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A Tinderbox in Three Acts

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A Tinderbox in Three Acts

By: Cynthia Dewi Oka

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About This Title

Selected by Aracelis Girmay, A Tinderbox in Three Acts is at once elegy and exegesis, fact and invention. 

In her fourth poetry collection, Cynthia Dewi 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. Under the New Order dictatorship that ruled by terror for over three decades in the aftermath, perpetrators of the killings were celebrated as national heroes while survivors were systemically silenced. Drawing on US state documents that were only declassified in recent years, Oka gives form and voice to the ghosts that continue to haunt subsequent generations despite decades of state-produced amnesia and disinformation.

In service of recovering what must not be remembered, A Tinderbox in Three Acts repurposes the sanitized lexicon of official discourse, imagines an emotional syntax for the unthinkable, and employs synesthetic modes of perception to convey that which exceeds language. Here, the boundary between singular and collective consciousness is blurred. Here, history as an artifact of the powerful is trumped by the halting memory of the people whom power sought to destroy. Where memory fails, here is poetry to honor the dishonored, the betrayed, the lost and still-awaited.


Praise For A Tinderbox in Three Acts

"Full of shocking glimpses of colonial violence, Oka’s powerful collection asks readers to engage with a historical reckoning."

Publishers Weekly


“I cannot say enough how critical this work is for its history, specificity, and devotion. At its center churn insurmountable, incomprehensible brutalities. These are the facts. But Oka and her fellow organizers, researchers, artists, carriers of this history are also facts. With imagination and the sharpest tools, she cuts opening after opening into the page. This book is a fire. A ceremony. An unburying. It is a tremendous honor to walk behind Cynthia and this truly essential work.”

Aracelis Girmay, author of The Black Maria


“Reading A Tinderbox in Three Acts is akin to ‘discovering our wet heart like a banner among the leaves’. This, this, this is a book so many have been waiting for. Structurally imaginative, it is an epic and profound acknowledgment of suppressed nightmares on a gargantuan scale, with a cutting honesty on how they are reflected back to us under Empire’s gaze. 

I read this artwork with my heart in my throat—witnessing a voice that says virtuosically what Indonesians as a population have kept and kept in our bodies for generations. Cynthia Dewi Oka writes in a lineage of defiant artists who were killed, exiled or otherwise hurt for taking on this subject, and this book is a freedom—scalpel-cut from the tangled, corporeal forest of intergenerational trauma, from Western complicity in the ’65-’66 genocide and the decades of violence after. She fills (literal and metaphorical) holes with canny, sensitive, brilliant fictioning. Against ‘the ministry of bones’ that is the New Order dictatorship’s brutality and lasting impact, she writes, ‘If there is a branch you cannot / reach, throw a rope and struggle / together.’ For, as Cynthia reminds us: ‘what is a nation after all if not a series of revisions’. Brava, selamat, an ovation for these three acts.”

 Khairani Barokka, author of Ultimatum Orangutan


Evocative and haunting, Cynthia Dewi Oka’s A Tinderbox in Three Acts is a choral undertaking, often in the clothing of familiar forms, state-sponsored and otherwise, that refuses the trickery of objectivity, and is instead frank in its imaginings, in its need for imagining. Bringing this imagination of poetry to bear on the imaginations of fascism and genocide, this stirring collection is not an argument of equivalence, but of the many forms of risk we undertake in being with each other. Movingly alive in its lament, we are better for this tending."

— Solmaz Sharif, author of Customs


"More probing, engaged and profound than many a contemporary novel, Cynthia Dewi Oka’s A Tinderbox in Three Acts demonstrates how a gifted poet can explore the often painful complexities of history, personal and public, with true originality. Utilizing lyric, narrative and documentary poetry, as well as drawings and nonpoetic forms with supreme skill, Oka both fills in the holes of the fictional story, centered on the horrific 1965 suppression of Indonesian Communists and the broader Left under General Suharto, with Western complicity, that she has set out to understand, and provides a needed model for 21st century poetry and poetics."

— John Keene, author of Counternarratives

Publication Date: 10/11/2022
ISBN: 978-1-950774-71-5

© BOA Editions, Ltd. 2022