“A Rebirth Moment”: Evelyn Flores and Emelihter Kihleng on Editing Indigenous Literatures From Micronesia

Our writing is often not for a Western audience, and many of us are writing for ourselves, to express who we are as Indigenous peoples.

Next week, University of Hawaii Press will publish a ground-breaking anthology, Indigenous Literatures from Micronesia, which, for the first time ever, will bring together works—short stories, poems, essays, chants, and play excerpts—by Indigenous Micronesian authors. Some of the basic facts about this project are truly astonishing: the anthology includes one hundred pieces by over seventy authors, nine out of the thirteen basic Micronesian language groups are represented (Palauan, Chamorro, Chuukese, I-Kiribati, Kosraean, Marshallese, Nauruan, Pohnpeian, and Yapese), and it covers the entire Micronesian region—over two thousand islands spread across almost three million square miles of the Pacific Ocean. Micronesian literature has been excluded by academia, and, despite its long history, remains unknown outside of the region. As 2019 is the official UNESCO Year of Indigenous Languages, this anthology is an especially timely and necessary addition to the landscape of world literature. Asymptote contributor Marek Maj spoke with the editors, Dr. Evelyn Flores and Dr. Emelihter Kihleng—who began working on the anthology over ten years ago—about the process of putting together such an unprecedented collection and about the history, present, and future of Indigenous Micronesian literatures.

The anthology is the first of the “New Oceania Literary Series,” which, under the general editorship of Dr. Craig Santos Perez, aims to create anthologies of Pacific literature that address important themes and feature a diverse, multilingual, and intergenerational selection of Pacific authors. Dr. Santos Perez has said he hopes these anthologies will be inspiring and empowering for Pacific Islanders, as well as educational for non-Pacific audiences, and that he hopes these books will circulate both in classrooms and in the community. The next anthology will focus on Pacific Literature and the environment, eco-Justice, and climate change. Future anthologies will spotlight food, LGBTQ identity and experiences, science fiction and futurism, and more.

Marek Maj (MM): First of all, congratulations on the publication of Indigenous Literatures from Micronesia. How it does it feel that it will now finally be out in the world?

Evelyn Flores (EF): My immediate response?—Huge relief!—it’s done!
Then the deep joy rolls in—joy that we’re making a difference, trying to carve out a niche for voices from our region, doing our part to challenge a gross miscalculation of our abilities and our productive force.

There’s deep satisfaction that we’ve taken yet another step to clear the way for our children so they can see themselves walking upright in yet another book. All of us who’ve been invisible in published creative work know the deep awe we’ve experienced when we stumble upon ourselves in books, film, dance—it’s a rebirthing moment for us—realizing all the time we were there but excluded. Readers will see this moment of realization and protest enacted in several of the pieces, in Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner’s “History Project,” for instance, and in Anne Perez Hattori’s “Forefathers,” and Isebong M. Asang’s “Language with An Attitude.”

Emelihter Kihleng (EK): Like Evelyn, I am relieved and proud of our work, that we followed through and completed a challenging and ambitious project, which we could not have done without the support and guidance of many people, Craig Santos Perez and Brandy Nālani McDougall in particular. Our acknowledgments page, as you can imagine, is quite lengthy! Most of all, I am grateful to our many gifted writers who make the anthology what it is.

MM: For those of us who might not know, could you say a little about the countries and languages that are encompassed within Micronesia? Just to give an idea of the extraordinary cultural, historical, and geographical sweep of the book . . .

EF: The introduction to the anthology provides the sweep of Micronesia, not just the expanse of its three million square miles of ocean but also the vast differences, despite our similarities, in our cultures, languages, origin stories, our experiences with colonization. The anthology debunks the idea that islanders are simple people living in a simple world. We aren’t. Even the most traditional of societies has a complexity to its relationships; and each has been affected in different ways by westernization, by globalization, especially by the itch to travel beyond Micronesia, to move to Guåhan, or California or Colorado or New York City.

EK: Micronesia, like Polynesia and Melanesia, was named by European explorers, with an emphasis on smallness. However, these early explorers were only thinking of land mass, not the vast ocean surrounding our islands, an ocean which today provides a large supply of the world’s seafood. Micronesia is a diverse region with more than thirteen Indigenous languages (not dialects!), peoples, and histories. Therefore, our authors write about a wide range of subjects, although readers will find that common themes include colonialism, resistance, and identity. Evelyn and I did our best to divide the book according to the major themes that we saw running through the works.

MM: This is the very first book to finally collect together works by Indigenous Micronesian authors. What do you think non-Micronesian readers will find most challenging, different, and refreshing when reading a piece translated from Palauan, I-Kiribati, or Nauruan for the first time?

EF: Those might be three different questions. The challenging part might be trying to read in a vacuum, especially if readers are not from this part of the world—there’s a depth to reading that cannot be achieved by just Googling a new word. If the reader doesn’t know the culture, hasn’t been immersed in it, hasn’t felt it touching her skin or blowing in her hair, hasn’t ridden its waves in to its shores, it’ll be difficult to attain that depth.

The anthology will be familiar and unfamiliar to all its readers. I’m from Guåhan, so when I read Emeli’s poems, they’re both familiar and unfamiliar to me; although I know Emelihter, there’s lots about her experiences I don’t know, so I will need to intentionally learn in order to understand.

EK: I think certain non-Micronesian readers may find that some of our writing appears “simple” or not “literary” in a Western sense. For many of us writing from these islands, and I say “us” because Evelyn, Craig, and I all have pieces in the volume as well, our writing is often not for a Western/European or even English-speaking audience, and many of us are writing for ourselves, to express who we are as Indigenous peoples. For many of us from Micronesia, our oral and visual literatures are still alive, and we write in perpetuation of these literatures that have existed since the beginning. Some readers may find this challenging to understand, but as my poetry mentor, Juliana Spahr, used to remind me, the best reading can require the most work, and some of the poetry, chants, and other writing may take some patience and several reads to begin to understand. This “challenge” to read something new and different is what makes new and emerging literatures such a joy to read! That in itself can be refreshing!

MM: Could you each pick out one piece to illustrate the huge variety of genres within the anthology? Or a piece that perhaps has some significance for you on a personal level?

EF: Well, maybe a couple to show the huge variety. There’s the parody of “The Lord’s Prayer” by the beloved Yapese statesman, John Mangafel. Mangafel served as the first governor of Yap and played a key part in the founding of the Federated States of Micronesia. He was writing in the 1960s–90s, in those early days when different islands were wrestling with their relationship with the US, what it was, what it should be.

From there, we jump to Katerina Teaiwa’s “Development,” where she marks the difference in Suva, Fiji that just ten years could make. And then over to Emelihter Kihleng’s “Pohnpei Outer Space,” where she humorously captures the voices of Pohnpeians going online to continue the social networking we peoples of Micronesia have practiced throughout our existence. We used to voyage in our fast sailing vessels to keep up our networks. The internet is just a new way to do what has always been important to us, whether traveling across the vast roads of the Pacific Ocean or journeying from one village to another.

EK: A personal favorite of mine is “Sky Cathedral” by Cecilia C.T. Perez Cruz, a Chamoru poet, where the speaker, who we assume to be the author, is writing of her Nåna, her grandmother, with whom she shared an especially close relationship. Her Nåna is a devout Catholic, like many elderly Chamoru, and she often recited prayers, prayers which now offer the speaker comfort, especially since her grandmother’s passing. This poem is one many Pacific Islanders will relate to, as most are Christians, and many Pacific children are raised by their grandparents. Her Nåna’s spirit or “ghost” also visits her, something most of us Micronesians believe is common after the passing of a loved one. The lyrical voice of the poem evokes so many emotions and feelings, of love, security, and loss that it is dream-like and exquisite to read. It is such a beautifully written poem, one that I believe translates across cultures and links us all as human.

MM: Just how important is it for Micronesians to have their literatures anthologized this way for the first time?

EF: Really, the anthology was never without a sense of duty and responsibility. It started with duty and responsibility. And that sense stayed with us from start to finish. We weren’t doing this just for ourselves. We were thinking of our students, of our communities, all the way through; we felt obliged to do this as best we could for them, to provide examples for our youth of our literary achievements as a region, to give them the work of their own writers, to build their cultural self-esteem, to inspire them to follow their calling though the dominant discourses might say otherwise.

EK: It is extremely important that our literatures are anthologized. In terms of Pacific Literature, Micronesia has been marginalized, and even seen as non-existent. We have some wonderful anthologies edited by Samoan author and painter Albert Wendt, who was one of the first Pacific Islanders to anthologize Indigenous Pacific Islanders’ writing as well as the later Polynesian poetry anthologies (Whetu Moana and Mauri Ola) edited by Wendt, Reina Whaitiri, and Robert Sullivan. However, our anthology is the first to group together the writing of only Micronesians. It is so important for people to see themselves reflected in films, art, and writing, and Evelyn and I saw this anthology as a significant means in which to provide a mirror for us, something we never really had. The only other Micronesian writer whose poetry I read as a teenager was that of the late Teresia Teaiwa. Her poetry collection, Searching for Nei Nim’anoa, helped me find my own poetic voice.

MM: The anthology includes pieces by diasporic Micronesian authors and a section on writings dealing with colonialism and militarism. What are some of the ways Micronesian writers have dealt with migration and colonialism from a linguistic point of view? I’m thinking of that famous Joyce line: “. . . His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech.”

EF: It’s important for our readers to recognize that Micronesia is many. Not just many languages and cultures, but many different histories beginning with our ancestral stories and on into our experiences with colonization and westernization.

We experience something as ever-present as the weather differently depending on where we’re from, from Ta, for instance, a small island atoll in Chuuk ignored in large part by the power countries, yet with their lives threatened by rising sea levels, or a high island like Guåhan, located right smack dab in the path of nature’s typhoons but also right smack dab in the path of Washington D.C.’s political and economic stride to Asia.

Our experiences with colonizing languages also differ. Although Chamoru is an official language of Guåhan, you’ll seldom hear it in public spaces; whereas in Ta, you’ll maybe never hear English as a whole language, just in bits and pieces.

EK: I don’t feel that I can speak for other Micronesians living in the diaspora, but I can speak for myself. As a Micronesian who lives in the diaspora, but who has grown up and lived on my home island of Pohnpei and also away, I would say that I have dealt with migration and colonialism by holding on to my language, Pohnpeian. Since I started writing poetry, I have written in both Pohnpeian and English. I have attempted to create a home for myself through my poems, which reflect my identity as a bilingual and bicultural woman. I was lucky in that my parents have always instilled a strong sense of pride in my identity, even though my parents are from different backgrounds (my mother is a white American from Chicago and my father is Pohnpeian). I know that my experience is quite different from many other Micronesians who grow up in the diaspora whose parents neglected to teach them their Indigenous languages or who did not instill pride in who they are, but there are others like me, who do their best to negotiate being Pohnpeian or Palauan or Yapese while also being American and more . . .

MM: I’m curious about bilingualism in Micronesia. Do most Micronesians speak English, as well as their Indigenous language? Which language are Micronesians more likely to use on an everyday basis? Does it differ from country to country, and is there a generational divide?

EF: Yes, yes, and yes. Returning to our point that Micronesia is many, in highly Americanized places like Guåhan or Guam, English is what you’ll hear everywhere. In other islands like Yap, you’ll hear both the Native language and English. Then in still other islands, English will be seldom heard or spoken.

EK: Again, I can only speak from my own experience having grown up in Pohnpei, Guåhan and Hawaiʻi, although I can make generalizations. In Pohnpei, which is a multicultural island, most, if not all, Indigenous Pohnpeians speak Pohnpeian and other Micronesian islanders speak their own languages as well, and many speak English too, depending on their age and level of education. Many people in Pohnpei grow up speaking two or three Micronesian languages in addition to English. In the community where I grew up, Saladak in U, everyone spoke Pohnpeian, and English was not often spoken. On Guåhan, where I was born, and where I lived up until recently, I spoke Pohnpeian with my father and sometimes my mother, as she also speaks Pohnpeian, and with other Pohnpeians. I spoke English with other people. In Hawaiʻi, it was the same for me. On Guåhan and in Hawaiʻi, I would have had to enroll in Chamoru or Hawaiian language classes if I really wanted to learn the languages. It is a sad reality that unlike in places like Pohnpei, where children automatically learn the language through osmosis, on Guåhan and in Hawaiʻi children have to go to special immersion schools in order to learn the Indigenous languages. This situation speaks to the very different experiences of colonialism in different Pacific Islands.

MM: What was the most thrilling discovery you made during the process of finding work to include in the book?

EF: The most exciting part of this whole process happened early on. We had sent out a call for writers and we were going through all the submissions coming in. Then we realized that some places were very little represented and others, like Guåhan, were heavily represented. So then, we began the research part of the project, which we hadn’t really thought much about when we started. I remember the excitement when my research assistants would return from the Micronesia Area Research Center with new material they’d dug up.

At another point, I was just about to board a plane for Nauru. I remember because we couldn’t find any Nauru material, and then I stumbled onto Alamanda Lauti, who became the link to several writers in Nauru. Now, that was exciting! There were several moments of excavating buried material like that when the satisfaction ran very deep.

EK: I would say one of the thrilling discoveries was finding just one poem from an author from an unrepresented island such as “What Grandma Sinsilmam Knew” by Dickson Dalph Tiwelfil, who is from Woleai, an outer-island of Yap. His is the only poem from that island. As one can imagine, it was very challenging to find authors for every Micronesian island. Therefore, when one was found for an island like Woleai, it was very exciting and we felt a true sense of accomplishment.

MM: One section highlights experimental, liminal, and cutting-edge voices. What are some of the most interesting current developments in contemporary Micronesian literature?

EF: We saw efforts to deploy the visual to convey the spiritual, to capture that sense of identity beyond words. One example is Angela Hoppe-Cruz’s “English Only Law Impact,” where the violence done by punishing students for using their Native language is visualized, enacted on the page through the brokenness of the sentences of the poem.

EK: There are many Micronesians growing up on other Pacific Islands like Oʻahu in Hawaiʻi, Fiji and also in the continental US. These Micronesians are expressing themselves in new and innovative ways through spoken word poetry, on social media, and in other creative formats. A few of these writers include Kathy Jetn̄il-Kijiner, the late Teresia Teaiwa, and Clarissa Mendiola, who are featured in the anthology. These diasporic Micronesian writers are writing about their experiences and identities in exciting, sometimes more experimental ways, and I’m excited to see what new work emerges from them in the next few years . . .

Evelyn Flores is associate professor of literature at the University of Guam focusing on post/counter-colonial studies, Native and women’s studies, and Pacific Island literatures.

Emelihter Kihleng is a poet and author of My Urohs. She completed her PhD in Va‘aomanū Pasifika, Pacific Studies at Victoria University of Wellington in Aotearoa, New Zealand, and has held academic and other professional positions in Pohnpei, Guam, Hawai‘i, and New Zealand.

Marek Maj is an aspiring Polish-English translator from Dolny Mokotów, living in Austria.


Read more interviews with translators on the Asymptote blog: