Marshallese poet helps Pacific Islanders’ voices be heard

Marshallese poet and activist Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, center, was the special guest of the Northern Marianas Humanities Council’s poetry writing workshop held yesterday at the Northern Marianas College. From left, National Geographic and Associated Press contributor Daniel Lin, Scott Russell, Dr. Brady Hammond, Frankie Eliptico, Polly Masga, and Eulalia Arriola are the others in the photo. (Jon Perez)

Marshallese poet and activist Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, center, was the special guest of the Northern Marianas Humanities Council’s poetry writing workshop held yesterday at the Northern Marianas College. From left, National Geographic and Associated Press contributor Daniel Lin, Scott Russell, Dr. Brady Hammond, Frankie Eliptico, Polly Masga, and Eulalia Arriola are the others in the photo. (Jon Perez)

Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner may be small in stature but the girl from the tiny island nation of the Republic of the Marshall Islands has a big voice that resonates the message about climate change that caught the attention of the leaders of the world’s super powers.

Jetnil-Kiljner, who was on Saipan to hold a free poetry workshop, traveled thousands of miles from the Marshall Islands to address the United Nations members on Sept. 23, 2014, for the opening of the Climate Change Summit in New York.

She was chosen to represent civil society and delivered an emotional speech, appealing to world leaders to address and find solutions on the issue of climate change as many Pacific Island nations—like the Marshalls—face a threat of being wiped out of existence with its people becoming climate change refugees.

“Climate change is affecting us all and we experience it first hand in Oceania. We must be prepared for its impact and the threat of having our islands to be devoured by the ocean,” said Jetnil-Kiljner, who will be the keynote speaker of the Northern Marianas Humanities Council’s 25th anniversary gala on Oct. 28 at the Pacific Island Club Saipan.

In her U.N. speech, she made a passionate plea for everyone to do something about climate change ending it with a poem she wrote for her then 7-month old daughter titled “Dear Matafele Peinam.”

Jetnil-Kiljner received a standing ovation with her message, a rare sight among the world leaders in the U.N. headquarters. She is a poet, climate change activist, mother, teacher, and performing artist.

She said that the free poetry workshop was supposed to be done by video chat through Skype, but decided to come to Saipan after attending the Pacific Asia Travel Association and the 2016 Festival of the Pacific Arts that were both held in Guam.

Jetnil-Kiljner, whose mother Hilda Heine was elected as the eighth and first female president of RMI, said she uses her workshops to teach the youth how to promote awareness through writing. “We must teach the youth to use writing as a tool for social awareness.”

She added that writing social issues affecting Pacific Islanders helps shed light and create awareness to people around the world that are not usually seen in Western Media. “These stories are not that well known. How they could see the Pacific Island culture and our struggles.”

Jetnil-Kiljner had been posting video blogs and readings her poems on YouTube to introduce the Marshall Islands and its culture to other people. The University of Arizona Press turned her collection of poems—For a Marshallese Daughter—into a book.

It is set for release in December and it will be the first book to be published outside of the Marshall Islands.

More than 40 attended yesterday’s one-day poetry workshop made up of students from Agape Christian School, Mt. Carmel School, Grace Christian Academy, Marianas High School, Saipan Southern High School, and the Northern Marianas College.

Jon Perez | Reporter
Jon Perez began his writing career as a sports reporter in the Philippines where he has covered local and international events. He became a news writer when he joined media network ABS-CBN. He joined the weekly DAWN, University of the East’s student newspaper, while in college.

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