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The Shape of Our Shared World: An Interview with Cynthia Dewi Oka

Cynthia Dewi Oka is the author of A Tinderbox in Three Acts, which was published by BOA Editions on October 11, 2022 as a Blessing the Boats Selection, chosen by Aracelis GirmayIn her fourth poetry collection, Oka performs a lyric accounting of the anti-Communist genocide of 1965, which, led by the Indonesian military and with American assistance, erased and devastated millions of lives in Indonesia. Learn more about Cynthia's new book through this interview with BOA Fall '22 intern, Briar-Rose.

Briar Rose: A Tinderbox in Three Acts contains poems, notes, interviews, "textual samplings'' from archival collections, and even drawings. What inspired you to write in this hybrid form?

Cynthia Dewi Oka: The primary source materials I used for A Tinderbox in Three Acts are archival documents, which were mostly written by US state officials in the form of telegrams, memos, missives, situation reports, and so on, that were produced in real time in anticipation of and/or response to the unfolding of the genocide in Indonesia. In other words, the information presented itself to me not as a cohesively organized narrative, but in fragments of data, (opinion, analysis, observations) that accumulated into a kind of blistering noise when read in succession. Imagine all the things that get ripped out of the ground then swirled around by a tornado. From a far enough distance, we can discern the funnel of destruction, but inside, there’s just violent, unbounded chaos.

I wrote in hybrid form not so much because I was inspired to, but because that chaos was so much bigger than the poetic forms I had access to; it was bigger than my language could hold. The chaos was structural, and formal hybridity offered a means for me not only to make sense of the information, but to translate the experience of trying to make sense of it.

B: I personally come from a theatre and playwriting background and the fact that your collection is organized into three acts immediately piqued my interest. While reading, I imagined what it would look like to put this book on stage. Did you ever consider another medium to tell this story such as a play, prose, essays, etc.? Would you ever consider adapting A Tinderbox in Three Acts to the stage or letting someone adapt this collection?

C: Absolutely. I would love to adapt this collection into performance and/or theatrical art. There are elements of prose and playwriting throughout the book, but I never considered writing only as prose, or a play; nor did I consider essays. For me it was important for me to deny any singular form (and its conventions), including poetry, to dictate how thought and emotion expressed themselves for me throughout my encounters with the archive and the writing of this book.

In fact, I am collaborating with choreographer Djassi Johnson for the in-person launch A Tinderbox in Three Acts, which takes place on October 19th at MoCADA in Brooklyn. She’s assembled a crew of five dancers to bring the poems to life, and we will have also have original music and visual art from the book to accompany my reading from the book. Folks who want to come and experience this event can register here.

B: A Tinderbox in Three Acts gives a voice to the rarely-discussed and contentious circumstances of the 1965 genocide in Indonesia and its aftermath. Why did you choose this subject for your book?

C: I think the subject chose me. Or rather, subjects choose their artists. No one gets to choose the history we are born into, although depending on the circumstances, we have varying degrees of choice about whether to ignore or confront it. I chose the latter, frankly, because I have the privilege to as an Indonesian-born poet who is now a naturalized American citizen. I have the privilege to question – in an art form I can make public in the country I currently inhabit – why constant, disproportionate fear was the environment I grew up in as a child in Bali; why that fear followed us and structured so much of our relationships within the family and the diaspora, with authority figures and ideas of nationhood, with institutions of faith and labor and capital, long after my family migrated across the Pacific Ocean.

B: Clues scattered in notes and elsewhere indicate that the 1965 genocide and its repercussions are still a controversial and incendiary subject in Indonesia today. It may be difficult for Western readers to think of Indonesia—home of Bali, a dreamy honeymoon destination, a romanticized island paradise—as the site of so much cruelty and human suffering, which is why your line, "May the tourist find no solace" has lived in my head since I first put A Tinderbox in Three Acts down. What do you want readers—especially Western readers—to take away from this collection?

C: In regard to that specific line, I would like to give the Western reader the opportunity to practice feeling – if for the briefest of moments – totally unwanted. Ideally, I would like America in general to be able to sustain that feeling without trying to eliminate whoever it thinks is causing it to feel that way. Without bombing anyone. Without resort to military or covert interventions. Without knowingly or unknowingly, actively or passively, supporting genocidal regimes. I would like the Western reader to knock gently on doors, and sit through the discomfort of waiting to be let in. To wonder when their turn would come.

