Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner

a basket of writing from author Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner


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On Marshallese Youth and COP21

It’s taken me a while to pull apart my thoughts at the seams and unravel that one and half week I spent in Paris at the COP21, the world wide conference on climate change that took place in December. But today marks the first official day of Spring 2016 classes at the College of the Marshall Islands. A new semester, new students, a new year, and even a new government administration. And a lot of promise – or should I say, a lot of promises. COP21 itself was another set of promises. For me, COP21 was a whirlwind of performances, panels, interviews, sprinting from one event to another, getting lost on the cobblestone streets and alleyways of Paris, navigating taxi drivers and subways, finding the right words to describe home, and gaping in awe at the sheets of light that is Paris.

I learned a lot being there with the Marshallese delegation especially, under the leadership of Tony deBrum, a climate champion and leader in the arena of climate negotiations. But with the new semester, and with a new administration that is notably marked by its youth, it seems fitting to focus on the ways in which COP21 did something it’s never done before – which is engage our young people.

During the week leading to the COP, our non-profit, Jo-Jikum, launched a campaign focusing on the number 1.5 as a target goal, the global temperature that would ensure the survival of our islands, and that we wanted this number prioritized in the Paris agreement. We planned to have an action on Majuro that would align with all the demonstrations happening around the world. We also identified the untapped potential of young people overseas itching to be a part of the action as well – we figured a social media action was a manageable way to show their support from afar.

Our campaign asked all our supporters to take photos of themselves with “1.5 to stay alive” slogan, as well as “climate justice” and “Marshall Islands” and post it to their facebook or social media networks. And we were all pleasantly surprised many rimajel rise to the occasion. Just a tiny sampling of the posts are below:

Across our newsfeed were photos of students, siblings, families, politicians and even soldiers abroad taking photos with the slogan. I noticed that it even sparked a dialogue here and there, sometimes with adults asking what this number meant, and many times with their children answering their parents’ questions. Art was created. Music was created. Just this past week, I was startled to find that someone (someone awesome) had tagged the blank space of a store front.

For many of you reading this, it might not seem like much. Perhaps you had no idea that there was this tiny population of islander kids taking photos of themselves with this number on facebook. Perhaps social media campaigns seem done, and overdone – or as many have critiqued, it seems too easy to be a “social media activist”. Or perhaps social media just isn’t that important, or impactful, in day to day to lives.

But keep in mind, there are about 1.5 billion active facebook users – social media just can’t be ignored in this day and age. And with our islands being one of the few with fiber optics, we have easier access to internet than most of Micronesia.

Another thing to keep in mind: there are very few opportunities to be an “activist” in the Marshall Islands. It seems that many of us learned long ago, I would say mostly from the tragic legacy that is the US nuclear testing, that we aren’t allowed to demand more. That we can yell till we turn blue, and no one will hear us. That the world can turn its back on us, ignore us, and that we will continue living, even if it’s not really living. Sometimes it seems like our society has learned that it is easier to wade through our lives, and never dive into the depths.

The activist culture that is common and prevalent in the United States such as the Bay area, New York, or in Hawaii with the Mauna Kea movement, is not present at the moment here in the RMI. There hasn’t been a movement that included or prioritized engaging our youth as a population, in doing something, fighting for something that matters, something bigger than ourselves. That’s what made these photos so exciting for me to see.

And it was as if our young people were ready for it. It was as if they’d been thirsting for it. A chance to use their voice. A chance to lend their voice to a choir of freedom fighters, warriors.

We were the ones in Paris, our RMI delegation. But seeing these photos, splayed across our newsfeed, reminded us that they were with us too. We were all in this together. And I can say that we’ve never been engaged in this way at any other COP.

The Paris agreement, as I’ve said to a few journalists already, is no way near perfect. There are gaps, vague spaces to fall into. Women’s needs are ignored, indigenous rights, tragically, was not prioritized. We have a lot of work ahead of us and a long way to go.

But when I first heard the announcement that 1.5 was in the text, I almost didn’t believe it. And although we of course can not take credit for 1.5 being in the agreement at all, we can say we lent our voice to the fight. (Although, it’s of note that at least  Al Jazeera highlighted our campaign. You can fast-forward to 12:40 – 14:00).

