Interview with Cynthia Dewi Oka

Remember how, long, long ago, I was starting a small press? Well! Dinah Press is getting a slow start, but we’re getting ready to release our first two books–Other Life Forms, a novel by moi; and nomad of salt and hard water, by Cynthia Dewi Oka–this November. To whet your appetite, I have posted below an interview that our editorial collective conducted with Cynthia. It is a gift for you, because I think you’re neat. My favorite line: “liberation struggles are only as powerful as the voices that they nurture, and in turn, give them purpose. I think poetry is one of the means through which we can nurture our voices and break the asphyxiation of colonized language.”

(Meanwhile, I realize that it’s been a long time since I’ve really posted anything here. I’ll be honest, I worry that my blogging gland has dried up, but I’m hoping that’s not the case. I just finished library school on Saturday, and grad school took a lot out of me, so I’m hoping that I have a little more energy for blogging now that I’m finished writing papers. Although I am having a baby this September. We’ll see how this works out.)

Enjoy! The interview (and, ahem, our store) can also be found on our website,

Who are you?

young mama.
grassroots educator & organizer.
working class, queer, migrant
of Javanese & Chinese descent.
daughter, sister, Bali-born and raised.
visitor on unceded occupied Coast Salish Territories.

What project are you currently working on?

I recently completed my first book-length manuscript, a collection of 47 poems that testify to experiences of migration, loss, violence, young mothering, resistance and love through the body-in-making of a particular kind of mythic figure, reflected in the working title nomad of salt and hard water. Like a nomad, the scrip travels back and forth through historical, mythical and contemporary times, and across various geographies – island, desert, coast, hard corner streets. The nomad is the poet and anyone without a “here” and “there”, anyone whose terrain is exile. This has been a project of recovery and revelation – of the ruptured self in conversation with its own displaced blood, songs, histories, legends. I’m very happy with this project and am looking forward to sharing it with readers!

What kind of relationships do you envision between publishers and authors? What do you need from those relationships in order to feel supported?
I envision a relationship between publisher and author that is characterized by respect and mutuality, with the shared purpose of delivering the book to the people who need it (including folks who can’t afford to buy the book). I think that authors should be involved in publication and distribution, and publishers should be involved in editing/revising to strengthen the book. It also seems important to me that publisher and author are on the same page about what the book is, what it can and can’t do in the world, how to amplify its reach in the spaces where it does have legs, and what kind of readership is ideal. I think that the author should have final say in the presentation of the book, and that the publisher should expect their input to be taken into account in that final say.

Writing is often portrayed as an individualistic act. How do you conceptualize writing’s place in your life?
I am first and foremost writing to save my own life. It is because of an individual choice to commit that a book gets completed. I have to decide to wake up before dawn to write, because I work two jobs and I have a young son, and after the sun rises, time does not belong to me. I have to believe that the poems are more important than anything else I could be doing otherwise, and that I have the right to write them. I have to submit my voice to the gauntlet of craft so I can do justice to the poems I want to write. And I have to live with the consequences of all these choices. So I think in terms of responsibility, writing is a a profoundly individualistic practice. It requires an individual surrender to the process.

But. In everything else – content, technique, inspiration, its very conditions of possibility – writing is inevitably a collective practice. And it is not only horizontally collective, but also vertically, as in through time. nomad of salt and hard water was generated, revised, and re-incarnated several times over the course of 8 months with the immediate support and critique of an incredible crew of poets, who I have to acknowledge here – Sevé Torres, Hari Alluri and David Maduli. But it was also made possible by an entire community & school of writers of colour, VONA, which gave me the boldness to want to be a poet at all. Then, there are the teachers who believe in you enough to make you want to be better at being yourself – Suheir Hammad and Willie Perdomo have been those lights for me. Every single poet of colour I have ever read, studied and through whose language (lifeline) I have pulled myself out of self-refusal – Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Joy Harjo, Mahmoud Darwish, Martin Espada, Aracelis Girmay, Barbara Jane Reyes, Chris Abani, Patrick Rosal, A. Van Jordan, Nikki Finney, Patricia Smith, Matthew Shenoda, just to name a few. Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who gave definition to my history, supressed by 33 years of dictatorship, from a concentration camp in Buru Island. My mother, who works the assembly line 48 hours a week for minimum wages and daily conjures meals out of her sweat and prayer. My sister Gladys and best friend mia, both of whom co-parent my son. My son, Paul, who forgives me each time I tell him I have to go work on a poem. The truncated and persistent sounds, shapes, music and traditions of peoples I belong to and those that have been generously shared with me by other peoples who were never meant to survive.

I see writing as inherent to liberation struggles because writing is essentially about documenting and defining survival. It is about connecting a specific voice to universal currents. All of us are moving through a historical world shaped by colonization and its pillars – capitalism, hetero-patriarchy, racism, war/militarism, the nation-state, ableism, and so on. We are differently positioned, facilitated and blocked in our movements, and our very understandings of what those movements might mean are profoundly different – but we all move in alliance with and subversion of that world. I am a poet today only insofar as oppressed peoples have organized and fought for their voices and lives to matter. I am a poet only insofar as I have land to live on, and presently, it is land that has been wrested from its original and rightful guardians through genocidal violence.

At the same time, liberation struggles are only as powerful as the voices that they nurture, and in turn, give them purpose. I think poetry is one of the means through which we can nurture our voices and break the asphyxiation of colonized language. In poetry, language is an event where multiple journeys, including silence, are initiated yet controlled by the economy of a form and the skill of a poet. I chose to stop organizing while writing nomad because I wanted to discipline myself to the demands of the poetic craft. I wanted to learn how to honor feeling and experience, how to let them speak for themselves, because in articulating their specific origins and destinations they lead us to something less like the categories we have to operate with(in) and closer to ourselves.

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