Home as an archipelago of belonging

In this conversation with advaya, Craig Santos Perez discusses archipelagic poetics and thinking, the history and politics and culture of Guam, homemaking and homebuilding as a diasporic individual, the ocean as metaphor, and archipelagic kin-making. Craig speaks to us with and from his background as a migratory, global islander, an indigenous Chamoru (Chamorro) from the Pacific Island of Guåhan (Guam), as a poet, environmentalist, political activist, and a father.

TAMMY [ADVAYA]: Hi, everyone, to anyone who's listening, in our community. We are today in conversation with Craig Santos Perez, who is one of the teachers of our upcoming course, KINSHIP. And I'm really excited to be speaking today about a lot of the themes that we'll be covering during the course, and also diving into Craig's story, and experiences and perspectives on a lot of the very relevant themes that the course is going to be covering. And I hope everyone out there enjoys this conversation also.

And before we begin officially, Craig, I would love for you to introduce yourself, your background, talk a little bit where you are, where you came from—but not too much about that, because we're gonna go into that more specifically.

DR. CRAIG SANTOS PEREZ: Alright, thank you Tammy. Håfa Adai, and aloha, everyone. I am so honoured to be part of this conversation and the course on KINSHIP as well. I am originally from the Pacific island of Guam, I was born and raised there, until I was 15 years old. And then my family migrated to California, where I finished high school as well as college. I have a Masters of Fine Arts and poetry from the University of San Francisco, and a PhD in Ethnic Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. For the past 11 years, I've been a professor in the English department at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, where I teach Pacific literature, creative writing, and environmental poetry. So I'm an editor, poet, professor, father, and a teacher as well. So thank you so much.

TAMMY [ADVAYA]: I wanted to open up today's conversation with talking about a word that probably feels quite foreign to a lot of people, and probably means not very much to people who don't come from islands, but wanted to focus on the word archipelago, and invite you to talk about what it means to you, knowing that you've contributed to the literature a lot on archipelago thinking, specifically what you mean by an archipelagic poetics. Especially as you've written before, something that "opens space to express solidarity with other peoples, places and species who have similar struggles and experiences." And also invite you to talk about this from the perspective of yourself as "an indigenous, migratory and global islander".

DR. CRAIG SANTOS PEREZ: Yes, thank you for the prompt. Growing up on on an island in the Pacific, I was very conscious, even as a kid of our kind of islandness and what the word island meant. Everywhere we drove, we could see the ocean, and it only took maybe 30 minutes to an hour to drive around the entire island. And, so to me, I was very much grounded in the kind of island space as a child. Guam itself is the southernmost island in what we call the Marianas archipelago. And it's an archipelago of 15 volcanic islands. And it's the traditional homelands of my people, the Chamorro people. And so as a kid I was also very familiar with archipelagos, because that's where I grew up. That's where my people are from. And that's what we always saw on the maps of our home islands. And so for me, it really began as as a geographical space.

And it started to take on more symbolic meanings as I grew older, and started to think about archipelagos not just as a geographic or cartographic space, but also as a metaphor for connection across spaces. And so thinking about how islands are don't just exist in isolation, but they always exist in relationship to other islands. And of course, when I migrated to the to the US, North America, as well as to continent. And so, there are many scholars, as you mentioned, thinking about archipelagos as symbolic spaces and intellectual metaphors. So I was really inspired by that work to think about an archipelagic poetics. So to me, I started to... this might sound crazy, but...

I started to see words as islands, and sentences and poems, as archipelagos of words, and thinking about the page as a kind of oceanic space. And so when I write poems, it's almost as if like islands and archipelagos are being born on the page.

Now, just beyond that visual metaphor, as you quoted, I also think about it symbolically, archipelagos as relationships, as interconnection of humans, animals, land, water, and so on. And a way of translating differences across species and across lands and waters and so on. And so for me, as an indigenous Pacific Islander who's also migrated across vast distances, I feel that distances and disconnection, but through the archipelago, I could think more about connection and relations with not only with other islands and other peoples, but of course, with animals and the environment as a whole.

TAMMY [ADVAYA]: I feel like from your background, as a poet, a lot of the stuff that you say naturally comes out metaphorically. And I really appreciate that, and especially the very visual idea of the page as an oceanic space, and I don't think you sound crazy, I think that makes a lot of sense actually, thinking about words as islands.