What I can see us doing now is taking the formula and the energy that came out of our campaign, and bringing it to other areas in our lives. If we, as a rimajel youth, were able to hold the world accountable, why can’t we hold our leaders in our country, our local council, our community members, even ourselves accountable as well? Why can’t we demand change, demand justice, or even just demand more – from everyone?

As we go into this new year, into this new semester, I can only hope that our youth will continue to demand more – from us teachers, from their local leaders, their family, their community and especially from the new crop of senators, our new administration. Because, honestly, we deserve more. We deserve better. And we just need to keep remembering that. And, more importantly, we need to believe it.


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A Moment of Clarity – Why I’m going to Paris COP21

If you’ve been following this blog you might have seen my past posts struggling with this new role I inherited as a “climate change poet” since my performance at the United Nations Climate Summit last September. All last year I fought with myself as I considered what this role, what these responsibilities, would now mean. I’ve always embraced my role as a poet – a Marshallese poet, who touched on various forms of activism – but a poet first and foremost. I used words and writing to understand the world around me, to make sense of my relationships and people – and sometimes this crossed into territories of social justice. But not always. Sometimes I just wanted to capture a feeling on the page.

Last year however, I was suddenly thrust into global conversations on climate change. I attended conferences, retreats, took interview after interview with journalists, cutting myself open raw each time to discuss broken sea walls, flooded homes, shriveled breadfruits, an impending future of rootless generations.

 

Performing at the United Nations opening of the Climate Summit 2014

Performing at the United Nations opening of the Climate Summit 2014

I’m not sure how many would understand this struggle. I discussed it a little with my mother – she encouraged me to use the networking platform I was getting to establish a Climate Justice Institute at the College of the Marshall Islands where I teach. While sniffing around for grants to fund this dream, I continued to incorporate climate change into the curriculum for my students, push them to understand the connections with our nuclear legacy, globalization, colonization, get them talking, thinking. And between classes I envisioned organizing a monsoon of activist environmentalist youth with my co-director and fellow Pacific Climate Warrior Milañ Loeak.

And yet. I resented the requests for the interviews. I resented the tunnel vision stories sought out by journalists visiting the islands. I resented the salt in the raw wound of discussing climate change, over and over. I resented the photos of each high tide, of each flooding. I found myself stuck during another king tide, during another flooding a few months ago. I was going to go outside to take the picture, post it to social media. But I didn’t want to. I was tired of begging. I was tired of the constant reminder that, to the world, we are just a drowning nation. And nothing more.

I asked myself, more than once: Why was I doing this? Why was I stressing myself out, adding even more of a workload onto my schedule? Isn’t it enough to just sit at home with my desk, my laptop, and write and play with my daughter in the sun?

Then – the wake-up call. This summer. A conversation with a fellow radical disrupter focusing on the 2 degrees versus 1.5 degrees debate. Scientists and climate change specialists have been advocating that we need to lower our carbon emissions so that the world’s temperature doesn’t rise above 2 degrees or catastrophe of the worst kind will hit – think “super droughts, rising seas, mass extinctions.” http://edition.cnn.com/2015/04/21/opinions/sutter-climate-two-degrees/index.html

Here’s the thing with this very important number. According to those same scientists and reports, while the rest of the world might be safe at 2 degrees, the Marshall Islands and all low-lying atolls will be under water.  The fact that 1.5 is always the afterthought in discussions regarding this simple number, instead of being the bottom line, is the problem. Doesn’t every life matter? And every country? Why is 2 degrees even considered an option if that would mean low-lying atolls drowning?

This – this is why our island leaders have been pushing for 1.5. Most of the negotiators from larger nations have so far ignored this plea. Even in a room full of brilliant organizers, I heard 2 degrees thrown around like it was the priority, like the science that has clearly stated that 1.5 would mean the end of all atoll nations meant nothing. A colleague later tried to convince me that 2 degrees would still be good for our islands. They assured me that the world will “most likely” meet that requirement, and will “most likely” fall “way below” those two degrees.

