Interview with Craig Santos Perez on from unincorporated territory [lukao] — November 25, 2017


Craig Santos Perez, a native Chamorro from the Pacific Island of Guåhan (Guam), co-edited three anthologies of Pacific literature and authored three previous poetry books: from unincorporated territory [hacha] (2008), from unincorporated territory [saina] (2010, PEN Center USA/Poetry Society of America Literary Prize recipient), and from unincorporated territory [guma’] (2014, American Book Award recipient). He holds an MFA from the U of San Francisco and a PhD in Ethnic Studies from UC Berkeley. He is an Associate Professor in the English Department at the University of Hawaiʻi, Manoa.


Christopher Nelson: For readers unfamiliar with your series, unincorporated territory, of which [lukao] is book four, tell us about this multi-book project. What subjects do you take on, and what is the trajectory that brings us to [lukao]

Craig Santos Perez: This multi-book series is about the history, politics, and ecologies of my home island of Guahan (Guam), as well as the values, customs, and experiences of my indigenous Chamoru culture. Throughout, I explore the themes of colonialism, militarism, tourism, migration, environmentalism, family, genealogy, indigenous activism, and food sovereignty. The newest book, [lukao], also focuses on creation stories, the birth of my daughter, living in Hawaiʻi, and parenting in a time of climate change and militarism in the Pacific. 

While each book is an excerpt from a larger series, each book is also complete in itself. To put it another way: each book is both an island and part of an unfolding archipelago.

Nelson: When you were working on the first book, did you know that you would be writing a several-book series, or did the serial quality grow organically out of the subjects?

Perez: I didn’t know at first, but when I started writing deeper into the manuscript I realized that the themes I was writing about were much larger than a single book. So I started thinking about other long poems and serial book series from the modernist and postmodernist traditions (Pound’s Cantos, Williams’ Paterson, HD’s Trilogy, Olson’s Maximus Poems, etc.). This relieved the pressure of putting everything into a single book and opened the possibilities of crafting an epic series across my lifetime. In symbolic terms, I started thinking about each book as an island and the series as an emerging archipelago of interwoven stories

Nelson: There are several “poemaps” in the book, annotated graphics showing various disturbing realities in Guam, such as toxic chemical sites and military firing ranges. These are juxtaposed with poems that are often intimate—the birth of a child, the memory of a grandmother. How is everyday life affected by the militarization of the island?

Perez: Guam and Hawaiʻi are two of the most militarized places in the world. On a political level, the importance of our islands as military bases is the main reason why we continue to be colonized by the United States. The military occupies large percentages of our islands’ landmass, which has displaced many people from ancestral lands. Furthermore, the military has polluted our lands and waters. The military presence has also led to a rise in housing costs and sexual assaults.

The history of the draft and the present lure of military benefits has also led to high rates of Pacific islander enlistment in all branches of the armed forces. This has also led to the mass migration of Pacific islanders due to being stationed at bases around the world.

There are many more impacts I could detail (from education to food to sports), but suffice it to say that militarism affects every intimate aspect of our lives.

Nelson: And it is a militarism with a long history and far, lethal reach. For me, this is one of the most powerful moments in [lukao]:

            in nagasaki, trinity, bikini // the sky
            breaks into a thousand suns
            \\ rain clouds baptize guam
            in strontium-90 fallout,

            circa 1954 // what cancers remain
            buried in pacific bodies like unexploded

Perez: Yes, this excerpt refers to the nuclear bombing of Japan, as well as nuclear testing in the United States and the Marshall Islands. Guam was “downwind” from the US nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands in the 1950s, and high levels of fallout were carried to Guam. My people, along with all the peoples who were exposed to radiation fallout, suffer high rates of cancer. The fight for denuclearization and reparations continues today with much urgency as the US plans to spend billions of dollar modernizing its nuclear arsenal.

Nelson: Sometimes the text is faint, printed in gray, as if ghosting away—the song, for example, in “ginen island of no birdsong.” I found that series of poems really tragic and powerful. You juxtapose the decimation of Guam’s flora and fauna with the dispersal of the Chamorro. The bright light amid that catastrophe, however, is the birth of your daughter, a subject of the book. 