To respond a little bit to what you were saying about having travelled such vast distances, and moved across continents, thinking about traversing that distance, through archipelagic thinking, making connections... I think that's something that we think about a lot with the KINSHIP course, the idea of the ocean being simultaneously a separating force, but also a connecting force, which is kind of strange to I think, wrap our heads around, because we don't normally think about how the ocean is... it's kind of trippy to think about because we are such land based creatures, that most of the world is the ocean.

But speaking about poetry, I do think that I want to bring in your poem that we've published a little bit of on our Instagram page, but wanting to read a bit of the end of your poem "Off-Island Chamorros" and it ends with these lines. Remember: our ancestors / taught us how to carry our culture in the canoes of our bodies. / Remember: our people, scattered like stars, form new constellations / when we gather. Remember: home is not simply a house, / village, or island; home is an archipelago of belonging. I would love to invite you to share about your ancestral home, Guam or Guåhan, and give those of us who aren't aware, maybe a bit of your personal and also, inevitably, political context, in terms of what has happened and is happening on Guam, and how you're thinking about belonging, which you began to touch a little bit about, and how that relates to the story and the history of Guam.

DR. CRAIG SANTOS PEREZ: Yeah, thank you for reading those lines. You definitely have a very poetic voice as well. And so I appreciate it.

So Guam is, as I mentioned, an island in the western Pacific region, known as Micronesia. And it's the largest and most populated island in that region. It's the traditional homelands of the Chamorro people, as I mentioned. In the 16th century, it was colonised by Spain, and so it was a territory of Spain, from the 16th century up to 1898. And so there's a lot of influences of Spanish culture. And then, after the Spanish American War of 1898, Guam became a US territory. And it's been a US territory ever since. Some of the political issues, besides, of course, colonisation, is also militarisation. So Guam, about 1/3 of our island is occupied by US military bases. And it is one of the most important bases in the western Pacific, Asia Pacific, or what they now call the Indo Pacific region. And so that's one of the main reasons why the United States continues to colonise Guam and hold it as a territory, despite the fact that my people have been, and continue to be fighting for our self determination and independence and sovereignty.

And so that's a little bit about some of the historical and political issues, that I do write about in my poems. The specific poem that you read, actually addresses the issue of migration and diaspora. Due to many issues, my people have been migrating away from home for the past 50 years or so. And often for the same reasons why many other Pacific Islanders migrate, for economic reasons, in search of better educational opportunities, healthcare, work, and so on. And so my family was part of this migrant stream, so to speak. And, of course, moving from a small island to the west coast of a very large continent, was quite disorienting, and made me feel really disconnected from my culture and my homeland. And so I wrote that poem "Off-Island Chamorros" to just try to reckon with some of the feelings I had as a diasporic Chamorro person.

And the last lines that you read was really kind of the lesson I wanted to teach myself and to share with others, about how we can think about diaspora, migration, not always as a traumatic separation and disconnection, but also as a way that our people can actually stay connected to home. And so that's why I have the lines that, our ancestors taught us how to carry our cultures in the canoes of our bodies, which means that even when we leave home, we don't necessarily lose our cultures, but we carry it with us. And even we carry our recipes with us, and we could cook our foods wherever we go and still feel connected. And then that last line, thinking about home, not simply as an island, or village or house, but as an archipelago of belonging...

Of course, often when people leave home or migrate, they feel like they don't belong in the new place. And we also feel a longing to return home.

So I want us to think about that feeling of belonging as a kind of archipelago where, you know, we have many homes, not just the one island that we grew up in, but for me, Guam is home, California was home for time, now Hawaiʻi has been home.

And so I think about these places as an archipelago of my own belonging. And so in that sense, the archipelago was a very powerful metaphor that helped me deal with some of the feelings of disconnection that I felt after my family migrated.

