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Multi-National Reading: Marshall Islands

December 10, 2015


Continuing my year-long commitment to reading multi-national literature, I turn to the Marshall Islands. It’s been a busy week with the COP21 Climate Talks going on, and fascism growing in this country, so I share a powerful poem from Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a poet and climate activist from the Marshall Islands. The text is below (copied from DemocracyNow!), but Kathy’s voice must be heard.

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 descendants
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 Kool-Aid 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.

Thank you. And this is why I support the divestment campaign to support our islands so we don’t have to leave from our islands. So that we can do whatever we can to save our islands. Thank you.

I also shared with my own son a few traditional stories re-told for children. The Whale and the Sandpiper is a haunting tale in light of the final days of COP21. And the trickster tale The Hermit Crab and the Needlefish a narrative about social movements.

More by Marshallese poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner:






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