The PEN Ten: An Interview with Cynthia Dewi Oka
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, PEN America’s Membership and National Engagement Assistant Kori Davis speaks with Cynthia Dewi Oka, author of A Tinderbox in Three Acts (BOA Editions, 2022). Oka’s fourth poetry collection, A Tinderbox in Three Acts explores the anti-Communist genocide of 1965 in Indonesia. Amazon, Bookshop.
Cynthia Dewi Oka’s A Tinderbox in Three Acts is published by BOA Editions. We are happy to announce that PEN America members can take 15% off of their online purchase at BOA Editions’ online store. Join PEN America today to access all of our discounts.
1. I feel as though the most striking quality of A Tinderbox in Three Acts is its hybrid nature. It includes poetry in addition to elements of nonfiction, playwriting, and the visual arts. Can you tell us about the process of combining these disparate genres into one cohesive whole?
To be honest, I was not thinking about genre at all. I was thinking about the ghosts, and what forms felt true to their voices as I heard them in my head. One of them, for example, is a nationalist who felt threatened by the growing influence of the Communist party. He wrote in correspondence form to a US official with language I cut and rearranged from a document in the U.S. Embassy Tracked Indonesia Mass Murder 1965 archival collection. I then wanted the ghosts to talk with each other, and that was facilitated by the playwriting form. And I wanted them to be seen, so I drew the way the ghosts impressed themselves on me while listening to music I felt each of them identified with. The long poem in Act Three is a prefiguration of the march I have not yet had the opportunity to participate in to honor our dead from that period, including the parts and versions of people that had to die in order for them to survive.
The Telegram poems were erasures of similar communications found in the aforementioned archive, and they function as a kind of a timeline to indicate the progression of the genocide and entangled American interests on the ground. For instance, while hundreds of thousands of people were dying, there were American officials expressing excitement about the fact that American movies would finally be showing in Indonesia. Finally, the prosaic footnotes make the present time visible and expose, while decentering, the poet’s hand. They reveal some of my process throughout the making of this “world.”
Structure is how all these pieces came together. The meta-structure of the three acts and the sequencing of pieces within each act hopefully allow the reader to experience the unfolding of the genocide through the eyes of the speakers, not necessarily in a linear, temporal way, but in an emotional sense, because that’s what really matters to me: our capacity to feel what happened.
2. A Tinderbox in Three Acts introduces us to seven voices (“ghosts”) that were affected by or played a role in the 30 September Movement and the Anti-PKI massacre in Indonesia. As A Tinderbox in Three Acts progresses, these ghosts are allowed to express their truths to one another in an “Interrogation Room.” What was behind the decision to have these voices in conversation with one another?
I am most curious about the ordinary people who were affected – whether that meant being mobilized or victimized – by the Indonesian military’s response to the September 30 Movement. I think it’s important to emphasize, because the term “movement” can be misleading, that the kidnapping and murder of the six generals (and one lieutenant in lieu of his superior) that set off the chain of events were organized and carried out by a small cadre of military officers, without the knowledge of the mass membership of the Communist party or its affiliated organizations. I wanted to understand how people who didn’t have decision-making power in either the instigating action or the military’s retaliatory response to it thought about their own political and personal destinies as the genocide unfolded. How did they make sense of what happened? How did they respond? What was at stake for them? Who were they?
I also wanted to imagine Indonesians talking openly to each other, across generations, social positions, and political agendas, about 1965. I created the speaker Nonik, the seventh Ghost, who is described as “a desire made of anti-historical matter”, to allow for conversations between the present and the past, the living and the dead. I wanted them to explain themselves to each other, to fill in the holes. “Nonik” is a common nickname for Chinese Indonesian girls; it is still what I am called to this day by my mother and most of my Indonesian elders. The interrogation seemed to me the most appropriate form for this exchange because it implies the application of force, i.e. the ability of the interrogator to compel the interrogate. This imbalance of power, however, is not stable. Though Nonik, as my alter-ego, wields the power of the present to question the past, she is still subject to the power of the past to define the present. Consequently, she does not only interrogate the other ghosts; she is also interrogated by them.
