Birthplace, grew up in, currently living in: (Various parts of) Queens, New York, U.S.A.
Find Dena: Instagram | Website | Co-founder of Short Line Review
Also, check out Dena’s poems in Buah:
Q: What has been your experience growing up with Indonesian heritage?
I feel like in some ways, I was connected with it, but in other ways, I wasn’t.
When I was younger, I didn’t speak, from when I was born ‘til I was about 4 years old, apparently. At all. My parents took me to a psychologist and apparently, they told them, “You can only speak one language to her. You can’t speak both Indonesian and English. Otherwise, she won’t say anything to anyone.” That was also when I started school and in school, I wasn’t talking either. So they started speaking to me only in English.
But then I went to Indonesia a couple of times — once in third grade, once in seventh — and when I was there, I was able to speak the language. I was able to connect with the culture very easily, but I had to be there. So, there’s always been this conflict of having — for lack of a better word — one culture in my body, and also feeling like there’s this type of binary.
I also grew up with the Indonesian masjid [in Queens], but around middle school, I kind of disconnected from it because I moved and it was pretty far away. So, I’ve had these snippets of Indonesian heritage, or, like, reasons I could’ve connected with the Indonesian community. But for personal reasons or location or distance, I never fully connected with it at all.
But, at the same time, there was this sense of otherness for me wherever I went — in the sense that I didn’t connect with other Asian-Americans; I wasn’t East Asian. Or, I was the only Asian person in a school or institution, or even in the fields that I was interested in: art, music, I was the only Asian there. So at the same time, I was very hyper-aware of being Indonesian, but I didn’t feel connected enough. It was an imposter syndrome type of thing where I wasn’t sure I could call myself Indonesian enough, but at the same time, it was projected on me.
Q: What was it like growing up in New York City, specifically? Did you know other Indonesians growing up? Connect with other Indonesians?
So, growing up, at least during elementary school, I was with a lot of Indonesians. Because, at that time, I lived in Elmhurst, and Elmhurst, there’s a huge population of Indonesians. A lot of my childhood friends that I went to school with were Indonesian, and I also went to the same masjid as them. So, I grew up with a lot of them, but then I moved around third grade. And where I moved is predominantly Caribbean, predominantly black, so I was the only Asian-American there.
So, naturally, there was just a falling off with those friends. I still tried to keep in touch every few years or so, but I didn’t really talk to the other Indonesians, in no particular reason; it’s just because of distance and scheduling and time.
But also, I guess, New York has a very — it’s its own culture. So because of that, because I felt lost in my own culture as an Indonesian person, I really held on to New York culture especially. Being aware of its greatness, being aware of all the intersectionalities in New York, I held on to that.
It was a very similar parallel with my Indonesian identity, in the sense of it being projected on to me more than me being connected to it. But at the same time, because being from New York was way more accessible in the sense that I grew up here, I was raised here, I had direct experiences, it did make me hold on to that identity a little bit more at times. I’m slowly trying to find myself as an Indonesian person and connecting with identity…and trying to find a way to fit into it.
Q: Have you talked with other Indonesians about your experiences?
Honestly, other than you, I haven’t had the chance to talk about it. Because I think…also, I’ve noticed this especially with a lot of Indonesians and Indonesian-Americans, especially from the rise of Rich Brian [the Indonesian rapper who had an anti-black stage name], there is this appropriation of blackness that’s there…or, they adopt East Asian trends that also profit off a part of black culture, like K-Pop for instance. There isn’t much discussion about being Indonesian and being Indonesian-American and what that means.
We’re aware that we’re Indonesian, but that’s like a placeholder. Like of course we were immersed in it through family values or parties or cultural events, but otherwise, it wasn’t like, “What does this mean?” That wasn’t really broken down for us really, at least amongst us.
Q: Did you connect with being Asian-American when you were growing up? Was that a term you felt comfortable with?
