On Sept. 23, 2014, Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner stood before a room full of world leaders. She was in New York to read them a poem—a poem that would, hopefully, shake them to act. They were convening for the U.N. Climate Summit to discuss the Paris Agreement, which they would ultimately sign two years later.
Jetñil-Kijiner didn’t let their power intimidate her. She spoke fiercely and lovingly. The poem was an ode to her daughter, then only a seven-month-old baby. She’s now a seven-year-old girl. Many of the issues Jetñil-Kijiner raised then—sea level rise, immoral companies, climate refugees—still exist today. As do the movements she uplifts, too, including youth petitioners, protesters, and sustainable farmers. Her words still ring true: “we deserve to do more than just/survive/we deserve/to thrive.”
Welcome to The Frontline, where you’ll hear from Jetñil-Kijiner. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Jetñil-Kijiner was born on the Marshall Islands and raised in Hawaii. She continues to write and perform poetry, but she’s also currently the director of Jo-Jikum, a group dedicated to educating and empowering Marshallese youth, as well as climate envoy for the Marshall Islands Ministry of Environment.
The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Given that you come from one of the islands and, as you’ve said, one of the islands under occupation, how do you relate to so-called America and your Islander/American identity? Is there anything you hope the public learns this month given the severe impact this region of the world faces due to the climate crisis?
I was raised in America, so a lot of my values, a lot of the ways in which I carry myself, a lot of the cultural touchstones that shaped who I am, they come from America. It’s unavoidable. The first time I experienced a loss of language was because I was raised in America. At the same time, I recently went back to the Marshalls and started working more in the Pacific region, learning Pacific studies and shifting my work to focus on the Marshall Islands. On a personal level, I’ve been trying to de-center America away from my focus.
America sees itself as central to world politics, and in a lot of ways, it really is. It shaped so much of who we are—even here in the Marshall Islands. We pay attention to what’s happening in the U.S. because it has repercussions. I’m observing the way in which the Black Lives Matter movement, the way the Free Palestine movement has been operating and taking note of that. And the Native American movement, too—the Land Back movement. I’m taking note of that, and I’m seeing the ways in which we intersect and how connected we all are to American empire. But, for me, I’ve been trying to de-center America.
So AAPI Month! Yes, I totally see the relevance and the importance of it, but this year and the past few years, it hasn’t done as much healing and visibility. It’s meant to showcase who we are and uplift who we are as a group of people. But a lot of Pacific Islanders—and a lot of Asians probably—have issues with that term, with that history. It’s great in one sense. You get all these speaking gigs, interview requests, and it’s an honor. But there’s a tokenistic side of it. There’s the ways in which certain members are silenced within that group, and I think there’s a validation that I am no longer seeking or waiting for from that month.
Your work really centers on poetry. Talk to me about the power of words and stories. How do you use them to help raise awareness of the climate crisis and its impacts to your homelands?
Yeah. I love poetry. Poetry will always be my first love and my first identifier. I’ve been a poet the longest. I’ve been calling myself a poet before I was getting paid or published for it. It’s how I enter every space. I enter first as a poet.
In this day and age, there are times I feel I don’t read enough because I read so much for work. Every once in a while, I’ll read a poem here and there. There’s a sense of loneliness and a sense of being seen—something deeper—that I get from poetry that I can’t get anywhere else. It’s a form of connecting with the world, but it’s not accessible to everyone. Not everyone connects with the world through poetry, but that’s the deepest form of connecting I get—through poems.
I listened to that poem you read at the U.N. summit nearly a decade ago. How are you feeling about those fears that you shared? You talked about rising water and your child. How do you feel now?
Those fears are still relevant. My daughter’s older. She doesn’t remember being held in front of the U.N. It still hasn’t resonated with her yet. The fears are still there. It shifted slightly. I’ve gained more knowledge. I still see the importance of movement building. I still see the importance of holding first world nations and fossil fuel industries accountable. I still see the importance of fighting for our children. There’s so much that needs to be happening there.
Every time I read that poem, it’s almost like a prayer to me. Every time I do that poem, it’s like I’m willing it to be real. Like we’re not going to leave. Nothing’s going to happen, and nothing’s going to happen to our island because we’re going to keep fighting. Every time I perform that piece, I’m just reliving that moment again, and I’m willing it to be true. I’m speaking it into being every time I do that poem.
You mentioned your daughter and that that moment hasn’t quite resonated with her. What does her relationship to the Earth look like? Has she yet been touched by the same calling that you have for the climate movement?
She’s seven, so I don’t think it’s fully gotten there yet. But we watch TV shows and movies about protecting the Earth and our environment. We have conversations about it. There was a period when I was performing full-time. I was traveling a lot, so I had to talk to her and explain why I was gone so much. I had to explain that something was happening to our island: Mommy’s just trying to go around and tell people about it.
I was like, There’s this bad thing happening to our island like Moana. And I told her about how all the water is coming. And she was like, I think you just need a lot of buckets. So she was already thinking through solutions and trying to understand what this is that’s happening to us. Every once in a while, she still asks about it.
Right now, she has a pretty normal Marshallese childhood: picnics, boats, swimming. These are her favorite things to do. I think that’s how it starts—that love for your island. It starts with engaging with your environment. She started gardening with me, too. There are ways I still need to explore and deepen my own relationship with my island because I’ve been away for so long. It’s funny because I didn’t start out as an environmentalist. I started out as a poet, so there are ways I need to deepen my own relationship with the island and the land and the ocean. In turn, I’m hoping that I can transfer that to her, as well.