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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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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Birthing a Manuscript, Birthing for Real

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This past week I took my first few tentative steps towards putting together my manuscript – a pretty big deal considering how long I’ve wanted to publish my own book of poetry. It’s taken me a while to reflect on all of this, though, because besides preparing to give birth to my first manuscript, I’m also preparing to give birth for real – to my first baby girl.

Ironic isn’t it? I spent all this time thinking up this manuscript that surrounds one topic: Iep Jeltok. “Iep jeltok ajiri ne,” I’ve written over and over – which translates roughly from Marshallese to English as “You are fortunate to have a girl child.” It’s a common Marshallese saying, it’s my favorite saying, it’s been my filler as my title and overall theme for my manuscript for years, it’s even the title of this blog and was also my mother’s campaign slogan when she ran for the Aur Atoll Senator’s seat in the Marshall Islands this past term. I wrote it so much, that I’d like to think that it’s almost as if I wrote this baby girl inside me into existence.

“Woman is a basket facing the speaker,” is another way that “Iep jeltok” has been defined – which is opposite of the saying for boys – “iep jeltak,” meaning the basket facing away from the speaker. The metaphor of the basket represents everything that the child has in store for their family – everything this child has and will offer. When a girl is born, her basket faces towards the speaker – in this case, the speaker being the family she is born into. Everything she has to offer goes towards her family. When a boy is born, however, everything he has to offer is given to others instead. This saying refers specifically to our matrilineal society – lineage and land is traced directly through our mothers, not our fathers. So, when a girl child is born, the family receives all of her blessings, whereas when a boy child is born, he will only marry into another woman’s family and that family will benefit from him.

So yes, I’ve written “Iep Jeltok” over and over. I’ve contemplated what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a girl. What it means to offer – especially what it is that I have to offer. And now, to find out I will soon be blessed with a baby girl – well, it’s just a little ironic and meaningful isn’t it? I had a conversation the other day with a friend of mine who really tripped me out when she pointed out that when you’re pregnant with a girl, you’re really carrying future generations within you – not just her, but also her children, and her children’s children. Kinda like Russian dolls. Kinda like a basket, within a basket, within a basket. Generations of blessings.

With all of this baby hoopla I’ve been going through with my third trimester (moving, nesting hardcore, freaking out over cloth diapers and giving birth, over-researching everything about babies even though I know it’s totally futile, and also stuffing my face and watching way too much episodes of Bones while I’m at it) it’s been a bit harder to focus on my manuscript, even though it’s been a life dream of mine. I’ve wanted to publish a real book of poetry since I started writing in high school. I just never thought it would actually happen. And now, here I am. Putting the pieces of the puzzle together. I’m almost there, and yet I’m also stalling. And I know I’m stalling because of anxiety and fear. And after sitting down and journaling for a bit, I came to the conclusion that I’ve had a lot of anxiety and fear about so many things lately – not just this manuscript but also (duh) motherhood! And you know what? I have to say that I’ve found that a few of my fears and anxiety about motherhood are actually parallel with my fears and anxiety about my manuscript. Most of this fear has to do with not being brave enough, not being perfect enough, but mostly just not being enough.

“How am I supposed to write an actual collection of poetry?” Parallels with “How am I supposed to actually be a mother?”

Of course, there’s decidedly way more pressure with raising a human being than publishing a book. But still, there’s a simple answer to both of these questions.

If not me – then who?

No one else can raise baby girl the way I might. Sure, other family members would do a decent, if not great job (and it’s a pretty common cultural practice). But I owe it to her, and to myself, to try to be the best mother that I can be.

And no one other Marshallese is as obsessed with writing a book of poetry (at least, not that I know of). Sure, there might be another Marshallese writer down the road who publishes a collection. But will it be this collection? Will it look and feel like mine?

Even if I’m not perfect, and I’m not the most seasoned poet with an MFA or the most well-rounded highly qualified supermom with the perfect job, at least I can give it a shot right? Fact of the matter is, I just gotta suck it up, hold my breath, and dive in.

And with baby on the way, I have to consider the possibility that she will read it. That not only will she read it, but that she might have a daughter who might read it, who might also have a daughter who might read it, etc. etc. A basket. Within a basket. Within a basket. My offering.


