Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner

a basket of writing from author Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner

1 Comment

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


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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


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


and Ivy

quotes from generals like

                90,000 people are out there.




I’m not mad at all


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


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


as an aurora borealis woven

beneath a glassy sea


                                God will thank you

they told us


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


for my people

to vomit



all of humanity’s sins

onto impeccable white shores gleaming

like the cross


into our


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.


                of letters flew in from America



                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


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


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


but it wasn’t really

for the good of mankind, though

was it?

And I lost.


poem: Lessons from Hawaii

Lessons from Hawaii




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




as in small. tiny

crumbs of islands scattered

across the pacific ocean.

different countries/nations/cultures no one

has heard about / cares about too


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


                        You’re much prettier!




as in



like those


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


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

why everyone here hates

us Micronesians



I’ll tell you

why everyone here hates


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!









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


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

then they are living in their own islands


Eh, eh – why did

the Micronesian man marry

a monkey?

Because all Micronesian women are monkeys!


Can’t you take a joke?


It’s actually

NOT Micronesian

It’s Marshallese/Chuukese/Yapese/Pohnpeian


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



when so many




That’s how I learned

That’s how I learned

That’s how I learned

to hate


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