An Indonesian Poet on Writing a Narrator Who is a Colonizer and a Colonist

Khairani Barokka discusses her book ‘Indigenous Species’ and the possibilities of regional literature in Southeast Asia

In 1997, rainforests across Indonesia burned for a year and choked the air across Southeast Asia. By the end, the fires ravaged millions of acres of rainforests across the archipelago. Haze blanketed the entire region and in the country’s capital Jakarta, Khairani Barokka’s awareness of the environmental catastrophe grew as she watched her activist parents and their cohorts monitor and attempt to control the fires.

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About a decade later, Barokka journeyed into the jungle to record sound effects for a BBC production in Kalimantan, the Indonesian territory on Borneo island. There, she heard the unending sounds of the loggers’ saws which haunted her for years. In 2013, she began the work that would become her silken, nightmarish book-length poem, Indigenous Species, published by Titled Axis. Eka Kurniawan, Indonesia’s reigning literary star, called the experimental part poetry, half art book “a lullaby, but one that will make you stay awake.”

I spoke with the London-based poet (whose hyphenations include visual artist, activist, and Ph.D. candidate) about subverting Orientalist literature, inclusion in literature, and writing the jungle.


J.R. Ramakrishnan: Let’s start with the art that flows with the narrative. How did the elements, like the red, purple, and green print/weave river, came to you?

Khairani “Okka” Barokka: Indigenous Species was first a poem written and performed as part of a residency at Emerging Writers Festival in Melbourne in 2013. The writing itself came out in an instant, but I knew the project wouldn’t end there. At that point I’d been working within an access and inclusion framework for the arts for two years, I’d wanted to have visuals along with an oral performance, so hearing-impaired/D/deaf audience members would still have a rich experience — I’d imagined a “rainforest gothic” aesthetic, dark tones punctuated with bright colors to visualize the animals.

Eventually, I decided that Indigenous Species wanted to be in book form, but specifically, going along with the access philosophy, a book that asked: Why are Braille, text, and artwork scarcely ever in the same volume? Why is there is imposed segregation of blind and sight-impaired readers with, for instance, less availability of accessible e-books, audiobooks, and books in Braille? This is why the word “Braille” in a “flat Braille” is on every lefthand page of Indigenous, for sighted readers — to say that this is a sighted version, for us to have that awareness that is so rarely emphasized in our media, but that blind and sight-impaired artists and activists have been working towards for a long time.

I wanted the river that runs throughout to be inspired by glitch. I just messed and messed and messed with those pixels. There’s something to be said about supposed “mistakes” or “mistake-looking” things being deemed aesthetically pleasing, which is something I’m examining closely in my work all the time, and certainly comes up as a disabled artist who looks/passes as abled. The red-purple-green print is a contemporary one on a piece of textile I happened upon, and I thought it meshed well with the glitchy pattern I’d made.

JRR: In the book, you reference a trip to Kalimantan where you hear “the continuous whir of unseen buzzsaws.” It’s a terrifying image to read. I can only imagine what it must have been like to hear it. What was your interaction with the physicality of the rainforest prior to this?

KB: That experience was very much like being a protagonist in a film who senses a monster in the forest very near to you, all around you. In this case, as it is overwhelmingly, profoundly the case, the monster was humankind acting within self-poisoning systems. There was a deep sadness to that sound of buzzsaws, an unstoppable sense to it that overwhelmed. That trip was made in my early twenties, but before that, I’d gone camping in forested mountains with family, on other work trips near or in rainforests, been near nature when visiting my mother’s family house, in the village of Lintau in West Sumatra. I’ve always loved trees and rivers, being around them, trying to speak their language. My father still goes go to rainforests often, and he’ll bring back fruits and other plants that none of the rest of us have ever come across before. For the most part, however, I’ve been very much a city creature. The simple sound of rain against my window in London now feels like “nature,” as opposed to the palm oil found in the chocolate in my refrigerator. Colonialism has created such a skewed, false removal from the self of a feeling of interdependence with non-human sentience, and I keep trying to reclaim it.

Tales of white women traveling to find themselves in Bali, or through another culture, reinforce this idea of travel as consumption and “going native” as just transgressive enough, with very imperialist origins.

JRR: In western literature, Borneo (which consists of Indonesian Kalimantan, the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, and the nation of Brunei) has been the stage for many Orientalist fantasies and adventures. Right before your book came to me, I read about a new non-fiction work, The Last Wild Men of Borneo by Carl Hoffman. It’s partly about Bruno Manser, the Swiss activist who went “native” with the Penan in Sarawak in the late 1980s. I remember this story (and how it was portrayed) in regional and international media. The other character is an American dealer of Dayak art. With so much of these sorts of narratives (alas still) dominating, an indigenous/brown female narrator for this setting was striking. I wonder how you consider previous narratives of the island and Indigenous Species’ role in possibly adding or addressing them in any way?