“But don’t you see that you’re gambling with our islands?”

A few months later, and there I was again discussing this simple number over tea and muffins. And my friend tells me, with their experience and research in climate work and the backing of various other reports, that 1.5 is, at this point, un-achievable. That 2 degrees is as good as it will get. That the science has been calculated and that there is no way we can lower our temperature to 1.5. “It’s not going to stop,” they said. “It’s just going to get worse.”

I was in shock. Perhaps I had been operating under the delusion that things were going to get better, that the work will one day end. Perhaps no one else had ever been so blunt with me. Either way, I spent the rest of that afternoon in a daze, processing this. I valued my friend’s opinion, and I took it at face value that this meant our islands were as good as gone – that there was nothing we could do to save them.

This was when I reached rock bottom. I’ve never allowed myself, even when I wrote “Tell Them” even after “Dear Matafele Peinam,” – I never really allowed myself to feel the full emotion of what losing our islands would mean. I skirted around the edge. I dipped in my toes. But I never dove into it. I feared that if I did, that I would drown. That I would never come up.

And I did drown. I sat outside in the sun and I wept. My cries were more than my own cries – I felt my ancestors sitting beside me, weeping with me. I heard their echoes, reverberating in my sorrow. I felt their/our anguish over our islands, over the next few generations. I felt the shuffling feet of our future generations –  floating adrift, the hopelessness and inability to go on.

This. This was my bottom.

But I dug myself out.

My friend, feeling my loss and agony, opened up a space following our conversation that gave everyone in the room time to breathe, to process the emotional effects that usually accompanies rigorous climate work. Thanks to them I came to understand that my fears, my questions, my doubts weren’t just mine. They were all of ours. And that it was not too late. That there was still time. That I had to believe.

And so I did. I chose. To believe.

This is why I will be traveling to Paris for COP21, despite the horrific recent attacks. Despite the fact that it means real danger. I will be going to perform alongside four other spoken word artists, each representing the communities of the Philippines, Guam, Samoa, Australia, to perform our poetry and share the stories of our people, to share what has already happened, what’s at stake. This is also why I’ve prioritized working with our youth, the next generation, as we plan a massive march in the Marshall Islands http://act.350.org/event/global-climate-march_attend/11844

As Nicolas Haeringer, France’s 350 organizer, recently stated, “This movement for climate justice has always also been a movement for peace–a way for people around the world to come together, no matter their background or religion, and fight to protect our common home.” http://350.org/press-release/350-org-on-cop21-plans-the-tragedy-in-paris-has-only-strengthened-our-resolve/?utm_content=bufferf518e&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

I’m going because I’m fighting for our home. I’m going because I have foreseen the loss and the sorrow that awaits our children and grandchildren, because I have fallen into that abyss. I’m going because others will not go into that abyss – they skirt around it. They refuse to feel it. Perhaps, understandably, they have more immediate things to worry about. And that’s ok. I will feel it. Over and over. For them. I will drown the wound in salt. I will do anything to save my islands.

 

 

 


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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

women

shouldn’t stare

at the ocean 

too long 

they said

it was your

boldness 

that dared it to come

 

that’s

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

forward

 


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Why College of the Marshall Islands is divesting from fossil fuels – and why your institution should too

A few weeks ago I was called into the office of the President of the College of the Marshall Islands (CMI) Carl Hacker, to discuss his big announcement: that he would be pushing for CMI to divest from fossil fuels. All we need next is approval from the Board of Regents, which could possibly happen within a few weeks. “It only makes sense,” he said simply. “If we don’t – who will?”

This was the same question I asked when I conducted training on divestment for student leaders from the Student Body Association (SBA), Peer to Peer, and the Environmental Club here at CMI, just a week after my conversation with the President. The training was led by me and the Vice President of the College, William Reiher, who gave a presentation on renewable energy and the different ways in which we as an institution have been leading in that field as well.

While our islands may seem small, businesses for the banks here is profitable and growing. It’s a moral imperative that as banks continue to grow in the region they must side with the people, not the polluters. About 28 trillion dollars are invested in the fossil fuel industry – and it’s this money that is going towards buying out politicians and funding climate deniers. What so many people don’t realize, is that a lot of that money is our own money.