It’s very complicated. One of the things about being Indonesian is that no one who is not Indonesian fully understands what it means to be Indonesian. If you’re not Southeast Asian, you don’t fully understand that dynamic. So, when being identified as Asian-American, people definitely think East Asian and also project a lot of East Asian stereotypes. So, I didn’t feel comfortable with it at first because it wasn’t my culture, it wasn’t what I grew up with whatsoever. Not in a way that I didn’t identify as Asian-American, but just like, “I’m Asian-American, but just understand that it’s different.” But I didn’t have the language for it either. I was like, well these experiences are different, but I can’t explain what that means.
And it wasn’t until I got into poetry, I got into identity politics, that I understood what it meant to be Southeast Asian, and the nuances within Asia, and the power dynamics in place. So, I guess, now I feel comfortable with it, but I do prefer just being identified as Southeast Asian or Indonesian, just because of how specific those experiences are in comparison to the rest of Asia.
Q: How did your parents play a role in helping you find your Indonesian identity? What kind of lessons did they instill in you?
My parents did a lot, and I think in many ways, they are my connection to Indonesian culture — the only connection at times. When I wasn’t connected to the Indonesian community in New York, they were the only ones I had. Especially growing up, they were very, very aware that me and my brothers were the very few Indonesians in our communities, often. So, they definitely helped us embrace that otherness and also show that even though there wasn’t a lot of representation anywhere else, there was still a lot of things to be proud of.
My mom tried to get me into Bali dancing. I don’t know the specific name — I was really young. So that was one thing. My mom, she always called it Bali dancing. That’s the other thing too — sometimes, there’s miscommunication or translation issues. Sometimes, the way that they explain it at first, not that I’d understand it at first, but I’d repeat it to other people and that’s not exactly right. Like, my parents were trying to teach me about the caste system prior to colonization. Because my dad’s family name, Igusti, apparently is involved in that caste system in Bali. But I didn’t understand what that meant, so he tried to simplify it like, “Oh, you’re like a princess.” And I would say that to everyone and they’re like, what are you talking about? And my mom’s like, “No, that’s not how that works.”
Q: Are your parents Balinese?
My dad is Balinese. My mom is from Jakarta. She’s Bugis.
Q: Did your parents ever share stories about their particular ethnic backgrounds?
It’s very confusing — not confusing, but I’m still not sure how it fully works. In the sense that I was very aware that there are different ethnicities within Indonesia because, at least here in the Indonesian community, there are different parties from different regions. Like, we have KKSS [Kerukunan Keluarga Sulawesi Selatan] for people from Bali and Makassar, and we usually go to those. But otherwise, I wasn’t fully sure on how it is.
Also, my mom doesn’t know how to explain it to me because she grew up in Jakarta. My dad tries to teach me a little bit — but he only focuses on the caste system. There’s also a lot — I don’t want to say tragedy, but also a lot of trauma that’s within both sides of the family. There’s just this tendency to forget as a sign of “progression.” Trying to limit that information, or not repeat those traumatic things, even though they’re necessary sometimes when learning lineage, they do limit that at times. In the sense that they just don’t want to talk about it.
Q: In terms of family history, have you heard stories about your family under Dutch colonialism?
I’m fully aware, especially on my dad’s side. Before colonialism, they were in this high caste system, they owned a lot of rice paddies, but after colonization, they started losing everything. Especially rice paddies; they had to sell them. I know on my mom’s side, I think my great-uncle was a guerrilla warrior or something like that, I still don’t know the details of it.
That’s the thing, because they don’t really talk about it. If there’s trauma, we don’t mention it. It’s like, “We’re trying to move on past that, why are we trying to relive this?” I thought I knew more, but I guess, no.
Q: How do you connect with your Indonesian heritage, and is it important that you do?
It’s super important to me but ironically, I connected more with it by myself through the otherness of other communities, in the sense of like working for a lot of Muslim publications, for instance, there was a hyper-awareness of being Indonesian and also at the same time, in a lot of Asian activist communities, being aware of being Indonesian and being Muslim. So through that otherness, that slight isolation, it kind of made me connect myself.
Shout out to the internet. It was mainly through the internet, through poetry, through different forms of literature. And, again, my parents. So, it’s very important to me, but I just don’t know how to navigate it socially, as in connecting with other Indonesian-American peers. Because also, like, growing up, there wasn’t an awareness of that intersectionality. Like, the idea of being queer and Indonesian is just not a thing for some reason.
