Interview: Khairani Barokka

Image description: A photo of Okka captures her wearing a yellow dress over a blue-purple long-sleeved shirt. She is sitting on a light blue bench. Though she’s facing forward, her eyes are focused to the side, away from the camera. (Photo credit: Wasi Daniju)

Birthplace: Jakarta, Indonesia

Grew up in: Jakarta, Indonesia; Ithaca, New York, U.S.A.; Melbourne, Australia

Currently living in: London, U.K.

Age: 33

Find her: Website | Twitter | Buah zine’s “List: Books by writers of Indonesian heritage

Quick things: Okka is an artist, poet, and writer whose work explores and expands accessibility of art. A sample of her work includes performances, poem-art book “Indigenous Species” (2016) and poetry collection “Rope” (2017), and she is a co-editor of anthology “Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back” (2017). She is currently based in London for a Ph.D. by practice at Goldsmiths’ Visual Cultures Department. 

Q: What has your experience been like growing up abroad?

I grew up — at different points in my life — in Ithaca, New York, in Melbourne, Australia, and in Jakarta. But I think it’s always really important for me to say that I’m from Jakarta. I was born there, I spent almost half my life there, I have a Jakarta-related tattoo — I feel a very strong sense of being from Jakarta.

But at the same time, there have definitely been moments that I felt alienated living here [in Jakarta] because I lived in all these different places, and then there’s the assumption that people have that strangely sort of ties into this weird, neocolonial, like “Western countries are better” thing. I remember when I was in Australia, I had a chance to be “popular” because I had lived in America for some time — that was considered cool. As opposed to me just being from Indonesia. Or, the assumption that I’m a bazillionaire because I lived abroad, which isn’t necessarily true.

So it’s interesting how people project their different ideas of these countries onto you sometimes. And I think the challenge for us growing up is to figure out who we are so that we understand who we are and not as a reflection of what people expect of us, if that makes sense.

Q: How did you come into your belief system or viewpoints? What was that process like?

I think I’m still coming into my viewpoints; I think everybody’s learning all the time. Nobody’s ever done. Learning is until we drop dead, basically. I feel like I’m always evolving in terms of my beliefs and viewpoints. But I have parents who have very strong viewpoints; they both instilled in me very strong values that I feel really lucky to have because I find there’s a lot of materialism often in expat Indonesian life, with people that you meet, and my parents taught me the importance of just respecting everybody, humility. I think this imposition of a value system that’s really materialistic and capitalistic is something that I’m grateful I’ve always seen through.

As I grew and tried out different roles for myself, in terms of employment, in terms of what I was interested in with my studies, in terms of, gradually — it took such a long time — developing my confidence and my voice as an artist and a writer and being able to say that I’m an artist and a writer, I think just over time, I just honed into, “OK, this is what I want to do.” Even with “Indigenous Species,” that project, it happened in 15 minutes and I was in my house in Jakarta because I was going to do a residency, Emerging Writers Festival, in Melbourne. There was one event where everybody had to perform a piece about animals. I was like, “OK, I’m gonna do a new piece for this,” out came “Indigenous Species” and that was a performance poem. I wrote the poem in 2013, was thinking about it in the back of my mind for two years, developed the storyboard 2015 and basically a miracle happened that I was contacted by Tilted Axis Press.

It was a lot of kismet. It was a lot of really great coincidences. It wasn’t like it just came fully formed; these things take a lot of time. I think people in their 20s face a lot of pressure nowadays increasingly to get things done and do things. But every process matters, of understanding something and trying to learn about what you’re interested in that you eventually want to make — it all matters. If you had told me that the poem I wrote was going to be an illustrated book that I designed myself in 2013, I would’ve been like, “What? No? It’s supposed to be a performance.”

I think being open-minded and receptive to what you might create and what you might enjoy is something that’s important.

Image description: Okka’s poem-art book “Indigenous Species” (2016) is photographed on top of a blue background. (Photo credit: Teta)

Q: When did you start thinking of yourself as someone with Indonesian heritage? 

