Interview: Cynthia Dewi Oka

Birthplace: Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia

Grew up in: Bali, Indonesia; moved to Vancouver, Canada, at age 11; moved to U.S. in 2012

Currently living in: greater Philly area, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.

Age: 33

Quick things: Cynthia Dewi Oka is a poet and community organizer based in Philadelphia. Her books, “Salvage: Poems” and “Nomad of Salt and Hard Water,” are available now. 

Find her: Twitter | Website

(Photo courtesy of Cynthia Dewi Oka/Photo credit: Cathie Berrey-Green)

[Read: Cynthia Dewi Oka’s, “Migrant Is Not a Metaphor.]

Q: How did you find yourself writing poetry?

When I was a teenager, what I really wanted to do was visual arts. I was putting together a portfolio to apply to an art institute in Vancouver when I got pregnant in my senior year. It was the same year my father lost his battle with cancer. When my son was born, I named him after my dad. He’s 15 now and a musician.

My decision to have my son did affect my choices. Part of a typical art career involves going from one residency to the next, and art materials get expensive. I just couldn’t do that. So I bounced around between different social sciences in college — I did education, then history, and eventually settled on political science. But I couldn’t kill the creative bug. We don’t always get to choose what we’re given.

While putting myself through college, I had to work a lot while single parenting. I started writing poems on newspapers, on my textbooks. It was the only outlet I had to create and feel like a person. That’s how I ended up becoming a poet.

Q: Was there much of an Indonesian community when you grew up in Canada? And how did you start thinking of yourself as someone of Indonesian heritage?

My mom’s dad came directly from China, so she was designated a foreigner in her Indonesian ID card, even though she was born and raised in Yogya. My dad came from a Christian, Dutch-educated family with a Western orientation. He was born in Negara, but moved to Malang as a kid.

When I was 10, I was picked to represent my school in a province-wide writing tournament. During the competition, my parents stayed away to make sure people didn’t find out I was part Chinese. They were really worried I would be discriminated against or disqualified. I remember feeling terrified because my competitors had their entire families and villages there to support them, and I was all by myself.

A few months later, we moved to Canada, and we ended up in this town that had a huge East Asian population. My mom is proudly Chinese, and she’d tell me to take pride in that heritage, but I was confused about how to identify because I didn’t know anything Chinese — Chinese cultural expressions were still outlawed in Indonesia when we left. In my new school in Canada, the Chinese kids made a point to let me know I was not one of them. But, I also didn’t feel Indonesian, because my parents never felt safe in Indonesia.

Over the years, what I have learned is that Indonesian identity, like any other identity, is a totally constructed thing. My grandparents didn’t experience an Indonesian education. That wasn’t how people first saw themselves. You were Orang Batak, or Orang Bali, or Wong Jowo, or Orang Aceh, and we still make those distinctions now. So being Indonesian is something earlier generations had to choose. In fact, my parents were part of the first generation to be born Indonesians, and even then, as I already mentioned, differences persisted. But that means I wasn’t alone in having to make a choice. Until very recently, all Indonesians have had to make this choice about how to identify. That understanding has really shaped the way I think about identity and writing.

The Indonesian community in Vancouver was small and spread out. There were a lot of students who went home after they graduated, so there was a sense of constant transience. My family first lived in Richmond, British Columbia, which is part of the greater Vancouver area, and when I was growing up there, my sister and I were the only Indonesians at our school. We knew a lot of the families who did settle, but there were not very many.

Philly is the opposite. There are so many Indonesians here, most of them concentrated in South Philly, and many came after the 1998 riots, so they are pretty rooted here now. Many Indonesians here are working class, like my own family. I have been very inspired by how resourceful, resilient, and tight-knit the community is. It was such a surprise for me when I first came here.

[Read Cynthia Dewi Oka’s, “Interrogation in the Museum of Many Hungers.”]

Q: What was it like moving to Philly?

The Indonesian culture I grew up in was conservative with deeply patriarchal beliefs about a woman’s worth being tied to her purity and fulfillment of traditional roles. All my adult life, I have struggled with feeling like I had failed my community because I was a young divorced mother. For a long time, it felt necessary to keep a distance from the Indonesian diaspora, because I didn’t want to feel any more judged or rejected than I already did. It’s not like American or Canadian culture is friendly to young single moms either; even the feminists often beat up on us.

But, when Trump got elected, I got very concerned. I have many years of experience as a community organizer, and migrant justice has always been a key fight for me. I had to overcome a lot of internalized insecurity to build with the Indonesian community in Philly for the purpose of supporting undocumented Indonesians and Indonesians with precarious status, because I can still speak the language fluently, and have some skills to contribute, like political education, rapid response, and advocacy. It was a very important decision for me to support the very skilled and dedicated community leaders here who have been doing this work for decades.