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Diabetes, World War II, and a new poem

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This week, I’ll be spotlighting a poem I wrote a few weeks back that centers around two topics: World War II and diabetes.

So how are these two topics linked exactly?

First, let me describe my relationship to diabetes. Like many Micronesians, if I was told to think of my cultural foods, the comfort food that I grew up with, I would immediately think of tuna and rice drizzled with shoyu, or corned beef sizzling hot on a pan with slices of onion and scrambled eggs, or slices of spam that can be dipped in ketchup with a big heaping side of (you guessed it) more rice. In fact, just writing this is making my mouth water.

It wasn’t until I got to college that I was forced to confront these childhood delicious delicacies for what they really are: incredibly unhealthy dishes that has led me and my people down a really dangerous epidemic of diabetes. Don’t believe me? Read this article by Brenda Davis “Defeating Diabetes: Lessons from the Marshall Islands” http://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/072508p24.shtml where she writes:

“Imagine children indulging in popsicles and soda or eating ramen noodles with Kool-Aid powder sprinkled on top for breakfast. Picture families dining on white rice, meat, and sweet beverages for lunch and dinner every day. What kind of   meat? How about Spam, canned corned beef, chicken, fish, crab, octopus, and variety meats such as turkey tails or pig intestines?

Where do people eat this way? While our focus here is the Marshall Islands, similar dietary patterns are emerging in impoverished nations throughout the  Pacific and around the world.”

First of all – ok I totally cringed when I read this. I mean, way to make it all sound so horrible, like that’s all we ever eat ( I mean yea it’s a lot of what we eat but still). Second of all, don’t yuck our yum ok? KoolAid sprinkled in uncooked ramen is AMAZING. Actually, KoolAid on everything is amazing. But yeah, ok, I’ll admit, she has a point – it’s also outrageously terrible for you. Then she goes on and writes this:

“It would be difficult to design a diet that could more efficiently induce type 2 diabetes than the one the Marshallese people have adopted. Not surprisingly, the rates of type 2 diabetes   in this population are among the highest in the world. An estimated 28% of   individuals over the age of 15 have type 2 diabetes. For those older than 35, the figure is nearly 50%. Close to 75% of women and more than 50% of men are overweight or obese. Approximately one half of all surgeries performed on the island are amputations due to complications from diabetes. There are no facilities for renal dialysis.

Sixty years ago, diabetes was virtually unheard of in the Marshall Islands. People were slim and physically active and lived off the land.”

This, again, is sadly true, and very depressing to read. We DO have a huge epidemic of diabetes. To be real, one of our Ministers of Health at one point had to go around in a wheelchair because he lost his leg to diabetes. Yup – that says something right there. And because we have no dialysis in the Marshalls, many Marshallese have been forced to leave our home and immigrate here to the Hawai’i and the states to undergo these treatments. In fact, my uncle is one of those people. He’s lived in the Marshall Islands all of his life, in the same house, with the exact same arrangement of photographs and decorations for over 20 years. And now, he can’t even go back to visit his home because he needs treatment from dialysis three times a week. For the rest of his life. Some more heartless people might say – well that’s his fault. He should have known better. He should have taken better care of his health. He should have eaten better.

My uncle’s story isn’t the only story out there. So I found myself wondering – just where did this epidemic of diabetes come from? Why has our culture suddenly come to revolve around canned goods and imported foods? Like Davis writes in her article, “Sixty years ago diabetes was unheard of.”  If canned goods was something we were introduced to – just what were those circumstances?

I found my answer in a textbook. As a part of my research,  I’ve spent a good amount of time reading more about Marshallese history in the textbook Etto Nan Raan Kein A Marshall Islands History by Julianne Walsh – which you can find out more about here: http://www.yokwe.net/index.php?module=News&func=display&sid=3063

Despite the problems and controversy surrounding this textbook with some Marshallese following its release (don’t get me started on all of that), and despite my obviously biased opinion of it (my mom helped write it and Julie’s like an aunty to me) I’ve found it’s a really useful resource for historical accounts from other riMajel.

