Julian Aguon’s Poetic Riposte to American Empire

Julian Aguon’s Poetic Riposte to American Empire

Julian Aguon’s Poetic Riposte to American Empire

The CHamoru lawyer discusses the militarization of Guam and his new book, The Properties of Perpetual Light.

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There are white flowers clinging to limestone cliffs, teeming schools of rabbitfish, and busy tree snails—but in The Properties of Perpetual Light, there is no birdsong. Save for an epigraph, the absence of one of nature’s most ubiquitous pleasures in Julian Aguon’s new, effusively nature-loving book is acknowledged only in the final chapter, a transcribed conversation between Aguon and a close friend, in which he reveals to readers that, on his home island of Guam, there have been virtually no songbirds for a generation. They were eradicated when the United States military inadvertently introduced the invasive brown tree snake. It “is one of those gifts from the colonizer that keeps on giving,” Aguon tells his friend sarcastically.

A lawyer by trade, Aguon lives what he calls “the integrated life,” employing his passion for writing, activism, and advocacy in the fight for environmental justice and Indigenous self-determination. Guam is a US territory, full of US citizen residents, including thousands of Indigenous CHamorus like Aguon, who live with truncated civil rights and no voting representation in Congress. Closer to Asia than the US mainland, the Pacific island also hosts a massive US military outpost, which has for decades wrought environmental havoc. And the military is expanding its presence on the island. For a decade and a half it has been upscaling its operations in preparation for the relocation of thousands of Marines from Okinawa to Guam.

This militarized colonial buildup is the backdrop of The Properties of Perpetual Light, a collection of vignettes, poems, speeches, and essays about Guam, its people, its beauty, and the grief and wonder that come with loving it. I spoke with Aguon a week after the book was released—which also happened to be a week after his legal advocacy on behalf of CHamoru activists found a public audience on the international stage. We spoke about colonialism, and the personal, local, and global fight against it.

—Chris Gelardi

Chris Gelardi: We have some news to talk about! Last week, around the time your book was released, three special rapporteurs from the United Nations Human Rights Council announced that they had sent a letter to the US federal government expressing concerns about human and civil rights violations against the CHamoru people. What specifically are their concerns, and how did all of this come about?

Julian Aguon: I founded Blue Ocean Law, which is a progressive law firm that works at the intersection of Indigenous rights and environmental justice, and we have long been concerned about the ways in which the military buildup has been rolled out in Guam by the Department of Defense. We hadn’t directly taken on the issue as a firm, but there is an activist group, Prutehi Litekyan, and we saw them doing a ton of work on the issue over a number of years, from lobbying local legislative officials to trying to have sit downs to bring military officials to the table, to protests, to online petitions—all that stuff. And we thought it was high time to get the international human rights community on board.

There are so many aspects to the military buildup, and we believed that several different [categories of internationally recognized human] rights were implicated. With development activities of this scale, they threaten to impair the CHamoru people’s ability not only to practice, but to transmit our distinct traditions and customs—things that are supposedly protected under international law. So we, on behalf of Prutehi Litekyan and together with the Brussels-based Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, filed a submission to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. And we were very pleased with the outcome, because not only that special rapporteur, but two others as well, they expressed serious concerns over a wide range of allegations—things that are squarely implicated by the military buildup happening right now, unfolding in real time, but also part of a long-standing practice of the US military to ignore all of these rights. It was great, because it was like 500 years of uninterrupted colonization came into the room. These independent human rights experts really validated the certainty felt among activists that we deserve to have these things remediated—that we have a right to a clean, healthy, and safe environment.

CG: Can you briefly explain what the military buildup is?

JA: Way back in 2006, the US government first announced this military buildup of Guam, which was in part about dealing with a public relations crisis in Okinawa, Japan. Okinawa shoulders a disproportionate amount of the US military presence in Japan on their tiny landmass, and there’s been a host of environmental contamination and [US military] violence against women and all of these things, so there’s been a mass movement building in Okinawa to get the US Marines out. Couple that with the US’s larger geopolitical strategy to curb China’s growth and influence in this region, and you get this military buildup on Guam.

When it was first announced, it was gigantic: 8,000 US military personnel transferring, a nuclear submarine, the berthing of an aircraft carrier. But over a decade, there were fits and starts: At the federal level, Congress attached caveats and conditions, and then, here, there was a swell of grassroots opposition. So all of that recalibrated the initial scope of the buildup, and now it’s pared down—though it’s no less contentious. About 5,000 US military personnel and around 1,200 associated personnel [are slated to relocate to Guam]. It involves the construction of a live-fire training range over an area in Guam called Litekyan, which is a historically and culturally significant site for the CHamoru people; there was just recently a ceremony for a brand new base—the first new permanent Marine Corps base since 1952. Though it’s less huge than if there hadn’t been a groundswell of opposition, it’s still absolutely a huge military buildup.

CG: So what happens now, with the letter?