Q: What does having Indonesian heritage mean to you?
It does mean navigating your own narrative. Not only as an Indonesian-Muslim-American who’s in the Western world and trying to find your voice in the Western world, but also being hyper-aware of the nuances that are in place as an Indonesian-American…I feel like as a people, we all have different experiences, because of regions, ethnicities or religion — just a lot of nuances. I guess having Indonesian heritage means navigating your own narrative and also constantly reminding yourself that you belong in whatever space you’re in.
Q: What’s your relationship with Bahasa Indonesia?
I can understand it very well and I can speak certain parts, but lately…so, I’ve noticed that when I’m in Indonesia, after a few weeks, if I’m there, I can speak completely fluently. It’s fine. When I leave, for some reason, it’s just gone. But right now, I’ve been able to understand Indonesian well. But I’m very self-conscious of speaking it, because of my accent. And also because my parents make fun of me sometimes.
Q: And what’s your relationship with Indonesian food?
I usually help my mom, but for some reason, if I try to cook it myself, it’s a disaster. It’s like, I’ll mimic the exact same thing when she’s right there with me, and I’m like, “Alright, I got this, I can make bakso. It’s fine.” I make it myself — horrible!
That’s also another way that my family connects with Indonesian culture, through food. But especially, because a lot of things they used to just buy, they were like, “Well, we can’t make it anymore,” or, “We can’t just go down the street like we used to. We have to learn how to make it,” so that’s one of those things that they would teach me. But they would also make fun of me — I’m like, “Oh, I want to eat it there when we’re in Indonesia,” and they’re like, “You don’t have the stomach for it.” I’m like…wow!
Q: How’d you get into poetry?
Getting into poetry is a funny story. I was at this orientation in college, it was an overnight orientation so they assign you roommates. The roommates I had were white and wanted to do cocaine at some frat thing and wanted me to come. I was just like, uh, I’m gonna go do something else.
I went into a random room, and it was an open mic. It was an open mic workshop thing. The host… he was like, “Alright 10 minutes, you have to write a poem on the theme red.” And I was just like, “I don’t know, I guess.” And then he pointed at me and said, “You gotta perform it. You gotta read it.” And I’m like, “That’s terrifying. Okay, I guess.” And apparently, it was okay. Apparently, it was good?
I started going there every week; I started first writing crappy love poems. And then I learned, either through online videos or poems, I was just like, huh, I can write about things other than love and a really bad boyfriend! I can write about being a woman of color, huh, interesting. So I started writing journal poems about just being a woman of color and being fetishized as an Asian-American woman, and then later on, I started talking about that connection with my mom, I started talking about gentrification in New York.
I competed in this college union poetry slam thing and represented the Rutgers team at that time, and we did okay, we did pretty well. We used to be really bad, and then, that year, No. 24. So it was okay. Kept doing that same open mic, and I just kept exploring with poems, writing, and then I soon found out that oh wow, you can do more than just talk in a microphone in a shadow. It was just this exploration of I can do more things with this other than write about.
So I learned about publications, I learned about fellowships, I learned about more possibilities because I met other Southeast Asians…So I was like, okay, I think I can do this with my own experiences, so I started talking about that more and that’s kind of put me in this whirlwind of learning about post-colonialism and more about Indonesian heritage and connecting with it more. Not that I’ve never had interest but it’s like, here’s an avenue that’s accessible that I can do, where I can connect to it, where I don’t feel isolated because I’m talking about my own experiences. Like, this is cool! This is working! It’s been really great. A little terrifying sometimes.
Q: Tell me more about yourself. What are some goals you have for yourself?
I have a media-site thing called Short Line where we try to connect artists to other opportunities and helping them expand on their work. Either helping them navigate through small things like “here’s what a cover letter is,” “here’s what a press kit is,” or, “here are ways you can actually be compensated for your work.” Or, having things where we’re going to partner with this organization and we’re going to have a cypher about being Muslim American. So, been working on that. And doing more poems and trying to find my voice in that.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
2 thoughts on “Interview: Dena”