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the pacific written tradition :: craig santos perez

by on June 5, 2017

In 2010, I read aloud from my new book
to an English class at one of Guam’s
public high schools. After the reading, I

notice a student crying. “Whats wrong?”
I ask. She says, “I’ve never seen our culture
in a book before. I just thought we weren’t

worthy of literature.” I wonder how many
young islanders have dived into the depths
of a book, only to find bleached coral and

emptiness. They teach us that missionaries
were the first readers in the Pacific because
they could decipher the strange signs

of the Bible. They teach us that missionaries
were the first authors in the Pacific because
they possessed the authority of written words.

Today, studies show that islander students read
and write below grade level. “It’s natural,”
they claim. “Your ancestors were an illiterate,

oral people.” Do not believe their claims.
Our ancestors deciphered signs in nature,
interpreted star formations and sun positions,

cloud and wind patterns, wave currents and
fish migrations. Always remember what navigator
Papa Mau once said: “if you can read the ocean

you will never be lost.” Now let me tell you
about the Pacific written tradition, about how
our ancestors tattooed their skin with defiant

scripts of intricately inked genealogy, stories
of plumage and pain. Or how our ancestors carved
epics into hard wood with a sharpened point,

their hands, and the pressure and responsibility
of memory. Or how our ancestors stenciled
hieroglyphic poems on cave walls with clay, fire,

and smoke. So the next time someone tells you
islanders were illiterate, teach them
about our visual literacies, about how we

still read and write the intertextual sacredness
of all things. And always remember: if you
can write the ocean we will never be silenced.

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