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Massy Interviews / Cynthia Dewi Oka

March 10 at 7pm, Massy Books and Massy Arts host the in-person book launch of “Fire Is Not a Country” (2021, Northwestern University Press) by poet, writer, editor, and instructor Cynthia Dewi Oka: born in Bali, Indonesia, migrated to Vancouver, Unceded Coast Salish Territories with her family at age 10, based in the Greater Philadelphia Area, Lenni Lenape Land since 2012.

In her third collection, Oka dives into the implications of being parents, children, workers, and unwanted human beings under the savage reign of global capitalism and resurgent nativism. With a voice bound and wrestled apart by multiple histories, Fire Is Not a Country claims the spaces between here and there, then and now, us and not us.

At the event, Oka will be joined by host Hari Alluri, and guest poets Junie Désil, Mercedes Xue mei Eng, and Cecily Nicholson in an intimate gathering to read, listen to, and engage with poetic literature.

The event will be hosted at the Massy Arts Gallery, at 23 East Pender Street in Chinatown, Vancouver.

The book launch is free + open to all of our community, and registration is mandatory.

Click here to register for the event

Click here to purchase Fire Is Not a Country by Cynthia Dewi Oka

Click here to know more about the event.

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To celebrate Cynthia’s book launch and reading, and engage more with the vision of, craft of and her reflections on the project, Hari Alluri interviews Oka for Massy Arts, discussing Fire Is Not a Country, her process, reading again on these lands after 10 years, and the entwinement of care in art and political change — all precipitated by a conversation about the character Drummer on the TV adaptation of The Expanse.

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Cynthia Dewi Oka: Moving through Ruins

Hari Alluri – I’ve been catching up on Season 5 of The Expanse at your suggestion, so for fun I’m going to begin with a question about that. Please tell me about why you love Drummer so much? (spoiler alerts)

[Hundreds of years in the future, The United Nations of Earth (and Luna) vie for power with the Martian Congressional Republic on Mars, both exploiting the labour of “Belters”—those born in the Asteroid Belt or the Moons of the outer planets, an oppressed and mistrusted working class that provide many goods for Earth and Mars through the mining and other work facilities built on the asteroids. In Season 5, the crew of the Rocinante and their allies confront the sins of their past, while Belter extremist Marco Inaros unleashes an attack that will alter the future of Earth, Mars, the Belt, and the worlds beyond the Ring. Camina Drummer is a Belter who, by Season 5, has resigned her position as Captain and Station Commander of Medina Station, becoming the lead of a small pirate fleet.

Click here for more on The Expanse]

Cynthia Dewi Oka – I love Drummer because she’s equally militant and tender: she is driven not only by principles or values about what the world should be, but by her bonds to her people and her chosen family, queer scavengers whose work is to move through, to find the value, in ruins. I think there’s something incredibly poetic in that for me, and aspirational in the sense that it’s the horizon toward which I move in my own chosen communities.

Drummer is a thorn in the side of overlords, but also in the side of the oppressors that are her own people. She won’t be gaslit by Marcos, who’s totally fine with hurting his own people if it means destroying the Inners (Earthers and Martians). I mean we know well the creative and the destructive impulses that often masquerade as justice, but Drummer is the balance. She is who we might become on the other side when affirming life is more important than destroying evil. We know this as poets: we cannot draw fences around where evil ends and good begins.

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HA – This reminds me of Fire Is Not a Country.

CDO – Yes, Fire Is Not a Country is interested in the evil not just of government but the evil in our most trusted relationships, where we’re supposed to learn care but instead, we learn punishment, brutality, intolerance, where we have been often harmed if we’re not perfect. And my approach is through exploration rather than trying to put down some version of “this is what you need to know.”

There are moments where, especially in the poems dealing with working with undocumented Indonesians, I’m suggesting if not specifically naming the Evil that belongs specifically to the nonprofit industry: of making us middlemen. Nay Saysourinho makes some amazing observations in her book review [“Fire Is Not a Country’s Observation of the Apocalypse,” linked here via Ploughshares] – “It is not the powerlessness of the trainees that is examined, so much as the necessity to act as an intermediate in a system in which non-profit organizations must palliate the failures of a government to protect its people.” That’s not spelled out in the text, she arrives at that insight through close engagement with the work. I’m not interested in representing trauma so much as I’m interested in turning the gaze back on and interrogating the conditions where the people proffering solutions had to become part of the system that makes us sick.

