Thursday, October 13, 2011

The 2011 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia 5th – 9th October, 2011.

Report by Siobhan Harvey

For those who are unfamiliar with Ubud, it is Bali’s thriving arts and cultural centre and is situated about an hour’s drive inland from Denpasar, the island’s capital. Surrounded by acres of rice-fields and stepped terraces, Ubud offers a mix of the traditional (temples, wood carvers, a Monkey Forest) and the modern (Starbucks, the Daliesque Blanco Museum, the upmarket boutique, John Hardy). 
For the past eight Octobers, Ubud has hosted over 100 writers annually who fly in from all corners of the globe to participate in its’ Writers and Readers Festival. This year, along with Albert Wendt and Peta Mathias, I was fortunate enough to be invited along as New Zealand’s contingent of guest writers participating in the Writers Festival.

What a truly unique Festival it was: busy and paced; indigenous (photo right by Neal Harrison) and international; small-scale and grand stage; just like its setting. In essence, the Festival offered something for everyone with a literary bent, including an extensive mix of panel sessions, cookery classes, writing courses, university discussions, literary lunches, book launches, fringe events, street performances, cultural workshops, film screenings, late-night poetry readings and interactive travel experiences. There was even a 5 day children and youth program involving creative writing classes, art, music and screen printing for the young. Combine all of this with the inland location and the calibre of those invited to attend (this year’s stellar line-up included Alexander McCall Smith, Alex Miller, Tariq Ali and DBC Pierre), and you’ll get an idea of what a mammoth undertaking the gathering was for Festival Founder and Director, Janet de Neefe and Creative Producer, former Byron Bay Festival director, Jeni Caffin.

The Festival’s launch night, which saw Ubud’s ancient Palace taken over by attending writers, festival staff, Indonesian politicians and dignitaries, and local and international media, was a perfect introduction to what was to come. With the Festival’s theme, ‘Nandurin Karang Awak Cultivate the Land Within’ close to its heart, the night offered performances of traditional Balinese dancing as well as rousing speeches by Janet de Neefe and others, all of which took place amidst the Palace’s exquisite buildings and humid, early evening air.

What follows is just a small snapshot of my many, rich Festival highlights as well as personal thoughts on the sessions I participated in.

The big event to kick off the first day of the Festival was ‘Life’s But a Roll of the Dice’ which was held at Ubud’s Neka Museum. Essentially ‘an Hour with…’ event, this saw Man Booker Prize winner, DBC Pierre in conversation with fellow Aussie author, Jennifer Byrne. