July 18, 2012: Climate Justice poem –  “Tell Them” by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner – hits the internet

What follows is a guest post by Charlotte Kate Weatherill on the website All Our Yesterdays – 365 Climate Histories. Ms Weatherill researches the stories that are told about extinction. Her article “Sinking Paradise? Climate change vulnerability and Pacific Island extinction narratives” (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2022.04.011) has recently been published in Geoforum

On this day, July 18, 2012, a video of the poem “Tell Them” by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner was uploaded, as part of the London 2012 Poetry Parnassus

Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner is a poet from the Marshall Islands. She is known for her poetry about climate change and its effects on her home islands in the Pacific, and has spoken at high level events such as the UN Climate Summit in 2014.

Jetnil-Kijiner doesn’t talk about climate change as a new phenomenon, but as another part of a history of violence in the Pacific. She weaves justice arguments that connect 20th century nuclear testing; militarism; rising sea levels, and forced migration.

In her poem ‘Tell Them’, recorded for Studio Revolt, she talks with love about the Marshall Islands, addressing a friend who lives elsewhere, asking them to pass on her message about the country people might not have heard of:

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

This message is not only one of pride and love for home, but also a warning and a call to action. Because the Marshall Islands are known outside of the Pacific. But they are known as an example, along with Tuvalu and Kiribati, of the ‘sinking islands’.

What Jetnil-Kijiner’s poetry does that is so important, is speak on behalf of islands that are so often written off as ‘doomed’, or a ‘sacrifice zone’ for a capitalist global economy, and islanders that so easily get framed as climate refugees, as if the uninhabitability of their islands is now inevitable; unpreventable. 

What I argue in my own research, is that this doomed ‘extinction narrative’ tells the story as if it is already over. Like Jetnil-Kijiner, I trace a history of violence and ‘accumulation of injustices’ where the lives of islanders are considered disposable in the pursuit of colonial expansion and capitalist extraction. At the same time, this loss of life is naturalised as inevitable, due to the ‘vulnerability’ of islands and islanders, as weak and fragile peoples and unnatural places to live. 

The reason that islander poets such as Jetnil-Kijiner, Yuki Kihara, and Terisa Tinei Siagatonu, and Craig Santos Perez are such important voices in climate change politics, is because they are refusing the foregone conclusion of the sinking islands extinction narrative. They offer a different way to talk about climate change politics, where the fight for mitigation is continuing, and must continue:

But most importantly you tell them
we don’t want to leave
we’ve never wanted to leave
and that we

are nothing

without our islands

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