TAMMY [ADVAYA]: Yeah, when you said, carrying recipes, and parts of yourself, I was thinking about the conversation that I had with Leny, Leny Strobel, who is one of the teachers from the course. She was talking about how she moved from the Philippines. And when she first arrived in the US, she was sharing her Filipino food with her neighbours. And then her neighbors were like, what is this, and were very confused. And she was talking about how Filipinos have this way of bringing parts of their culture to wherever they are. And this desire for their Filipinoness to be expressed, that then brings a lot of Filipino people who are abroad together, because it just gets expressed, because they want to share parts of themselves. So I think that's an interesting connection.

And this is a bit off the script, but I'm just wondering how, since you've moved multiple times, what that process of home making and home building has been like, as the diasporic person?

DR. CRAIG SANTOS PEREZ: Yeah. Thank you, definitely, filled with struggles and joys. So, like I said, I lived 15 years in Guam. And in California, going to school, I lived there for 15 years. And that was also a lot of culture shock, of course. But for me, homemaking was a kind of navigation, to try to figure out this new place that my family had migrated to, to learn how to drive on the California freeways—which is very scary. And to make new friends at school, and just to get to know this new place. And I feel like so much of migrant homemaking is first and foremost, like learning, learning this new place, learning the names of the streets and the cities and learning how to get around on this, the roads and freeways. And so it's a lot of orientation, navigation, and just settling in and learning the place.

I've now been in Hawaiʻi for about 12 years, almost 13. And similarly, I had to learn relearn, how to drive, here, relearn the highways and the roads, to learn the place names and the history of this place. And just to make new friends and figure out where I belong. And, another element of it, of course, is connecting, I tried to connect to the indigenous peoples of these places, whether it was Native American people in California, or the native Hawaiian people here in Hawaiʻi. Even though I'm Native as well, I'm not native to these places. And so for me, that meant that I had to learn about their cultures and histories as well, and find ways that I could be in solidarity and support their own struggles, which is actually very similar to some of the struggles that my own people have had been dealing with.

TAMMY [ADVAYA]: Also wanting to point folks to learning more about Hawaiʻi. This, I don't know why it needs to be pointed out. But I feel like a lot of people who come to this course also, or come to this space, just need to learn more about not just Hawaiʻi, but also about the struggles of island peoples across the world. Like you said, they're very distinctly different for sure, there are different cultural, social contexts, but a lot of them have very similar kind of struggles and pains and ongoing resistance. So inviting people to find out more and learn how to show solidarity, and not also treat islands just as token vacation places, especially for Hawaiʻi. But I guess lots of Pacific islands as well. And islands in Asia. So, yeah, everywhere.

And so I wanted to shift a little bit to talk about the ocean, which is something that I'm sure you're much more familiar with than I am. And so as you write in Contemporary Archipelagic Thinking, that many poets and writers, praise the profound capacity of the ocean, Epeli Hauʻofa has also written that "the sea is our endless saga, the sea is our most powerful metaphor, the ocean is in us", which I just love, this series of phrases. It's such a nice line. I would love to hear about how you personally conceptualise the ocean, and how you understand it at the moment—I'm sure your relationship with it has changed a lot over the years—but you've written before in the poem that I read earlier, that you descend from ocean navigators. So also curious to hear a little bit about that lineage, and wondering how the ocean shape has shaped how you think about your identity, and also about how you relate to it now?

DR. CRAIG SANTOS PEREZ: Yeah. Well, one of my earliest memories was when I was in preschool on Guam; my preschool was right on the beach. And so during that time, we would just kind of listen to the waves crashing against the shore, and that would put us to sleep. And I feel like that's always kind of shaped the rhythm of my writing and my body, and just how I tried to live my life. But you know, as a kid, even though the ocean was a kind of lullaby during that time, of course, it was also a very, vast and scary space. Often, we would go to the beach and just swim close to shore and never go out too far. And even if I went out fishing with my uncles, it was always, we would go out further, but never navigating across the Pacific, or anything like that, because the ocean was always this grand horizon that felt like a very unknowable, unfathomable space. And so, in that way the ocean was always kind of beyond understanding or beyond conception.

It really wasn't until I got older, and I started learning more about not only the the science, and geography of the ocean, but also the history and politics and even like the materialism of the ocean, thinking about the ocean, it's not just this blank, empty, vast space, but actually a space that's living and breathing, that has history and politics, and culture, and so much more. And, of course, unfortunately, lots of waste and plastic, and sunken ships and military, weapons and so on. And so for me, now, from a kid just listening to the ocean, now, trying to really learn more about the complexities of the ocean has been really powerful.