JA: It’s up to the various cast of characters. The governor can do stuff on her end; she can re-engage US federal officials. There are things that Guam can do in the international arena—for example, if Prutehi Litekyan, the activist group, wanted to take it further, it could even request a visiting mission, or file with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. There are so many different mechanisms available under international law that the CHamoru people can now go to. What the rapporteurs have done is help the Indigenous people here build a record on the international stage for further advocacy. It’s the first time in history, really, that the UN human rights community has had something to say about the people of Guam and our plight. So this is precedent-setting.

CG: Turning to your new book: In it, you convey how, throughout modern CHamoru history and in everyday life on Guam, colonialism is more or less omnipresent. But you take that and you scale it down to the personal, and to the small, and to the tiniest details of, for example, ancestral interactions with nature. What was your mission in going micro with such a massive issue?

JA: I was deploying the [idea] that Arundhati Roy has gifted us: that the very biggest of things is connected to the very smallest. The military buildup is so grand in scale, it’s an aggressive wave of militarization. And I thought, wow, we can’t keep having a conversation that is so loud. And so I needed to quiet down from that noise, and the only way to do that was to try to announce the presence of the beautiful—to lovingly prod people to make them understand that we need to attend to small things. Like you said, colonialism is omnipresent—it’s the water, it’s the air we breathe—and so what we need to do is remind people of other ways of being.

For me, this involved tracing things back all the way to my childhood. I remembered a spectacularly vulnerable moment in my life, being a kid on a red dirt mountain and really, really, really looking at tree snails. I was so curious about these small lives—learning empathy, learning all of these things from just imagining the lives of this family of tree snails that I would follow. And, because they would move so slowly, hoping against hope that, “If they had to, they could move swiftly enough to save their own lives.” When I wrote about that, that’s when I really knew I had a book. I was like, this is what I’m doing—this is an attempt to rescale the earth, rescale the world from the bottom up.

And we need that. We need to retune our ears, our capacity for radical listening to the importance of lives more vulnerable than ours. All these years of uninterrupted colonization now being mashed up against this aggressive wave of militarization, it’s too loud. We’ve lost the ability to hear each other and to hear ourselves think.

CG: You wrote in various places that the book is a love letter or an homage to Indigenous peoples, to the “activist-writer,” and to youth. What are the connections there?

JA: Indigenous peoples are some of the greatest caretakers of the earth. And it’s not just our community—Indigenous peoples across the world are actively stewarding some of the most biodiverse hotspots left on the planet. They are part of the answer to the question of how to get out of the mess that we’re in, the mess that we’ve made. So I look to them. And in some ways, this book is a love letter to them. It’s for everyone, but in particular it’s for Indigenous peoples who are trying our best to wrap our arms around what matters—which is the earth and each other. And they’re doing that work—oftentimes criminalized work, oftentimes uncompensated work, work that’s been rendered impossible by the prevailing economy.

So that’s on the one hand. And on the other hand, there are entries in the book that really speak to young people. Like [the chapter titled] “Fighting Words”: “When we are able to overcome our speechlessness,” and we push past that, we take a step beyond our trauma and into the sun—and our job is to “share the sunlight.” That is what our job is. It’s like Toni Morrison said: “The function of freedom is to free someone else.” Toni Morrison was breathing in my ear the whole time I was writing this book. The insight that she has bequeathed to young writers, I’m picking it up and I’m trying to run into a hard wind with it. And look, I’m quoting all of these writers—Arundhati Roy, Toni Morrison—because they all clearly gave things to me. We pass them down, and I’m just trying to be responsible for my own portion of the relay.

When I close my eyes, I think of my book as a bridge—one that allows young people to make a crossing, to get over some really difficult terrain and get to some place better, get to some place they can feel the sun on their face.

CG: In the book and in interviews, you’ve made a point to connect the fight for self-determination and environmental justice on Guam with similar struggles in the rest of Oceania and across the world. And last year, you joined the global advisory council for the Progressive International. Why is internationalizing Indigenous struggles so important?

JA: The work of solidarity is the work of the future. It is the answer. For example, the national demand to defund the police is clearly logically, intellectually, politically, in all ways connected to the global demand to defund the Pentagon. They’re part of the same thing, but they’re not talking to each other necessarily. Those demands are twin demands, and one movement has to be in conversation with another. And, you know, the same Indigenous youth who are stepping up to stop Line 3—their work is intertwined with the work of Prutehi Litekyan and other groups here to stop the building of a firing range over sacred space. That’s why I am so excited about the work of the Progressive International, which is trying to connect and mobilize progressive forces around the world behind this really shared, ever growing, ever more robust vision of global justice. Indigenous peoples, we have intellectual contributions to add to that conversation.

Every community that I work with, whether it’s the Marshallese community or communities struggling with the crazy amount of missing Indigenous women in the US, we all recognize that we need to link our struggles, because we know the truth. And the truth is that the prevailing economic and political institutions and systems are fundamentally at war with life on earth.

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