To Outlive a Home: Poetics of a Crumbling Domestic 

By | 1 February 2019

Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, a Marshallese poet and activist raised in Hawai’i, received international attention after performing her poem Dear Mantafele Peinam at the United Nations Climate Summit in 2014, and her 2017 collection Iep Jāltok is the first published book of poems by a Marshallese writer. The poems of Iep Jāltok trace explicit connections between the cultural, political, social and environmental impacts of colonisation, nuclear testing in the Pacific, rising sea levels, economic immigration, and global imperial capitalism, exploring communal and individual impacts of the multiple modes of displacement which have structured Jetñil-Kijiner’s life as an Indigenous woman. The collection’s first chapter situates Jetnil-Kijiner’s historical and political narration in the seafaring and matrilineal traditions of her ancestors with geographically situated creation stories in poems like Loktanur and Liwatounmour, and it is within these traditions that Jetñil-Kijiner translates her responsibility for, and right to, home – a home imperilled by the violences of nuclear testing and climactic disaster. In Tell Them, she prepares a package to be sent to friends in mainland United States, containing woven earrings, baskets, and instructions:

And when others ask you

where you got this

you tell them

              They’re from the Marshall Islands

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 


And after all this

tell them about the water – how we have seen it rising

flooding across our cemeteries

gushing over the sea walls

and crashing against our homes

The poem’s penultimate lines, ‘you tell them / we don’t want to leave / we’ve never wanted to leave’, illustrates an environmental and cultural crisis which goes beyond any sense of unhomeliness, or any possibility of purely symbolic resolution. The loss anticipated by Iep Jāltok is simultaneously one of futurity and an immemorial history – the brute fact that without immediate intervention into the violence of Western modernity, Jetñil-Kijiner will outlive her home:

Maybe I’m

writing the tide towards

an equilibrium 

willing the world

to find its balance

So that people 


that beyond 

the discussions


and statistics

there are faces

all the way out here
here is
a toddler

stomping squeaky

yellow light up shoes

across the edge of a reef

not yet

under water

It is poems such as these which remind us how crucial it is that we do not allow literature to keep turning Indigenous land and people into ghosts. It is crucial that we remain human in our homes, whatever might happen to them. In the 1990s Jacques Derrida coined the term hauntology to conceptualise the displacement of thought in time, recognising, as Frederic Jameson has it, that the present is never as firm nor as stable as we might wish it to be. This dynamic presents itself in white settler attempts to think or write place as a site for their building and dwelling in stolen land. The ghosts of the Western archive project themselves onto foreign soil and claim the terms of representation, including strategies of rendering Aboriginal presence as spectral and illusory – aesthetically haunting the settler home in favour of knocking on the door. Aboriginal writers and creatives such as Natalie Harkin have embraced and transformed these strategies to provide their own hauntings of the archives which purport to represent Aboriginal stories and images, performing what Harkin refers to as her ‘critical Aboriginal-sovereign-woman’s voice’ to remap sites of individual and collective ancestral relations between land, body, and memory. These responses, along with the daily living survival of Indigenous people on Indigenous land, are crucial interventions into the silencing effaced by settler representations of Aboriginal lands and bodies and have contributed to significant shifts in these representations in recent years. Without these interventions, the West will kill us, and think of us only as ghostly memories on their land, losing the knowledge of sustainability and survival which we as Indigenous peoples have learnt from a time immemorial of reciprocal relationships with our homelands. For we will have other ways of surviving. The West will not.

This house is not my home. J and I live here for now, and make our dues with whatever else does too. The sun stretches the hallway piled with things we have no other room for and is interrupted by bird shadow and branch shape. Here we do our work and our best. Here I write poems imagining homes remembered by story and blood where my ancestors tear down monuments and lay the stone and soil bare. Here, and knowing better about his Heideggerian heritage, J writes to the only conclusion we seem to land on: ‘if you’re homeless don’t build one’.

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