The generational grief of colonization
“In Guam, even the dead are dying,” Chamorro author and activist Julian Aguon writes in his new book The Properties of Perpetual Light.
Aguon, a human rights lawyer and founder of Blue Ocean Law, has watched with anguish as his home island, along with the rest of the Marianas archipelago, has been environmentally degraded due to growing militarization. Known as Guåhan to its residents, Guam has been a US territory since 1898, and today, the Department of Defense occupies roughly 30 percent of its land — a share that’s only growing.
Most recently, the Pentagon decided to relocate roughly 5,000 Marines from Japan to Guam as part of a larger realignment of US military forces in the Asia-Pacific region. Meanwhile, the ongoing construction of the newest US Marine base, Camp Blaz, is nearing completion, despite major opposition from the island’s local residents. Further aggravating Guam’s native Chamorro people, military officials last summer found human remains and cultural artifacts dating back to the island’s pre-colonial Latte period during the excavation of the land, as they seemingly broke ground on ancient villages.
Guam’s pristine northern coastline has also recently been impacted by the construction of a massive firing range complex, which is an extension of the Marine base. It not only sits atop numerous historical sites, but it’s also dangerously near the island’s primary source of drinking water and would gravely damage the island’s natural resources and biodiversity — including more than 1,000 acres of native limestone forest and species, such as Guam’s slender-toed gecko.
On top of this, and in concert with a pandemic that’s taken the lives of hundreds of native Pacific Islanders, Aguon’s book comes at a time when Indigenous Chamorro people face growing erasure. Many Americans still don’t know that people born on the island are US citizens — citizens who enlist in and die serving the military at a higher rate per capita than anyone in the country yet cannot vote in US elections. In fact, earlier this month, QAnon espouser Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) called Guam a “foreign country” that shouldn’t receive American tax dollars.
As such, Pacific Islander authors and their perspectives in literature are hard to come by, which Aguon hopes to change by inspiring future generations to challenge the dominant framework that centers white experiences and make their own art to take up space. While Aguon does not settle on one structure in The Properties of Perpetual Light — going from prose to poetry to political commentary — the common thread is grief, which he uses to talk about climate change; the colonial history and rampant US militarization of the Pacific Islands; and the generational trauma that’s been passed down for centuries. But he also finds power in hope.
“There’s so much beauty,” Aguon told Vox. “And as I say in the end [of the book], ‘A human being is here to be enjoyed, like a sunset or tangerine. We’re not oxen, we’re not here to endlessly plow the earth.’ We’re more than our suffering.”
As someone born and raised in the Northern Mariana Islands, a US territory just north of Guam, I talked to Aguon about home, his new book, and the need for more Pacific Islander representation in the literary world and beyond. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
First, I want to talk about the title, The Properties of Perpetual Light. In the book, which at its core is about loss, you reference the prayer we say for the dead during rosaries in the islands: “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord — and let perpetual light shine upon them.” Then later you write, “Perpetual Light is the Ancient Beauty.” Tell me more about what “perpetual light” means to you.
The whole book is really a process of interrogation, really interrogating the language that we use. The Catholic prayer for the dead — as I say in the introduction, I’ve recited those words thousands of times. But it is only in compiling this manuscript that I really reflected on their meaning. As kids on Guam, we’re always coming back from somebody’s rosary. It’s so common. We memorize these things, but we don’t necessarily really dive deep or interrogate the meaning of those words.
In the same way that the earth metals have different properties, what about their spiritual counterparts? I thought of hope and faith, but this idea of perpetual light has always spoken to me. We know from the Bible, the only thing to perceive light is love, and I was like, wow, that’s such a powerful idea. Our love brings things into being. To me, when we’re saying this prayer, we are sort of offering up the only thing we have, which is our love to light the way of the people we’ve lost, and this book has a lot of loss in it.
Being from the Mariana Islands myself, I know how rare it is to find a book written by a Chamorro author, or even a native Pacific Islander author, or even a book about the islands. Why was writing this book so significant to you as an Indigenous activist, lawyer, and author?