Q: You have this poem called “How to Watch the Act of Killing,” and it’s a doc that I’ve seen and often talk about with other diasporic Indonesian folks. What was your initial reaction learning about this documentary and watching it?

Yes, that poem is in my second book, “Salvage,” and I wrote it shortly after I watched the documentary in this little theater about an hour away from Philly. The audience was a small group of white people wearing batik shirts. My husband and I were the only people of color in the theater, and I was definitely the only Indonesian.

So, some context is that my family really, really struggled after we migrated, and that experience politicized me to such an extent that I chose to become an organizer. For many years, that choice created tensions within my family. In college, I had started reading Pramoedya (Ananta Toer’s) books, learning about Indonesian history — the medieval kingdoms, then Dutch colonization, Japanese occupation, the Indonesian war on East Timor, the fight for independence in West Papua, the national revolution, etc. I also started reading about the Generation 45 writers in Indonesia, many of whom were very left-leaning. This self-study was how I learned about what happened in 1965.

My parents never talked about it. And a lot of this history was written by American or European scholars, not Indonesians, but that was what I had access to. I wanted to understand why it was so upsetting for my mom that I wanted to do political work, when that desire was a direct response to the injustices I saw my parents struggle with. It took years for me to understand that for her, organizing as a leftist meant you got killed or disappeared (and, let’s be clear, that’s not an Indonesian thing or a Third World thing; remember COINTELPRO in the U.S. and how it devastated movements here). So that’s the personal context in which I interfaced with “The Act of Killing.”

It was hard to watch. I did have a little back and forth with (director) Joshua Oppenheimer, because my poem got nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and then won another prize. He had asked to share the poem with some of the anonymous Indonesian team members who were part of making the film, and I was really moved by that, because one of the most traumatic parts of the film is the credit roll, with its endless lists of anonymous, anonymous, anonymous, anonymous, anonymous. And it was also strange, as the only Indonesian in that theater, to recognize a little bit of what it was like to exist in anonymity, though from a completely different experience. I remember so vividly one of my first days in school in Canada, when a Chinese kid asked me, “So what are you?” I said, “I am Indonesian,” and he replied, “That’s not a thing.” I’ve been a writer and an organizer for 10 years, and I almost never encounter other Indonesians in the Canadian or American literary or activist scenes, so there was also something deeply troubling about feeling seen while I was watching that film.

I think “The Act of Killing” raises a lot of questions about memory and documentation and how do we know that something is true, or real. Its companion, “The Look of Silence,” provides a very stark contrast when you realize how alone this man is who is trying to hold accountable his brother’s killers, while those killers literally had squads. At the same time, the films also perpetuate a certain colonial dynamic, where now that a white man has made art about the killings, the world has to take those events seriously. This is not a critique of Joshua’s work, but of the colonial foundations of art and literature that amplify certain perspectives while not being able to recognize others as valid. It’s true that the films do not address Indonesia’s colonial past, the brutality of Dutch divide-and-conquer politics, and a whole lot of other relevant historical context, but to me then the question becomes, what are the conditions we need for Indonesians to be able to tell our stories openly? We have to remember that there were a lot of Indonesians who worked on those films, but couldn’t safely identify themselves. And, if you haven’t already, check out the report of the International People’s Tribunal 1965, held in The Hague in 2015.

Q: What does having Indonesian heritage mean to you?

As a writer with Indonesian heritage living and working in the U.S., I do feel a certain responsibility to visibilize my homeland, our culture, our history. That doesn’t mean that I represent all or even a lot of Indonesians. My work is just one tiny window. But I hope it can encourage other Indonesians in diaspora, women especially, to make and share their art. I know my parents had to live through a different reality. I can’t judge how they made choices about what they could and couldn’t live with. But, as a writer, I can try and remember the things they had to forget or keep silent on while they were fighting for a better life.

To me, it’s an act of love to reckon with where we come from. To talk to it, to allow it to live with us. To have Indonesian heritage is to say yes to all the things that is a part of it, no matter how complicated or painful, because they did happen, they did shape us. It’s my job to say yes, I see this, to as much of it as I can, while knowing there’s always a lot I’m still missing. That’s why we need each other, to fill in those gaps.

Q: What are you working on? What can we look forward to? What else would you like people to know that I didn’t ask you about?

I’m working on my third book of poems now. I’ll keep you posted!

I want people to know about this zine and for more of us to have these conversations, because it’s such a gift to talk to someone who you don’t have to explain yourself to, or pretend to be someone more recognizable in their context. These kinds of connections incite possibilities because we realize we are not forging our paths alone. They give us courage to do what we need to do. It’s lonely being an Indonesian poet in the U.S. When I have these conversations, it feels like my world and my work make sense a little more, and yes, I see this, I can keep going.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.