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Julian Aguon’s Poetic Riposte to American Empire

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.

—Chris Gelardi

Chris Gelardi: We have some news to talk about! Last week, around the time your book was released, three special rapporteurs from the United Nations Human Rights Council announced that they had sent a letter to the US federal government expressing concerns about human and civil rights violations against the CHamoru people. What specifically are their concerns, and how did all of this come about?

Julian Aguon: I founded Blue Ocean Law, which is a progressive law firm that works at the intersection of Indigenous rights and environmental justice, and we have long been concerned about the ways in which the military buildup has been rolled out in Guam by the Department of Defense. We hadn’t directly taken on the issue as a firm, but there is an activist group, Prutehi Litekyan, and we saw them doing a ton of work on the issue over a number of years, from lobbying local legislative officials to trying to have sit downs to bring military officials to the table, to protests, to online petitions—all that stuff. And we thought it was high time to get the international human rights community on board.

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