KB: Oh, I am so thankful you brought all this up. These kinds of narratives are not only pervasive with respect to Kalimantan, as you know, but with regards to so many places in Indonesia and beyond. And it’s a huge crock. On a subtler but also troublesome and ubiquitous level, tales of white women traveling to find themselves in Bali, or through another culture, reinforce this idea of travel as consumption and “going native” as just transgressive enough, with very imperialist origins. Inevitably, local woman in this set-up are dehumanized.

The setting of the Narrator’s abduction and river journey, though there are motifs in the imagery from Kalimantan, remains ambiguous. She invokes a West Sumatran saying, but she never quite says where she’s from or where she is — not quite pan-Indonesian, but a sense of Indonesianness in terms of circumstance, indigeneity in terms of circumstance.

Indigenous women and girls the world over are survivors and victims of violence to a truly alarming degree. I wanted a narrative to speak from that perspective, and one of deep, distressed, but also authoritative, interiority. It’s important to have these stories in the world, of Black and brown women’s agency, in our minds. I wanted a kidnapped young woman, tied up in a boat, to be powerful, to tell her own story.

JRR: In resisting her ordeal, your protagonist describes herself as “savage-savant.” She seems to be indigenous to place but also acknowledges that she is “of the same blood as the sanctioned mess of invasion/That was Javanese transmigration.” Who is she?

KB: The Narrator is both colonizer and colonist, as I feel many of us are, particularly as brown people. Complicit in destroying important socio-environmental structures, because we’re part of these overarching capitalist, military-industrial systems, and also from communities that have been colonized and kept in a state of decay. Javanese transmigrasi, or transmigration, was a terrible idea among many by the violent dictator Soeharto, who ruled for three decades in Indonesia. In essence, Javanese people were urged to migrate to less densely-populated islands, which caused all kinds of strife and conflict. In general, Javanese culture has historically been used to repress other cultures in Indonesia, as well as tamp down feminisms that were much stronger before the dictatorship and the ’65-’66 massacres. At the same time, there are so many Javanese people throughout Java and beyond who are being shortchanged and assaulted by unjust environmental policies, to speak nothing of laws that are not on the side of women and the most vulnerable. So Javanese people certainly have this duality of being both colonizer and colonized. Being Javanese and Minang, I wanted the Narrator — who may not even be fully half-Javanese, but part-Javanese down the line somewhere — to embody this, to recognize it, and own it.

So I perceive the Narrator as being brutally honest — brutal being a solid descriptor of who she is, in many ways, with a violence absorbed and reflected by her in a way that seeks reconciliation, seeks escape from cycles of destruction. With regards to her exact identity, this is something I hope each reader will come to an understanding of in themselves, even if they can’t articulate it.

I wanted a kidnapped young woman, tied up in a boat, to be powerful, to tell her own story.

JRR: Your protagonist imagines a time after the kidnap, which suggests survival. It felt there might be bleak light. Are you in any way optimistic about the environment and efforts around conservation?

KB: Yes, the final image in the book — not to spoil it — is actually overlaid on the very first image, of the Narrator’s hands tied with the belt. There are traces of the beginning in the end, of earliest trauma in the final scene. The Narrator is a very forceful presence in her own mind, even in kidnap, almost as though she could manifest freedom with her thoughts alone. We have to have hope, or what’s the point? I also think for our own day-to-day survival, we have to believe we can each be a part of changing circumstances, that that’s a psychological necessity. Two remarks have recently been powering me. One is Ursula Le Guin’s oft-quoted “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.” The other is Joy Harjo: “I always remember hearing someone older and wiser in the circle point out that we are in a continuum that has gone on for millennia, and colonization is just a moment. It will destroy itself, and we will go on. That helps my mind.”

At the same time, however, having had much exposure to the world of global conservation NGOs, I am grateful for a healthy dose of cynicism. The history of “conservation” has so often ignored indigenous peoples, if not outright evicted and imperiled them, a story found throughout formerly and currently colonized regions everywhere. This continues. So I am just deeply cynical of top-down efforts that greenwash and endanger locals. Healing our relationship to our spaces has to start with reclaiming local, indigenous knowledge practices; not co-opting them, but letting wiser social memories lead the way — with women and non-binary people leading within these communities.

JRR: Will this book be published in Bahasa Indonesia or available in English in Indonesia? What do you anticipate the response to be?

