On the Hydro-feminism of Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner and Aka Niviana’s Rise: From One Island to Another
SHIMA (October 2019)
The full essay is now available on SHIMA: HERE.
“Sister of ice and snow, I’m coming to you ... Sister of ocean and sand, I welcome you.” This opening line from the video poem Rise: From One Island to Another, disseminated through the environmental activist organisation 350.org’s social media platform,1 invokes an Indigenous transoceanic solidarity between Marshallese poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner and Inuk poet Aka Niviana from Kalaallit Nunaat/Greenland. As the camera captures Jetnil-Kijiner standing in water just off the shores of Majuro island in the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) and offers soaring views of Niviana walking on the melting icecaps of Greenland, the poets’ woven spoken-word performances reference the climate relationships between sea inundation and ice melt on their respective islands. While the imagery of the video lends itself to exoticised tropes of islands and islanders as disappearing (Farbotko, 2010; Korber, 2017: 158), the poets speak otherwise. In many cases, the imagery offers the poets a strong foil against which to assert a sisterhood of ocean and ice. In what follows I ask what the importance of claiming a sisterhood of ocean and ice—what I will articulate as a feminist hydro-ontological imaginary (Te Punga Somerville, 2012; Neimanis, 2017; Harris, 2015)— might be, especially in response to the global transformations of the climate and climate representation.
Funded and launched by 350.org, Rise was part of the larger Rise for the Climate campaign that sought to mobilise a climate justice movement worldwide—820 actions in 91 countries. With video campaigns, protests, and other actions orchestrated around the world in September 2018 culminating in the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, it marked a new visibility for a global climate justice perspective: to bring “frontline” communities (350.org) together around the world with a specific demand for leadership to keep carbon in the ground and work toward a fossil free-economy. In recent years, 350.org has created viral social media campaigns to bridge transnational environmentalism and grassroots activism, striving to develop forms of belonging in an era of globalisation. As such, it is an “eco-cosmopolitan” (Heise, 2008) platform that at times essentialises specific local environmental concerns, plays into exoticising tropes of those “frontline” communities, while at the same time enabling connections across translocal groups. This dynamic is evident in the making of Rise.
Since 2014, Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner has been a leading figure in representing Pacific island states fighting for climate justice. She was selected to speak at the 2014 opening ceremony of the United Nations Secretary General’s Climate Summit and again asked to speak at the Conference of Parties (COP) 21 in Paris in 2015. Her visibility on these NGO platforms is partly due to her position in the Marshall Islands—as the daughter of politician Dr Hilda Heine (currently the first woman president of the Republic of the Marshall Islands), as an emerging poet and artist publishing and exhibiting in English-speaking venues, and as co- founder of the non-profit Jo-Jikum, dedicated to empowering the voices of Marshallese youth to seek climate justice. In 2015, she was highlighted as a female “climate warrior,” in Vogue magazine (Russell, 2015). The tensions between recognition and exotification present in these frameworks led her in 2017 to begin developing spoken word performances that would reclaim the racialised and gendered perception of female “climate warriors.” As part of a Smithsonian arts and culture summit in Honolulu in 2017, she and three other Pacific women developed a spoken word performance that highlighted the impacts of colonialism and capitalism on representations of Pacific women.
For Jetnil-Kijiner, the Rise campaign for 350.org, coordinated with a number of Pacific Pawa group actions across the Pacific, offered another complicated opportunity to cultivate solidarity beyond borders (Jetnī l-Kijiner, 2018). The poet first travelled with seventeen other Pacific Climate Warriors to Germany in order to submit a petition to stop its coal mining operations (ibid). Recognising Jetnil-Kijiner’s regional climate justice work and international reputation, Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, asked her to participate in making a video poem about climate change that would be featured as part of the global Rise social media campaign. He invited Jetnil-Kijiner to visit the melting glacial waters of Greenland with him and glaciologist Jason Box. Before making the trip with McKibben and Box, and most likely understanding how her identity position would be framed, Jetnil-Kijiner asked to be put in touch with an Inuit poet sharing her concerns. Box introduced Jetnil-Kijiner to Aka Niviana, a young poet whom he had met at a Copenhagen climate protest. Niviana, part of an artist activist movement addressing colonial legacies in Greenland, had been making poems that specifically addressed the current debates about resource extraction as part of that colonial legacy (Niviana 2018). Her views resonated with Jetn̄il-Kijiner’s interest in parallel colonial continuities on RMI.
