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Indigenous Species: Poetry Book Connects Vietnam and Indonesia

Massive fish die-offs, sewage-smothered lakes, natural parks gashed by cable cars, soot-sullied skies and overflowing landfills — when considering environmental issues, it is easy to view them from a localized, Vietnam-specific perspective.

The same problems the country is facing, however, are occurring all over the world. By learning about them in other locations, we not only better understand the urgency of preserving natural spaces here, we also empathize with diverse populations through recognition of shared experiences and challenges. Indigenous Species, a book-length, art-accompanied poem by Indonesian author Khairani Barokka, which was recently translated into Vietnamese, helps connect Vietnamese readers with other populations through ruminations on ecological impact, identity, feminism and disability.

When you abduct me down the rotten river,
You make sure to wrap some rope around the hull,
Lest the current gets swept into dreaming,
And the dugout boat loses sight
Of carvings and knives
For the vision of ancestor breath,
Calling us away from great hulks of islands
And into water culled from the saliva of tigers
Whose bloodlines we clotted to death on Java,
Stabbed out of life on Bali.

This opening passage to Indigenous Species, Okka, as she is affectionately known, establishes the book’s major conflict: the encounters of savagery humankind when entering into a world devastated for the sake of capitalist progress, as contrasted by our antecedents’ less destructive relationship with the earth. The book tells the story of a young speaker held captive during a trip through a tropical forest. All around her, industries tear apart the jungle to fuel the world’s insatiable demand for paper, oil, minerals and cosmetics, leaving behind a violent wake of tree stumps and slaughtered animals.

Released in English on Tilted Axis Press in 2016 and recently translated into Vietnamese by AJAR Press, the book was originally written as a performance poem. Okka, a native of Indonesia, is a multi-genre artist, and at the release party for the Vietnamese version in Hanoi earlier this month, her stage skills were on full display. Lines like, “I know there are claws in me / From the bullish / deaths of millions of fanged things / In the tangle of this decapitated place,” gained increased exigency when forcefully delivered; the visceral effect of the snarled syllables and suggestive power of the line enjambments became heightened when heard aloud. Such fierce reading fits the book, which Okka told Urbanist Hanoi, is “very much about the interiority of the narrator, who is diagnosing the environment, and sending her fury and hopefulness out into the world.”

While Okka positions herself as an artist first, there is no denying her work serves a political purpose. As she explained to Mongabay: “No artwork is passive. What happens as a result of affecting people’s hearts and minds is up to the individual, but change happens as a result of people recognizing the urgency of environmental and indigenous rights issues.” When considering the artist alongside the art, it becomes important to consider in what ways she adheres to the messages of the book.

As alluded to in the introduction, Okka is cognizant of the hypocrisy of decrying deforestation while living surrounded by, and committed to, books. She explained at the event that it was therefore important that the book was printed using only sustainable paper, and an e-version is available. In the same way a single plastic container contributes to the death of sea turtles, these small acts of stewardship assist in preserving the planet. Recognition of such choices is necessary when encountering a book that can easily engender pessimism.

The book and its specific descriptions of kids who “sift through the vomit / Of our haste and money / And they smack their lips,” are rooted in Indonesia, but elicit parallel visions in readers around the world. It serves as an impassioned call to consider one’s own daily activities and how they affect the world. What does accepting a disposable plastic bag for your street cart mì xào bò mean for the Truong Son Mountains? How does your decision to drive to a place to which you could just as easily walk impact the fragile reefs circling the Indonesian islands? And what does it even matter if the paper napkins you use come from a tree felled in Indonesia, versus Vietnam?

The Distance Between Vietnam and Indonesia

The connections between Indonesia and Vietnam stretch much deeper than shared ecological concerns. As Okka explains in a recent article on Diacritics, 30,000 years ago, a large wave of human migrants to what is now Indonesia originated in Vietnam. But despite these common origins and modern-day proximity (a direct flight from Saigon to Jakarta takes a mere three hours), the two countries experience minimal interaction. Colonial forces and Western hegemony mean, as Okka explains, “in Indonesia, we heard more about the Eiffel Tower than Angkor Wat, and more about Boston than Hanoi.”

Indigenous Species acknowledges that it is not the locals, but rather, richer, more powerful foreign populations that benefit from the destruction of the local forests. “Eons of intricacies and strength,” for example, are decimated for the sake of “a woman’s lipstick bottle in Iowa.” The parallels to Vietnam are obvious. From 20th-century rubber plantations to modern-day garbage imports and textile production, the nation has been supporting foreign consumerism at the expense of native environments. Colonial effects on ecological realities involve people in both Vietnam and Indonesia similarly. As Okka explains: “Distinct from some white western characterizations of environmental movements as the preservation of a somehow pristine nature, distinct from local inhabitants, there have always been both Vietnamese and Indonesians who understand that with the destruction of the environment comes the oppression of humans.”

It’s an added crime that the exploited nations look to the West, rather than to one another, for the strength, solace and enlightenment offered by art. One only has to consider the source and original languages of the books and films that are translated into Vietnamese to recognize the perversity of the problem. As technology fosters more and easier conversation between nations, hopefully more translations like Indigenous Species will unite different communities.

