Chris Gelardi


Julian Aguon’s Poetic Riposte to American Empire

Read the full piece in The Nation

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.

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