“I do, however, believe that it is the artist’s job to search for and express some truth about the human condition. Brutality is a human condition. Loss is a human condition.”
3. A Tinderbox in Three Acts actively tries to deter us from the dangers of repeating history while seeking accountability for the (mostly western) forces that tried to normalize the Anti-PKI Massacres. Do you see it as a piece that is at the intersection of art and activism?
As I write in the dedication, A Tinderbox in Three Acts contributes “a memorial for those who were systemically denied the right to be mourned.” We need many memorials. I would not characterize this project as actively seeking accountability, because I understand accountability as a collective process, not an individual artist’s prerogative. There are Indonesians doing that critical work through the International People’s Tribunal on Crimes Against Humanity in Indonesia 1965, the Ingat65 digital storytelling project, and other initiatives. I do, however, believe that it is the artist’s job to search for and express some truth about the human condition. Brutality is a human condition. Loss is a human condition.
For me this project is art as truth-seeking at the intersections of the personal and historical, memory and forgetting, powerlessness and privilege. Although I only spent the first ten years of my life under the New Order, its fear, violence, hatred towards women, and reliance on deception were wounds and habits my family continued to carry with us, and sometimes perpetuate, long after we migrated. It’s taken me more than two decades to understand and begin dismantling its effects in my life. I have now been in diaspora for twenty-seven years. As an American citizen, it felt most appropriate for me to illuminate and critique American complicity in (as well as indifference toward) the devastation of millions of lives in my homeland. That said, in my view, whatever support it may have received from other Western governments, the New Order regime is ultimately responsible for normalizing the genocide.
4. One of the ghosts mentions the idea of whole societies having post-traumatic stress disorder that can be passed to future generations, and you mention that by wading through the archives you watched “America watch my people open each other.” Was the writing process therapeutic in any way, were you able to get some sense of healing when you finished?
I think it is what the writing of this book empowered me to do in my actual life that was healing. First, it helped me to repair my relationship with my mother, because it gave us the opportunity to have conversations about her experience of surviving 1965 as a young Chinese Indonesian girl; how it completely shattered the life she knew and affected her development as a person, woman, wife, parent. That process helped us to understand the choices she made, which profoundly, if not solely, informed the choices I consequently made as her eldest daughter. Achieving that understanding freed our capacity to forgive each other.
Second, writing this book allowed me to restore a sense of context for myself. I will probably always carry the wound of being removed from my homeland as a child and having to figure out how to exist as a decontextualized person in North America while my family imploded from the pressures of disorientation, isolation, racism, poverty. In response to our experiences, I became a grassroots organizer, a feminist, and a poet. I became someone who questioned and fought to change the status quo, and it seems to me that was precisely the kind of people the Indonesian military’s anti-leftist campaign sought to eliminate fifty-seven years ago. There are so many of us, back home and abroad, who carry on the longing of that lost generation for “a country for us all,” to quote Budi, one of the Tinderbox ghosts. And by country, I do not mean the nation-state. I mean space, time, the caring regard of others. That was incredibly transformative for me, to realize that longing is not only an effect of separation; it is also a vital, vibrant source of togetherness.
5. Towards the beginning you say that these poems are to place your ear on the missing hole of your history. The poems “Flora and Fauna” and “Fauna is Flora” deal with the deadly effects of propaganda and the subjugation of women. Other poems and conversations deal with immigrating to escape a harsh reality. I feel like this work is reflective of our current moment but also deeply personal and rooted in a very specific history. Were you conscious of that balance and how did you manage it?
As an Indonesian American writer, I feel hyperconscious of that balance because I cannot take for granted that my experience or history will be reflected in any literature or media I come across in the United States (or Canada, where I previously lived). The way I think about it is, it is not my job to have had a life that is more digestible, familiar, or “relevant” to the mainstream American moment at any given point. America is made of so much more it is willing to acknowledge; in that sense, Americans, too, operate on amnesia. It is my job, though, to be informed by more than my life in my creative process because the purpose of my work is to create, expose, and repair connections. The ghosts of A Tinderbox in Three Acts emerged through a combination of research, memory, and imagination. They exceed my life, but they are also colored by my life; and because all of that life is human, I can and do trust my readers to recognize them.