So during my divestment training, I stood in front of student leaders here at CMI, and I told them what I’ve recently realized. That our college must join this movement. The recent IPCC report says that by 2050 global electricity needs to be low-carbon, and that to get right on track, the world would have to cut fossil fuel investments annually between now and 2029, and use that money for renewable energy.

With all this looming on the horizon, CMI is in the perfect position to take that step to divest. CMI is the only college of the nation – we are teaching and shaping the next leaders of our country. Leaders who will have to deal with either a harsher climate reality than the one that exists now, or a future of transition and change from fossil fuels to greener energy. They are the ones who will inherit the future of these islands – they need to understand the fine print on the warning label.

And we’re hoping it won’t just be our college divesting. This move is triggering and connected to the launch of the Pacific Divestment Campaign, being supported by the Pacific Climate Warriors of the 350 Pacific network (350pacific.org). Universities, colleges, organizations, and financial institutions, such as ANZ management, must align their money with their morals. They need to make socially responsible investments because it’s completely unacceptable for them to make profit off the destruction of our islands.

Students in the Pacific especially need to come together and take an active role in this movement. Historically, college students have always been the leaders of major social movements. And this – the climate struggle – this is in our backyard – this our islands. This is the fight of all students in the Pacific.

After the divestment training, the SBA announced that they will be hosting a “Divestment Spirit Week” this coming week. I am so proud of these students for taking this initiative on their own to raise awareness amongst their fellow students. Among the activities will be classroom presentations on what divestment means, an essay and poster contest, a painting of a mural, and activities for each day of the week. “This is a really important and critical step not just for our college, but our country as well, in trying to protest against some of the major contributing factors to climate change,” they wrote in an email to the student body. They are taking the next step – and hopefully our Board of Regents will listen.

So this is a shoutout from CMI to the rest of the colleges, universities, and organizations around the Pacific to join us in this movement, and to take that next step to divest from fossil fuels. I mean hey – if our students can demand divestment from their institution, yours can too.


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An apology to Taro Islanders and Solomon Islanders

I have to admit that I’ve been putting off writing this particularly blog post for a while now. It’s hard to admit when you make a huge mistake, and it’s even worse when you do it on a global scale. So here goes nothing.

I wrote a poem, two months ago, called “dear matafele peinam” dedicated to my daughter, speaking on climate change that was performed during the opening of the United Nations Climate Summit. There are three different video versions of this poem on youtube – one has been viewed 108,125 times, another 93,135 times, and still another 220, 563 times. I’m not saying these numbers to show off (in light of how many views a cat playing with a dog will get, they’re actually not all that impressive). I’m saying these numbers to highlight just how many people have witnessed my horrifically shameful mistake.

In my poem I have a stanza in which I say,

no one

is drowning, baby

no one

is moving

no one

is losing their homeland

no one

is gonna become a climate change refugee

or should i say 

no one else

to the carteret islanders of papua new guinea

and to the taro islanders of fiji

I apologize to you

We are drawing the line here

Early on when I was writing this poem, my mentor suggested to me that I include that stanza referencing islanders who have already had to move because of climate change (Carteret Islanders and Taro Islanders).  This was an opportunity to highlight the fact the climate change is real and happening now, but also to honor these islanders by saying their names, not just giving some vague, veiled reference. I decided to do some research to make sure I got the details of their move and their islands correct. What I found was an article on thinkprogress.org entitled “Meet the First Pacific Island Town to Relocate Thanks to Climate Change,” which highlighted Carteret Islanders and Taro Islanders:

http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/08/18/3472645/pacific-island-town-relocate-climate-change/

What happened next was that I wrote into the poem, “Carteret Islanders of Papua New Guinea” and “Taro Islanders of Fiji” just so people would know what bigger countries these small island towns and cultures were affiliated with.

Unfortunately, Taro Islanders are not from Fiji. They are from the Solomon Islands.

I have no idea how I made this mistake when I read the article. The words “Fiji” and “Solomon Islands” are not even remotely close – nor is their culture, history, or people. And I’m not even sure Fiji was even mentioned in the article!

