Khairani Barokka is Modern Poetry in Translation‘s inaugural Poet in Residence in 2019. ‘Tubuhku Batu, Rumahku Bulan: In Honour of Survival, Placekeeping, and Woven-In Translation’ is their second residency essay.
We invite readers to join our free online translation workshop – focussing on the poem ‘Bonle’u’ by Cicilia Calista Oematan, a member of Komunitas Lakoat.Kujawas.
As part of this MPT residency, the authors I am (co-)translating are those I chose as a way of paying tribute to the community they come from, which we as readers are honoured to be in the presence of: Komunitas Lakoat.Kujawas. I am aiming to translate not just individual authors, but a community of care, and communal authorship. The poems chosen for translation are taken from a new anthology just published by Perkumpulan Komunitas Sastra Dusun Flobamora (Flobamora Village Literary Community), and edited by writer and Lakoat.Kujawas founder Dicky Senda, entitled Tubuhku Batu, Rumahku Bulan (My Body Is Stone, My House Is The Moon).
Komunitas Lakoat.Kujawas is a social enterprise based in Mollo, Timor Island, East Nusa Tenggara Province, Indonesia; they preserve local culinary and other cultural traditions, educate people on how to weave, cook, and strengthen themselves economically, including women farmers, hold creative writing workshops and an arts residency, and crucially, they do not see all of these activities as box-ticking or as separate from each other. In creating and preserving culture, they help each other ward off the encroaching threat of mining and other companies that would take their land from them in the name of ‘development’, the threat of human trafficking, and other dangers.
Dicky Senda founded Lakoat.Kujawas from within the community, it is run by the community, and it is for the community. It is not the brainchild of so many foreign NGOs who parachute in and out of ‘the developing world’, with a one-size-fits-all plan with one-size-fits-all conceptions of poverty, wealth, welfare, and continuity (as a former aid and development worker, I attest to unsustainable development models couched as being for the greater good). This is particularly the case when ‘economic development’ so often displaces people and ecologies in Indonesia, with no respect for local knowledge and land rights – and there is always a struggle on behalf of locals to resist, often meeting violence.
In the interest of continuous internal checks and balances, and being upfront about my positionality, I am a Minangkabau and Javanese woman (whose paternal grandfather’s family was Bantenese Arab) from Jakarta, who has been to East Timor but not West Timor, where Komunitas Lakoat.Kujawas is based. Dicky Senda kindly translated words from Mollo dialect into Indonesian for me, which I’ve then translated into English or will co-translate as part of the glossary for the MPT online workshop material; his invaluable work as co-translator is always indicated in the workshop as well as in the digital pamphlet. As part of this MPT residency, I am grateful to have been given the reins to translate according to communal principles, as part of translation as always inherently communal (in one way or another). The choice to engage workshop participants in translating the glossary of Mollo words is also to emphasise that glossaries, too, are literary, and subject to translating choices. It is also in keeping with my personal practice in both writing and translating of not italicising words that are ‘not English’, to avoid ‘othering’ (after all, we as bilingual or multilingual people don’t italicise these words in our minds when we use them), and when using a glossary at all, placing it at the end.
In the interest of transparency, here are the connections that were fortuitously made in order to bring this collaboration into being: Lakoat.Kujawas founder Dicky Senda is a writer from Timor who I first met years ago, as fellow authors on the Indonesian literary festival circuit. He is someone whose work my peers and I have long admired, particularly in its interconnectedness to his home area’s welfare. Having followed his work with Lakoat.Kujawas, I asked him for recommendations for writers from East Nusa Tenggara in particular, as a region of Indonesia I’d love to give more international and indeed national literary recognition. In the process, he asked if I would consider translating one of the poems from Tubuhku Batu, Rumahku Bulan to put on the Lakoat.Kujawas blog. The collected poems were the result of work by the To The Lighthouse creative writing class begun by Dicky in August 2017, consisting of writers from SMPK St. Yoseph Freinademetz Kapan (St. Yoseph Freinademetz Kapan Christian Middle School).
Reading the manuscript he kindly sent in advance of publication, I was awestruck – it contained transcendent work that, as Dicky explains in the anthology’s introduction, was written with an emphasis on stones, water, nature, local legends in which the natural world is everything to the community. Dicky also asserts there that he does not consider himself a poet, that he positions himself as equals with these children, and that their work – as I wholeheartedly agree – is special. In my own opinion, there are poems in this anthology that certainly exceed the grasp of what other, adult, city-based writers in Indonesia have written, thematically and stylistically.