According to the Cambridge dictionary, connection is “the state of being related to someone or something else.” I think else-ness is precisely what specificity empowers us to experience, by breaking us out of our own echo chambers and bringing us into the presence of an Other; specificity, in other words, disrupts our aloneness. I am most drawn to art that is highly specific, art that unsettles and takes me out of myself, rather than abandoning me to what I already know. Consequently, I am compelled to make work of a similar quality.
In terms of managing the balance, I just picture everyone I care about on the other side of this book: family, friends, colleagues, students, in Indonesia, Cuba, America, Canada, the UK, and everywhere else. I am lucky to have a very diverse and international community, and it’s also true that most of us are struggling with one form of intergenerational trauma or another as a result of past and ongoing systemic violence. I think about us being part of this huge, ongoing movement to repair everything that has been broken, and this book being just one of my contributions to that work.
“I think half of our pain is not knowing why things are the way they are. I don’t think A Tinderbox in Three Acts provides the answer, but I hope it offers a model for how art can be a medium for the questioning. To question something is to refuse its inevitability; to me that is one way we exercise our humanity in the face of inhumane conditions.“
6. Your relationship with English is touched on in a few places here, specifically some of the struggles of adapting to the language. Was there ever a temptation to write this in a different language as resistance to English and western influence?
No. I am fluent in Indonesian, but I live and work in the United States, and I don’t think writing in a language that the majority of my readers are not literate in can amount to effective resistance. I am not even sure what I would be resisting as I am made of the influences of everywhere I have lived, everything I have read, and everyone I have known, including of course, the West. English has been an imposition in my life, one that was very painful for me to integrate. It has also been for me a language of alliance with many other displaced and oppressed peoples who have suffered as a result of Western nation-, capital-, and empire-building projects.
7. Can you talk about the research process for this work, specifically how you were able to embody these characters through the archival documents that you had (and didn’t have) access to?
I worked with a couple of archives that are introduced right away in A Tinderbox in Three Acts, but I have been researching the events of 1965-66 on and off since my first year in college, so what I will offer here are some highlights. The first book I read that dealt explicitly with genocide was The Dark Side of Paradise: Political Violence in Bali by Geoffrey Robinson, which was published in 1995. Afterward, I read various other accounts and political analyses of that period in Indonesian history, all written by European or American scholars. Then, in my early twenties, I read The Mute’s Soliloquy by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, one of Indonesia’s most celebrated authors, 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 identified. After those films were released, there was, briefly, more international attention on 1965. The films were in fact referenced in the International People’s Tribunal on Crimes Against Humanity in Indonesia 1965 that took place in The Hague in 2015. I really recommend that folks read the tribunal’s Preamble at the very least.
There is a line in A Tinderbox in Three Acts, at the end of the second act, that says, “Not declassified means, use your imagination.” The American archives I worked with did not offer up humane, nuanced, complex depictions of Indonesians, but they did yield valuable information about the matrix of political identities, agendas, and methods vying for dominance during that critical period. All I had to do to build the characters in the book was imagine people – beings with wants, needs, responsibilities, wounds, delusions. That isn’t difficult for me. Since before I can remember, I have been close-reading people in my environments so I can figure out how to be more safe than not.
8. Some writers like to have a specific reader in mind for their work. With A Tinderbox in Three Acts, did you have a target audience in mind for it, a group of people that you wanted to make sure read it?
I wrote this book, of course, with Indonesians, particularly of my generation, in mind. I also wrote it for everyone who has had parts of their histories – personal or collective – hidden from them or denied in some way, everyone who has been haunted by cruelty and injustice, and everyone who has experienced dehumanization. I think half of our pain is not knowing why things are the way they are. I don’t think A Tinderbox in Three Acts provides the answer, but I hope it offers a model for how art can be a medium for the questioning. To question something is to refuse its inevitability; to me that is one way we exercise our humanity in the face of inhumane conditions.
“All I had to do to build the characters in the book was imagine people – beings with wants, needs, responsibilities, wounds, delusions. That isn’t difficult for me. Since before I can remember, I have been close-reading people in my environments so I can figure out how to be more safe than not.”