The one section which really captured my attention was the section focusing on World War II:

“The period of World War II, from 1941 to 1945, marks a turning point in Marshall Islands history. Marshallese refer to it as “ien pata eo.” During this time, riMajelwitnessed powers, weapons, machines, and violence in ways they had never imagined. Amphibious tanks that could travel on both water and land, airplanes that dropped bomb and after bomb of all types, ships that traveled beneath the surface of the water—all of these things were never seen before in the Marshall Islands. Further, the degree of destruction that they caused made people afraid for their lives and prompted them to wonder what the world would be like after the end of such devastation and madness. Japanese and American soldiers, uninvited and unwanted, fought each other in Marshallese lands, skies, and seas, and there was very little that the Marshallese people could do but try to stay out of the way. ” (249)

This is a pretty good summary of the role of islanders during World War II – just as “observers” and “bystanders” rather than active players in the pacific theater. Always the bridesmaid.

“I learned to picture Marshallese as happy bystanders, singing and cheering elatedly as these victors arrived, hands outstretched to receive chocolate bars and cans of spam—on the sidelines, watching the real world pass them by,”

writes Greg Dvorak in his article, “‘The Martial Islands’: Making Marshallese Masculinities Between American and Japanese Militarism.”

But what really struck me about this section was all the heartbreaking testimonies from rimajel who survived that era, how trapped, helpless and afraid so many of them were. Lautrok Lajikom remembers witnessing the American bombers who arrived at Jobwad, an atoll, and how he ran to the ocean side when he saw the planes and realized they were American bombers, and what happened after the bombs fell on his Arno house:

“When I went back to the house, everyone was lying around. Every one of them. There was no survivor. I remember all of them because I knew them all. They were all my relatives—all of my relatives were dead. The Majuro housing was also hit, but they had dug a hole for hiding. It was not as bad as the Arno house, but it was hit. The [Mile] house, too.”

As the fighting between the Japanese and Americans intensified, life on the atolls grew more desperate and more and more Marshallese along with Japanese were starving.

The treatment of many Marshallese by the Japanese was harsh. One irooj, Lankein, was accused of stealing rice from the Japanese, and Clancy Makroro, a witness to the event, describes the irooj’s punishment.

“They tied his feet and his head and strung him up with a rope and beat him. They beat him and asked him if he was the one, and if he was the one they would stop but, in truth, it was not him. They wanted him to say it was him, and they tried these things so that he would beg them to stop beating him. The Japanese themselves stole the rice, and they lied about the chief so that he would be hurt.” (266)

Marshallese weren’t allowed to leave the atoll even for fishing, because the Japanese were worried about traitors (it was this little morsel of information which ultimately inspired my poem). There were bans on fishing at night. Imagine not even being able to sustain yourself throughout these periods of starvation through the use of a skill you’ve always had: fishing.

The Japanese fear was so great that even family members who had been left behind by Marshallese deserters were severely punished:

I also got to read about my jimma Carl Heine, who was of German ancestry and, because he spoke English, was also executed by the Japanese. And his son, John Heine, was forced to flee and live in the outer islands in secret, hiding out from the Japanese until the Americans came. This is a story I’ve heard from my mother many times before- I even wrote a short story based on his bravery back in middle school.  I always knew about World War II, but learning about it from a Marshallese context made it really hit home, made me angry that we islanders who had nothing to do with this war were forced to bear such hardships. And that our stories are completely left out in history.

The history which led up to these points (the previous chapters) were almost boring in comparison with this chapter. The life of rimajel before World War II was so peaceful. I guess I was just being naïve, or just ill informed. But reading these hardships the rimajel had to endure filled me with so much sadness for my peaceful ancestors who were pawns in this global catastrophe of a war.

But I guess you’re wondering where diabetes comes into play in all of this. Well, enter the Americans – who liberated the Marshallese with what rimajel from the past remember as “towers and towers of food” – piles of food (K-rations) bigger than the buildings.

Imagine starving for months, bearing horrifying abuse and death after death, witnessing the power of bombs and weaponry you’d never seen before. And then all of a sudden – there’s all this food. From the Americans.

