Disabled artists are out here: A conversation with Okka

Stairs and Whispers - D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back. Edited by Sandra Alland, Khairani Barokka and Daniel SlumanPoet, artist and writer Khairani Barokka (Okka) speaks to Lani Parker of Sideways Times about the importance of narrative, storytelling and emotions as an artist; colonialism, disability, her art and her PhD.

Being a human is confusing, and challenging for everybody. But I’m glad that I feel like the worst of what I’ve gone through in life, knock on wood, was gone through with an understanding of how language can shape and reflect experiences.

Read the transcript:

Khairani Barokka: I am an Indonesian writer, poet and artist in London. I’m a PhD researcher at Goldsmiths in visual cultures, doing a PhD by practice. I have been researching and writing and making for 6 years now on specifically intersectional experimental ways of telling stories, particularly around crip cultures and feminisms.

Lani Parker: Welcome to Sideways Times, a UK-based podcast in which we talk about politics of disability and disability justice. Through this podcast I hope to have many conversations which broaden, deepen and challenge our understanding of how to work against ableism and how this connects to other struggles. I am Lani Parker and in this podcast I talk to Khairani Barokka, otherwise known as Okka. Born in Jakarta, Indonesia, and now living in London, Okka is a poet, artist and writer. We spoke about her current and forthcoming work, the importance of narrative, storytelling and emotions as an artist, colonialism, disability, and much much more. I started by asking her to introduce herself.

Lani Parker: So I’m really excited to have you here with me on the the podcast this month.

Khairani Barokka: Thank you so much

Lani Parker: Do you want to introduce yourself a little bit and talk about yourself, there’s so much to say.

Khairani Barokka: I am an Indonesian writer, poet and artist in London. I’m a PhD researcher at Goldsmiths in visual cultures, doing a PhD by practice. I have been researching and writing and making for 6 years now on specifically intersectional experimental ways of telling stories, particularly around crip cultures and feminisms.

Lani Parker:  Wow. So over your time, your career, you’ve done so many different things, collaborative projects in Indonesia, the States, the UK, Australia, and what are you enjoying about being in London at the moment?

Khairani Barokka: I’m enjoying the different kinds of people I’m meeting here. I feel in a lot of ways as though I’ve been searching for sort of an arts family that really understood crip culture and disability rather than having to constantly explain certain nuances or how some arts activities might be more ableist than others. And here I feel like I’ve finally found more and more of those people and that’s super exciting for me. But also people understand disability cultures in an intersectional way with feminisms, with anti-racism work, and that has been really wonderful.

Lani Parker: Wow. What’s the most important thing to you about the work you’re doing?

Khairani Barokka: I think the most important .. I think first of all I do this work for myself I mean it’s all stuff that I’ve needed to get out and whether it’s writing or illustrating or co-editing or researching, it’s always something that I do for my own welfare, if you like. And then also it’s about connecting with other people in the process of creating that. And then also changing my mind about ideas and developing my ideas further, and my understandings of things and .. because you know the topic of disability cultures, it’s not monolithic at all it’s so incredibly varied and diverse throughout the world, and the more people I meet with different kinds of stories, the more that informs how I want to tell my own stories. It sort of helps me be less essentialist and less universalist about things, which is all good. So I guess I do it for my own welfare but also for my own education and, yeah getting it to as many people as possible and getting to learn from as many people as possible.

Lani Parker: So I have your book in front of me – Indigenous Species.

Khairani Barokka: Yes

Lani Parker: Yay! [both laugh] Which is really beautiful, illustrated, really deep stuff in the book.

Khairani Barokka: Thank you

Lani Parker: I wanted to ask you about narrative, because the book’s a narrative. And I wanted to ask you about the importance of narrative for social justice work and art and how that kind of links. That’s a big topic I know.

Khairani Barokka: Yeah
Lani Parker: But you know in this podcast we like to cover the big topics! [both laugh]

