Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner

a basket of writing from author Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner


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I just returned from a trip to Minnesota, where I had been asked by the non-profit Climate Generation to perform for their 10 year anniversary benefit dinner. Initially, I was meant to just speak. But I decided, kind of as a creative challenge, to volunteer to write them a new poem that would connect the issues of climate change in the Marshalls with Minnesota. After talking with their amazing founder, Will Steiger, I realized that our shared passion for working with youth – our belief in them as the most sustainable investment – was one of many ways in which we were connected. So this is the latest poem I’ve been able to write “Utilomar.” You can watch the video of me reciting the piece, as well as read the poem in full, below.


I dreamt of a dead shark


we were at a family party

my mother asked me to check the oven and

when I opened it

there it was

massive, gray leathered skin, jaw open

like a metal trap


I dreamt of eating a shark


When I woke up I met my mother in the hallway

I told her about my dream

how it felt


together we went outside and that’s when we found

the world





Our neighbors wandering outside

morning daze on their faces

homes inundated, families evacuated

sent to sleep on classroom floors at the nearby elementary school


My family is a descendant of the RiPako clan, the Shark clan

known to control the waves with roro, chants

it was said that they turned the tides with the sound of their voice

they sang songs to sharks encircling their canoes, we were connected

to these white tipped slick bodied ancestors carving

through water

we would never

have eaten them


In the Marshall Islands I teach Pacific Literature

Together we read the stories our ancestors told around coconut husk fire


So what are the legends

we tell ourselves today?

What songs are we throwing into the fire . . . what

are we burning?

And will future generations

recite these stories by heart, hand

over chest?



In one legend

It’ll start by saying


in the beginning

was water


water from the sea that flooded our homes our land and now

our only underground reservoir

what we call a fresh water lens

shaped like the front of an eyeball, nestled deep in our coral

feeding on rainwater it watches us, burning and angry it is


it poisons us

with salt

leaving us dry

and thirsty


Over 6,000 miles away from my island home is the US state of Minnesota

I’ve read that Minnesota, like the Marshalls,

is simultaneously drowning and thirsting

In 2007 24 Minnesota counties received drought designation

While 7 counties were declared flood disasters

In 2012 this time 55 Minnesota counties received drought designation

while 11 counties declared flood emergencies


Climate scientists warn of intensified heat

this heat threatens Minnesota’s great North Woods

a forest nearly 12,000 years old

scientists predict the mixed hardwood and conifer forest

will follow glaciers and retreat north by as much as 300 miles in the next century


I imagine a hardwood tree ancient

and weary, dry

untangling its roots from the soil

before heaving its tree trunk body

to a new home where it will forever mourn

its roots


In this legend,

identify the theme, the moral the message what

have we learned . . .

have we learned



What is the archetype of a monster and a hero?

can they be one and the same?


Here’s another story of a tree

On one of our atolls known as Kwajelein

There was said to be a flowering tree at the south end

that grew from the reef itself

a utilomar tree

it was said its magical white petals fell

into the water and bloomed

into flying fish


On a lazy Sunday my cousin and I lay side by side

on my aunty’s veranda, sun drying our skin, together

we dreamed an organization dedicated to young people like us

who leapt

blind and joyful

into water

willing ourselves wings

to fly

who dared to dream of a world where both forests and islands

stay rooted

who believe that this world

is worth fighting for


I still nightmare of dead leather sharks


But I’d rather dream

I’d rather imagine our/next generation

their voices turning the tides

how our underground reservoir will drink in their chants

how they will speak shark songs and fluent fish

how they

will leap





into the water

before blossoming


to fly

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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