microwomen everywhere

i’ve just come back from a 48 hour academic writing retreat with some colleagues and students. before i unplugged and re-oriented myself towards long overdue and neglected projects, i was excited by some of the stuff that was coming through my social media feeds, which made me think that this might just be the year it rained microwomen!

the first micronesian item to come through my feed earlier this week was this interview with milañ loeak, a young woman from the marshall islands who was one of 30 activists from the pacific who this past october raised a significant amount of international awareness about climate change by paddling canoes out into a major australian port to blockade the huge ships that export coal from there. this was part of a campaign organized by the international NGO 350.org :

the next micronesian item to come through my feed was a notice about a documentary that had won a special prize from connect4climate, a group funded by the world bank and the italian ministry of environment. the film was made by victoria burns, a young woman of i-kiribati and british heritage living in england. you can read the story here. watch the film titled “tinau* (my mother)” here:

what immediately struck me about milañ, victoria and her mother, was the quiet gentleness of their voices. but there was also no mistaking their strength.

as a feminist i’m interested in all kinds of voices–not just the loud ones, or the eloquent ones. in her signature essay “situated knowledges”, donna haraway helped name this interest for me when she described feminism’s love of “the sciences and politics of interpretation, translation, stuttering, and the partly understood.” (1988:589) you can get a pdf of the article here.

while milañ never missed a beat in her interview, what was unusual was her pacing. this was not going to be one of those rapid fire angry activist interviews–and the interviewer has to be commended, too. he seemed at ease with the pace and tone that milañ was setting. it was slow and fluid, almost underwater-like.

the documentary by victoria burns, however, really captured for me some of the issues of “interpretation, translation, stuttering and the partly understood” that haraway believes feminism loves. and victoria explored these issues with such tenderness and self-reflexivity. i wept. i wept for victoria’s mother. i wept for kiribati. i wept for climate change. i wept for the stuttering, for the misunderstanding. at first the contrast between victoria’s polished english accent and her mother’s halting cobbling together of kiribati and english is painfully poignant. but finally i wept at the amazing possibilities of interpretation and translation that victoria had on the tip of her own tongue. ko rangi ni bati, neiko! e rarabwa te tamnei ae ko raweia!

victoria’s and milañ’s work, of course, remind me of the work of their respective compatriots pelenise alofa pilitati (from kiribati) and kathy jet nil-kijiner (from the marshall islands), both of whom i have blogged about: giving thanks for microwomen  and giving thanks for microwomen 2 (or, hey, that climate warrior is my grandmother!)

but wouldn’t you know? there are even more microwomen out there! check out “the little island that could”, which is a blog i’ve started following by a young woman of i-kiribati and australian heritage named marita.

so you see why i was excited before going on my retreat on monday. i could not wait to come back, plug in and write up this blog. but when i returned, the next micronesian item that came through my feed took the shine off my microwomen euphoria: on november 3 of this year, the u.s. supreme court ruled that the state of hawai`i is not required to provide medical benefits to citizens of the federated states of micronesia, palau or the marshall islands: story here.

while it may seem like global media is paying more attention and giving a bit of air time to micronesians speaking up about climate change lately…there are some issues for micronesians, particularly in the u.s., that the media have either been part of the problem on or simply have not helped with. my microbruddah, joakim peter, has put a massive effort into the campaign for access to medical benefits for micronesians in hawai`i. and a polynesian ally, kat lobendahn has been instrumental in mobilizing protests and helping to facilitate community discussion around derogatory comments about micronesians in the hawai`i media, and the ongoing racism faced by micronesians in hawai`i. check out some of the stories here.

in more poetic forms of activism, kathy jetnil-kijiner and guam-based pohnpeian writer emelihter kihleng have addressed some of the discrimination and stigma micronesians have been facing in hawai`i. check out emelihter’s poem “the micronesian question” here.

and kathy’s poem “lessons from hawai`i” here:

i use both these poems in my teaching at university in aotearoa new zealand. but having lived outside of the u.s. for close to 20 years now, i’m still learning about the more recent struggles of micronesian migrant communities over there.

so, i started out wanting to celebrate “microwomen everywhere”, and ended up being rudely reminded that for some, seeing “micronesians everywhere” may not be something to celebrate. but as we like to say down under: stuff ’em.

go micro! there’s plenty more to come!