Khairani Barokka: Well also it’s actually quite a specific question that nobody’s ever asked me before specifically about the – the book is one long poem, it’s not a collection of separate poems which I think people might get the wrong idea. But also if people want to see it as like a mini chapbook, I guess, of separate poems then I guess more power to them, but it did start off as, and it is, one long illustrated poem, so it’s one epic poem and it tells the story of a girl. It’s from the POV of a young girl who’s abducted on a river boat in Indonesia and I like that the narrative is very much stream of consciousness for the girl, because it was sort of stream of consciousness for me as well, and I feel as though narrative can reflect wider realities in a way that is unique. When you sort of interpolate – when you see the girl’s journey on the river as analogous to the journey that Indonesia is on, sort of being taken on this trip and we don’t know where we’re going, with all this environmental destruction happening, all this political chaos – and also in the world more broadly that’s basically where we are now right, we’re all on a river of some kind and we’re trying to gain solid ground and we don’t know where we’re going. I think it’s a way to personalise all the crises, and I think that level of personalisation and emotion is really important in today’s debates about issues because, in the end it is all about feeling, right. It’s all about empathy or lack thereof, it’s all about affect and lack of affect, and what issues you feel are important to you all relates to how it makes you feel like what your heart feels, and I feel in that sense that what I’m trying to do with Indigenous Species is to personalise crisis. It’s from a first person point of view, because I want ideally the reader to be taken into that point of view and see similarities between the girl who’s been abducted and where we are right now, in wherever you are in the world, because we’re all dealing with environmental crisis, we’re all dealing with political crisis, and we’re all dealing with misogyny. And it’s not, you know, I don’t know the idea of a story or a book like this being called an issues book – you know it’s a story and a work of art first and foremost I think but people have been connecting it to feminism and I think it is very much a feminist book as well. So yeah there’s so many forces – and ableism to be honest right? There’s so many forces beyond our control that we go into the world and face every day, and I guess that sort of wanting to regain power amidst that helplessness. Because what this girl is trying to do is she’s really responding to her abductor, right. She’s talking to him or to them, like she really wants to show her power. And to me that’s what we’re trying to do or hopefully will.. you know are trying to do. Long-winded answer.

Lani Parker: So it’s kind of if I’m getting you there’s the role of… obviously it’s an artwork in itself first and foremost but the next important thing I guess is about giving some voice to those connections in an individual way?

Khairani Barokka: Yeah absolutely I think it’s all interrelated and it’s an illustrated book where the verse and the images hopefully have an interplay. And it was designed – originally I had no idea it would be mass-produced first of all, this really was supposed to be a one-off project. I thought I would just make one or 2 books on my own with like papier mache to be really honest. And then on a whim when Deborah Smith, Tilted Axis Press, contacted me, I sent her a few manuscripts and I sent my Indigenous Species proposal just to show I have range, you know, like I’m also working on this Braille and tactile artwork project. And she fell in love with it. And so that’s why there is now a sighted version that is mass produced like this, where the word Braille is in flat Braille, so to speak, on every left hand page. I think that the artwork using the lack of Braille as sort of an intrusion into sighted people’s psyche has been really important for me to include. I wanted it to be a translation of absence. Which is, so blind and sight impaired people notice the absence of Braille or embossedness in every flat book. So I wanted this to be a way that sight-impaired readers would understand the absence of Braille and embossedness in this flat book by including the word Braille, in Braille so to speak, in every left page.

Lani Parker: You’ve used the word maybe once or twice, I just wondered how useful intersectionality the term is for the work that you do?

Khairani Barokka: Right. Well, first of all I think we were all making intersectional stories before we even heard of the term intersectionality, because intersectionality is a term coined by the legal scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw to discuss black women’s experiences specifically as being compounded by both sexism and racism in the US workplace. And I think it’s a useful term to adopt in terms of ableism and everything else but I also want to note that intersectionality works in an infinite variety of ways and on various levels, and we should be wary of applying a US-only context to things because [inaudible] specific to a context around the world. But yeah I think often intersectionality doesn’t include ableism in people’s analyses and I think it’s important to note that that is also a factor in our daily lives for sure.

Lani Parker: How do you see the sort of structures of oppression – in terms of feminist lens? Because you’ve said that the work’s been received as a feminist project.

Khairani Barokka: Yeah and it is, it is very much a feminist project yeah.

Lani Parker: And you see it as that. Would you say a bit more about how you see the connections?