We always spoke Indonesian at home, we were always bilingual at home, and even to this day, I never speak English with my mom if I can help it. It just doesn’t seem natural. So I always try to speak Indonesian with my family and my best friends because I think it’s an important — I love the language. That’s actually a goal of mine is to be able to write better in Indonesian and perform better in Indonesian. I think growing up bilingual is a great advantage and that definitely shaped the kind of cultural things that I was aware of. We always hung out with Indonesian families; we always went to Indonesian events, whether religious or cultural.

It was also important to me to understand that Indonesia is not just a monolith, that I come from two cultures that are Javanese and Minang. Those are really distinct cultures and really distinct heritages in every sense of the word, from the clothing to the food to the language, the customs.

The chapter headings in “Rope” are in Javanese and Minang. It’s weird because I can almost imagine white people reading it and being like, “This is an added layer of confusion!” But for me, it’s really important to show that there are hundreds of heritages in Indonesia. It’s important for me to show the world and acknowledge that I’m Indonesian but also Javanese and Minang, and those are two very strong markers for me.

Q: In one interview, you mention that you come from an oral tradition. Can you explain that a bit more?

I think with colonialism, a lot of oral traditions were replaced with written ones. Especially in West Sumatran culture, in Minang culture, so much of our wisdom and knowledge is oral and not as much of it is written. Javanese has more of a written, poetic tradition; the whole alphabet is a poem. But traditions like wayang and pantun and things like that are really important parts that are embedded in our DNA, whether we know it or not. We have this cultural memory in our bodies, so I think it was important for me that I started out my artistic career — that was definitely when I started becoming braver was when I began to perform my poetry. Because I’d always kept it to myself as sort of a hobby, but I’ve been doing it since I was a toddler, writing. But I think it was when I began to perform in front of people, in theatrical settings, that I really felt a sense of something clicking. Like, I’ve been here before. I know how to do this.

Performing in our cultural memory is communal. It’s a spiritual thing as well. It’s about your worldview, it’s about your spirituality. So I think it’s always important to include oral heritage.

And also, with getting into accessibility work, I’ve been really loving playing with the idea of audio description. I remember being on a panel once at Southbank Centre [in London] called “Creative Approaches to Audio Description” where there were a bunch of artists talking about this, how audio description for a painting or a visual piece of artwork tend to be very monotone and not seen as its own artwork. But for the show that I have on right now in Switzerland, there are three big photo collages and then there’s an audio installation running through the gallery, which is a recording of the performance that I did that ties all the paintings together. That is the audio description: It’s an artwork in and of itself. So that’s something that I’ve really enjoyed playing with and I hope to explore further.

Q: Also in this other interview, you said you weren’t aware of activism until you later identified as disabled? Could you share a bit more on that?

I remember being in high school and I tried to do student journalism-type things. I interviewed a blind woman once and I definitely remember feeling like, “Oh yeah, she’s blind, so her life is worse off than mine,” which is such a bratty thing to think. But I didn’t know any better as a teenager, and it wasn’t really until I became disabled, I took on a disabled identity, which was in 2011 when I was 26, that I was like, “OK, so I’m disabled, I’m an artist, are there disabled artists?” I began to search online for disabled artists and I found out there are so many of us. That really forged my path forward.

I really do not know what I would’ve done if I had not discovered I could still do what I wanted to do as a disabled artist and actually that there is a wealth of things I can do only from the vantage point of identifying as disabled. And that there was this way that people were trying to decolonize disability and all these things that I still find really fascinating. It’s been a real joy for me. But I also feel like people have a binary thinking about disablement. We’re all just people, we live lives, some people have good days and bad days, some people are a lot more vulnerable than others. Vulnerabilities because of disablement are a lot worse if you’re a person of color, if you’re a woman or gender non-binary, if you’re LGBTQI+, if you are lower class, all these things that compound and make different our experiences of disability around the world. So it’s been a real journey understanding that and also realizing what a little shit I was! Just being so patronizing. Now, here I am.

I still went through a lot of experiences that were really difficult for me because of a lot of structural violence that meant I couldn’t get access to medicines I needed, etc. But it’s been such a great experience of community in recent years now that I’ve been getting the help that I need. It’s been a tremendous experience of being able to connect with like-minded people such as Sandra Alland and Daniel Sluman, who I co-edited the book “Stairs and Whispers” with. That book was really us looking for community as well as realizing there’s so many of us everywhere.

You need to understand what we know if we’re going to survive the current social ills because a lot of things that abled people are really anxious about, I think you would be less anxious about if you approached it from the perspective of disabled people because we have to problem solve every single day, and throughout our lives, we have to problem solve. It’s a huge advantage, I think.

Q: What is it like leaving Indonesia, and then coming back, and leaving again?

For me, I finally figured out who I was in relation to place when I found I was very much an Indonesian woman who needs to leave and come back. I will always come back but I also have to leave and come back. Interestingly, that is also part of my culture because in Minang culture, there’s this concept of merantau. Merantau means — and it’s also the title of a martial arts film — in Minang culture, the men, usually, leave the village and then they have to come back with added knowledge, with added wealth, or something to give to the village. So actually, it’s a rite of passage to leave and come back. And when I understood that as part of who I was, then I didn’t feel as guilty leaving and coming back, because it’s actually following my culture. And that seems like what I’m probably going to do throughout my life.

[The editor and Okka end up talking about the editor’s last visit to Indonesia in 2017, and how she went to Aceh to visit her grandparents’ hometowns. She talks about her Gayo heritage. Okka suggests she write about her experiences, but she shares that she’s worried about her gaze, about how she could potentially romanticize her background, and how to keep from self-exotifying for a non-Indonesian audience.]

I do [worry], too. The danger is there’s so much white gaze everywhere in the culture that we all have to make sure that we’re not replicating what people think you’re supposed to write about. There’s such a need for perspectives from Indonesia that are not just middle and upper class, and not just Jakartan.

Q: What does having Indonesian heritage mean to you?

It means that I’m inheriting responsibility to care about the 266 million people who are Indonesians and the many, many things that could be, should be better for all of us but aren’t right now, unfortunately. So it gives me a huge sense of responsibility, a sense of home and grounding, and I feel so lucky to be Indonesian. It’s the best thing.

Q: Can you share some current and/or future projects? 

I currently have the show “Selected Annahs” in SALTS gallery in Basel, Switzerland; it’s visual art, audio installation, it’s based on the work that I’ve been doing on this Ph.D. that is a manuscript in progress. I’m going to continue to explore these ideas of gender, sexuality, disability, and science fiction and fantasy further, let’s just say.

I always have projects planned until forever. And continue to teach, and learn, and grow.

Q: What advice do you have for young creatives with Indonesian heritage? Though it seems like there are more artists of color gaining recognition, many editors, gallery owners, curators, etc. are still white. What advice would you have in navigating that? 

The gatekeepers remain largely white. But I would say there are always people of color who are trying to curate or are already curating cultural opportunities, and seek those out. I would say the same not only for people of color but for women, sexual minorities, disabled people, working poor — there are always people making art and writing. Don’t ever think that people who are minorities aren’t making stuff — we’re making stuff all the time. So seek out your people.

And don’t ever feel like you’re alone because everybody’s different. You are definitely unique, every single person has a unique thing to offer, but you’re also not alone. So I think to remember those two things and also to understand the wealth of knowledge that comes from Indonesian cultures is more vast than you can ever comprehend in one lifetime and that’s a huge gift. The more you respect that, I think, the better you will be as an artist. And I try to operate with a sense of humility in the face of so many hundreds and thousands of years of history, of art, of writing, coming from these islands. I will only dip a toe into this giant lake of information and cultural heritage. But that is a huge gift, and if you try to explore that, that will give you things.

[At the time of this interview, Okka was actually in Jakarta. She was on her way to Hanoi, Vietnam, the weekend of July 14 for the launch of the Vietnamese version of “Indigenous Species,” translated by Red.]

I don’t understand Vietnamese but it’s just so amazing that “Indigenous Species” is now a book called “Loài bản địa” that’s coming out with Ajar Press. It was really special to me that we got the funding to have the first translation be — I mean, if it wasn’t going to be Indonesian, Vietnamese is definitely another really, really cool language to have your work translated into. I think these Southeast Asian connections are really important.

Image description: A tweet from Ajar Press reads: “AJAR author Khairani Barokka speaks with @elitmag about her book “Indigenous Species” which first came out in English on @tiltedaxispress and is coming out in Vietnamese this weekend!” The image featured in the tweet is a page from Okka’s poem-art book.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

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