Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner

a basket of writing from author Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner


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.





Lavender Saltwater (a poem)

These past few weeks I’ve been totally swamped with preparations for Global Divestment Day (which you can read more about here: http://www.trust.org/item/20150209145810-c47vs), prepping for a few trips coming up, and also, most importantly, preparing for my daughter’s first birthday.

For those who don’t know, first birthdays are a HUGE deal for Marshallese. First birthdays, or kemem, as we call them, are the superbowl of marshallese parties. We go alll out. Most kemems cater to over a thousand people. Ours is considered “small” (we’re expecting 200-300 people). When the kemem is announced, pigs are roasted, fish are cooked in the earth, pineep or coconut oil are bottled as gift giveaways, family members spend weeks practicing dance routines for the big night, and baby’s face adorns stickers, huge banners, balloons, tshirts, invitations, cakes and cupcake toppers. And everyone – and I mean everyone – is invited. It’s all about coming together as a community – all to celebrate this beautiful child in our life.

In honor of baby’s kemem, I’m posting a quick poem I wrote about her birth. Some of these lines were actually written in the delivery room (I typed them into my phone). It’s dedicated to my friend Grace who was our family’s doula, who helped guide me through the scariest, most painful, most rewarding journey I’ve ever been on.

Lavender Salt-Water

Waves of



into me

crack me

open split

down the middle

I imagine

the eruption: a bulging

sack of slime and blood and


Do not measure

the breaths the minutes

the hours of clenched

fists curled toes

eyes pinched

shut tight


Just inhale

the saving


of hot towels

dipped in sweet lavender

Dream of saltwater

orange fruit and sunsets

uncle clyde aunty kaka

mom hetine tamera

baby dukie all of us

that one picnic afternoon

that ordinary sunday

just think

of her

seeing it all


and when she

is pulled

from my body

an army of white

coats shout

an order:




And there she is.


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“My Rosy Cousin” wins 3rd place in UH Poetry Contest


So I just found out that a poem I had written about one of my crazier cousins won 3rd place in a University of Hawaii writing contest called the Ian MacMillan Writing Award. The writing contest is sponsored by the English Department and it’s open to the public, not just students. You can find out more info about the award here: http://www.kaleo.org/hawaii_review/ian_macmillan/ I had submitted that piece on a fluke, and really hadn’t expected it to win so it was a very nice surprise! Not to mention the other poets who won 2nd and 1st place – Lyz Soto and Rajiv Mohabir, are phenomenal poets whom I really admire.

One of the first things I had to do when I first found out I won, was facebook message my cousin and let her know I had written about her. This brought back a memory from a few years ago when one of my cousins mentioned off handedly that, “You have to watch what you say around Dede – she might write about you.” (quick fyi – Dede is my family nickname. It’s Marshallese and it’s a sort of shorthand of the way one might pronounce Kathy with a Marshallese accent.) “You have to watch what you say around Dede – she might write about you,” sounds pretty close to threatening – kinda funny.

Which brings to mind a few issues with writing in general. Namely, what to do when you want to write about family members – and it isn’t always the rosiest picture? What kinds of responsibility do you have to take for airing out the skeletons in your family’s closet?

I know that for my poetry, I’ve been very selective with what I’ve shared and what I haven’t.

And yet, I also wish I could just publish and write anything without having to worry – there are a lot of conversations revolving around abuse and addiction that I wish was more openly discussed. In my mind, it just seems healthier to acknowledge these struggles and talk through them rather than sweeping them under the rug and pretending they don’t exist. How will we ever find solutions to our problems if we don’t acknowledge them?

Either way, in the end I would always choose to put my family’s needs first. So if they don’t want a particular piece out there, then I would respect their wishes. This means taking the crucial step of sharing their poems with them – which is incredibly scary for me, but might ultimately lead to healing as well (at least I hope so. I haven’t tried often enough just yet).

Anyways, luckily my cousin loved the poem when I showed it to her. She said it’s not only true but really funny. I was worried she might not like it or might be offended by it – it’s pretty raw and honest to be real and not all of it is super flattering (eg – sections which highlight my experiences with her drunken nights – which were actually pretty entertaining if you understand Marshallese and if you knew her. “Kwonej loe” translates to “You’ll see” – a very infamous and common Marshallese threat older siblings and parents use all the time).

To be real, though, the poem commemorates an important relationship I had growing up. My cousin, with all her beautiful imperfections, had a huge influence on the way I was shaped and how I saw the world, even when it meant being bullied for being the “white” one of the family because I liked poetry and piano (we can go into internalized racism on another post lol that would take a while) or how she re-introduced me to rebellion and alcoholism (the funny bits), family shaming (also funny – in a heartbreaking sort of way at times), and how we processed living in the diaspora (“doesn’t that sound just like home?” was a line we constantly repeated – how home, the Marshall Islands, was constantly in our thoughts, even when we were so far away).