Khairani Barokka: Well first of all … So something that I learned just recently, I was in Jakarta where I’m from for a month and I did an Indigenous Species reading there as well and I got to have two wonderful women scholar activists as panellists – Debra Yatim and Saras Dewi. Saras Dewi is at the university of Indonesia and she’s a philosophy professor actually, so she got to respond to the book and Debra Yatim is a feminist activist who has been doing work for decades. And it was so fascinating to hear their stories and to get their reactions to things. But also from talking to them and from other people around I noted that in Indonesia, as it is probably everywhere, unfortunately the environmental movement isn’t free of sexism and ableism, right. Like there are still people who are so-called environmental activists but we know behind the scenes that they have been involved in sexual assault or sexual harassment or sexist behaviour. And even though I’m more aware of that dynamic now than I think I was when I created Indigenous Species, of there being those elements of sexism in environmental movements, I think it’s always important to centre the voice of – an angry voice that is a girl’s voice. I wanted there to be… I mean I think it’s also important to centre, you know, non-binary voices and genderqueer voices. But for me as a woman, as a girl, it was so important for me to talk about how every single environmental ill to me is gendered. It’s absolutely gendered. And if it may be more difficult for women and girls to go to school before, it’s compounded by the haze, the forest haze that happens in Indonesia. It’s always going to be harder for girls. It’s always going to be harder for girls to try and get economic parity when they’re the ones doing the back-breaking work for the family and there’s climate change happening and, you know as well, the feminisation of poverty. So everything sort of happens multiple times over for women and girls. And I wanted the voice of the angry narrator to be a girl very specifically for that reason. So I think that also equating the misogyny that she’s experiencing as somebody who was abducted with the environmental damage that’s happening, sort of putting them on the same plane, I think is important. I mean not to flatten things at all, but sort of that rage that we… Some days you know you turn on the news and you hear, you know I mean a person is in power who sexually assaulted women and is also refusing to honour the Paris climate agreement, right. Those two things I don’t think are that inseparable at all you know. Like that lack of empathy and that lack of understanding of human suffering comes from a place that is really – I really do think that misogyny and environmental short-sightedness come hand in hand in some ways and I think that needs to be pointed out more, along with a lack of understanding of ableism as well.

Lani Parker: We’re talking about the context of misogyny and environmental justice. The book is also about colonialism, do you want to talk to me a bit more in detail about that? I’d really love to hear more about that.

Khairani Barokka: Yeah, it’s about colonialism, but also it’s about everything that’s happened since. I mean Indonesia became independent in 1945, and then we had a dictatorship that lasted for 3 decades from 1965/66 onwards and that was sparked by a horrible genocide. And also over the course of those 3 decades there were so many horrible environmental policies that were put into place, that also impacted people obviously. And so I think some reviewers have been very kind about Indigenous Species but said that it’s about colonialism, but actually it’s also about what’s happening right now. It’s not just about – I mean history has its mark, and colonialism I think laid the way for the dictatorship to happen, there was certainly some US involvement in that. And there are elements of Indonesian history that I’ve feel as though some Western viewers might not be aware of, such as the verse that talks about ‘I shampoo my hair with oil crafted from the sanctioned mess of invasion that was Javanese transmigration’. And Javanese Transmigrasi or transmigration was an actual government program installed by Suharto, the dictator. Where people from Java such as myself, Java’s the most densely populated island so their idea was there are all these other islands which are less populated, so send Javanese people over there to other islands. But it was a horrible idea and it basically, you know caused violence, it caused a lot of environmental damage, because basically you are asking people to go and colonise other places like just, you know. And so there are parts of Indonesian history that I think – so there is a river that runs – like the Brad Pitt movie, a river runs through it. [both laugh] A river runs through this book, like a literal neon river and I sort of see it as analogous to the forces of colonialism, dictatorship, genocide and also currently what’s going on with neo-liberalism and globalisation. It’s all of a piece, all connected. So there’s a lot more to it than just saying it’s about colonialism, it’s also about what did colonialism create the conditions for, and what’s happened since then. Because a lot has, but it’s all been linked to – you know basically resources being used for wealth elsewhere is what colonialism is, so that’s still going on today with resources from other parts of Indonesia going towards Jakarta, the capital.

Lani Parker: Indigenous Species was published last year but you have some plans for it I hear. Some plans to develop it?

Khairani Barokka: Yes, yes. So originally it was supposed to be a Braille and tactile art book with text in it. And it was supposed to be a one-off, just 1 or 2 copies I made myself or I got funding for. And because Tilted Axis Press picked it up, it’s now obviously a mass-produced and the great part is they want to keep to that vision, but because they’re a small not for profit press, we’re doing it in stages. So next year there will be a Braille translation, without the tactile artwork first but as a step towards that. So there’ll be Braille translation of Indigenous Species but also of 5 other women poets.

Lani Parker: Oh, that’s exciting!

Khairani Barokka: Which I’m so excited about and I’m really grateful that that is happening. It’s just – it feels nice when you have this vision for how things should be created and then other people are like ‘we agree with that vision and we’re going to actually do it’. It just feels incredible. Yeah so each poem will be translated into not only Braille but a few other languages, I’m really excited about that. Also obviously because we’re all going to be women that are going to be translated – yay.

