7 Poetry Collections by Chinese Indonesian Writers

Literature


Growing up as a Chinese Indonesian, I never thought a person who looked like me would have a place in literature. My dream of being a writer seemed impossible. To this day, a Google search for “Chinese Indonesian poets” yields no results. The lack of Chinese Indonesian voices, especially in poetry, mirrors a long history of violence, stemming from colonialism and occupation to cultural genocide and ethnic cleansing—resulting in the suppression of our cultural heritage.

During the New Order of Suharto’s reign, a series of anti-Chinese legislation effectively banned the use of Hanzi, erasing Chinese literature and culture. Chinese philosophies, folk religion, beliefs, and traditions were prohibited in Indonesia. Over time, many Chinese Indonesian families fled to other parts of the world. Those who stayed in Indonesia relinquished their Chinese-sounding names—pressured by the government—and instead integrated their surnames into their new Indonesian names, my family included.

The existence of these poetry collections from Chinese Indonesian heritage writers is a testimony to our existence and our resilience. These poems come from the impossible.

The Way Back by Edward Gunawan

In Edward Gunawan’s hybrid chapbook, the speaker navigates multiple marginalized identities: Chinese Indonesian, queer, and immigrant. In all of them, the personal meets the communal, where complex and painful histories fold. Gunawan’s words are courageous and hopeful; they point forward to the future, while also asking us to acknowledge the difficult past.

Rendang by Will Harris

Will Harris’ debut, which won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2020, adopts its title from a popular Indonesian slow-cooked beef dish, which takes hours to make. The book begins and ends with rendang. Food, stories, and imagination remain the few connections to heritage for the speaker of these poems. Because the barriers of memory and language hinder the speaker from tapping more into the collective identity, there’s a perpetual search for the remnants of history throughout these poems. When barriers clash, as they tend to do, the personal accommodates the shift that follows.

The City in Which I Love You by Li-Young Lee

In the titular poem of Li-Young Lee’s second collection, the city serves as a metaphor for the speaker’s emotional landscape and his connection to his cultural heritage. It’s a place where the past intersects with the present, where memories and boundaries intertwine, and where the speaker grapples with questions of belonging and longing. Although Lee wouldn’t consider himself a Chinese Indonesian, he and his family were Chinese in Indonesia during a time of political and racial turmoil. His father was held captive as a political prisoner in Indonesia before Lee’s family finally fled to the United States. His family’s experience in Jakarta remained one of the few Chinese testimonies that we have against the country’s painful history.

Obits. by T. Liem

In this collection, the Winner of the 2019 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, grief flows through the personal body and collective bodies, knitting together pieces of history that distance has separated. Each poem is both tender and careful in the exploration of loss, language, and the loss of language, and all the remnants they leave behind. From “Inheritance”: “& if we never named / anything we ate / I wouldn’t have a language to look for.”

Slows: Twice by T. Liem

T. Liem’s second collection is an ingeniously structured book. The book’s structure serves as a mirror where the first half of the book gets rewritten in the second half, in reverse order (e.g., the last poem in the first section is revisited as the first poem in the second section). The speaker meditates on time, family, relationships, and all their repetitions and reiterations. Both the quietness of waiting and the activeness of listening roam these poems.

Salvage: Poems by Cynthia Dewi Oka

The threads of memory and longing in Cynthia Dewi Oka’s second collection interlace the layers of the speaker’s Indonesian heritage and immigrant experience. The speaker explores how individuals salvage fragments of their past to construct new narratives of selfhood and belonging. These poems traverse geographical and emotional landscapes to offer glimpses into the lives of those caught between borders and worlds.

A Tinderbox in Three Acts by Cynthia Dewi Oka

“There is a hole in my history,” begins Cynthia Dewi Oka’s latest collection. The book explores the 1965 anti-Communist genocide in Indonesia, a tragedy that altered the country’s people and trajectory. Assuming the role of a researcher and listener, Oka unravels decades of collective amnesia and propaganda, giving a voice that slices through the silence. Using imagined characters and dialogue, Oka remembers what the country has long tried to bury.

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