KB: As we speak, the Vietnamese translation is being wrapped up, and we’re hoping to launch it in Hanoi this summer. I would, of course, love for the Narrator to find herself in Bahasa Indonesia, and other Indonesian languages. However, to have Indigenous translated into a language from another Southeast Asian country is also very meaningful. The translation ecosystem needs to do more to foster regional exchange, especially in Southeast Asia, and I think of this project as in solidarity with other initiatives tackling this lack. It’s not about catering to readers in Western countries only.

I’m also exceedingly grateful that the mostly-English original has found its way to readers in Indonesia, who’ve been absolutely supportive and celebratory. I was able to do two events in Jakarta last year. Writer and organizer Olin Monteiro moderated a conversation with me, Debra Yatim, and Saras Dewi (Yayas), both OG feminists, activists, poets, and thinkers on environmental and social issues. The panelists’ insights were so localized, specific, honed and incisive that it really felt like a homecoming for the book, for the Narrator, for myself.

We got into issues like intergenerational solidarity between Indonesian feminists, the meanings of textiles for Indonesian women and thus how feminine Indigenous’ river is, how loud I am visually as well as orally, and how Minang that is as opposed to Javanese. Yayas brought in the fact that Indonesian women writers are still marginalized with terms such as “sastra wangi” (“nice-smelling literati”, basically, which also casts shade on those men who actually smell real great), and how being described as closer to the environment because of our gender can be part of that marginalization — and how, time and time again, women, such as the Kendeng farmers protesting a cement factory on their lands that would deprive them of clean water, enact environmental activism at great personal cost for a larger good.

The second event was performing Indigenous Species at the British Council’s UK/ID Festival, with a discussion about inclusion and discrimination for D/deaf and disabled artists. This was also deeply moving, because it was among D/deaf and disabled artist peers, and family who hadn’t made it to the first event. I got to say proudly that I identify as disabled for political reasons to family members who maybe had had no idea. So many disabled women in Indonesia are chained, abused by their families, and this shame that literally imprisons people has to done away with.

JRR: I am curious to hear your thoughts on regional literary culture. Perhaps more so than elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Indonesia has established literary constellations. I spent the past year in Kuala Lumpur after a long while away and I was heartened to see efforts such as the private arts foundation Rimbun Dahan’s programs, as well as grassroots enterprises like the terrifically- curated Tintabudi bookstore. The latter hosts events, such a recent (and very packed) salon with Minh Bui Jones, editor of the regional lit mag, Mekong Review. You had a residency at Rimbun Dahan and co-edited the KL-based indie publisher Buku Fixi’s anthology, HEAT: A Southeast Asian Urban Anthology. What are your thoughts on the state of literature in Southeast Asia?

KB: Yes, Mekong Review was one of the Southeast Asian lit initiatives I had in mind earlier when I spoke about translation. I sadly have not been to the Tintabudi bookstore in [Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia]. And Rimbun Dahan was where I formulated the idea for Indigenous Species as a book, wrote the proposal and storyboard, and sent it off to Tilted Axis! So it has a very special place in my heart for many reasons.

I think literary worlds in Indonesia have always been multiple, not only by virtue of the hundreds of languages and by geography, but also in terms of philosophy and styles, and it’s important that it remain so, and be recognized as such. The same should be said of Southeast Asian literatures. Our densely rich histories call for the centrality of oral literatures to be preserved and disseminated, and I’d love for there to be more acknowledgment of regional sign languages as literature in the mainstream, recognition that is currently near non-existent outside D/deaf and disabled communities. Overall, however, there is always, as I’ve said, burgeoning talent. As well as, gradually, more and more, cross-fertilization between Southeast Asian countries. This gives me a lot of hope for the future, one in which, I hope, our very many languages can more often translate between and among each other, more often bypassing English and other European-origin languages completely.

JRR: Your debut collection, Rope (Nine Arches) had me thinking of the poet, Li-Young Lee, who was also born in Jakarta. Who are the Indonesian writers that inspire you?

KB: What a delightful compliment! I’m certainly a fan of Li-Young Lee’s. I recently read Avianti Armand’s Women Whose Names Were Erased (Perempuan yang Dihapus Namanya, translated by Eliza Vitri Handayani), and was swept up in her retellings of religious stories. I hope poet Norman E. Pasaribu lives a long literary life, and one that continues to shun today’s current discriminatory policies. Lily Yulianti Farid and her Makassar compatriots inspire me for the creation of the Makassar Writers’ Festival, which I’ve been lucky to be a part of, and is the ethos of what an Indonesian lit fest should be. All the Indonesian writing students I’ve had inspire me, and if I’m honest, there’s astonishing talent there in many languages. Jurnal Selatan when it came out was exciting to me, and I applauded its ethos; shoutout to the Bunga Matahari collective. And I can’t wait to see what Eka Kurniawan does next.

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