And so as Epeli Hauʻofa, the Great Pacific scholar says, the ocean is the greatest metaphor, it's symbolic of so much. And I've written so many poems about the ocean. And I probably could continue to write about it for the rest of my life, and there will always be something more that I could write about, or another shade or another current perhaps, is a better way to put it, that will draw me in, I'll learn something new about, and of course...

So much of our bodies are made of water and oceanic as well. And so we ourselves are the ocean.

And I always love thinking about how the ocean is in us. And the ocean is the source of of all life and also sadly a graveyard for many as well.

And so just to think about its complexity, its capacities, its profound depths, and shimmering surfaces, and all the beautiful and terrifying meanings that the ocean has had, not only for us today, but of course, throughout human human existence.

TAMMY [ADVAYA]: Yeah, I think, to me, the ocean is super terrifying. It's really, really scary. I think I have such a deep fear of being out in the ocean. I mean, I can stand and look at the ocean, and I'm happy there. But looking and going in the water, it's like, honestly really scary, thinking about like how vast and deep it is. And just the idea of the horizon being so, it seems like it's only horizon and you look everywhere, when you're far out enough, you look in all directions, and it's all just water. It's terrifying. I think it's such a strange thing. It's also such a humbling force of nature, when you're out there, standing, looking out, and realising how small we are, in comparison to so many huge land masses and water masses that are around us, it's kind of wild to think about.

DR. CRAIG SANTOS PEREZ: I love that sense of humility that you describe, and kind of made me think of the other part of your question about coming from a navigation culture. And I think that's true for many Pacific Islanders, and, of course, many Asian peoples as well, that have a tradition of canoe building and ocean navigation. And to just imagine, our ancestors and of course, contemporary practitioners, navigating across the ocean is so, terrifying and humbling. But they also created such ingenious ways to read the stars, or to read the ocean currents and the islands and so on, where they were actually able to navigate across this scary space, and to find their ways, to weave in and out of archipelagos, and trade with other islands and meet other Islanders. And so to me, that part of our culture is so inspiring, and so humbling, as well. And it gives me so much meaning.

And to think about... I already talked about migration as a kind of navigation. But I think writing poetry itself too, it is kind of a navigating of silence, to find the words, so that you can reach your destination, whether that destination is a deeper understanding of yourself, your culture, or the environment, and so on. So, yeah, I love that you said that idea of being humbled before the wildness of the ocean. But then also thinking about, how our peoples have made these beautiful watercrafts and created these brilliant navigational techniques to find our way home and even to new homes.

TAMMY [ADVAYA]: Yeah, and I love what you were saying there about poetry being kind of a navigation of the self, I think that with writing as well definitely, I have many more years of building my craft, I guess, of writing, but I do feel like writing down words, in prose, not poetry, personally, because I don't think I would be good at poetry. But I can I definitely see how writing is a navigation of at least my thoughts, what's going on up here, and how also navigating how I relate to the world and how I think about a lot of what I'm seeing, trying to make sense of that. Yeah, trying to find direction in all of the madness, that is, that exists.

DR. CRAIG SANTOS PEREZ: I definitely relate to that.

TAMMY [ADVAYA]: I wanted to actually, before we go into the next question, invite you to read one of your poems. "The Last Safe Habitat", or if you wanted to give some context as well, to the poem, that'd be great.

DR. CRAIG SANTOS PEREZ: Sure, thank you. So this poem that you mentioned, from my most recent book called Habitat Threshold, and I have it here, it was published in 2020, and it's a collection of eco-poetry or environmental poetry. And there's a section in the book that has all poems about human-animal relationships. And this poem is about a native Hawaiian bird, called the Kauaiʻi ʻŌʻō, whose song was last heard here in Hawaiʻi in 1987.