We need artists more than we believe we do, especially in hard times. 2020 was exceedingly difficult for so many of us. Here on Guam, the pain and trauma of living in the reality of a militarized colony really became very clear in an almost palpable way — you could feel it in the air that we breathe. For example, US military personnel last March came off of these ships, came into the community, infecting the community, violating numerous executive orders, local ordinances, running around — and I was just like wow, this is really symbolic of a larger thing that’s happening. All of these really deep, longstanding, entrenched inequalities were really laid bare for the whole world to see, and it really made us realize so much of what we think is an illusion.
I’ve been influenced by so many writers with different writing traditions. In the islands, we take so much information, but we don’t have enough of our own locally produced literature. I want this book to burn our illusion about certain things, and really dive deep into the pain, and to really explore, walk around, and fill the walls of the cave. As a community, I really feel like we were avoiding these really painful conversations. I want this book to blow all of that wide open.
Relatedly, I want to touch on invisibility. As a kid growing up on Saipan, I never saw our home islands as something largely unnoticed by the world, nor did I realize that not many people knew we were US citizens. It wasn’t until I moved to the mainland US that I really started to understand that there were misconceptions and a dearth of knowledge. Can you speak to this invisibility, particularly the indigeneity of Pacific Islanders who often don’t see themselves represented in literature?
With this book, in some ways, I was trying to cultivate in the reader a sense of respect for small things. What Arundhati Roy would call the “the whisper and scurry of small lives” — that’s partly what gets rendered invisible so often.
When I wrote the chapter “Yugu Means Yoke,” I had just lost my father from pancreatic cancer. My nuclear family was falling spectacularly apart. And I was just alone on a red dirt mountain, and I had to find my way in the world with so little guidance in that particular moment. In some ways, you could say I learned empathy from insects. I was just curious about these small lives. I was wondering if these snails could ever evade their predators. I was paying attention to how slowly they moved and really wanting them to move swiftly enough to save their own lives — and wanting the same thing for myself, even without knowing that. I was a young child growing up and would soon be struggling with being Indigenous and queer and questing or searching for oneself.
Diving into and understanding literature, I found that good books are lighthouses, that they light the way when we’re alone. I want this book to be that little lighthouse for the young readers who are also navigating really difficult terrain. Books are lighthouses, but they’re also mirrors in which our faces do or do not appear. I wanted young people from the Marianas or even the wider Micronesian islands to be able to read this book and see a piece of themselves in it, and also inspire them to write their own books or call out the art that’s just latent in them.
The way you used grief and trauma throughout the book as a theme to highlight issues that haunt native Pacific Islanders and the islands is profound. There’s your dad’s passing as you mentioned, but also human remains that were found during the military buildup excavation. Was this approach something that was intentional from the beginning before you started putting together the book?
I would actually be lying if I said that it was premeditated. The book sort of revealed itself to me while I was writing it because I didn’t really have an agenda or a plan. With all the noise of 2020 and isolation and suffering in every corner, I was just writing because I couldn’t not write. I was thinking about loss and processing it and I thought about how it all started with my first major loss, which is the loss of my father.
Most people use or handle grief in such a way that has an isolating effect. It cuts us off from other people. This book does exactly the opposite: It uses grief, but it tries to bring it into the heart of the village. It brings people together. I tried to use grief, in some ways, in an Islander way. Our funerals back home are deeply sad like everyone else’s, you know this, but they’re also oddly celebratory. They’re like parties. We’re celebrating the life that one has lived, and the only way to grieve the enormity of certain kinds of loss is to grieve it together. This book is an invitation to do that, and that’s the one aspect of it that made it quite special to me.
I’m really curious about how you didn’t settle with just one structure in the book. You used prose, poetry, political commentary, as the chapter changes. For me, it allowed room for processing and understanding what all that grief meant. In one chapter you talk about the time Guam made headlines because of the threat from North Korea, the next you talk about something personal about your father, then you get into a poem. What inspired you to write it that way?