Lani Parker: So the next bit that I was going to ask about was – because when we were talking off podcast we were talking about arts just being really important.

Khairani Barokka: Off podcast! Yeah [both laugh]

Lani Parker: Off the record! [both laugh] We talked about art just being really important for personal – you know you being an artist first and foremost and you know that’s really important. But I was saying I’m not an artist and I guess I kind of – I was interested in what you were saying about the importance of art developing culture, developing spaces for people to talk about issues where they don’t have to explain themselves, where they can express themselves. So for example where you don’t have to explain what it means to be a disabled woman of colour necessarily.

Khairani Barokka: Yeah

Lani Parker: But there’s also maybe big tensions there, I don’t know if you…

Khairani Barokka: Oh, there are always tensions there, but you know what, they’re always there anyway for disabled women of colour because we always have to explain ourselves and have a sort of double – triple consciousness going on. So I think to just psychologically create art from a space where you don’t feel the need to explain first but you create what’s in your heart first. And if that makes other people feel like ‘ooh I haven’t heard this narrative before’ or ‘oh this is different from what I’ve experienced’, that’s great, because we’re all learning from each other all the time, right, that’s the point. I feel like so often you feel isolated in academia and the arts and literature, when you don’t see your narratives reflected back at you. Or when you don’t see space for people like yourself to be creators and makers. And we are still so far behind in the UK and in Western countries also in terms of people who are Black, Asian, minority ethnic to be included in cultural conversations. I think there are so many great initiatives now that are popping up that are including people more and more but for the most part it’s still dominant culture, it’s still very much dominant culture. And that affects what people feel and affects how they perceive other human beings. And so it’s actually quite a psychological struggle I think to be a minority in places and yet still stand your ground so to speak. Or lie your ground. [both laugh] Because we’re – you know we are who we are – to stake a claim. And I think that’s why Indigenous Species is so important to me, and also Stairs and Whispers.

Lani Parker: Yeah

Khairani Barokka: Yeah, D/deaf and disabled poets write back, which I co-edited with Sandra Alland and Daniel Sluman which has just come out in May.

Lani Parker: Literally just come out.

Khairani Barokka: Literally just come out, yes. And also Rope my first full length collection coming out with Nine Arches.

Lani Parker: When’s that due out, it’s quite soon isn’t it?

Khairani Barokka: It’s October – the first week of October I think.

Lani Parker: Wow, you’ve been so prolific over the last few years!

Khairani Barokka: Yeah just – I feel like I finally have – I’ve been wanting to do these projects for years first of all. So when you finally get opportunities to do them it’s like yes absolutely of course I will do these projects that I’ve been thinking about for a really long time, with collaborators that I like. In terms of the commonalities I think between all these projects. And there’s an anthology that came out last year, Heat: A Southeast Asian Urban Anthology which I co-edited with Ng Yi-Sheng. I think they all come from places that are unapologetic. And I think that’s super-important. I think we’re constantly – especially in the UK where British culture is to say sorry about everything all the time, even when it’s not your fault, like just ‘sorry for walking by you in the hallway’.

Lani Parker: Yeah I know it’s ridiculous isn’t it. ‘Sorry for living’.

Khairani Barokka: Yeah, yeah ‘sorry for what I am’ especially as disabled people we’re meant to feel like oh sorry for this and that and the other and it’s just such a relief of anxiety when you can just write and create and commune and read from a place of I don’t need to apologise for this. Or I don’t need to feel OK with the fact that I’m shut out of this narrative, or that there is no perspective that mirrors mine anywhere here. So strong voices, all important hopefully.

Lani Parker: So tell me a little bit about Stairs and Whispers.

Khairani Barokka: OK, so I was recruited to begin work on Stairs and Whispers as co-editor last August by Sandra Alland and Daniel Sluman. It’s out with Nine Arches Press and it has actually been 4 years in the making. So Markie Burnhope and Daniel Sluman, they’re both disability activists, although I think many of us agree that like activist is a word people put on you when you’re just trying to gain basic respect, right? But they’re wonderful writers and doers I guess, and Sandra Alland were the 3 co-editors and even before I was recruited I remember reading the call-out for contributors and being so incredibly impressed. And it was just so inclusive what they wanted was so radical and really true to my vision of how things should be done. This would be an anthology by and for different disabled people only, and it would be as experimental as people wanted it to be, as wide-ranging, as varied, as inclusive as possible. And I loved that. And then unfortunately Markie Burnhope had to step down because of health issues right before the selection of poems was made. So then I was recruited last August and yeah, worked on it for a year, put in like hundreds of hours, we put in so much work on it. And Sandra also created and curated brilliant films that are all accessible, and the films are part of the anthology so in the middle of the book there’s still shots from the films so it’s a multi-media work. And in the anthology, at the end of every poem as much as possible, we’ve tried to include recordings of poets reading out the work. So if you buy the book you can listen to all of these poems.