What counts as ‘Indonesian literature’, and what is deemed worthy of translation, is still skewed by certain literary coterie towards Jakarta-based, Java-based, or city-based literature. As has been pointed out for many years by Indonesian writers, state funds for literature are subject to biases and abuses of power that gloss over entire regional swathes of writers, forgoing opportunities for them. This means those anointed as ‘legitimate writers’, asked to represent national literature on the world stage, are rarely people who may write with as much talent as anyone, yet are ignored due to age, background, ablenormativity, cis-heteronomativity, etc.- or where they choose to publish, for whom, and how. Poets who write in rural areas, for their communities, are rarely those chosen to go to international literary festivals. This is not a statement of the greater value of such festivals compared to local, rural celebrations; my point is that they should both be regarded as being of value, in different ways, and further, that ‘smaller-scale’ celebrations are not small at all, and should not be described as such. In fact, I wager that international festivals would do much to learn from what communities like Komunitas Lakoat.Kujawas have to offer in terms of artistry and integrity.
What I read of Tubuhku Batu, Rumahku Bulan touched me deeply, and I thankfully received permission from both the Lakoat.Kujawas writers and MPT to translate not one, but ten poems by eight of the poets in the book, which will appear in a forthcoming digital pamphlet. That the writers are sharing the intricacies of their stories with English language readers is an enormous privilege for us. What is at stake here is survival, and creating poetry is all of a piece with this survival for Lakoat.Kujawas, with strengthening place and tradition as much as economic circumstances. As mentioned, it contributes to the means by which they can resist mining companies that threaten their land, have a say in terms of any foreign involvement in their communities, be less vulnerable to human trafficking, remember and perpetuate traditional arts, and support each other. The work and lives of the eight poets I have selected here are thus interwoven with those of the other young writers in the anthology, their book as a woven cloth of communal support. In selecting eight for space constraints, I in no way intend to erase the other poets in the book – all of them are important, and all of their survival and thriving is linked with each other.
This is not ‘discovery’, with all the colonial connotations of that word. It is intended as an act of sharing and exploring art as equals. This is not about ‘uplift’ and ‘empowerment’, as to use such verbs with regards to these young poets would be paternalistic – these often imply a hierarchy, a charitable hand giving to the ‘empowered’, with a whole host of assumptions about notions of poverty and development, lack and abundance, oft-accompanied by condescending and ableist ideas of ‘speaking for the voices of the voiceless’. It is I who feel uplifted and empowered by their words, as I hope you will feel as well. I hope this MPT collaboration will be a source of pride for them, in their culture, their art, and themselves – that it will be woven into the whole of their joy and thriving. I believe that it is always important to avoid paternalism and tokenism in translation, and that principles of equality colour the shape and form of the translated word.
In many Indonesian cultures, wealth is communal, and means nothing to your person if it means you neglect where you came from. As a Minangkabau woman, for instance, our legendary tale Malin Kundang recounts how a man (named Malin Kundang) became incredibly monetarily rich from journeying abroad, and then refused to acknowledge his mother in his home village; she turned him to stone. In my mother’s Minang (West Sumatra) village, the paddy fields are regarded as harta pusaka, or sacred wealth, that must never be sold, that belongs to a place called home. These middle schoolers from Taiftob Village in East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia are fully-fleshed poets, of remarkable talent, and I cannot thank them enough for sharing Taiftob’s richness and abundance with us. They strengthen what we are always in danger of losing. What is contained in tradition and oral histories, what is literally life-saving. They remind us that language is spiritual, that language shapes the world, that language is the world. That the future is already here, and writing.
Khairani Barokka is Modern Poetry in Translation‘s inaugural Poet in Residence, supported by the British Council.
Okka is a writer, poet and artist in London. She was an NYU Tisch Departmental Fellow for her masters, Emerging Writers Festival’s (AUS) Inaugural International Writer-In-Residence (2013), and Indonesia’s first Writer-In-Residence at Vermont Studio Center (2011). Published internationally in anthologies and journals, Okka has presented work extensively, in fifteen countries, is a frequent public speaker, and has been awarded seven residencies, and various grants and award nominations. She is author and illustrator of poetry-art book Indigenous Species (Tilted Axis Press, 2016) translated by Red (Yen Hai) into Vietnamese as Loài bản địa (Ajar Press, 2018), and co-editor, with Sandra Alland and Daniel Sluman, of Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back (Nine Arches Press, 2017). Her first full-length poetry collection, Rope, was published by Nine Arches Press in October 2017. Visit her personal website.