Either way,  it wasn’t all bullying and somewhat unhealthy dynamics – it was through her that I first learned about the Pacific Island studies department at UH – that there were actually Pacific people who studied our cultures and histories. She was the one who introduced me to the pacific greats such as Albert Wendt, Sia Figiel, Epeli Hau’ofa. She also continues to be known as the best storyteller in our family, hands down – no one can tell a story about any of our aunties and cousins and grandparents the way that she does. She can get the entire room rolling on the floor laughing.

So here’s “My Rosy Cousin” in it’s entirety:

My Rosy Cousin

My cousin is bloody roses tatted / on her ankle / her knuckles

white as rice / gripping the steering wheel / cruising

thru manoa / sunglasses ignoring those redred lights

My cousin is one cold pepsi one chocolate hershey bar /

the daily ransom for driving me to school / lets make

a quickstop / pitstop / 7eleven / gimme your money /

you live with your parents / you don’t gotta pay rent

My cousin is four a.m. taptaptaps on the window / slurred threats /

Koppeloke kojem en/ kwonej loe / passed out on the front lawn / 

mom’s pissed again / ritto bata tossed between aunties lips /

when will she ever learn / coffee cups and morning gossip

My cousin is bullying / dede you’re so stupid / dede you’re so useless /

other times she cuts/ straight thru bone / dede you’re as white / white /

white as they come / i mean what other marshallese writes /

poetry and plays piano

My cousin goes to college / talks about classes with hawaiian professors

and tongan scholars / tells us tragic samoan love stories and funny

fijian satires / doesn’t that sound just like home / doesn’t that sound just like Majuro

My cousin is foreign movie nights / dvds from the sinclair library / porcelain

women and hibiscus lipstick / arched bare backs against dew drop mountains /

thick cigars and smoky brothels / how we swoon over those poetic subtitles

My cousin asked me to write a poem / a poem about her / so i said that i would /

a poem about how i bloomed / inside her voice / how i was also pruned /

cut raw / dripping bloody / just like her ankle red roses

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Birthing a Manuscript, Birthing for Real


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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Video Interview on Olelo TV

So this is a bit late but I was interviewed this past summer by my friend Joachim “Jojo” Peter and filmed by another friend, Leonard “Leni” Leon, for their show “Micronesian Connections.” This is a really awesome show that generally features thoughtful interviews facilitated by Jojo with a focus on Micronesian leaders and Micronesian issues. I have a lot of respect for both Jojo and Leni, who are extremely active in the community here in Hawai’i and are always attempting to make things better for our people. We talked about how I got into poetry, what I believe poetry can do, and also what I’ve been researching about Marshallese chanting and storytelling. To check it out, click the link below:

Olelo interview


Diabetes, World War II, and a new poem


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?



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


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




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


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


licking the grease

from his fingers

that still felt haunted

by the outlawed



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


his restless


He had been hungry.

He would never be hungry again.


The Micronesian Question

On Tuesday my class, “Contemporary Pacific Poetry and Poetics” (with my instructor Craig Santos Perez, Chamorro poet activist and scholar) finally got to the section on Micronesian Poetry. Our assignments to prepare for that section was to

  1. Read Pohnpeian poet Emelihter Kihleng’s book “My Urohs” http://www.amazon.com/My-Urohs-Emelihter-Kihleng/dp/0979378834,
  2. Read her poem “The Micronesian Question” http://tinfishpress.com/?page_id=512
  3. Watch this  video:
    which is called “Micronesians Abroad,” a film produced by the Micronesian Seminar:http://www.micsem.org/video/videotapes/49.htm.

As a Marshallese raised in Hawaii, I know all about the “Micronesians Abroad” experience. And ever since I came out with my youtube video “Lessons from Hawaii”


I’ve placed myself into the stream of discussion about racism against Micronesians in Hawai’i. I feel like I’ve had this discussion so much, that it’s just ingrained in me. Which is why a small part of me was still a little shocked when I heard one of my classmates admit that they had no idea this was a problem that actually existed.

So first and foremost – yes racism against Micronesians in Hawai’i exists. It’s wrong. It’s not right. And it has had an incredibly damaging effect on my community.

When I first came to Hawai’i, I didn’t know I was inferior – but I soon learned to adopt that mindset. I was told to speak more English. I was made fun of for my accent. I was always left out, for reasons I couldn’t fully grasp. Teachers were constantly surprised at my ability to succeed. I was told I wasn’t Marshallese – that Micronesian was easier to understand. I was the only Micronesian in my entire school, and there were cultural markers about me that separated me. I felt like “the other” without really being able to articulate what that meant.