"The Last Safe Habitat". I don’t want our daughter to know / that Hawaiʻi is the bird extinction capital / of the world. I don’t want her to walk / around the island feeling haunted / by tree roots buried under concrete. / I don’t want her to fear the invasive / predators who slither, pounce, / bite, swallow, disease, and multiply. / I don’t want her to see paintings / and photographs of birds she’ll never / witness in the wild. I don’t want her to / imagine their bones in dark museum / drawers. I don’t want her to hear / their voice recordings on the internet. / I don’t want her to memorize and recite / the names of 77 lost species and subspecies. / I don’t want her to draw a timeline / with the years each was “first collected” / and “last sighted.” I don’t want her to learn / about the Kauaʻi ʻŌʻō, who was observed / atop a flowering ‘Ōhiʻa tree, calling / for a mate, day after day, season after / season, because he didn’t know he was / the last of his kind— / until one day, he disappeared, / forever, into a nest of avian silence. / I don’t want our daughter to calculate / how many miles of fencing is needed / to protect the endangered birds / that remain. I don’t want her to realize / the most serious causes of extinction / can’t be fenced out. I want to convince her / that extinction is not the end. I want / to convince her that extinction is / just a migration to the last safe habitat / on earth. I want to convince her / that our winged relatives have arrived / safely to their destination: a wondrous / island with a climate we can never / change, and a rainforest fertile / with seeds and song.

TAMMY [ADVAYA]: Thank you for reading that, and for writing that as well. I just want to also ask you to share a little bit about the book, the collection of poetry.

DR. CRAIG SANTOS PEREZ: Sure thing. As I mentioned, the book is called Habitat Threshold. And it's published in 2020. You can find it online. And it includes poems I wrote from 2014 until about 2019. And 2014 is both when my first daughter was born, and also when the United Nations Climate Summit happened. And it was the year I was feeling very anxious about being a new father, and also feeling very anxious about climate change. And, raising a daughter in this very scary planet, all of a sudden, with wildfires and rising sea levels, and melting glaciers and the extinction of species, and so on. And so the poems in this book address those themes. I called it eco-poetry earlier, basically poetry about nature, wilderness, environmental justice, climate change, animals, and other topics related to these themes. Many of the poems include my daughter, as that one did.

And that particular poem was based upon a true story, just thinking about this native Hawaiian bird, which is now extinct. And the very sad story of the last of this bird, which was a male that scientists were listening to, he would call for a mate every day for several seasons, because he didn't know he was the last of his kind. And so of course, he eventually died. And I just thought about how I don't want my daughter to learn about the terrible situation that our planet is in right now. And I want her to still have that childlike sense of wonder, and awe and love for the environment that she had when she was young. Before she has to learn the harsher truth about climate change and extinction, and other topics, which causes all of us I'm sure, a lot of stress and concern. So that's a little bit about the book. It has moments that are, as I say, kind of depressing in a way, but there are also moments of joy and happiness, amidst and love amidst all of, you know, everything that's happening around us.

TAMMY [ADVAYA]: Yeah. Love exists, despite, in spite of all of the pain, I guess. Yeah, and I definitely have had my fair share of eco-anxiety, as people call it, I guess, climate anxiety, whatever name you want to call it. And I don't like thinking about it, but I think we have to get better at sitting with it. So I guess poetry also puts us in a good space emotionally, like a good heart space to sit with the depth of feeling, whatever kind of feelings that come up.

Yeah, and I wanted to talk a little bit, since we've kind of focused a lot on us migrating, islanders, people, I'm wanting to talk about more than human people, other than human people. And knowing that islands host so much of the world's biodiversity. So much, just cannot even imagine how much there is out there that I will never be able to know, or that we will never be able to know, all of it... I wanted to invite you to talk about how you're thinking about disappearance and loss and extinction at the moment, especially on the island of Hawaiʻi. And also, what comes to mind when you think about that in relation to how these island kin are part of our community and also part of our greater lineage, since we're all kind of in ecosystems together. Yeah, what comes up for you at the moment?

DR. CRAIG SANTOS PEREZ: Yes, thank you. I think that's definitely what I'm thinking about, the ecosystem that we all live in, not only including, the environment, but also of course, animals, and tying it back to our discussion of archipelagos, thinking about different species quote, unquote, being understood as these separate beings, that humans are here, animals are there, or, there are different kinds of animals, different animal kingdoms, and so on.

That way of putting species into different taxonomies and different separate categories, is way of saying like, Oh, everyone's their own separate island. These species are separate islands. But for me, and as you say, we have to think about humans and animals in relation, and as an archipelago, as an ecosystem.