Going back to Drummer, she’s an exploration through character and choice of what it means to be principle- and relationship-driven rather than solution-driven. Watching her arc as someone who has been deeply enmeshed in movement work, but also as an artist and a parent, opened a different way for me to practice my art, my politics, and my life. I began to consider that the work is not to arrive at a final answer, but what’s behind the choices we make when we respond to situations.

In the final seasons of The Expanse, we saw how many people were easily swayed by Marcos. He promised vengeance to end pain, suffering, humiliation. But Drummer represents an alternative, not the eradication of pain, but healing that will also be a historical process, that demands multi-generational work. It’s not work that can be performed just by some political party or administration, but where we, beginning with our intimate relations, begin to make new choices.

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HA – These tensions are so alive in the book!

CDO – That’s the type of work I’m trying to do. It’s a personal window into a phenomenon that is systemic. One of the impulses in Fire Is Not a Country is trying to understand the way that colonial state practices come to life in family life, where we get trained to become citizens of a particular version of world (maybe that’s why as the world changes so many of us need therapy!). A nation is referred to as a motherland, with its government as the patriarch, the head of the household that runs the motherland.

What was hard about writing this book was trying to hold both the reality of needing to protect my parents from the outside world—that’s already harmed them so much—and the necessity of being able to name the violence of how I was raised. It’s a balancing act, which is why a lot of things remain veiled. That is a decision I make because I’m not willing to subject my parents to the punitive gaze of White and BIPOC North Americans, and at the same time I need to break free of the violent ways in which I was raised.

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HA – In terms of the gaze, I’m thinking about Press Release, how that was the first time I wrote anonymously, un-surveilled, and to my surprise I didn’t write a harder poem, I wrote a softer poem. It’s still a process to get there, but that was my first admittance to myself that I wanted to write softer poems. I still love that when Press Release did the May Day chapbook, we spelled it as M’aidez…

CDO – We were raised in and gravitated toward hardness, so we wrote hard poems! But I have been learning over the past decade that art can be the way we preserve the softnesses that everything around us wanted to beat out of us. I’ve been thinking about that question a lot lately: what does it take to soften?

The thing about Fire Is Not a Country vs. Salvage or Nomad of Salt and Hard Water is that all the poems in this book were written in weakness, and that’s why I felt such anxiety to release it and why I didn’t want to… because it is filled with my weaknesses. I was so moved by the Poetry review [“Review: Fire Is Not a Country,” linked here via Poetry Foundation] for instance, because I never explicitly use the word fatigue but the reviewer, Megan Fernandes, talks about the book’s attention to fatigue, to, really, the body’s limits not only under capitalism, but in resistance to it. I wrote many of these poems in varying states of feeling defeated, but in retrospect, there was gift in that – sometimes that’s the only way to get back to an original state of weakness, to be new again, like babies, literally, with all the possibilities of life before them (including death) and inevitable change.

In one of the earlier poems [“For My Father Who Once Rubbed Shoe Polish Over His Bald Head,” linked here via Leon Literary Review] is the line, “A child // thought herself a dog, and the rain clapped” and the final poem of the book [“Art of Revision,” linked here via Court Green and included below] ends with “You are not a poet. You are making a wolf. You are making a hatchet.” I guess what I’m saying is that I think what happened can be incidental to the question of how do we change? And the book does not so much answer that question as enact change, or at least, the desire for change.

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HA – What is it for you to do this reading returning to these lands?

CDO – So many of the poems in the book take place on Coast Salish Territories. The first poem [“Meditation on the Worth of Anything,” linked here via Poetry Daily] is happening here on this land. This is where I learned about value – whose lives and dignity matter, and whose don’t.

For instance, Vancouver is where I experienced the most and the deepest forms of violence in my life. From the state, society, interpersonally, intimately, on and on. It’s where I had to survive as an immigrant kid turned teen mother. I did not choose to come here, but this is where my language was taken from me, where I and my family experienced erasure in myriad forms – I might not be alive today if I stayed in Vancouver, and coming back to do this book launch with some of the people who helped me survive that long in this place is an act of healing, an act of returning on my own terms. It’s important both personally and politically.

And I think reunion is also important, a reading with Cec, Junie, Mercedes, Hari, it changes things. Y’all were like some of the candles that helped me keep a flame alive when I lived there, and I don’t know, I think I can come back with my own light, my own candle and fire, at this time. It’s choiceful.

I really hope everybody can come through!

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HA – I hope everybody comes as well! We met through community organizing: how did community organizing come to you?

CDO – Well, on a very basic level, as an immigrant kid, I had to learn to advocate for my parents. But church was also good training. If someone from the community was hospitalized, for instance, people would organize groups to visit, to pray, to support their families, to attend to one another’s pain. I’ve had lots of political training since then, but the basic understanding that political action begins with attention to each other’s suffering – I learned that from church. I also learned that God is not really the reason people go to church: people are the reason people go to church. I.e. it is relationships, not ideologies, that compel people to be with each other, to try new practices, to change their lives.

Maybe that’s why relationships are at the heart of this book? I think we work through the relationships we can at a given point in our personal and artistic arcs, and for Fire Is Not a Country it was the inheritances from my caregivers, not just my parents but the movements I’ve been part of that I had to wrestle with: how does honouring and questioning coexist in the same thing, the same moment? How can I pass that on to my son? Often I want to say I’m a poet first but really I’m a caregiver first. I wanted to account for the ways I give care and the ways I received care, the ways I’ve interrupted cycles of violence and the ways in which I failed.

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HA – I struggle with that sometimes, in trying to be better with Tala. Sometimes I catch myself saying something, like about our chores at home, and I don’t want to say it, but I do. And I’m trying to get better at naming that to her and changing how I am the next time it comes up.

CDO – We notice the automated things, after or even while we are saying it! I think that’s when we find out who that king is in our hearts, the one that we feel like we have to satisfy or appease by performing the service of speaking those words. The question is what do you do from there? Do you double down? Zig? Zag? What do you do with it once it’s out? I think more important than the fact we completed our programming, is what do we do afterward.

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HA – Thank you so much. And thank you for allowing us to share “The Art of Revision,” which you mentioned earlier, and which seems to carry so much of our conversation: this notion of what we do afterward, the way you sift ruins, memory as material for interrogation, and more…

CDO – It even has an asteroid in it, to complement (and pre-sage) The Expanse!

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Indigo. Amaranth. Magenta. Willow. Dusk. You have to choose. When to layer, where to darken. You want the angle of the light, the direction of its falling, to be consistent. This is how you give depth to a figure that has only warmth and afinite amount oftime. This is how you make them believe you: his hands, kneading the dough for the bread-maker we will use every week for one year exactly. His snoring with the dog-eared recertification exam book yellowingon his lap while the rain picksoff needles from the evergreen. The way rose hasn’t left the rims of our eyes since we arrived. He doesn’t give up talking toGod. At some point I think he must begin to suspect it’s a one-way conversation, thoughhe still insists that a choice not aligned withGod’s will is a mistake. In other words, a choice is not a choice or it is something you have to pay for. At least the performance of a conversationis free. God is a poem to recite over and over when what one feels, what one desires, eviscerates inthe morning air. He kneels on the freshly vacuumed balding carpet in afreezing room with emerald windowpanes, holding our hands, saying, Father. The bus she rides tothe mountains is cobalt; then, for twelve hours she horseshoes her spine over a silverdesk, one of hundreds of women who have shed their tribes, families, languages, their old weapons, to cross the ocean, to be countedamongthe florescent angels of capitalism. On her wayhome, an asteroid splashes on the faceof the earth. Believe it or not, this happens every day. You have every colorbefore you and the margins of every page in your school notebookasking for a more radiant life. He won’t go to bed until you are done, because you might make a mistake; the coloring pencils, oil-based, the only things in the apartment not purchased from a thrift store or a garage sale, are non-erasable. Of course, he cannot help you. You are not a poet. You are making a wolf. You are making a hatchet.

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