What I know is that I was reading the article fast, and writing the poem fast, because I had a deadline to finish and memorize the poem within a week, Matafele Peinam screaming in the corner because she wanted to be picked up, and a bunch of lesson plans to write and papers to grade for my students. I also know that none of these are viable excuses.

As a Pacific Islander, and even as a Pacific Island Studies Master’s student, I should have known better. I have had my fair share of, “All you Micronesians look the same” and “How is Pohnpeian and Chuukese different from Marshallese” and I’ve also had people mix up Micronesians with Polynesians, and tell me that all islanders must be the same etc etc. I know how much it means to be recognized – to be really recognized. To have someone say “I know where the Marshall Islands is.” Especially when the rest of the world doesn’t seem to know who you or your people are. I also know that in Pacific cultures, name and place are valuable – it’s how you know your roots and your connections.

And so, with this all in mind – I sincerely apologize. To the Taro Islanders and to all Solomon Islanders. For taking away what should have been a moment for them to be recognized – their moment to have their islands and their struggles brought to light.


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interview awesomeness

So I recently had the honor of being interviewed by Heather Jarvis on Radio Australia for World Poetry Day. I’m not exactly sure how Heather found out about my writing, but she contacted me via facebook and we ended up scheduling a phone interview. I have to admit – I was pretty psyched. I’m a pretty new writer and it’s been hard to promote my writing out here at home because there’s less venues and avenues for this kind of medium. So when I get opportunities like this – where I can put Marshalls on the map, talk about climate change, and even plug this blog, I’m pretty grateful. You can listen to the entire interview here:

http://www.radioaustralia.net.au/international/radio/onairhighlights/marshallese-writer-brings-her-home-to-the-world-through-poetry


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poem: Tell Them

Tell Them

I prepared the package

for my friends in the states

the dangling earrings woven

into half moons black pearls glinting

like an eye in a storm of tight spirals

the baskets

sturdy, also woven

brown cowry shells shiny

intricate mandalas

shaped by calloused fingers

Inside the basket

a message:

 

Wear these earrings

to parties

to your classes and meetings

to the grocery store, the corner store

and while riding the bus

Store jewelry, incense, copper coins

and curling letters like this one

in this basket

and when others ask you

where you got this

you tell them

 

they’re from the Marshall Islands

 

show them where it is on a map

tell them we are a proud people

toasted dark brown as the carved ribs

of a tree stump

tell them we are descendents

of the finest navigators in the world

tell them our islands were dropped

from a basket

carried by a giant

tell them we are the hollow hulls

of canoes as fast as the wind

slicing through the pacific sea

 we are wood shavings

and drying pandanus leaves

and sticky bwiros at kemems

tell them we are sweet harmonies

of grandmothers mothers aunties and sisters

songs late into night

tell them we are whispered prayers

the breath of God

a crown of fushia flowers encircling

aunty mary’s white sea foam hair

tell them we are styrofoam cups of  koolaid red

waiting patiently for the ilomij

tell them we are papaya golden sunsets bleeding

into a glittering open sea

 we are skies uncluttered

majestic in their sweeping landscape

we are the ocean

terrifying and regal in its power

tell them we are dusty rubber slippers

swiped

from concrete doorsteps

we are the ripped seams

and the broken door handles of taxis

 we are sweaty hands shaking another sweaty hand in heat

tell them

we are days

and nights hotter

than anything you can imagine

tell them we are little girls with braids

cartwheeling beneath the rain

 we are shards of broken beer bottles

burrowed beneath fine white sand

we are children flinging

like rubber bands

across a road clogged with chugging cars

tell them

we only have one road

 

and after all this

tell them about the water

how we have seen it rising

flooding across our cemeteries

gushing over the sea walls

and crashing against our homes

tell them what it’s like

to see the entire ocean__level___with the land

tell them

we are afraid

tell them we don’t know

of the politics

or the science

but tell them we see

what is in our own backyard

tell them that some of us

are old fishermen who believe that God

made us a promise

some of us

are more skeptical of God

but most importantly tell them

we don’t want to leave

we’ve never wanted to leave

and that we

are nothing without our islands.