And so that's what I've been thinking about a lot.

And the poems I've been writing have not only been trying to think about how we are connected to animals, like intimately interconnected, we have an archipelagic relationship with animals, but also we have to reckon with how we have exploited animals, for commodities, like the ivory of elephants, or as foods such as fish, and cows, and so on, or as ugly species, like bugs and cockroaches, that we just want to exterminate, and kill, because we see them as pests. Or, of course, think about birds and the impact that urban development, for example, has had on the habitats of native birds. And so, thinking about how we have impacted habitats of animals and their existences. And of course, also their extinction and endangerment not only impacts them, but also how they might impact us and our cultures. What happens to us when we lose other species, what happens to the rest of the ecosystem, which includes humans, when certain species go extinct?

And, here in Hawaiʻi, and even on Guam, there are a lot of efforts to of course, conserve species and perhaps propagate them in zoos and in captivity, and maybe someday rewild them or release them into nature once again. And so those are important efforts. And then, of course, also, we need to think about how we can mourn the loss of the species that we can't necessarily save and care for, and how do we remember the species when they do go extinct? And my poem is kind of thinking about that, as well, and poetry and literature is a way where we can memorialise, as well as remember, all that we have lost, and all that we are losing, and perhaps all that we might lose in the future. And sadly, many of these pieces will only exist in museums or in books and in poems. And that's one way where we can deal with the grief of extinction. And of course, hopefully, that will lead to maybe a change of behaviour where we could start to treat animals differently with more respect, love and care.

Yeah I guess most recently, I was asked to write a poem in the persona of a specific orca, a whale that lives in captivity. There are these editors are creating an anthology based on whales and orcas, as a way where we can try to kind of imagine their lives and their struggles, and of course, their hurts and pains. And then the anthology will help raise awareness about what's happening to orcas, especially those in captivity. And the the sales from the book will go towards organisations that are trying to help these whales, and so that was probably the most recent one. So moving from that poem, I read about specific birds and now writing about whales, and of course, marine animals and so on.

TAMMY [ADVAYA]: So I think we're nearing the end of our time together. But I wanted to invite you to talk about the session that you will be teaching on our course, KINSHIP—very excited to hear about, and hear from all the teachers on the course; there are so many different perspectives, from so many different parts of the world that I've never been to, some of those that I'll probably never ever go to. Because they're just so many places in the world. Yeah, really excited for the collection of stories that we'll be hearing, the snippets of life and experiences that we will be a part of, in the course. And yeah, want to invite you to talk about, the selections of the materials that you'll be sharing or what you'll be speaking about. Yeah, and I guess why you responded to the invitation, I'm sure there was a reason or something that resonated, that you decided to come join us on the course.

DR. CRAIG SANTOS PEREZ: Yes, because well, all you folks organising the course are so amazing and inspiring that I was excited about the opportunity to collaborate. I love teaching. And I love sharing what I've learned with with people. And of course, I also enjoy the classroom space, because I get to learn from from all the students and participants as well. And so I just love being in the classroom, even if it is a virtual classroom.

The materials I've chosen is a mix of creative writing poetry, mostly, and then some critical writing as well.

Thinking about the articulations of the archipelago as a geographic and also symbolic or metaphorical space, as well as the idea of kinship as a kind of archipelagic thinking, and of course, kinship, as well, how that is something, both literal in terms of making family, making kin, but also, of course, symbolic and metaphorical, and perhaps even a kind of ethics that we can we can think about.

And so I'll be encouraging participants in the class to begin to think critically about these concepts, but then to really filter that through our bodies and our feelings and our emotions, and to try to translate that onto the page into something creative, like poems, for example. So that's how I'm thinking about the course. I am so excited to meet those folks who enroll in it. And of course, to see what creative juices start to flow like the ocean perhaps. And, just to again, as I said, to learn from everyone and to be inspired by our conversations.


Craig Santos Perez

Craig is an indigenous Chamoru (Chamorro) from the Pacific Island of Guåhan (Guam). He is a poet, scholar, editor, publisher, essayist, critic, book reviewer, artist, environmentalist, and political activist.

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