In downtown Paris ArtCop21, a creative Conference of the Parties is taking place. It is described as a movement where artists are invited to get involved in the climate debate. A voice eager to be heard.
“Poetry brings tangible to these intangible [like COP] rooms“ says Kathy Jetnil Kijiner. Journalist, poet, Marshallese writer, performance artist and more recently climate justice activist. Remembering her performance of “Dear Matafele Peinem” at the UN Summit more than one year ago in New York she noted how her performance over there made the atmosphere change “it was not politically charged anymore, it was not cold anymore but so much warmer.”
The poem was written for the opening speech on behalf of civil society at the UN Climate summit in September 2014. she was chosen out of 500 contestants.
A poem that would change the world, they suggested. A poem that would inspire the movement and world leaders, they wanted. Left with one week to write and study a new poem by heart she asked the organizers to send her photos of the movement. A movement, she says, she was not familiar with at all before.
Remembering her poetry classes, she knew that if poetry should appeal, if it should engage, if it should inspire; it should be as specific as possible, as concrete as possible. That’s why she did not write a poem tailored to world leaders, but she addressed it to her daughter who was at the time 7 months old.
Her inspiration on the other hand came from the social movement, united by the same cause. The reached out hands gave her hope and Kijiner recalls how amazed she was to see so many people fighting. “Coming [to Paris] and see the power of social movements. [To see] we can demand change. [That] we do not have to wait for the government. We’re not being taught that we can demand change. We’re taught someone else can explode your island with a nuclear bomb and that you have to be okay with it.” With that last remark Kijiner refers to the horrible history of the nuclear testing at the Bikini Atoll, where the United States conducted 23 nuclear tests.
When Kijiner was asked what she thinks of nuclear energy she’s very clear stating “I want nothing to do with nuclear energy. When the Bravo bomb detonated, ash was carried to the other islands. Residents of the other islands, thinking it was snow, played with it, swallowed it. People were dying on the street. We need to stay completely away from [nuclear energy]!”
Marshallese culture connects with the land because the Marshall Islands are so tiny land is very precious, she explains. “We have stories that explain the making of the coral. We know how to take care of the land. We’ve lost it to nuclear testing and now climate change. The idea is that certain people lives do not matter for certain countries.”
By losing land “we’re losing stories and songs. Stones decade but words can last forever. Poetry can preserve ideas, knowledge for the future.”
She is fighting for the very survival of her Islands. A week before she came to Paris, she witnessed once more the devastating effects of climate change to her homeland. One island, once covered with trees and crops, was now only a pile of sand and stones, it was dead. In the course of ten years it became wasteland, a prediction of what is the destiny of the other Marshall Islands.
Nonetheless she remains optimistic: “You have to be. You have to believe in humanity. You have to believe in change. For me optimism is an important aspect of this work.”