Call me crazy, but I personally have a theory that we riMajel, especially those generations who lived through World War II, are suffering from major issues of post traumatic stress disorder, and that many of our elders never really got over those intense periods of trauma. That’s why they (and as a result we) keep eating these types of food. This food became associated with liberation from fear, from death and from starvation. And they’ve held onto these associations, these destructive eating habits for so long that they were never able to let it go – and as a result, they’ve passed this type of eating to the next generation as well. To my generation. We eat these foods because they taste good to us, because it’s what our family eats. I don’t think of the fat clogging my arteries when I eat this food. I think of coming home after school, talking story with my dad while spam sizzles on the pan. I think about sharing biscuits dipped in carnation milk with my grandma, Bubu Namiko as she giggles and tells me that it’s her favorite. I think about fishing out on the lagoon at night (again with my dad), and eating scoops of tuna and rice while we wait for the fish to bite.

I’m not saying that we don’t hold any responsibility for this epidemic of diabetes. Of course we do. Many of my family members have eliminated white rice from their diets, and are limiting their reliance on canned foods, and are proponents of eating locally grown food instead. So yes, we need to take responsibility to change our lifestyle and our reliance.

It’s just that I also want people to know and acknowledge that there’s also a history of trauma which is embroiled in this type of eating, and that this history can’t be ignored. Whenever we discuss diabetes, a lot of the talk I hear is all about blaming Marshallese for just being indulgent, fat, and too lazy. But if we really take a step back and look at the bigger picture, we’ll see that there’s more to it than we realized. We’ll see that there’s this awful history of war, death, starvation and of course – colonization. These eating habits didn’t just arrive out of nowhere. Canned food didn’t just rain from the sky.

Or did they?

Hooked

I.

After he felt the rain of bombs

that left puddles of silver shrapnel, slivers of

splinters where houses once stood and charred

bodies – both japanese and marshallese –

After he watched soldiers shoot

a woman’s ears off

because her husband

was a deserter, an accused traitor,

After he watched his chief, strung up

by his ankles, beaten raw for stealing

from a dwindling supply of coconuts,

After fugitive nights, when fishing was banned,

when he’d slip onto the reef flat, breathless,

the moon curved, shining like

the outlawed fishhook, gripped tight

between his fingers

And after nights when even this

became dangerous, after the children

stopped asking for his stolen catch of fish,

after even they had withered away,

rows of ribs smiling

grotesque grins through skin

II.

After all of that

it must have seemed

heaven sent

a gift from God

this gift from the americans,

this shining tower

of food

placed before him

box after box after box

of canned spam, flaky biscuits

chocolate bars, dry sausages, hard candy and

bags and bags of rice all waiting

to be eaten

He remembers

he cried

it was so

beautiful

 

III.

Every day of the life he led after he remembers

that pile of food taller

than any building he had ever seen

He remembers it as he pops

open a can of vienna sausage, savors

the salty grease on his warm rice, the taste

of a filled belly

He remembers it as he slices spam, sizzling

hot on the pan, he remembers it

as he drizzles soy sauce

into a boiling pot of crispy ramen

IV.

And even after

his breathing

turns heavy

even after his joints protest the walk to the store

even after

the devious tingle trickled into his arms, even after

the doctors told him the leg

would have to go,

even then

he never

stopped

licking the grease

from his fingers

that still felt haunted

by the outlawed

hook.

V.

When his children asked him why

he wouldn’t, couldn’t listen, why

he kept eating the food his doctors

had prescribed against, even after

they begged

he merely

flexed

his restless

fingers.

He had been hungry.

He would never be hungry again.


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Capturing Waves of Change at the Palolo Ohana Learning Center (a workshop reflection)

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Yesterday wrapped up the end of a weeklong workshop on photography and poetry at the Palolo Ohana Learning Center – a center which caters to the Palolo Housing community here in Honolulu – entitled “Capturing Waves of Change” (pretty cliche of a title but hey, I was cramming during the application).

