There are so many more stories to be told. Stories of the self and (trans)Pacific (trans)positionality. Stories of the global and the other. These stories are told in many venues and many ways, not only from spaces of privilege such as mainstream publishers, the English language, and elite classes.
Chamorro poet and University of Hawai‘i at Manoa professor Craig Santos Perez responded recently to Samoan éminence gris Albert Wendt’s classic essay “Tatauing the Postcolonial Body” with a meditation on the Chamorro word for “heartbeat,” momongmong:
“If we listen to our Pacific heartbeats, can we hear the text inscribed on our blood? Can we hold the hands that are continuously storying us? Can we bear the pain of being in a Pacific body during the Pacific Century?”
Deriving from an ancient tradition of public and political oratory, storytelling, rhetorical ridicule and braggadocio, and the kantan Chamorrita or dialogic song, the Chamorro literary arts have made significant contributions to Pacific literature over the past few decades. The tradition radiates through a network of creative forces such as Craig Santos Perez, Cecilia “Lee” Perez, Tanya Chargualaf Taimanglo’, Lehua Taitano, Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero, Michael Lujan Bevacqua, Kisha Borja-Kicho’cho’, Jay Baza Pascua, Chris Perez Howard, Jose M. Torres, Don and Kel Muña, and many others. These indigenous Chamorro authors have worked in diverse genres in both English and Chamorro, including poetry, romance novels, legends and adaptations, children’s literature, short stories, World War II biographical novel and memoir, oral narrative collection, feature-film scripts, and political blogging.
The Sinangan-ta (“our spoken word”) Youth Movement has revitalized the ancient oral tradition on Guåhan among high school students, and Ginen i Hila’ promotes traditional storytelling. The Department of Chamorro Affairs, the Council for the Arts and Humanities Agency (CAHA), and Pacific Resources for Education and Learning (PREL) all sponsor creative work.
The rich indigenous literary traditions of the Pacific have historically been subject to marginalization and co-option by outsiders, and Guåhan has also faced such cultural erasure. For example, U.S. naval wife Mavis Warner Van Peenen infamously rewrote the legend of the women who saved the island of Guåhan from a great fish, substituting the Catholic madonna for the original Chamorro heroines. There is still a hesitancy among some to respect the enduring Chamorro identity within the present colonial context, and still many examples of cultural appropriation, eliding the reality of ongoing white supremacy in intersectional oppression.
Fijian author Unaisi Nabobo-Baba (also a professor at the University of Guam) specifically critiques this in White expatriate poet P.K. Harmon’s What Island:
“One dominant frame of Harmon’s poetry deals with expectations and how the world [island, third, other] does not always meet one’s expectations. The American dream and its expectations on the world, ‘the other’ are at times misplaced. These expectations are self-inflicted and need to be interrogated for its purported relevance everywhere else in the world. . . . In trying to understand the minds of people that he is writing about, poets like P.K. Harmon struggle with their own biases, personalities and like most social scientists would admit – their own disciplinary perspectives – discursive systems of analysis, writing conventions and the like, and moreover reasoning used norms of their own society.”
This is a timely reminder for all who write about or within cultures other than their own – to foreground one’s own subjectivity and avoid appropriating voices that are others’. I myself have struggled with this as a White woman living in the Pacific, following in the footsteps of colonizers. One method is to focus on collaboration with the indigenous community and consciously acknowledge my positionality and privilege. Ekungok. Ti afuetsas. Ti mangguetna. Gairespetu.
Dr. Nabobo-Baba adds:
“On ethnocentrism in writing conventions and biases in writing about Pacific Islanders, the geographer R. Bedford (1988) had this to say: ‘The behavioral environment that we need to study then is our own as social scientists. Our own training, value systems, ideology and preferences impose themselves on any research inquiry. It is important that we recognize this and that we are projecting our own behavioral environment onto the data.'”
The Chamorro literary arts are represented in authentic indigenous voices from Guåhan and its che’lu (sibling) islands in the Chamorro archipelago. Their Pacific specificity, whether dwelling near their ancestral roots or far-flung in the diaspora, is crucially understood as intertwined with the political sovereignty, self-determination, freedom, and human dignity of their people, who still endure a life under foreign (non-Chamorro) federal and military control. Lugåt – place – centers.
I support Chamorro indigeneity writing back against the colonial centuries and writing for, writing within, an immanent Chamorro futurity. Chamorro voices that dream and sweat and bleed their futurity. Where the Chamorro tåsi splashes against the shores. Where the Chamorro pulan watches through the night.
The use of Chamorro language in creative work represents a political statement, since the ancient language was specifically targeted for extinction by colonizers, including the U.S. military post-World War II, although now it is an official language of Guåhan. Use of the language contributes to the revitalization and reclamation of Chamorro culture.
Guåhan has suffered under colonization by Spain, Japan, and the U.S. for centuries. Chamorros have historically been marginalized both within the indigenous Pacific community and within the colonialist worldview.
Foreign colonizers targeted the ancient indigenous culture of i taotao tano’ (the people of the land), from Spanish Jesuit missionaries confronting the powerful maga’håga (female leaders) to U.S. military officials denouncing the use of the Chamorro language. Even today, foreigners visiting the island usually do not see much of the distinctive and enduring Chamorro culture symbolized by ocean-crossing sakman, celestial navigation, ancient petroglyphs, a matrilineal/matrifocal avuncular society, sometimes huge (fifteen-foot) latte megaliths, the carved sinåhi and spondylus body ornamentation, and a mellifluous Malayo-Austronesian tongue.
Pan-Pacific gatherings like the 2016 Festival of the Pacific Arts on Guåhan must especially focus on honoring and nurturing the voices of multiply marginalized peoples like the Chamorros, as cultural and activist groups strive to reclaim and honor their ancestral culture in the face of ongoing militarized colonization. Pan-Pacific solidarity can be a powerful tool to connect all of Oceania, the huge Blue Continent, against the common enemies of resource exploitation, rising sea levels, political oppression, and environmental degradation.
There are so many more stories to be told. Ekungok!