*that’s pronounced see-now, just as kiribati is pronounced kiri-bassey or kiri-bass (as in the fish, not the instrument)…heavy sigh.

microwomen everywhere

giving thanks for microwomen 2 (or, hey, that climate warrior is my grandmother!)

another micronesian woman who attended the 2014 people’s climate march in new york last week was pelenise alofa pilitati.

watch a clip of pelenise in nyc <– here

she arrived in new york after traveling to the arctic as part of a delegation with the president of kiribati, sponsored by greenpeace. the fates of the equatorial coral atolls of kiribati and the icy polar continent of the arctic are irrevocably bound. and the official images released by greenpeace to the press are certainly dramatic. here is one of them:

kiribati president anote tong in the arctic 2014, greenpeace international image, photo by christian aslund

here’s a photograph of pelenise with the president and other members of the kiribati delegation against the same polar  backdrop.

photograph of kiribati delegation to the arctic 2014
photograph of kiribati delegation to the arctic 2014, used here with permission of pelenise alofa pilitati

i first met pelenise a few years ago, when oxfam organized a panel discussion on climate change here in wellington. she was one of the speakers flown in especially for the panel. fiery and eloquent, pelenise was impressive, but she took me by surprise when she turned her focus from the climate change threats facing the atolls of kiribati to the history of environmental destruction and social dislocation caused by phosphate mining on the high island of banaba. as someone with both banaban and kiribati heritage, i was keen to find an opportunity to talk more with pelenise after the panel. before i could open my mouth to introduce myself to her, she grabbed my arm, and exclaimed, “we are family! you should call me kaka. i am your grandmother!” needless to say, i was blown away: already in awe of this climate warrior and now she was telling me that in banaban kinship terms, she was my grandmother??!!

as pelenise and i talked, i realized that although i had not met her while i was growing up, she had grown up around my father and aunts and uncles on rabi in fiji. i had, however, met her sister roere when i visited nauru in 1997. i had thought of roere as another aunt, and she had been very kind to me on nauru, even staying in touch and sending me gifts when i returned to fiji. roere had struggled on nauru to support her diabetic husband until he died and she eventually joined him from complications with the disease herself. as my dad explained to me later, my great-grandfather was cousins with pelenise and roere’s mother. and that’s how they are technically my grandmothers.

after we met in wellington, i was excited to get to hear pelenise speak once more, this time at the 2010 pasifika festival in auckland. i think you can even hear me cheering in the background of this clip!

i like this clip because pelenise really encourages pacific people to get informed about the issues around climate change, and most importantly, start discussing them amongst our families and communities. you often hear people criticizing ‘all talk and no action’. gee, what i’d give for even some talk about climate change amongst pacific people in aotearoa new zealand!

those familiar with the languages of the pacific will have noticed that pelenise’s name is much more polynesian sounding than micronesian. it is in fact a tuvaluan name, from her father’s side of the family. tuvalu, of course, is as much on the front-line of climate change effects as kiribati; but tuvalu is classified as polynesian, and kiribati micronesian. in future posts, i’ll address some of the issues that surround the melanesian, micronesian and polynesian geo-political and cultural categories that have come to mean both so much and so little in our big ocean. in the meantime, i bask in the fiery glory of my grandmother, and give thanks for another microwoman.

giving thanks for microwomen 2 (or, hey, that climate warrior is my grandmother!)

giving thanks for microwomen

last week was pretty big for microwomen. one microwoman in particular got to lead a four hundred thousand-strong people’s climate march in new york city and address world leaders at the united nations climate summit. kathy jetnil-kijiner is a 26 year-old poet, activist and educator from the marshall islands, and a master’s graduate of the center for pacific islands studies at the university of hawai’i. selected from over 500 nominees to represent civil society, kathy’s speech at the u.n. garnered the uncommon honor in that forum of a standing ovation. kathy’s message acknowledged the ravages of climate change in islands across the pacific, while asserting a resolute optimism and faith in world leaders’ ability to make the policy and practical changes necessary to stem the rising tides. kathy was breathtaking in her confidence, her poise, even her fragility. if you haven’t yet, you have to see it for yourself:

watching kathy speak and perform poetry at the un, i couldn’t help but recall another occasion when a woman of the marshall islands compelled a global audience to listen. in 1983, darlene keju, addressed the world council of churches conference in vancouver on her country’s post-world war two experiences of nuclear and missile testing. in the youtube clip below, darlene’s speech is prefaced with an introduction by a samoan anglican bishop named jabez bryce, who invokes the poetry of flower and shell garlands or lei, followed by a group presentation of an anti-nuclear message from the people of the pacific.

darlene died thirteen years after she gave this speech at the wcc. in the face of the kind of desiccating colonialism that is very particular to the united states, she inspired marshall islanders, micronesians, pacific islanders, and citizens of the world to see through the “american dream”…and “dream good dreams again,” as the late maori poet hone tuwhare would say. last year, darlene’s husband published a biography detailing her extraordinary life, titled don’t ever whisper: darlene keju, pacific health pioneer, champion for nuclear survivors. kathy jetnil-kijiner was one of the first to review the book. you can read her review here.

two micronesian women. one took on nuclear colonialism. one is taking on environmental… [what do you call this insanity?]…imperialism? big stuff. but not too big for women from small islands used to living–and thriving–in the world’s largest ocean.

***

postscript: although the nuclear testing that darlene testified about before the wcc has ceased, depressingly, the missile testing she also discussed continues to this day. in fact, on the same day that kathy gave her speech at the un, the us air force launched an intercontinental ballistic missile from vandenburg air force base in california aimed at kwajalein in the marshall islands. our struggle is complex. and it continues.

giving thanks for microwomen