Julian Agoun. Photo: Katherine Mafnas
Julian Aguon is not your average lawyer. The human rights and environmental activist from Guam talks of “beauty” and “tenderness” with the same importance as justice. He quotes Audre Lorde just as readily as he quotes the decision in Rice v. Cayateno, which he says “laid dangerous doctrinal groundwork” for colonized peoples. He’s working to protect them; on a mission that combines art and warmth with the “cold precision” of the law. And talking with him, you get the sense that he’s just getting started.
Aguon’s latest book, No Country for Eight-Spot Butterflies, comes off the heels of him being named a finalist for the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Commentary for his essay “To Hell With Drowning” – an account of the people of Oceania’s struggle against the effects of climate change – published last year in the Atlantic. His new book, set to launch this week, is a slim 128-page “lyric essay,” featuring as much poetry as it does prose. It’s a moving, invigorating and deeply personal call to action from a man who has been working to combat some of the most important issues facing our world today; a deeply profound collection, centered on his experience growing up queer and indigenous in Guam.
On September 15th, he’ll be coming to Brooklyn, traveling almost 8,000 miles from his home, to celebrate the launch of his new book with a special event at the Brooklyn Museum – a reading and conversation between the author and V (formerly known as Eve Ensler), a Tony Award-winning playwright, activist, and performer best known for her Obie Award-winning play, The Vagina Monologues.
Brooklyn artist Gisela McDaniel will also be featured in the event. Like Aguon, she is Chamorro (a member of the indigenous people of the Mariana Islands – including Guam), and her paintings will be displayed in conjunction with this conversation to create what will surely be an intense and rich artistic experience.
For Brooklynites, the event will be an opportunity to meet a superstar in the field of activism. Aguon, aside from his writing and teaching, founded Blue Ocean Law – an international firm based in Guam – in 2014 because he saw a “clear need for a progressive law firm that works at the intersection of indigenous rights and environmental justice.”
In No Country, he touches on the history of the indigenous struggle in the Pacific, describing the devastation caused by events and negligence from the US government. One such event, was a nuclear testing program active from 1946-1958, which resulted in life-threatening quantities of radioactive fallout impacting the people of the Marshall Islands, subsequently resulting in numerous miscarriages and birth abnormalities for the population’s women and children.
The title of his new book, likewise, comes from the reality of the increasing militarization and deforestation of Guam, at the hands of the US Department of Defense. The forests, which hold the host-plants for the notable eight-spotted butterflies, are continually destroyed. “Maybe a country that routinely prefers power over strength, and living over letting live, is no country for eight-spot butterflies,” Aguon writes.
But for someone working so closely with systemic injustice and seemingly insurmountable struggles, Aguon remains ever-hopeful, optimistic and energized. He wants his writing to be “a fire that can warm as many bodies as possible.” And he’s looking forward to the conversation with V on Sept. 15th, because he feels a connection through their work. “In our art, there is a real respect for beauty; beauty that has survived brutality,” Aguon says. “I am so stoked to talk with her about it.”
Aguon’s book, which he describes as a “love letter to young people,” relies more on inspirational and poetic allegories than it does sobering humanitarian commentary – a refreshing look into the duality of the lawyer-artist whose mission revolves around connection and empathy.
“If this book had a corporeal form, it would be a bridge. I imagine it laid down, allowing others to cross it, to find their own words in their own way,” Aguon tells me. “Young people have to find their own way in the world. There are new problems that need new solutions.”
The stakes are “devastatingly high,” for this new generation, he concedes. The idea that he in his lifetime will see the world find its way out of the climate crisis, is unrealistic, he explains. The problem is “bigger and more long-standing than you or me.” And so, Aguon works to make a dent; one essay at a time; one book at time; one case at a time – hoping that the next generations will find the language and the answers that we cannot.
“The answer to climate change must come from everyone, or it will come from no one,” he says. “We will sink or swim together.”
The event at Brooklyn Museum will take place from 7-9pm on Sept. 15th at the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Auditorium, 3rd Floor. For more information, click here.