Interview with 2019 Cheuse Center Grant Recipient Danielle Paige Williams
Danielle Paige Williams is a second-year poet in the MFA program at George Mason University. She has a passion for understanding and connecting with the past and makes it a point to expand on the many different narratives and experiences of her own cultures. She currently serves as an editorial intern for Poetry Daily and as a reader for So to Speak. After nearly thirteen years, Danielle traveled back to her home in the Mariana Islands, where she will visit Guam, Saipan, Tinian, and Rota, to write poetry that breathes life into the untold narratives of the Chamorro, focusing on and celebrating the education and reinforcement of its rich culture.
What have you been up to?
I've been doing a little bit of everything. From seeing every historic, religious, and delicious food site on the island of Guam -- to cultural centers that mark ancient settlings, the best shaved ice I've ever tasted, the swap meet, camping, and catching waves in Hawaii. All of those things aside, my favorite days include the ones where I get to sit in the Micronesian Area Research Center (MARC) and read books that are either out of print or the only of their kind, every newspaper ever printed in Guam, dissertations, folklore, and binders filled with names and dates to track down your family tree.
What did you hope to learn by the end of your trip? Was it what you expected?
My main goal was to learn as much about the Chamorro culture as I could. To really soak in all of the knowledge in order to create what I thought would be more informed poetry. It was so much more than I expected, definitely a trip to be remembered.
Were there any surprises on your trip? What's something unexpected that you came across during your research abroad?
I think the main surprise was realizing that I knew even less than I thought about Chamorro culture. I had a conversation with a man at the Liberation Day parade who explained to me that Chamorros living off island were, "Chamorro applings," handicapped in their experiences because while they knew the root of their culture, they were so far removed that they couldn't ever really know what it meant to be Chamorro without coming home and experiencing it for themselves. While I always wanted to come back to Guam and Saipan one day, I never knew it was something that I needed to do.
What's something interesting you've discovered about the island cultures you studied?
There is never just one version of a story. In the case of the Chamorro culture, there are millions of different versions of how we became to be, who we are inherently, and what it means to thrive as a culture. For Guam specifically, we are in a time where decolonization is at the conversation at the forefront. Chamorros are trying to find ways in which they can prove to the world that we are capable enough to break free of the people who have oppressed us and taken away their culture. Chamorro people are one of the most colonized group of indigenous peoples in the world. Everyday they fight to the independence and the rights to their home.
How has your trip impacted the way you think about what you are writing about? What has influenced your work the most?
If anything, this trip has shown me just how much there is to tell. The term "poet of witness" particularly applies. While abroad, I have been able to witness so much pain, pride, and love. It's definitely inspired me to never stop telling these stories, to make sure that the Chamorro are not a people that will be easily discarded or forgotten. The faces of all of the people I have met and gotten the privilege of knowing is something that I know will influence my work moving forward. For me, this trip was never just about writing poetry. It was more like a quest for knowledge, to be able to say that I am telling these stories from an informed and educated perspective in an attempt to lock in our history and share it to the world that moves past the reach of the island.