Elee Kraljii Gardiner converses via document with London-based poet Khairani Barokka about her second book of poems, Ultimatum Orangutan. Described by Ilya Kaminsky as one of “planetary poetics”, the collection considers ecosystems that move beyond biology and include language, indigeneity, disability and the non-human.
Elee Kraljii Gardiner: Okka, few books manage to find a title that works in one language, nevermind two. Can you share your thinking about the title?
Khairani Barokka: Having a bilingual title was a puzzle I loved finding the answer to. ‘Ultimatum’ here refers to the urgent, urgent, urgent need for colonial capitalism to end, lest extinction cover the world in a gaspless smothering even more, as it already has for centuries. ‘Orangutan’ is a compound word deriving from two Indonesian words: ‘orang’ means person or people, and ‘utan’ means forest. So when people say ‘orangutan’, they are speaking of the respect we give the animal, regarding them as peoples of the forest. And in a way, they are also referring to Indigenous peoples, unknowingly.
EKG: You develop the themes of orangutan>King Kong>cultural survival>disability>belonging>responsibility through the theme of colonialism and Indigenous survival so fluidly that the flow of the book exemplifies how these are multi-valenced ideas, overlapping systems. Even here in “Eropa” the orangutan slips into the poem camouflaged in sound.
There is no you without an
diminished from which the wealth is wrought,
spices and infants traded over raucous dinners,
doctors inspecting our bodies as curios.
What was your process for sequencing the collection, both practically and theoretically?
KB: Ha, thank you for that insight into the sonic presence ‘orangutan’ may have in ‘Eropa’. I don’t see any of the themes or categories you described as separate, ever. Thinking or feeling about them never lives in what I call my soulbody as separate. Yet we live in a world where they are treated as though separate, and that is a form of violence--that white gaze, that categorisation, that Maria Lugones (rest in peace) wrote of with respect to colonial naming and gender. So thank you also for recognising that continuity in the poetry. I think the sequencing of the poems in the book really came together once I’d written, last year, the titular poem, and once I understood the Terjaga (Indonesian word for ‘protected’ and also ‘awoken’) sections, which were originally one continuous four-part poem, to be section markers, in a sense. And then it’s about feeling out the musicality of how each poem ends and begins, and what parts harmonise so they can lead into the other, not just in affect but in content.
EKG: In “epitaph” is a couplet that is both an ars poetica and (what feels like) a survival strategy:
whole languages dying while
i hypocritically write in one
I refuse to speak with my mother.
The poem “barmouth” dreams of this resistance:
i close my eyes and imagine
a bajau boy
who knows how to hold his breath until
the body quietly demands inhalation, who could survive
floods, heat, and isolation in white spaces
simply by going for the swims that are birthright,
each gulf a bay of earth-wound spilling welkin-tint
blood, a harbour in which to grieve and return
KB: Thank you for recognising survival strategies as part of our linguistic choices. I wanted very much to pay my respects to Bajau communities, without exoticising them, and I hope ‘barmouth’ approaches that ethic. I want indigenous communities to survive in ways that reflect passed-down wisdoms, without having to resort to selling our cultures, or having them wholly eclipsed by others.
EKG: The poem “gives me a pass” is a visit with your dead grandmother:
someone sitting on the edge of my bed,
looking gently at this
startled face, and at the same moment
i realise: i’d forgotten to take my nightly medicines,
without which i might wake in agony,
and I tell you, stranger
danger, shadow of god, gold wind,
angel-type, sparkle-shine, djinn, my grandmother martini,
my grandmother sayang, my any-one-of-the-dead,
i thank you from the very cavities of bones,
that perhaps you take inventory of travelling pills
that perhaps you are pharmacist of the vast euphonious night (p41)
That last line slays me. This poem takes place on the day you and I met, for the first and only time (so far) face-to-face. Am I right?
KB: I’m unsure if it was the exact day, but it was definitely during the trip I took to Vancouver during which I met you! And though some of my poems are fictional or contain fictional elements, everything in this poem happened to me. It’s happened a few times, as I intimate in the verse, and when it does--this awakening when I’ve forgotten my necessary night meds, which thankfully doesn’t happen often, accompanied by the distinct sense of a presence sitting at the end of my bed--I always feel grateful, and a little unnerved.
EKG: You work in many forms here: lists, an abecedarium, even a Golden Shovel. And your consideration of sound and anaphora and allusion are such a pleasure.
