Khairani Barokka moves access from the stage to the page, with multiple versions of her long poem, ‘Indigenous Species’

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Sandra Alland talks with colleague and fellow poet, Khairani Barokka, about her recent poetry book, Indigenous Species, available in several accessible forms.

I am of the same blood as the sanctioned mess of invasion
That was Javanese transmigration,
And I shampoo my hair with oil crafted
From dead-end social experiments
And gargantuan-scale domestication of hectares,
Cemeteries of growth

Indigenous Species, Khairani Barokka’s new book from Tilted Axis Press, examines, laments and resists environmental, capitalist and imperialist destruction – in general, and specifically in her birthplace and home, Indonesia. A girl is abducted by a nameless ‘you’, and taken down a jungle river – where she connects with the suffering and resistance of the creatures and land around her.

Besides being beautifully composed and fiercely compelling, this essay and long poem don’t form any usual kind of book; they have been artfully created to operate on several distinct and sometimes simultaneous levels, with access as a main focus.

There are three versions of the book available. The traditional hard copy for sighted people, or ‘sighted version’, contains intentionally anxious, bright glitch art by Barokka behind and surrounding the text. In the accessible PDF these are reproduced and also given visual description in text for blind and partially-sighted readers. The limited-edition Braille hard copy features Braille alongside the printed text, with embossed tactile (touchable) images.

I caught up with Barokka via email to chat about the book(s) and her writing process.

Sandra Alland: In your essay, you refer to the poem beginning as a written piece that practically poured itself onto the page, accompanied by ideas of creating ‘an accessible spoken word performance involving subtitles and video art projections’. Can you tell me a bit more about that experience, and how the poem as performance evolved over time?

Khairani Barokka: Yes, and thanks for speaking with me. Indigenous Species was first a performance at Emerging Writers’ Festival 2013 in Melbourne, where I did a residency, and was then performed as part of sets elsewhere. Lacking time and resources, having the poem involve art and accessibility had to lie dormant – until a residency in 2015/16 at Rimbun Dahan in Kuang, Malaysia. I toyed there with turning Indigenous into a performance installation, then decided to use it to ask, ‘Why don’t we see books with Braille, art, and text in one manuscript?’ So the proposal and draft manuscript for this incarnation was created, then accepted by Tilted Axis Press.

SA: What was your writing process for changing the poem from a performance to (several versions of) a book? Why and how did Braille and tactile images come into play during that process? Will the poem be a performance again?

KB: In addition to the above, I liked the idea of a book that was also an art object. Also, considering then-unavailable healthcare, I wanted to step away from performance a bit, find a way to recreate the experience without always having me physically enacting it. And I wanted Indigenous to be a provocation, highlighting sighted privilege and how unequal the publishing landscape is – that’s why there’s a marker of Braille’s absence on every other page of the sighted version, and that’s why it’s explicitly called a sighted version. The poem is always still a performance – it was performed at the book launch, and I’ll next perform it at Verve Poetry Festival in Birmingham in February. It’s just augmented with art now, happily.

SA: In what (other) ways are your writing and art-making connected to or rooted in disability and disability poetics?

KB: Apart from past projects, I’m working on a long-term project at Goldsmiths now, as part of my PhD in the Visual Cultures department, mired deeply in new ways of looking at disability poetics and applying them to art and lit. I’m the proud co-editor with yourself and Daniel Sluman of Nine Arches’ upcoming Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back. And my forthcoming poetry collection, Rope, also with Nine Arches, was written by a body in chronic pain and fatigue. I try to infuse the self-respect and dignity society doesn’t always afford us throughout my work. Without discovering disability poetics and its role in art-making, I have no idea where I’d be.

SA: Tell us about your decision to use a coherent yet somewhat surreal narrative frame for the piece. What do you hope audiences will get from the narrator’s forced trip down the river?

KB: As mentioned, the poem all came out in a rush, and I don’t remember ever thinking to make a decision about the narrative frame – it’s a very cathartic work, the culmination of lifelong anger at environmental damage. My parents inculcated this in us from a small age, and they’ve been extraordinary at activism with tenacity and grace; the book is dedicated to them.

I want audiences to understand the gravity and sheer destruction of what’s been happening, and to feel that everything is connected… that if this girl, the narrator, can try to save herself, perhaps we too can save ourselves by fighting back.

Please click on this link to purchase Indigenous Species from Tilted Axis Press.