But the other part of this question for me is, who are these Western readers? I, at this point, am also a Western reader. And from that angle of inclusivity (read: complicity), I would say that one takeaway I hope for is that there are no do-overs. Nothing is ever over. When we invade a people; when we intervene in the leadership selection processes of other countries; when we accept destruction, displacement, despotism, mass death as reasonable “compromises” to further American national interests; the damage is not only permanent, it reverberates beyond borders and across generations. It ends up becoming the shape of our shared world. We cannot put a fence or a timer around pain, so is it possible for us to normalize and prioritize, not progress, but repair?

B: The human voice you give to each Ghost in A Tinderbox in Three Acts is so well done that it's almost hard to believe that they come from one sole author and not real-life historical accounts. What kind of research and resources went into your writing process that helped you write such a three-dimensional account of this story?

C: I’ve been off and on researching the events of 1965-66 since I was 18, my first year in college. The first book I read that dealt with it explicitly was The Dark Side of Paradise: Political Violence in Bali by Geoffrey Robinson, which was published in 1995. I remember really struggling with cognitive dissonance because while I had heard plenty of Indonesians express fear, hatred, or disgust toward communists, I never once heard about a genocide. Which makes sense – genocide is not the framing that existed under the New Order. It was all about the Communists’ treachery, and how Suharto banished this evil from the land. Afterward, I read various other accounts and political analyses of that period in Indonesian history, all written by European or American scholars.

In my early twenties, I read The Mute’s Soliloquy by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Indonesia’s most celebrated author, whose works were banned under the New Order. It’s a memoir about his experience as a political prisoner on Buru Island after he was accused of communism. Encountering the documentaries The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014) by Joshua Oppenheimer was also an important experience for me, specifically because of the minutes-long credit rolls of Anonymous at the end, designating Indonesians who worked on the films but could not risk being named. After those films were released, there was, briefly, more international attention on 1965. I was working so much then, but whenever I could, I tried to follow the International People’s Tribunal on Crimes Against Humanity in Indonesia 1965 that took place in The Hague. I really recommend that folks read the Preamble at the very least. There have been also two other books by Indonesian women scholars that have been critical for me: The End of Silence: Accounts of 1965 Genocide in Indonesia by Soe Tjen Marching, which is a groundbreaking collection of oral testimonies by survivors of 1965, and The Dance that Makes You Vanish: Cultural Reconstruction in Post-Genocide Indonesia by Rachmi Diyah Larasati, which addresses how the New Order coopted grassroots art forms after killing their practitioners, and employed the arts as a foreign policy tool that cast Indonesia as an exotic, sanitized paradise ripe for Western consumption. Beauty is a wound, as the title to one of Eka Kurniawan’s novels goes.

I did also, study poetic works that were pushing the limits of form and utilizing archival materials in novel ways, for instance Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip, Voyager by Srikanth Reddy, Sand Opera by Philip Metres, and Humanimal by Bhanu Kapil, among others.

B: Language, its role in identity, and the social and political policing of it is a recurring theme. How has your own experience with language, as a Chinese Indonesian person and as an immigrant, shaped the writing of A Tinderbox in Three Acts?

C: I think of language in my life as a kind of shadow. It confirms the presence of something, without necessarily representing it accurately. At midday, the shadow of an object would be extremely shrunken; at dusk, disproportionately stretched. Like shadows, language can also obscure, flatten, evacuate texture, and the specificities of its object’s identity. Mandarin was a shadow in my childhood home in Indonesia. My mother spoke often with regret about “losing” Mandarin although what happened was the New Order banned it from public places and shut down Chinese language schools. Once, she found someone to teach me Mandarin. The weekly class was held in a closed garage. I was the only pupil.

The New Order fell two years after we left Indonesia, but not before the military incited mass violence against Chinese Indonesians in an effort to scapegoat them for Suharto’s corruption and the Asian financial crisis. In Canada, ironically, I had to teach myself English because the ESL program at my elementary school was designed solely for Mandarin and Cantonese speaking students, all of whom insisted I could not possibly have Chinese heritage because I spoke none of the Chinese languages. So I became fluent in English by reading books with a dictionary, then figuring out how the English grammar worked by noticing patterns in conjugation and syntax, then experimenting with them in my own short stories until those patterns became intuitive. The cost was, I stopped thinking in Indonesian when I was ten years old, just a few months after we migrated to Canada. I still speak Indonesian with my family but I did completely lose Javanese, the language spoken by the majority of my relatives in Indonesia. Many years later, in my early twenties, I got involved in migrant justice organizing and learned Spanish to be able to work with undocumented peoples from Latin America.

