We Are Not Drowning, We are Fighting: Pacific Poets against Environmental Racism

By: Xingming Wang

On February 20, the Department of French hosted Dr. Anaïs Maurer for her lecture and job talk: “We Are Not Drowning, We are Fighting: Pacific Poets against Environmental Racism”. As the title of the lecture indicates, Oceanian literary voices have been contributing to protests against environmental racism­­—an ideology, in Maurer’s words, constituting “structural discrimination that racializes people affected by environmental issues”. Racial discrimination underlies the environmental injustice against pacific islanders. As the U.S. nuclear testing sites, many pacific islands are threatened by climate change, water contamination, and species extinction. To put it in Maurer’s own words, pacific islanders are subject to “dispossession, displacement, displacement, and death”. In the face of the environmental destruction and the loss of homeland, academic discourse like “resilience” and “sustainability” sound too conservative to address the issue. In fact, Oceanian people’s reactions should be described as a heroic struggle of survival. Rather than surrendering to helplessness, they display a rebellious spirit through their voice and literature, which can be captured in the title of this lecture: “We are not drowning, we are fighting”.

Maurer points out three major consequences coming out of the environmental racism against pacific islanders—the threat of mass migration, the destruction of multi-species society, and the annihilation of racism. Yet in response to each threat, pacific islanders are not helpless victims but proactively act against the discriminating ideology. In the face of the rising sea level threatening the Marshall island, the poet and climate change activist Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner claims, “who do you think will be next? I’m taking you with me”. The poetic articulation reserves the role of pacific islanders as passive victims with a powerful declaration of fighting to the end. The rebellious and emotional response also challenges the western apathy towards the environmental destruction in the pacific islands. Pacific poets refuse the destiny of “invisible disappearance”. Instead, they call into question the very ideological foundation of environmental racism.

Elaborating on pacific poets’ voices against environmental racism, Maurer also brings into light the philosophical significance of their reaction, namely resistance to “Islandism”. As Maurer discerns, islandism is an extension of Orientalism, in which the island represents the opposition of modernity—a place frozen in time and outside of civilization. Therefore, people of the island are seen as barbarians that could be sacrificed or even wiped out for the progress of modernity. The ideology of islandism thus justifies the displacement of violence imposed upon the pacific islanders, and it should be abandoned. Therefore, Maurer puts forward “Oceanitude” as a competing ideology as to challenge islandism in Western thoughts. The shift from islandism to oceanitude intends to bring back emotion, unsettling the dominance of reason in scientific discourse that facilitates environmental racism. Maurer also points out the necessity of realizing this historical instance of environmental destruction so as to avoid such tragedies.

The Q&A section features intriguing dialogues between Maurer and professors and graduate students in the Department of French and Comparative Literature Program. Here is a list of questions worthy of further thinking: how do the environmental studies inform the reading of canonical texts? What is the function of emotion in environmental literature? How does the study of pacific literature expand the definition of French literary studies? How to go beyond print literature and exert a wider influence? Is the philosophy of oceanitude applicable to other disciplines like indigenous studies? I especially enjoy Maurer’s response to the last question. Addressing the philosophical significance of oceanitude, she responses, “the sense of being an islander has always emerged in co-constitution with the sense of living in an endangered environment”. Environment, in her view, becomes a new identity. Let us remember the resonantvoice of the pacific poets while exploring the connection between environment and our own identity.


Dr. Maurer has accepted a tenure-track appointment as  Assistant Professor of French and Comparative Literature. Starting Fall 2020, she will be teaching courses on Francophone/Pacific literatures and in the environmental humanities more generally.