The workshop was funded by a grant from the Office of Student Equity Excellence and Diversity (SEED). In our short description of the project, I had written:

“The student organization Micronesian Connections wishes to partner with Palolo Ohana Learning Center to present a 5 day workshop targeting students from the Palolo Housing community of Micronesian Descent. The workshop will teach the basics of photography and poetry and will encourage participants to tell their own stories through these mediums. The workshop will culminate in a gallery showing open to the public and their families to present their works.”

For the most part, the workshop was able to accomplish these goals. We spent two days where Leonard Leon, another fellow Marshallese UH Manoa student, taught the section on photography. Leonard has been involved before with the Ohana Learning Center and has a lot of experience with both photography and film. The first two days – Thursday and Friday – was a basic introduction to the camera and different things to be aware of when taking photos. On Saturday, we gave cameras to the kids and had the kids walk around the neighborhood taking photos of anything that interested them.

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The last two days, Monday and Tuesday, focused on poetry, where Jason Mateo, co-founder of the spoken word organization Pacific Tongues, facilitated poetry workshops on the themes of acceptance and homeland. Pacific Tongues is an off-shoot of YouthSpeaks, but catered specifically to getting the spoken word medium to pacific communities.

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Since I’ve started writing, I’ve wondered how I could get other islanders, and specifically other Micronesians and Marshallese, to write also. And not just write but also do art. I love writing and art – I think it has the capacity to heal our wounds, to build bridges, and to make real change. But how do you get this sort of medium into our islander culture? Especially when that culture doesn’t seem to place much value on art. How do you encourage these shy, quiet Micronesians out of their shells so they can speak up in front of others, and to say something profound, honest, and bold? Our culture generally expects our youth to listen, and not be heard, and that speaking up and being critical, especially amongst our elders, is rude and disrespectful. Now I’m not saying I disagree with these values at all – it’s how I was raised for the most part too. But I do think it’s important to have a space where kids feel comfortable expressing themselves – where they can process the world around them freely without judgement.

Some of the things the participants wrote about shocked me. Many wrote about death in their families – one about suicide. Another had a line in his writing where he said, “People from my homeland don’t have the right bodyparts, and that’s why they come to Hawaii.” To an outsider, and without context, that line might not mean much. But it was clear to me that he was alluding to how often Micronesians need to immigrate to Hawaii because of inadequate health care back home.

The workshop wasn’t perfect by any means – there was quite a bit of disorganization and last minute issues, inconsistent attendance of students, and the workshops themselves could do with a bit of tweaking. But I’m hoping to have more workshops like these specifically for the Palolo Ohana Learning Center. When I first stepped foot inside that center, and saw all these Micronesian kids on computers, running around with that same comb in their hair, their slippers, their fingers coated with kool-aid – it just felt like coming home. Like this is where I wanted to be.


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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: Bursts of Bianca

When you come through the door, she

is a burst

of smiles sunny afternoons giggle glitter

and deepdeep eyes deepdeep dimples

that radiate

from her

starchy

crinkled gown

She is 10

you see

the feeding tube snaking into her nose

the iv that breaks into the skin of her wrist

the twist of her fists in her sheets

But don’t feel too much just listen

because she’s trying to tell you a story

about the day she was sent to the principal’s office

for yelling at a boy who was copying her answers

a dumb boy who

(obviously)

liked her

The nurse breezes in and you

are startled but she

keeps going

she never complains

about the

chemotherapy she just

keeps going

This is not uncommon

You remind yourself

This situation?

Not so rare

Most Marshallese

can say they’ve mastered the language of cancer

Bianca doesn’t know much English

and yet she knows

what blood cells means

what bone marrow, catheter

and remission therapy means

You think about this as you stare at Bianca

Rainbows of beads budding across blanket

But today you and Bianca will not

be discussing the effects of nuclear testing

Or colonization

Or the cancers that shadow your people

Instead you will discuss the contours

Of Spongebob

You will construct paper card castles

Craft the best pudding and ketchup stew

Kaleidoscope colors across her nails

Use her blanket for a sail

You won’t talk about her aches

her untouched plate

the sunrays she can no longer seek

the funeral that chokes your dreams

and when visiting hours are over it’s

not easy

its harder than you’d think

The nuzzled kiss

The frumpled tight tight hug

The cross your heart pinky promise

You’ll be back

Yes you promise

You promise and promise her

You will

be back

And as you leave

the door clicks shut behind you

and suddenly

its harder to breathe


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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.