My cousins in public schools had it way worse. They were spit on in hallways, jumped in the corners, pulled into fights, bullied and harassed. My cousin was placed in English as a Second Language class for an entire year, without any questions asked, before her teacher finally realized she could actually speak fluent English.

And this is just scratching the surface. There is an institution of racism against us that exists, that I soon became aware of through newspapers, and overhearing heating discussions from the adults around me. Newspaper headlines that shamed us – “Micronesians Fill Homeless Shelters” “Micronesians Run Hefty Health Care Tabs.” When a Micronesian boy was cornered by a group of his peers and took out a knife to defend himself, the media and overall reaction focused not on the fact that this was one kid being targeted by a group, but that he was Micronesian and was wielding a knife – thus another stereotype – the knife-wielding Micro.

We seem to be the problem that needs fixing.

Within all of these discussions that centered around “The Micronesian Problem,” our voices were generally absent, deemed unnecessary. And so our history was also ignored. A history that explained our need for migration and survival, a history of colonization, dispossession, and war – which left our countries crippled. This racism is also portrayed in how we’ve been revoked rights to healthcare benefits that we need to simply live.

This is an article where I was interviewed recently, which explains some of that history, along with the history of civil rights struggle since:


When I came out with my video poem, I basically exploded into this discussion, and became a public voice for this debate. My friends who helped me produce this video at the Fourth Branch all knew that this poem would be pretty controversial – some people might get it, some people might not. One thing’s for sure – the poem is angry, visceral, and in-your-face. I know this. But this is how I felt. This was – is – my true story. And I wanted more people to talk about this issue – because it felt like it was the elephant in the room. And I honestly feel that if we don’t talk about it – we’ll never heal. We’ll never move past it. And I didn’t want that kind of hatred to live in other Micronesian kids raised in Hawai’i – the way it lived inside of me for so long. I didn’t want them to hate their own culture, or lose their language and connection to their homeland, because of this hatred.

After this poem came out, I got requests to perform it at other places – at UH Hilo for a conference on pacific islanders in higher education, and also at UH Manoa, Chaminade and high school classrooms where people were learning and talking about this issue. Because of this poem, people have facebook messaged me, emailed me, found this blog. They’ve written to tell me their stories – how they’ve been judged in their workplaces, overheard coworkers making fun of Micronesians when they didn’t know their audience included a Micronesian, how they were always looked down on in school, how they got bullied by teachers, how this story resonated with them and moved them. They’ve hugged me after my performances, they’ve even cried during my performances. Each interaction is humbling, and gratifying. It tells me that my decision to put out this poem, to write this poem, was the right decision.

At the same time, however, these experiences can also be draining. It opens old wounds. Just when I figured that I’ve put that trauma behind me, someone comes up to me and tells me about their friends who hate other Micronesians, about their family members who discourage them from dating a Micronesian boy, they ask about why other Micronesian families seem to just drink and do nothing. I hear these stories, these questions, and I always try my best to stay patient, to listen and understand that all they’re trying to do is understand as well. But it hurts. Every time. It brings me back to my own past traumas every time.

At class we discussed how Emelihter’s poem and my poem are super raw, angry, and in-your-face. One of my classmates asked if we felt that this was an appropriate way to facilitate discussions, if this is the right approach.

My response was that yes – it had to happen. We needed to shatter the façade that this sort of behavior is tolerable and okay – that it doesn’t incite rage, hurt, betrayal in our people. So yes, I stand by Emelihter’s poem and my poem.

However, I also believe that now that we’ve created the space to start talking, that it’s time to keep moving forward and to begin a process of conversations between ourselves and the communities we’ve come to live with. It’s time to begin a process of healing. So the next Micronesian Question should be: what’s the next step?

The fight for civil rights isn’t over. If you go to the COFACAN website http://www.healthypacific.org/1/post/2013/06/convening-for-justice-cofa-can-meeting-this-saturday-june-8-kkua-kalihi-valley.html, you can find out more about what needs to be done so that Micronesians can receive access to the same health care benefits amongst other things, and why this is necessary and why we more than deserve it. This is definitely an integral part of the next step.

Frrom my work with other indigenous activists – Hawaiians and Chamorros, especially, I also have begun to reconsider another part of the next step – our role as immigrants to the indigenous communities whose land we’ve settled on as well. Our communities have been fighting for so long that we’ve forgotten that there’s a common enemy, that we have a shared history of colonization. How do we look at the bigger picture? What can we do to help our Pacific Islander brothers and sisters who have lost their lands? How do we support them, and have them support us?

I have no answers for these questions, but they’re all different facets  to the other Micronesian Questions out there.

I left class with wounds reopened, but also with a determination to move forward. There is more than one Micronesian Question that we’ll have to answer – and it’s time to consider all the different layers to this issue.

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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.

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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: