The subject of this interview is Craig Santos Perez’s forthcoming book from unincorporated territory [guma’] (Omnidawn).
Rusty Morrison: It’s very exciting for me to see the third installment of from unincorporated territory come to fruition. Each book is complete in itself, yet each certainly echoes the other two collections. Can you speak to the ways that [guma’] is unique, and the ways that it enlarges the project that these three books are a part of?
Craig Santos Perez: The first book of the series, from unincorporated territory [hacha] focused on my grandfather’s life and experience on our home island of Guåhan (Guam) when the island was occupied by Japan’s military during World War II. The second book, from unincorporated territory [saina], focused on my grandmother’s contrasting experience during that same period. This new book echoes and enlarges the earlier books through the themes of family, militarization, cultural identity, migration and colonialism. Furthermore, [guma’] focuses on my own return to my home island after living away (in California) for 15 years. I explore how the island has changed and how my idea of home has changed. I also meditate upon the memories that I have carried with me, as well as all that I have forgotten and left behind. Formally, I experiment with new forms and genres in [guma’], such as prose poetry, eco-poetics, conceptual poetry, indigenous oral poetry and mythological poetry.
RM: As this book is focused upon “home,” it’s not surprising that “language” is very much as stake, since one’s language is so inextricably integrated into a sense of one’s borders and belonging. I have two questions about this, but you may have much more to say.
My first question: can you speak to the purposes and the potential gifts to the reader that come from incorporating your primary language into this text?
CSP: They say that the Chamorro language is the umbilical cord of our culture, because it is an importance source of custom, values, knowledge, wisdom, history, identity and memory. Sadly, colonialism has severed this cord by suppressing our native language and forcing my people to learn English, which has pushed the Chamorro language to the brink of extinction. The presence of the Chamorro language in my work reflects its fragmented persistence in my own life. This presence is gift and inheritance, struggle and resistance. While other native writers have the ability to wield their languages as sophisticated weapons against the colonizer, my incomplete fluency is more akin to throwing stones.
RM: My second question: can you speak to your use of italicized phrases, which seem to act as an alternative language, or subliminal languaging, or an otherness that interrupts or echoes or questions the flow of the text in these sections?
CSP: I imagine that there is a network of underground caves that connects each page of the book, through which the voice of water flows and interweaves. These italicized voices rise to the surface at different moments to sublimate, interrupt, cross current and interweave the tidal flow of the narrative. They remind us of the porous nature of storytelling, and the deeper ecology of language and memory.
RM: There are so many recurring and formally distinct series in this text. Of course, in a short interview, we can’t discuss them all. But I’ll ask about two of the series. First, can you say how Juan Malo came to you as a character to bring to this text?
CSP: Juan Malo is a famous character in Chamorro storytelling: he is a young Chamorro man who lives on Guåhan during Spanish Colonial times. He is most commonly known as a “trickster” who—with the help of his trusty karabao (water buffalo)—humorously outwits the Spanish Governor (the figure of colonial power). I love the Juan Malo stories, because they show that even powerless people can subvert and resist colonialism in creative ways, which to me suggests a parallel between trickster stories and contemporary decolonial literature.
RM: Secondly, bringing the DEIS into the text makes me think of Rukeyser’s work—how her use of actual testimony creates a timeless and profound poetry. What were your challenges in engaging with actual testimony?
CSP: While I was writing [guma’], the nine-volume, 11,000-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the military buildup on Guam was released. At that point, the public had 90 days to read, understand and respond to a plan that would use a sacred latte village as a live firing range, destroy thousands of acres of coral reef to dredge a harbor to house nuclear aircraft carriers and transfer tens of thousands of soldiers and their dependents to Guam—causing a population spike that would overwhelm public utilities and services. Reading the DEIS felt like reading the roadmap to the destruction of my homeland.
After the comment period, a new Final Environmental Impact Statement was published and included a 10th volume, which presented the testimonies that were submitted by the public, a majority of which opposed the military buildup. So I started to re-post some of the most poignant comments as my Facebook status, as a way to re-circulate these testimonies in another sphere. Some Facebook friends even shared these status updates. In [guma’], I cast these testimonies as poems, including some of the comments I received on Facebook. Even though these are actual comments, I wanted to include them in my book of poems because reading our resistant voices feels like reading poetry.
RM: Would you tell me a bit about yourself—anything about you that is not in the bio printed in the book, and that might give insight into your more personal relationship to this text?
CSP: While writing several food poems for [guma’], I began to become more conscious about the relationship between colonialism and food. Like many other Pacific Islanders today, I was raised on imported foods from America (such as white rice, white bread, SPAM and other canned meats) and Asia (such as soy sauce, shrimp chips, candies like Pocky and Hello Panda and bottled teas). These unhealthy, colonial foods have ravaged the Pacific body, causing high rates of chronic diseases linked to poor diet. Today, I am trying to “decolonize my diet” by returning to native and local foods and supporting the “food sovereignty” and “food security” movements in Hawai’i. I am even working on a creative nonfiction book called The Decolonial Diet.
RM: Who are the authors with whom you feel a kinship? Who are you reading currently?
CSP: I feel a kinship with all writers who believe that poetry can heal, empower, inspire, educate, critique, entertain, dignify, memorialize, transform and renew. I am currently reading writers that I am teaching in my Contemporary Pacific Poetry and Poetics graduate course. If you contact me on Facebook, I will happily email you a reading list.
RM: The cover of from unincorporated territory [guma’] is a split design. In that way, it is similar to the cover of [saina]. But the design for [guma’] actually uses three images, not two. You were seeking a modern image of Guam, impacted by the military, for part of the design. And you chose the archival image that is used, both at the top and as an insert into the bottom of the design. Can you talk about your relationship to these images and your reasons for your choice?
CSP: The archival image on the top of the cover is a drawing titled “Ancient Ruins of Columns Seen on the Island of Tinian.” Jacques Arago drew this image for French navigator Louis Freycinet’s book Voyage Autour de Monde or Voyage around the World, published in Paris in 1824. Tinian is an island north of Guåhan, both of which are part of the Mariana Archipelago—the ancestral islands of the Chamorro people. While most of my writing is about Guåhan, I chose this picture of Tinian to point to the fact that our archipelago is now partitioned into two political entities: the U.S. unincorporated territory of Guam, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Using this image represents, to me, a dream of freedom and re-unification.
The “columns” in the image are known as “latte” stones in Chamorro, two-tiered stone structures that formed the foundations of our ancestral houses, atop of which were placed A-frame wood and thatch structures. These raised dwelling spaces functioned as homes, schools and ceremonial structures, as well as canoe and food sheds. During Spanish colonial times, the colonizers burned down the dwelling spaces, pushed over the latte stones, and moved the people into Spanish-style mission housing.
Many of these latte-site ruins still exist throughout our islands, and my people believe that they are sacred spaces in which our ancestors’ spirits dwell. The image of the latte stone is also very symbolic to us: it represents the foundation of our culture, and the strength and ingenuity of our people. At the same time, it also represents a deep sense of trauma and loss.
The middle image of the cover (found by book designer Cassandra Smith) is a photograph of the 27th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron at Anderson Air Force Base, a 20,000-acre military base located on the northern end of Guam that houses thousands of military personnel and their dependents in around 1,200 housing units. Anderson AFB, established in 1944, was a major staging area during the Vietnam War and continues to be a strategic forward-bomber operation base. Decades of military activities have led to dangerous amounts of herbicide, pesticide and other toxic and hazardous material contamination of the groundwater and soil. Notably, Anderson AFB overlies the Northern Guam Lens, a sole-source aquifer that provides the majority of Guam’s drinking water.
The final image is also of latte stones, but the image is faded—faded beneath the pavement of the military base, beneath the boots of the soldiers. To me, this represents how militarization and colonialism have attempted to bury and destroy our homes and cultural integrity. At the same time, the overall design of the cover represents the continued survival, breath and strength of the Chamorro people.
Craig Santos Perez is a native Chamoru from the Pacific Island of Guåhan/Guam. He is the co-founder of Ala Press, co-star of the poetry album Undercurrent and author of two previous collections of poetry: from unincorporated territory [hacha] and from unincorporated territory [saina], a finalist for the Los Angeles Times 2010 Book Prize for Poetry and the winner of the 2011 PEN Center U.S.A. Literary Award for Poetry. He is the Director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Hawai’i, Manoa