In “self-portrait as fern and stolen motorcar”, a riveting poem about the surrealism of cars abandoned in fields, these two lines gesture towards an integration of history and self as an artist: “there is a fern pattern in textiles,/the fern poem on cohesion, returning.” This seems to me an example of your facile movement from one system of knowledge into another and your ability to transport terms and ideas into equivalences—it’s inherent, not pedantic.
KB: Terima kasih banyak for your kind words, and I am so glad to read your last line, as it’s exactly what I wanted for the work. I think multiple systems of knowledge operate together all the time, especially as someone uprooted from where you come from, trying to make sense of a new place in terms that feel like home. In Minang culture--which is interwoven throughout Ultimatum Orangutan, from the cover including a photo of Tanah Datar to the book being dedicated to four of my Minangkabau elders--leaving and returning to your home village with wisdom and resources for your community is called merantau. And so there is at least, for me, the slightest bit of guilt alleviated in that my travelling is also an inherent part of my culture. It’s the returning that I think I’ll be working on my whole life, from continuously returning to Indonesia physically to giving back to my communities in whatever ways I can.
EKG: Your previous book Indigenous Species works similar themes of eco-destruction and cultural resistance through ideas of water and textiles (read about it here) It is a profoundly visual book with beautiful illustrations. Ultimatum Orangutan also has a fantastic cover—and a text description of the cover image is in the back for vision-impaired readers. I have never seen that before and want one in every book!
KB: Thank you so much. Indigenous Species is available in accessible e-book formats that contain cover descriptions; in fact, most of the books I’ve worked on do, by virtue of having the fortune to work with indie publishers that allow me to include them. Whether in co-editing Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back with Sandra Alland and Daniel Sluman, who obviously share an ethos of access, or for Rope and Ultimatum Orangutan. I think accessible e-book versions will be more likely to have cover descriptions, and though it isn’t always necessary to include cover descriptions in the print versions of projects, I see it more as a reminder to everyone that the books do exist in forms accessible to blind readers, and that all books should.
EKG: I had such a good time at your online launch in April with the friends and readers and translators who joined you. (Here’s a link to the launch and book site)
KB: So glad you enjoyed! I am always grasping at community, and it meant more than you know to have such a warm, supportive launch, with friends and family cheering on from various locations. Writing is a lonely pursuit, and even more so for us chronically ill writers, and even more so in a pandemic, when eugenicism is ramped up even more, and our perspectives as disabled people (and especially disabled migrants or people from exploited populations) are hardly evident in mainstream discourse. I’ve been fairly homesick, and when I get to visit Jakarta again, at the end of this year, it will have been two years. So I want to thank again Jane Commane and Angela Hicken from Nine Arches, Vahni Capildeo, Rishi Dastidar, Fitri Nganthi Wani and Eliza Vitri Handayani for reading their work, and everyone who attended, especially my family. It feels nice to say I’m a part of collectives such as Malika’s Poetry Kitchen for poetry, or Shadow Heroes for translation, or Jaringan Seni Perempuan (Women’s Art Network) in Indonesia, or to be working on the Ceritrans project with Indonesian creative partners. I am always learning from my peers.
EKG: I feel that in your work, Okka. Thank you for being in conversation with me. I’m grateful for your writing and thinking on these ideas.
Khairani Barokka is a Minang-Javanese writer and artist from Jakarta, currently based in London, whose work has been presented widely internationally. Her work centres disability justice as anti-colonial praxis. She is currently Research Fellow at University of the Arts London's Decolonising Arts Institute, Associate Artist at the National Centre for Writing (UK), and UK Associate Artist at Delfina Foundation. Among her honours, she has been Modern Poetry in Translation's Inaugural Poet-in-Residence, a UNFPA Indonesian Young Leader Driving Social Change, an Artforum Must-See, and an NYU Tisch Departmental Fellow. She is author of Rope (Nine Arches) and Indigenous Species (Tilted Axis), and co-editor of Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back (Nine Arches). Recent commissions include the ICA and Southbank Centre, and Okka is finishing an art and poetry commission for purchase by Wellcome Collection. She has just published poetry collection Ultimatum Orangutan (Nine Arches).
[Pic description: Black and white photo of an Indonesian woman with short hair, earrings, and a patterned dress, lying down on her front, pen in hand, ready to write. Pic credit: Derrick Kakembo.]
Annah: Nomenclature at the ICA
Elee Kraljii Gardiner is the author of two poetry books, eleekg.com
[Pic description: Selfie taken at arm’s length of a white woman in a blue hoodie with wavy hair wearing a mask with geometric design in grey and navy with splotch of orange in front of blurred multi-coloured bookshelf.]
and , and editor of the anthologies and She is a director of Vancouver Manuscript Intensive.