On Heritage, Indigenous Identity, Gender and Ableness

The very title of the book invites consideration of what it means to be indigenous. As Herawati Sudoyo of the Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology explains, all modern-day Indonesians can trace their genetic origins to disparate human populations in Africa, India and Asia that arrived thousands of years apart. Forced migration during colonialism, along with post-colonial movements among the 300+ ethnic groups in the nation make any singular declarations about what is or isn’t indigenous impossible. Here again, we see obvious parallels with Vietnamese tribal minorities, Khmer and Chinese migrations, and the colonial influence on determining what constitutes indigenous culture. Short of saying no human outside of the East African Rift Valley is indigenous, or every human on planet Earth is, there can be no definitive definitions of being indigenous. Moreover, trying to impose clear definitions often serves to divide and control via notions of authenticity, as Viet Thanh Nguyen recently explained using Vietnamese and Viet Kieu contexts.

Okka’s own history and positioning add an important perspective to the discussion. She was born in Indonesia but spent a significant amount of her early years outside the country, later obtaining bachelor's and master's degrees in the US. She currently resides in London. Such a transient history is hardly an anomaly in the world today and is especially familiar to Vietnamese populations that have moved from, and are increasingly returning to, the country. Okka uses the power and privilege of her global connections and education to, as she told Urbanist Hanoi, evoke “Indonesianness [and] the emotions behind being from a place under siege.”

 Photo by Wasi Daniju.

To this aim, in addition to modern glitch, the book’s artwork contains a myriad of specifically Indonesian themes, aesthetics and images. As she explains in the book’s introduction, “There are a few traditional motifs from Dayak cultures that I did incorporate in accordance with their meanings, i.e. the floating symbols traditionally worn by travelers match the verse on that page. The crab is from a traditional form of tattooing.” The book also contains numerous Bahasa words and one folk song she sang during the Hanoi book release. In this way, she presents her intimate understanding of the place, history and culture to English, and now Vietnamese, readers that may have few opportunities to experience it.

Beyond environmental concerns, Okka is committed to exploring and articulating imbalanced gender power dynamics. The literal binds controlling the narrator serve as analogies for the metaphorical constraints placed on females as a whole, and in developing countries specifically. The power and rage issued by the book’s female protagonist give voice to the gender while articulating the powerless situations many struggle with in a world of massive, resource-gobbling industries led by and serving largely male-dominated communities.

Like female and native communities, the benefits of the past 200 years of industrialization have largely bypassed disabled communities. Simply consider how many of Hanoi’s restaurants, schools, sidewalks and public buses are inaccessible to those with disabilities. Identifying as a member of the disabled community, Okka focuses on the issue in numerous works including editing the D/deaf & disabled poetry anthology, Stairs and Whispers. This commitment extends to Indigenous Species, which features on every other page a 2D braille image that highlights the fact that current publishing habits largely ignore sight-impaired audiences. 

A Fish Eye

The book’s ability to link Vietnamese and Indonesian communities was nowhere more obvious than at the release party held at To Chim Xanh in Hanoi on July 14. Okka flew in for the event along with Indonesian writer Norman Erikson Pasaribu, who introduced her and shared some of his own work. The proceedings were bilingual, with Yen Hai, who translated Indigenous Species under the name Red, joining Okka on stage (and under a table) to provide a Vietnamese reading and answer questions about the translation process. When asked about the challenges of translating it, Okka explained that the process was akin to asexual reproduction — a new, separate organism created out of a singular self.

Translator Red (left) and Okka (right). Photo by Chris Humphrey.

The Vietnamese version was first proposed by Tilted Axis Press, which will soon publish a chapbook of poetry by AJAR’s two founders, Nha Thuyen and Kaitlin Rees. When tasked with the text design, local Hanoi artist Dan Ni chose to handwrite each line. This decision not only resulted in a unique, beautiful font, it also made him read and interact more closely with the work than a book designer normally does. This collaboration and its transcendence of political and linguistic boundaries exemplify AJAR’s dedication to “the discovery of poetry and art in both ordinary and hidden places, providing a space for these works to be exhibited, loved, and challenged.. [while providing] an opening for questions, imaginings, and poetic (im)possibility to be shared across borders, inhabiting language as it moves between worlds and words.”

The night also celebrated two other new AJAR releases which are part of the press’s Fish Eye series that aims to simultaneously release work by a Vietnamese author, a member of the Vietnamese diaspora and a writer representing another background. Dao Strom’s bilingual You Are Always Someone from Somewhere Else / Mình Sẽ Luôn Là Người Nọ Đến Từ Nơi Nọ is a collection of fragmented text and photos that explore memories of place and personhood and their role in creating the identity and perspective of a diaspora narrator navigating a return to Vietnam. Similarly, Những Tổ Khúc Rời / The Nomadic Segments by Nguyen Thanh Hien is a largely Vietnamese poetry book that grapples with philosophy, the individual’s place within humanity, humanity’s place in the world and the idea that “I doubt anyone would try come into my homeland. The homeland where everything seems strange.”

Reading the three books together reinforces the idea that indigenousness is easier to impose on others or fictional narrators than on the self; humans as a whole, and perhaps poets more acutely, constantly feel a sense of uprootedness. As the natural world witnesses the literal untethering of vast root systems and people simultaneously lead more migratory lives, it’s impossible to imagine that writers will feel any greater connections to singular places going forwards. Indigenous Species, therefore, stands as an important text that speaks on behalf of a place experiencing immediate distress and inevitable alteration.

The Vietnamese version of Indigenous Species is available for purchase directly from AJAR or at their Tical shop; the English version is readily available online in print and e-format. 


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