Iep Jāltok—Poems from a Marshallese Daughter: Kathy Jetn̄il-Kijiner

Published by the University of Arizona Press

From 1946 to 1958, the United States tested 67 nuclear weapons in what is now the Marshall Islands, an event which seems to have slipped into the mists of history. But it is still very real for the islanders, as Kathy Jetn̄il-Kijiner, a Marshallese poet, points out. As is the threat of climate change. In this review, I am going to let the poetry speak for itself.

When she was 15, Jetn̄il-Kijiner decided to do a school project on the nuclear tests. She writes about looking through photographs of

“american marines and nurses branded
white with bloated grin sucking
beers and tossing beach balls along
our shores
and my island ancestors, cross-legged
before a general listening
to his fairy tale
about how it’s
            for the good of mankind
to hand over our islands
let them blast
radioactive energy
into our sleepy 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.”

The fallout from the nuclear blast is still wreaking havoc. The islanders suffer from its fallout: cancer has killed many of them, including Jetn̄il-Kijiner’s niece Bianca, little Bianca who loved to eat fish, who was “a burst/of smiles sunny afternoons giggles glitter/and deepdeep eyes deepdeep dimples/that radiate from her”. The poem Bursts of Bianca (from where these quotes are taken) is a heart-breaking account of the contrast between the sunny child who talks about SpongeBob and builds paper castles—the things a child would normally do—and the reality of IV drips and chemotherapy. As Jetn̄il-Kijiner says, “Most Marshallese/can say they’ve mastered the language of cancer”.

When Jetn̄il-Kijiner moves to the US, she has to contend with being different, with all the hate and discrimination that it can bring.

“It’s cuz we’re neon colored skirts screaming

Different like parties
with hundreds
of swarming aunties, uncles, cousins
sticky breadfruit drenched in creamy coconut”

You get a real sense of the islands and their people, and of the dangers that threaten them: not just the nuclear fallout but also the rising seas and climate change. These poems are a call to the world to really see the small islands and acknowledge the existence of these vibrant places, islands that look on the map like “crumbs you/dust off a table”; to realize

“that beyond
the discussions
and statistics
there are faces
all the way out here
there is
a toddler
stomping squeaky
yellow light up shoes
across the edge of a reef

not yet
under water”

Jetn̄il-Kijiner performed her poem to her daughter, Dear Matafele Peinam, to over 100 world leaders at the 2014 United Nations Climate Summit in New York. In the poem, she promises her daughter to fight so that no more people become climate refugees:

“because we deserve
to do more
than just
we deserve
to thrive”

Almost a decade later, her message still resonates.

These poems do not always make easy reading—Jetn̄il-Kijiner deals with some difficult issues—but they are urgent and beautiful, and hers is a voice that needs to be heard.

Note: Iep jāltok (pronounced yiyip jalteq) means “a basket whose opening is facing the speaker” and is used to refer to girls and to the Marshallese matrilineal society.

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