Lani Parker: Oh brilliant

Khairani Barokka: Yeah because we wanted to make it as…

Lani Parker: That’s really cool for me because I can’t read very well, so that’s great.

Khairani Barokka: Yeah, as much as possible we want to make it as accessible as possible, and really come from a point of honesty and unapologeticness, and it’s finally here! And we’ve had an event so far in London with a pre-launch at the Roundhouse with Raymond Antrobus, and we’ve had the launch at Birmingham City university which was epic, so many contributors came and read and there were panels and it was wonderful. And then just recently, last weekend at Ledbury poetry festival, we had a Stairs and Whispers event that went really well and I was very verklempt as my co-editors can tell you I was actually – I was really emotional during of the readings because it’s just so rare for us to get that kind of space to be unapologetic and do things our way. With proper BSL interpretation, with proper visual descriptions, with proper you know accessible for everything and it was really special. So here’s to more to come – our next event is at Scottish poetry library, in Edinburgh, September. And then also there have been people contacting us about doing Stairs and Whispers events elsewhere. So that’s the thing I mean people are like ‘where are the D/deaf and disabled writers?’ They’re everywhere – everywhere! You know the more people who know about this are like we’re here and we want you to do this event here as well it’s you know .. we really are everywhere it’s just a matter of whether or not we’ve been included in events. So yeah that is taking hold and it’s been really wonderful so far, the feedback that we’ve gotten.

Lani Parker: But you’ve got another work coming up as well in October?

Khairani Barokka: Yes, first week of October my first full length poetry collection comes out – Rope with Nine Arches Press. And I’ve been working on it for a very long time because [piecemeal ?].. so there are poems I’ve written that I know will go into other future collections but the ones in Rope all come together because they’re poems that I look back on in my very turbulent twenties – as many people’s twenties were quite turbulent.

Lani Parker: Yeah

Khairani Barokka: And I look at them as you know reflections of stories collected by and happening to a young woman trying to find her way in the world. And at that time – you know I spent so many years not getting proper healthcare, travelling on very little money, trying to find my place and really struggling through a lot of difficult relationships, a lot of internalised sexism and ableism and racism, and I feel like also what I love about the problems that I’ve been able to include in Rope are that they don’t spell out those isms, you know, in bold letters or anything, it’s just sort of an emotional weather-map of how it feels to go through life really un-moored for a lot of years. And in a very meta way, Rope was my rope you know like creating that poetry was what I clung to in a lot of times of despair. And also I didn’t want it to be a typical narrative of ‘oh a woman overcomes illness’ or anything it was just – there may be a few illness poems in there but it’s about everything else that happens in life, in conjunction with, you know, having a body that is non-normative. But it’s about lots of different things, it’s about love and friendship and dealing with sex and death and difficult decisions and the places that I’ve been lucky enough to go to. Yeah it’s something that I hope people will enjoy and again it’s not necessarily my experience, some of the poems in it are fiction, some of it is stories that happened to my friends. And what I love so much in poetry is that it can be you don’t know necessarily if something is fiction or non-fiction, right. It’s just a poem. I don’t need to explain this part is fiction but this next stanza isn’t fiction, you know it’s sort of an amalgamation of a lot of different things. And it was very meaningful for me to look at the manuscript for Rope – which is finalised now, and see that oh I came out the other side, like I clung to this rope which was the creation of all these poems, and it did get me somewhere. I’m still as we all are you know trying to go one bit at a time through daily life, because being a human is confusing, and challenging for everybody. But I’m glad that I feel like the worst of what I’ve gone through in life, knock on wood, was gone through with an understanding of how language can shape and reflect experiences.

Lani Parker: Cool. Yeah and so I think we’re coming to the end. But was there anything you wanted to say – anything else you wanted to say about art, about disability, about emotion…

Khairani Barokka: Well my PhD project has been working on all of those things, and it’s something I’ll talk more about in the future. But yeah, just wanted to say that disabled artists are out here and we’ve been creating and we should be given more of a platform to create, not just as consumers and definitely not as charity objects. And thank you for having these podcasts where we can talk about so many different things and listen to so many different perspectives.

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