By Asia Fields
To the two Pacific Islander poets who spoke at Western on Thursday, April 5, words are never just words.
Brandy Nālani McDougall and Craig Santos Perez’s poems communicate memory, cultural continuity, resilience, protest and love.
But if it was in my character to be more courageous, I would tell you honestly that a part of me must believe words can save us, if we open ourselves fully, if we can name the ones who spoke before us. And we, unbroken, still have the breath to speak them.
Brandy Nālani McDougall, “Character Development”
McDougall and Perez, both associate professors at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, visited campus for a poetry reading called Ocean in Our Blood.
They shared poems centered on indigenous and Oceanic experiences and sustainability, addressing legacies of colonization and forced assimilation.
“Let us gather today to share our stories of hurt, our stories of healing,” Perez said, reading from his poem “Interwoven,” which discussed the connection between Pacific Islander and Native American experiences.
The Oceanic Student Association and Native American Student Union worked with visiting professor Brian Twenter to organize the poets’ visit.
Camden Anderson is a junior studying sociology and a member of OSA who is half Chamorro, the indigenous people of the Mariana Islands. He said he liked hearing from Perez, who is also Chamorro.
Perez started writing in high school after his family moved to California.
“Poetry was a way for me to still feel connected to home, even thought I was far away,” he said.
Anderson has never been to Guam, where Perez grew up, but hopes to in the future.
“Listening to other people explain their identity helps be figure out my own,” he said.
And isn’t that, too, what it means to be a diasporic
Chamorro: to feel foreign in your own homeland.
And there’ll will be times when we’ll feel adrift, without itinerary
or destination. We’ll wonder: What if we stayed? What if we
return? When the undertow of these questions begins
pulling you out to sea, remember: migration flows through
our blood like the aerial roots of i trongkon nunu. Remember:
our ancestors taught us how to carry our culture in the canoes
of our bodies. Remember: our people, scattered like stars,
form new constellations when we gather. Remember:
home is not simply a house, village, or island; home
is an archipelago of belonging.
Craig Santos Perez, “Off-Island Chamorros”
Anderson said he’s thankful to have a community of students similarly exploring their identities through OSA.
Junior Elizabeth Paulson, a sociology major and member of OSA, said she’s been discovering more Polynesian creative works in the past year.
“It’s amazing to see how people who are like me keep their culture alive through art,” she said.
Paulson said events like the poetry reading can help promote understanding and inclusion at Western, but still feels the university should do more to address microaggressions and cultural appropriation.
Last quarter, Western Athletics was criticized for planning a “Hawaiian Night” basketball game. In response, Western Athletics Director Steve Card issued an apology and cancelled the theme.
Paulson said that was just a part of a larger change needed at Western, and that not much changed after the university apologized.
“I think Western doesn’t do enough to combat those behaviors,” she said.
She also feels like Western could have done a better job promoting the poetry event, which she thinks the university isn’t always good about doing.
Twenter, a visiting professor in the English department who studies indigenous literature, organized the poets’ visit. He met the two at a Native American literature symposium in 2010. They stayed friends through conferences, and McDougall said this was also how she and Perez began their “nerdy native romance.”
Twenter also worked with the University of Washington and a school in San Francisco to bring the two poets to the West Coast, as he felt it was important for students.
“Students of color and indigenous students need those role models so they see they can do that,” he said.
Perez said he once read poetry to a group of high school students, and that when he was done, one student was sobbing. She told him she had never seen their culture in a book before, and that because of that, she didn’t think they were worthy of literature. He wrote a poem about this moment, which he recited to his audience at Western.
This lack of representation in literature is something McDougall has also experienced. She said that it wasn’t until she saw professors and poets who looked like her that she began to believe it was possible for her to write as well.
Perez is the winner of the Beatrice Medicine Award and the author of the poetry collection The Salt-Wind, Ka Makani Po’akai, but still says it is hard to get indigenous poetry published, as it is not often seen as marketable.
She and Perez set out to change this when they founded Ala Press in 2011, which publishes Pacific Islander literature.
They hate you
like they have hated
every warrior before you.
This helps them bear
the weight of dominion;
helps them keep their vacation
houses, golf courses, hotels,
and bases; helps them feed
their children denial,
so as adults they, too,
can say, “Don’t blame me
for what happened
a hundred years ago.”
They must keep
the United States
is our country
and not just
Brandy Nālani McDougall, “The Second Gift”
The poems’ themes were often serious. In one of the most somber moments, Perez explained his poem “During Your Lifetime,” which he wrote for his grandmother, who he discovered had passed away while he was at the airport on his way to the West Coast.
Perez’s grandmother was born in Guam in 1922 and lived though the Japanese attack and occupation of the island, experiencing a miscarriage when forced to march in what is known as the Manenggon March.
While Perez and McDougall spoke about how their situation sometimes felt dire, a common theme throughout their pieces was resiliency.
And so we tell our children,
our children tell their children,
and their children tell their children
until our words become
the chattering winds of hope
that erode the hardness of violence
from the earth, and we are sown
and born from
green and tender once again.
-Brandy Nālani McDougall, “The Second Gift”
There were also moments of laughter.
Perez read a poem about Spam while McDougall sang in the background, eliciting laughter from the audience.
“Laughter is another sense of the body that can’t be colonized,” McDougall said during the discussion at the end. “I like the sovereignty of laughter in that way.”
Perez agreed, and said humor can be a form of survival through oppression.
The poetry reading was sponsored by the Sustainability Action Fund, College of Humanities and Social Sciences and Ray Wolpow Institute, as well as the anthropology, English, linguistics and modern and classical languages departments.