Podcast transcript: My Body Is Stone, My House Is the Moon (Excerpts from Tubuhku Batu, Rumahku Bulan)

Podcast transcript: My Body Is Stone, My House Is the Moon (Excerpts from Tubuhku Batu, Rumahku Bulan)

Okka: My name’s Khairani Barokka, I go by Okka. And I am so honoured to have been asked to be Modern Poetry in Translation’s inaugural Digital Poet and Translator in Residence. I have a huge amount of respect for Modern Poetry in Translation and it’s exciting to be able to work with the freedom that MPT has given me to make this a collaborative, community effort along with Lakoat.Kujawas, which is a social enterprise and community organisation founded by my colleague Dicky Senda, who is a writer himself. It’s in Timor Island in East Nusa Tenggara Province, Indonesia. Eastern Indonesia in general has a dearth of translations from their languages into other languages, especially into English. And I think it is more difficult for Eastern Indonesia writers to be noticed in a literary scene that sometimes favours cities, and Jakarta the capital, as literary hubs. There are so many literary scenes all across Indonesia. There’s not just one literary scene. And the literary scene in Mollo in Taiftob Village Village in East Nusa Tenggara Province Timor is a literary scene that is just as amazing and brilliant and generative and experimental, as literary scenes anywhere. And I really think that’s something that we need to remember, that the gatekeepers and people who claim that there’s only one literary scene in Indonesia need to recognise that our whole country is built on hundreds and hundreds of literary scenes and traditions that are all incredible and rich and worthy of translation. [2:14]

I also wanted to emphasise with this digital pamphlet, the incredible work that is done by people who may be under the radar of tastemakers and gatekeepers in the literary industry, which is why I’m so grateful that Dicky gave me a preview of this anthology that was just published called Tubuhku Batu, Rumahku Bulan or My Body is Stone, My House is the Moon, which is the beautiful title. It’s an anthology by members of the To the Lighthouse creative writing workshop that Dicky runs in a school in Taiftob Village in East Nusa Tenggara Province. These are all young people – you’ll be able to see a photo of them as the cover of our digital pamphlet that MPT has produced. Their work is exemplary, and it is of a quality that I think is really remarkable. Children’s work is often undervalued and underestimated, and I really want to highlight the rich depth that they were able to bring to these poems. I hope that my translations of these poems in the digital pamphlet have been able to do justice to their work. I also really want to thank everyone at MPT, especially Clare and Ed for allowing the translation workshop online to happen. I’m so excited that so many people took the challenge on, and I’m really grateful to all of you. Thank you so much! The poem that was translated was by Cicilia Calista Oematan, and the poem is entitled ‘Bonle’u’. 

So now we’re going to hear Cicilia Calista Oematan who is the poet begin the poem ‘Bonle’u’:

Bonle’u diciptakan Tuhan tanpa kata dahaga
Hanya banyak lebah bernanah madu
Dan lo’e raja bergantung selendang
Jalanan rusak bertabur beling
Di depan mata gunung Mutis masih saja angkuh
Pipa-pipa kerongkongan memberi tahu
Bahwa ia mata air hidup

Okka: And now we’re going to hear the voice of Kirana Kania who wrote the translation of ‘Bonle’u’ that I thought was most in line with the spirit of Calista’s original work:

Bonle’u was God-made without drought in mind

Merely teeming bees, honey their pus

And the beshawled king’s lo’e

Cracked shard-studded roads

Lain proud, still, under mount Mutis’ eyes

Gullet pipes announcing

The springs are alive


Okka: And I just want to note that there were many thoughtful entries to consider. But Kirana Kania’s was the one that I deemed most in line with the spirit of the poem. One thing that emerged from analysing the translations was the frequent assumption that Mount Mutis was the arrogant party, which was not the case in the original poem. And that’s actually an understandable mistake, so I apologise to the people who took the translation wrong, because I was asked to do a ‘literal’ translation, which in accordance with MPT workshop policy is deliberately asked to be translation of lesser quality than it would be normally in my capacity as literary translator. But if the remit is to do translation of lesser quality then that allows for so many variations in how the translation can be. So it was written in my ‘literal’ as ‘Before the eye of the Mountain Mutis, still arrogant’, which is understandable if you think the people are ‘still arrogant’ or that Mount Mutis is ‘still arrogant’. All of this contributes to the discussion around the value and the nature of ‘literal’ translations and so I’d like to highlight that. 

I also took the chance to experiment with what the remit of translation was. I asked you all, also to translate the glossary of Mollo words by Dicky Senda. Dicky Senda’s native language and also the native language of all the writers in the digital pamphlet is Bahasa Indonesia or Indonesian. It’s the lingua franca of Indonesia, it’s taught in all the schools across Indonesia. [6:57] But we also have hundreds of regional languages, and Mollo is a regional language that is native to all the writers in the pamphlet, and a few of them used some Mollo words. Because of this – I’m not Mollo, I asked Dicky Senda to write me a brief glossary of the Mollo words, translated into Indonesian, which I then translated into English. So, for the workshop, I asked if people would kindly try to translate the glossary as well. Because one thing that I noticed [7:27]  in the literary translation world, is that glossaries are often relegated to something of lesser importance than the ‘body of the the text’ right? They’re not seen as something that is literary. But glossaries are something that I’m fascinated by – where they’re placed in a book of translation, how they’re translated, I really wanted to play on that. So thank you all who attempted it. I’d like to just shout out the people who translated the glossaries as well: 

Bebe Ashley, Emma Devlin, Julia Winterflood, Sunny Reken, Stephen Taylor, Ewan Smith, Joanna Dare, Fitriani Firstkasari Putri, Nathania Silalahi and Yulia Dwi Andriyanti. Apologies if I’ve mispronounced any of your names! 