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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

website

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

Crossroads

and Ivy

quotes from generals like

                90,000 people are out there.

               Who

                cares?

 

I’m not mad at all

really

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

shores

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

brilliant

as an aurora borealis woven

beneath a glassy sea

               

                                God will thank you

they told us

yea

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

waiting

for my people

to vomit

vomit

vomit

all of humanity’s sins

onto impeccable white shores gleaming

like the cross

burned

into our

open

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.

                Thousands

                of letters flew in from America

                protesting

 

                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

15

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

FOR THE GOOD OF MANKIND

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

Yea…

but it wasn’t really

for the good of mankind, though

was it?

And I lost.


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poem: Lessons from Hawaii

Lessons from Hawaii

 

LESSON NUMBER 1:

FUCKIN MICRONESIANS!

that’s my seventh grade friend

cussin at the boys across the street

rockin swap meet blue t-shirt

baggy jeans

spittin a steady beetlenut stream

yea one of them’s related to me

You know, you’re actually

kinda smart

for a Micronesian

And that’s my classmate

who I tutor through the civil war

through the first immigrants

through history that always

seems to repeat itself

LESSON NUMBER 2:

Micronesian

MICRO(nesian)

as in small. tiny

crumbs of islands scattered

across the pacific ocean.

different countries/nations/cultures no one

has heard about / cares about too

small

to notice. small like how

i feel

when woman at the salon

delicately tracing white across my nail

stops and says

you know you don’t look

Micronesian.

                        You’re much prettier!

 

LESSON NUMBER 3:

Prettier

as in

not

ugly

like those

other

Micronesian girls

who are always walking by the street smiling

rows of gold teeth like they got

no shame with hair greased and braided cascading

down dirt roads of brown skin, down

shimmering dresses called guams and neon colored chuukese skirts

and i can hear

the disgust

in my cousin’s voice

Look at those girls! They wear their guams

to school and to the store like they’re

at home don’t they

know?

This isn’t their country this is America see that’s

why everyone here hates

us Micronesians

 

LESSON NUMBER 4:

I’ll tell you

why everyone here hates

Micronesians

It’s cuz we’re neon colored skirts screaming DIFFERENT!

Different like that ESL kid

whose name you can’t pronounce

whose accent you can’t miss

Different like walmart/7-eleven/mickey D’s parking lot kick its and fights

those long hours

those blue collar nights

Different like parties

with hundreds of swarming aunties, uncles, cousins

sticky breadfruit drenched in creamy coconut

coolers of our favorite fish

wheeled from the airport

barbequed on a spit

my uncle waving me over

Dede a itok! Kejro mona!

Dede come! Let’s eat!

LESSON NUMBER 5:

Headline:

NO ALOHA FOR MICRONESIANS IN HAWAII

Headline:

MICRONESIANS RUN UP HEFTY HEALTH CARE TAB

Headline:

MICRONESIANS FILL HOMELESS SHELTERS

Quote:

We shoulda jus nuked their islands when we had the chance!

Quote:

You know, they’re better off living homeless in Hawai’i

then they are living in their own islands

Joke:

Eh, eh – why did

the Micronesian man marry

a monkey?

Because all Micronesian women are monkeys!

What?

Can’t you take a joke?

LESSON NUMBER 6:

It’s actually

NOT Micronesian

It’s Marshallese/Chuukese/Yapese/Pohnpeian

Palauan/Kosraean/Chamorru/Nauruan/Kiribati/

but when Hawaii insists

on lumping us

all together

when they belittle us and tell us we’re small

when they tell us our people are small

when they give you a blank face

when they give you a closed door

when so many

in Hawaii

hate

Micronesians

when so many

hate

us

LESSON NUMBER 7:

That’s how I learned

That’s how I learned

That’s how I learned

to hate

me.

* for more information on racism against micronesians in hawaii check out this article:

http://www.civilbeat.com/articles/2011/06/20/11650-no-aloha-for-micronesians-in-hawaii/