and was one of the first in the family to recognize the importance of my writing and my becoming a writer.

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Campaigning in Aur

I.

After six hours on a ship, women

spill from the fiberglass hands

of bubbling speedboats, women

in popsicle colored baseball caps and silk

guams, faded muumuus, and flowered

chuukese skirts, whooping, hollering, laughing

in the Aur Atoll water.

My mother is running for the Aur Atoll senator’s seat.

Throughout all the elections, 32 senators elected

were men

Throughout all the elections, only 1 senator elected

was a woman.

My mother knows the stakes

She knows the odds are slim

So she disembarks on her motherland flanked

by a campaign army

of women.

For many

this is their first time back home

after many years.

For me and my cousin this is our first time ever.

II.

My mother informs us –

the youngest of the crew –

that this is no vacation cruise no

jumbo we’re here to work.

So we unroll the bags, help string up lights

wake up at dawn and trudge door to door

filming, snapping photographs, both of us

hauling stacks of fliers listing

my mother’s genealogy

her work history

and her campaign promises.

We march

beneath the shade of gnarled breadfruit trees thicker

than any I’ve ever seen, dodge

barking dogs with bared

teeth, pass concrete shells

of abandoned houses and curious children threading

through grass as tall as our knees.

As we march she stops to talk

to a man who husks white flakes

into a plastic orange basin, surrounded

by an audience of bloated bags of coconuts,

she talks

to the woman who stitches spiderwebs

of pandanus from rolls

of sun-dried plaits stacked up around her.

At night we help the other women fill plastic plates

meant to persuade

the bellies of ri-Aur seated,

at the feet

of my mother, her voice amplified

III.

This is my mother promising a change

This is my aunty stirring a large pot of homemade stew

This is my cousin promoting WUTMI – her NGO for women

This is another aunty discussing lowering diabetes

This is another aunty stringing a lei of flowers

This is another cousin strumming an ukulele and singing

This is a grandma telling us stories

of what Aur used to be

This is the mother of all mothers

standing in the oceanside

watching

IV.

And this is my cousin and I

running away

into tangled leaves climbing moss and whispering bushes

where we splash

into water clear as a mirror, the sky – a giant empty canvas

We emerge

hair still wet

as we stroll beneath a warm rain that drizzles on our face

Aunties we’ve just met

call us in

to their smoky cook houses

where fresh tonaj, hot

and soft melt in our mouths

as we fall asleep on a sun worn jaki

we fall asleep as girls

listening to the women the women the women

talkingwhisperinglaughing

the women we hope to one day be

Author: Kathy/Dede

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

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