Because of these experiences, I cannot separate language from loss. From power. From displacement. Language is my first ghost. I don’t trust it because it can lie about its carriers. It can hide or expose us in ways that protect or cause harm. It can mark us as friend or foreigner, worthy of care or deserving of brutality. I don’t just mean, which language we speak, although that’s certainly a huge part of it. I also mean language in the sense of what we say, how we say, to whom. These considerations shaped the choices I made about what each fictional speaker chose to articulate about their experience relative to the genocide, an event that to me signifies, among other things, the failures and treacheries of language, i.e. when language ends up standing in for living, for lives. Which is, of course, what I’m constantly doing as a poet, too. The process by which I learned English was preparation in childhood for how I would later learn to read these archives, to take what I need from people writing about, if rarely ever to, people like me. And just as I did then, I wrote a story to make sense of the patterns I was noticing. Except this time, I didn’t do it because I needed to use them. I did it to break them.

B: Images of wildlife come up time and again, especially the motifs of birds, feathers, and snakes. Is there a particular cultural significance and/or message tied to these animals?

C: Yes, bats show up, too, and water buffaloes! They are animals that for me for me are totems of the cultural and personal memories I carry with me from my childhood in Indonesia. I don’t have any illusion that that Indonesia still exists. There is no going back to it. I make do with an interior landscape built out of my memory of disparate places in Indonesia that taught me how to recognize beauty, freedom, longing, deception, cruelty.

B: Another notable theme is memory and the pain of remembering versus the pain and consequences of forgetting. Amnesia is both "merciful" and "a disease." Can you share more about how these opposing sentiments fit together in the book?

C: There is a kind of binary, purist thinking prevalent in America, that I think often mistakes reduction for clarity. Us vs. them. Heroes vs. villains. Freedom vs. oppression. The thing is, I don’t think clarity requires unity. Clarity can hold contradictions. Also, sometimes what needs to be clarified is things are muddy. Entangled. Partial. Anyone with trauma knows that you can be yourself and your perpetrators at the exact same time.

I have lost a lot of people in my life. There have been moments when I wished I could forget them, what happened to them, what they meant to me, because the pain of missing them knowing nothing I could do would bring them back, felt unbearable. Our bodies are built as much to forget as to remember for the sake of our preservation. Amnesia, in the aftermath of the genocide, could be understood as a mercy when it feels like nothing can be done about it, and when trying to say or do anything about it would only cause more harm.  When the damage feels total, and there are still children to raise, livelihoods to earn, people to protect and take care of. Amnesia could be a mercy when it allows you to go on, and by extension, those who depend on you. At the same time, when amnesia is manufactured as policy and enforced by violence, when it is designed to destroy people’s capacity to imagine justice, to remold them into obedient subjects for terror as governance, then it could be understood as a disease, as disordering of the normative functioning of the individual/social, physical/political, body.

Unaccountable, totalizing, supremacist power thrives by separating people from their bodies, i.e. forcing them to abandon, betray, neglect, even abuse, their bodies. This process destroys not only our bonds to ourselves, but to other people. Something that is so powerful about mourning, I think, is that in the face of death, it reminds us that our bodies are present, alive, and ideally, not alone. That we are inside our bodies and with other bodies. I think that’s how mourning allows us to carry our memories. To be wracked, perhaps, by grief, but not powerless. And I do believe it is only from what we choose to carry that we can learn, and learning is how any transformation begins.

B: A Tinderbox in Three Acts was surely a very ambitious project to undertake. What did you learn while writing your fourth collection that you may carry with you in future projects?

C: Writing this book taught me to trust myself. I have found that to be a very difficult thing to do as a poet who has always been minoritized in one way or another, because it means that the worlds I live in very rarely, if ever, reflect my historical, personal, or emotional experiences. I was, am constantly asking myself, what if this doesn’t matter to anyone? And the this is so much more than my work, the this for me is the Indonesian lives lost to shore up Western agendas in Southeast Asia. I had to decide, and I am deciding every day, that I am not going to contribute to, or feed this fear of not-mattering, no matter what. That I will instead focus on repairing my own, and hopefully, my readers’, relationship to justice not as a wish or a slogan, but a collective human practice that is worthy of our imagination, effort, and creativity.

My son and I had many conversations about justice while I was working on this book, he’s such a wonderful thought partner, and what I will carry forward into my future projects is something he said a couple of years ago, not long after his seventeenth birthday: “Punishment is a taking away from the perpetrator. Justice is bringing up everyone around the perpetrator. Justice is learning how to move forward after what has happened.”

B: Do you have a new project currently in the works? Where can readers expect to see you next?

C: I am working on a collection of love poems. 😀 I have been historically really, really bad at writing those, it’s actually quite embarrassing. But I refuse to surrender to my past failures.  So much of my work up to this point has been to understand the systems and processes of un-love in our world, and I think it’s time to for me to look at what makes love possible.


Briar-Rose Murphy is a Fall '22 intern at BOA Editions.

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