A good book can be like a record or like a music album with different notes — and you’re hitting the listener in different places. They do range in form like prose and poetry, but they also range in occasions. There’s eulogies marking an actual death versus commencement speeches to young people who are about to step into the world as it actually is, not as they wish it to be. It’s almost like a kaleidoscope of life experiences. I tried to meet readers where they’re actually at no matter where that is in the spectrum of life. What you’re getting into with the switching up of the medium or the styles, is that it’s in some ways like this collage, right? It’s like a lovely mess, but life is a lovely mess. Part of my playing around with some of the structure was about that, and on the other hand, playing around with the structure is also because I think you can only say certain things in certain ways. Poetry does something that the other styles can’t.
At the end, for example, I’ve just said many things, and I ended with this poem, which was about a flower. It’s just a simple poem about a flower, but about our respect for strength, as opposed to power. I feel like that is such a theme in the book, and I wanted to leave the reader with this impossibly gentle image of this flower, thriving in such rugged and hostile territory. Not only because it’s about an appreciation of beauty, or an announcement of the presence of the beautiful, but also because it’s primarily about an insistence on it, paying attention to small things. The book is not prescriptive. I’m not prescribing the answer. I’m not answering a question. Rather, I’m just enlarging the question.
I remember attending a panel of UN delegates from Guåhan at New York University in 2019, and the panelists asked the room something to the effect of, “When you hear Guam, what do you think of?” Then immediately there was a chorus of the words “island” and “military.” What can you say about this outside perception, which in a sense conceals the growing issue of climate or militarization in Micronesia?
I think it has something to do with what Toni Morrison would have described as writing beyond the white gaze — and in my book, I was trying to stretch that analogy and write beyond the colonial gaze, not what outsiders see. There’s so much beauty, and as I say in the end, “A human being is here to be enjoyed, like a sunset or tangerine. We’re not oxen, we’re not here to endlessly plow the earth.” We’re more than our suffering.
Part of what happens is this standard narrative gets cast and that account shows we’re suffering and we’re fighting this largest military buildup in recent history — all of that is true; we are on course to becoming one of the most militarized places on earth — but it is also true that we come from wayfinders, that we have such rich, spiritual and intellectual sources or knowledge to draw upon. Our homeland is so beautiful. I mean, it’s arresting. So it also is important to highlight what we’re fighting for — the beauty and the richness and the diversity.
Speaking of beauty, you also center and highlight women a lot — from the chapter “My Mother’s Bamboo Bracelets,” where you told a story about a group of women weaving their hair together to build a giant net to save the island from being eaten by a giant fish, to “Fighting Words,” about your grandmother surviving a traumatic event. Why was deploying that feminist insight such an important theme?
There are definitely several feminist currents swimming throughout the book. There’s “the personal is political,” which is a quintessential feminist insight. There’s also the beautiful celebration of defiant people and writers who swam so squarely against the tide. And I have been nourished by Black feminism and other theories of liberation, which have clearly impacted me and my work.
That’s also where we come from in Guam and in many of our Micronesian islands. We are matrilineal. Originally, for example, the land tenure was passed on the mother’s side or that Chamorro women didn’t use to take their husband’s name. We organized our society based along those lines. That’s naturally where I gravitate to. And in my personal life, my father died very early so my mother raised me, along with random amazing women, mostly women of color, who showed up in my life and nourished me and nurtured me and taught me and instructed me as my life progressed.
I want to close with what’s probably the most basic question. Even though grief is an overarching theme of your book, you also talk about light and hope. Where do you find hope?
I don’t think the two — grief and hope — are really disconnected. I think we need to have a deeper understanding of hope. Hope is earned. You have to put in the work. On the ground, when you’re in community with other people and you’re trying to build power, there is nothing like that. That it’s a high that can barely be explained because you’re all together and you realize you’re moved by your shared fate. You realize that our fates are intertwined.
I’ve never felt more robustly alive than when I’m in community with other people who believe that they can change the world. Solidarity and community-building and building power in and across our communities is the work we have to do.