Having been brought together through this transnational framework to fight for a “fossil- free” economy, and very aware of how their positions as Indigenous women might be used to frame the issues of climate change, Jetnil-Kijiner and Niviâna created a poem that could address the legacies of colonialism, while at the same time, negotiate the politics and imagery of contemporary climate representation with their performance and voice. In other words, they sought to find agency in what has often been called the double-bind of the artist-as- ethnographer (Foster, 1995; Fisher, 1996), when non-white artists, asked to speak for and about one’s culture on global platforms, have a new visibility, but also a newly objectified position. In this essay I will address how the poets strategically use their positionalities within eco-cosmopolitan spaces of representation like 350.org in order to critique not only the continuity between colonial and neo-liberal operations (Gomez-Barris, 2017; Shiva, 2002; Goodyear-Ka‘opua, 2012), but also the continuity between colonial and environmental scopic regimes (DeLoughrey, 2019; Demos, 2016). I will discuss how the poets organise their poetic addresses, first toward each other, and then toward multiple audiences in ways that build toward moments of self-conscious intervention in the environmental tropes of crisis, disaster, and nostalgia.
Beyond identifying the poets’ critical interventions, I will also discuss how their feminist hydro-ontological perspective—of ocean and ice—strategically connects their struggles and offers an immersive space for complexifying climate representation and imagining future possibility (Yussoff and Gabrys, 2001). In this respect, I see their feminist hydro-ontologies engaging in relational Island Studies’ turn toward the global climate (Pugh, 2018). In his recent assessment of relational island studies in the Anthropocene, Jonathan Pugh argues for an understanding of the relative nature of island vulnerabilities and the politics of resiliency in the overlapping temporalities of climate change (ibid; see also Kelman, 2018; Kelman and Weichselgartner, 2015). Indeed, the geopolitical comparisons between Greenland and the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) are exemplary here. Although they are both often used as iconic island tropes at the forefront of the climate imaginary (DeLoughrey, 2019; Ziser and Sze, 2007; Korber, 2017; Schneider and Nocke, 2007), they have differing stakes in climate justice discussions. RMI currently faces regular flooding, water shortages, and continued nuclear contamination issues from US atomic testing during the Cold War. Its status as a COFA (Compact of Free Association) treaty state, still in many ways tied to the US, also informs official discourses of adaptation and mitigation. In recent years, discussions of climate migration have met with resistance (Rudiak-Gould, 2013; Burkett, 2014) and new discussions are centered around NGO-sponsored engineering and land reclamation projects to raise the archipelago’s infrastructure and even build new islands (Jetnil-Kijiner, 2019). Greenland’s government, facing rapid ice melt, thawing permafrost and increased navigability of Arctic waters, is considering how to manage its natural resources (over which it gained sovereignty under the 2009 Self Government Act), especially oil and uranium (Markussen, 2017: 306). With multinational companies and foreign governments seeking mining opportunities in Greenland, the government is considering how to responsibly manage these resources in a way that balances economic growth (which would strengthen its sovereignty in relation to Denmark), consideration for Greenlandic traditional ways of life (Rud, 2017: 135), and climate change mitigation. These are necessarily broad-brush overviews, but they begin to explain nuanced relations and attitudes toward conversations about global carbon emissions policies in climate change and climate justice across islands and oceans.
I’m interested in the ways that Jetnil-Kijiner and Niviana, as artists working to create new imaginaries about climate change in relation to their islands and beyond, bring the issues back to feminist embodied relationships with and through water. Figuring their bodies as part of the rising water, not victims of it, their “feminism without borders” (Mohanty 2003, 1) offers an alternative to climate discussions that still operate within implicit capitalist, nationalist, and power-elite frameworks (Bond and Dorsey, 2010; Adamson et al, 2002). The poets do not claim to speak for all of the constituents of their respective island homes, but instead perform direct conversation (in the form of poetic address) with each other so as to break open hegemonic discourses. To summarise the implicit arc of their concern, which I will unfold in more detail below: the problem of climate change is not (simply) inundation by or the melting of water, but their “submersion” (Gomez-Barris 2017) and invisibility (Simmons 2019; Tall Bear 2014) in colonial-capital processes—histories of empire that have already impacted and continue to impact their particular geographies, societies, and imaginaries that now also ripple through discourses of green capitalism (Harcourt and Nelson, 2015; Whyte, 2017) and carbon trading (Liverman 2009), and that do not fully acknowledge the uneven distribution of risks and benefits for their communities. As a further concern, they have to attend to the ways that eco-cosmopolitanism frames their claims to visibility. An Indigenous feminist embodied performativity of rising becomes key to negotiating these various discursive and scopic frameworks. I will articulate this in terms of an hydro-ontology by way of extending island studies frameworks of the aquapelagic—the assemblage of human interactivity with sea, land, and sky (Hayward, 2012)—to include new discussions of materialist hydro-feminisms and feminist solidarity.
full article coming soon...