Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner

a basket of writing from author Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner

Fishbone Hair (Full Poem+Video)

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“Fishbone Hair” is a poem that was written after the death of my niece, Bianca Lanki, who passed away from leukemia when she was only 8 years old. It’s a reflection on the many Marshallese who’ve passed away from cancer, and other radiation related illnesses, and the legacy of the US nuclear testing program on our islands. It’s a call to remember, to honor, to never forget – it asks who have you lost to radiation related illnesses?

This video was a collaboration of efforts between myself, the College of the Marshall Islands Media Club, and Dan Lin and Corrin Barros from Pacific Resources for Education and Learning. You can read Dan’s blog post featured on National Geographic, which describes our process pretty well. If you’d like a tangible way to support Marshallese on nuclear issues, learn more about the Nuclear Zero lawsuit filed by the Marshall Islands and sign the petition to join 5 million people who support our cause.



Fishbone Hair

Inside my niece Bianca’s old room I found

two ziplocks


with rolls and rolls of hair


dead as a doornail black as a tunnel hair thin

as strands of tumbling seaweed


Maybe it was my sister

who stashed away Bianca’s locks in ziplock bags

locked it away so no one could see

trying to save that

rootless hair

that hair without a home



There had been a war

raging inside Bianca’s six year old bones

white cells had staked their flag

they conquered the territory of her tiny body

they saw it as their destiny

they said it was manifested







I felt

bald and blank as Bianca’s skull

when they closed her casket

hymns wafting into the night sky



Bianca loved

to eat fish

she ate it raw ate it fried ate it whole

she ate it with its head

slurping on the eyeball jelly

leaving only






The marrow should have worked

They said she had six months to live



That’s what the doctors told the fishermen

over 50 years ago

when they were out at sea just miles away from Bikini

the day the sun exploded

split open

and rained ash on the fishermen’s clothes


on that day those fishermen

were quiet

they were neat

they dusted the ash out of their hair

reeled in their fish

and turned around their motorboat to speed home



There is an old Chamorro legend

that the women of Guahan saved their island

from a giant coral eating fish

by hacking off their

long and black as the night sky hair

They wove their locks

into a massive magical net

They caught the monster fish

and they saved their islands






                            fishbone hair








         moon      catch





for you Bianca

for you













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

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