9. A lot of this subject matter might be new to readers, but who are the other Indonesian/South East Asian writers that have touched upon this subject or were an influence for you and your writing?
There are two critical works by Indonesian women scholars on this topic that I highly recommend: 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.
Craft-wise, I was influenced by numerous works that encouraged me to experiment formally to achieve the kind of emotional resonance and narrative tension I wanted, for instance, Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip, Voyager by Srikanth Reddy, Sand Opera by Philip Metres, Humanimal by Bhanu Kapil, and Trench Town Rock by Kamau Brathwaite, among others. I was also inspired by films like Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour, Claire Denis’ Beau Travail, Sergei Parajan’s The Color of Pomegranates, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.
10. Can you tell us about some of the non-profit work that has been close to you?
I recently stepped into the role of Editor-in-Chief of Adi Magazine, a new online publication dedicated to rehumanizing policy by amplifying voices from the global majority that we rarely hear from in the American literary landscape. “Adi” is Tamil word that means “to strike,” with connotations that include protest, intervention, and violence. I encourage everyone who is interested in perspectives, experiences, forms, and narratives beyond the American echo chamber to explore our body of work. Read it, share it, teach it! We just published Part I of our 11th Issue, Contested Histories, and Part 2 will be released in early December. Follow us at @adimagazine.
Voices of Our Nations (VONA) is a multi-genre workshop for Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) writers, where I attended my first poetry workshop back in 2009. VONA changed my life as a young poet by giving me access to powerful mentorship and a radically diverse community of practice. This year, I returned to VONA as faculty for the first time, and it has been an incredible honor to help nurture a new generation of young poets. In addition to their annual weeklong summer workshops, VONA also offers winter weekend intensives. One is coming up in January 2023, and applications are open now. Follow us at @vonavoices.
Kweli Journal is a New York-based trailblazing hub that offers multiple mentorship opportunities for BIPOC writers including fellowships, workshops and master classes, a monthly reading and conversation series, annual retreats, as well literary festivals that connect local communities with international writers. I’m very proud to serve as Poetry Editor of Kweli’s publication. Recently, Kweli hosted a multi-media in-person launch for A Tinderbox in Three Acts at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA), where I got to bring the book to life in collaboration with choreographer Djassi DaCosta Johnson and a group of brilliant dancers. Follow us at @kweli.journal.
Community Building Art Works is an organization that connects veterans with artists to support community-building and healing from trauma. They offer regular writing workshops that are open to the public; they are some of the most thoughtfully held and genuine spaces for exploration and reflection that I’ve had the privilege to facilitate. In 2021, CBAW published the anthology, We Were Not Alone, gathering the works of artists and workshop participants. Follow them at @communitybuildingartworks.
Finally, Brew & Forge is a visionary organization that connects artists with grassroots movements for justice. I was honored to serve as co-faculty with Alexis Pauline Gumbs this past summer at their inaugural Witches and Warriors Retreat. They also organize an annual bookfair every fall: writers donate our books for sale and the proceeds go to support a specific organization. For instance, last year, the bookfair supported the Black Queer & Intersectional Collective based in Ohio. This year’s bookfair is coming up soon, and it’s a great one-stop shop for all your holiday gift-giving, so stay tuned! Follow them at @brewandforge.
Cynthia Dewi Oka is the author of A Tinderbox in Three Acts (2022) from BOA Editions, Fire Is Not a Country (2021) and Salvage (2017) from Northwestern University Press, and Nomad of Salt and Hard Water (2016) from Thread Makes Blanket Press. A recipient of the Amy Clampitt Residency, Tupelo Quarterly Poetry Prize, and the Leeway Transformation Award, her writing appears in The Atlantic, POETRY, Academy of American Poets, Poetry Society of America, Hyperallergic, Guernica, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her experimental poem, Future Revisions, was exhibited at the Rail Park billboard in Philadelphia in summer 2021. An alumnus of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, she has taught creative writing at Bryn Mawr College, New Mexico State University and Voices of Our Nations (VONA). She is originally from Bali, Indonesia.