I’m greatly heartened by this interest in Cicilia’s great talents (the poet who wrote ‘Bonle’u’) and I hope it continues with an interest in Indonesian cultures and languages, on behalf of all those who participated. And I also just wanted to say that Dicky has provided some incredible context for the poems in the digital pamphlet, which, again, are all poems translated from the anthology Tubuhku Batu, Rumahku Bulan, which is a wonderful anthology that they have just published. So here are Dicky’s words, and he’s given me permission to read them on the podcast: 

‘In the last three years our community has begun to revive the tradition of oral storytelling in our village and we have found many interesting tales.’ He gives us an example: one of the poets in the pamphlet is someone called Alexander Karel Fransiskus Oematan and in his bio he writes that he’s the great-grandson of a cleric who founded a Catholic church in Mollo of the same name: ‘I would like to write about the AFK Oematan who could speak with animals, in the next book.’ Of course, I asked Dicky, ‘What is this?! Who can speak with animals?’ and he said: ‘You know, we have found many interesting tales of the senior AFK.  For instance, about the site of the Napi stone, has become the faot kanaf of the Oematan clan. The stone protected by AFK’s family. Every large clan in Mollo has a stone and spring of water site. These are two elements other than forest and earth that are always close to Mollo people. Faot kanaf means ‘name stone’ – a stone that is the name and symbol of a certain clan. Fatu means stone and kanaf means name. The Napi Stone in our village is the one protected by the family of AFK Senior. This stone will always come up in pantun – which again, is an Indonesian, indigenous form of poetry that in English is ‘pantoum’, I believe, other poems, and greetings in our traditional language. It’s like a compass stone. When I formed the creative writing class with the children, I asked them to do a bit of research by asking their parents about the stones in Mollo. The results are there in the poems of the My Body is Stone book.’

So when AFK Junior talks about AFK Senior, he is talking about his great-grandfather who was of Mollo/Chinese heritage, who was the first to spread the Catholic religion in the Mollo mountains. The great-grandfather is known as a cleric, a Catholic religious teacher, as well as a naturalist, and he enjoyed keeping animals and had a coffee plantation in Mollo. [10:49] So there’s a story about him that his great-grandson is writing down. The junior AFK is writing about how the senior AFK had the ability to herd deer only by moving the deer’s footsteps. So what he would do, he would take the earth that had been imprinted by the deer’s footsteps, and take that earth and place it where he wanted the deer to come to. That’s a fascinating story that these children are, it’s an example of some of the stories that these children are rediscovering from their own heritage. 

So, Dicky says: ‘The results of the research are there in the poems of My Body is Stone, My House is the Moon. AFK Junior and many children in my writing class are the heirs of Mollo. They are now in a situation where their connection to the cultural history of the past has been disconnected. There are many factors that caused this, one of which is our education system, which isn’t contextual, in my opinion. Our mission is for the kids to be re-connected through elders and the creative writing class. So, Mutis, in Calista’s poem about ‘Bonle’u’’, says Dicky, ‘is the highest mountain in Mollo. It is thought to be the place where all Mollo souls live. It is the king of mountains, the smaller stones around it, including the Napi stones in our village. This is why, when mines and industrial tree plantations entered Mollo with the New Order,’ – which is the name of Suharto’s dictatorship that lasted, um, more than three decades, ‘the people rejected this and resisted. There came to be an environmental activist woman from Mollo – Aleta Baun, who won the Goldman Prize,’ which is a kind of Nobel Prize for environmental activists, ‘and it is this perspective that I am trying to rebuild in Mollo’s younger generation – things they cannot get from formal education.’

So, as you can understand, it was a huge honour for me, Okka, to be working together with the people of Lakoat.Kujawas, because I recognise the importance of these generative poems that they’re creating; generating connections between the kids and the elders in Mollo; strengthening their ability to understand their place in the world and what they are inheriting, and the importance of maintaining that place as somewhere that is safe from mining companies, from industrial tree plantations. And it’s something that I spoke about in my first essay for MPT, ‘Against Terra Nullius Translation’, that I think that a lot of environmental activism in Western countries is universalising and does lack context. For instance, ‘Plant trees!’ whereas, industrial tree plantations are a huge source of suffering in Indonesia. For instance, palm oil plantations – Indonesia produces a huge chunk of what we put on ourselves that we buy in stores, if that makes sense: our shampoos, our soaps, our ramen noodles, our sun block, our moisturisers. So many things have palm oil in them that come from trees that are planted that replace rainforest, that replace farms, that replace millions and millions of people’s livelihoods and makes many refugees from their own lands. So, what they’re doing in Mollo with Lakoat.Kujawas, in creating these books and asking kids to write poems that are based on their heritage that are about stones and trees and earth, but in a very Mollo-specfic way, in a very Taiftob Village-specific way, in a very East Nusa Tenggara-specific way. To understand environmental activism and poetry writing as all of a piece has been really incredible for me, and I’m really grateful once again to all of the poets in Lakoat.Kujawas, and Dicky, and the people of Mollo and Taiftob Village for sharing their wisdom with us. And thank you MPT for allowing this collaboration to happen.