Perez: Yes, throughout this multi-book series I experiment with different typographic forms. The gray text, as you astutely point out, represents a ghosting, a vanishing. There is much tragedy and catastrophe that my people—and most indigenous peoples—have experienced. Yet amidst all this violence, we find ways to survive, to revitalize our culture, to nurture our families, and to cultivate hope and joy.

Nelson: Forgive my ignorance, but could you educate me about the name of Guam. Sometimes you refer to it as Guam and sometimes Guåhan. Why is the naming significant?

Perez: Guåhan is the indigenous name of our island, while Guam is the more common name. Guåhan translates as “We have,” and a few years ago it was declared the official name of the island, which was an important symbolic gesture to value our indigenous identity.

Nelson: Are you involved with the “We Are Guåhan” (WAG) movement?

Perez: I am not part of the actual group, WAG, but I have been part of the movement to protect and defend Guåhan for many years.

Nelson: A recurring character in from unincorporated territory is the Micronesian kingfisher. Can you tell us about that bird and how it is emblematic in your books?

Perez: The Micronesian kingfisher is a beautiful bird native to Guam. Yet with the introduction of brown tree snakes (a result of US military activities on island) caused the extirpation of our native birds from island. In the 1980s, the birds started disappearing from the jungles, and efforts to preserve the bird in US zoos commenced. To me, the loss of our native birds is emblematic of the loss and endangerment of our culture, language, freedom, and environment by colonialism and militarism.

Nelson: Frequently you put pronouns in brackets—something we also see (but to a lesser degree) in [guma’]. Conventionally, of course, brackets indicate a replacement or clarification. How do you intend those to be read?

Perez: Yes, I often use the brackets for certain pronouns to suggest that what is bracketed is an articulated identity, or an identity that changes across time and space. In some ways, I also see the brackets as sometimes a protective space and sometimes as a cage.

Nelson: That’s evocative: identity as a “protective space … and a cage.” In the poem “from the legends of juan malo (a malologue)” you explicitly address identity and lost identity. That poem is immediately followed by an intimate, multi-part poem about your young daughter in a world fraught with violence, oppression, and conflict. You previously mentioned cultivating hope—do you see evidence of progress and heightened awareness that makes you hopeful for your daughter’s future?

Perez: Yes, the movements of decolonization, demilitarization, food sovereignty, indigenous rights, and environmental justice all give me hope about the future. Moreover, the love of family and friends, and the love that I feel for my wife and daughter, gives me hope that we will continue to care for each other no matter what happens in these precarious times. In my books, I try to juxtapose these micro and macro forms of hope, care, and tenderness.

Nelson: In the second issue of Under a Warm Green Linden, we published two of your poems, which address, among other things, the effects of environmental catastrophe—the large-scale displacement of people, geo-engineering, and vanishing species. Is Guam, and Micronesia in general, uniquely jeopardized by climate change?

Perez: Sadly, Guam, Micronesia, and the Pacific are vulnerable to climate change. Our islands are already being impacted by record temperatures, rising sea levels, increased and intensified storms and droughts, loss of agricultural production, spread of diseases, coral bleaching, and the warming and acidification of the oceans. Some low-lying islands are disappeared under the tides, while others have been inundated by salt water so they are no longer habitable. People have become climate change refugees, and some entire island nations may lose their islands and be forced to relocate. It is a scary time to live in the Pacific. 

Nelson: It’s so sad on so many fronts. And this at a time when borders are being hardened and the Trump administration is hell-bent on undoing regulations aimed at slowing climate change. Do you think that the Executive Branch’s regressive policies will catalyze a progressive backlash? 

Perez: Yes, global and local climate movements are more organized and stronger than ever before. Many have declared that “We are Still in” despite Trump and other climate change deniers. Hopefully the groundswell of climate activism will lead to a new group of political leaders that will divest from fossil fuels and invest in a sustainable future.

Nelson: Mahalo, Craig, for taking the time to have this conversation. Mahalo for your poems and activism.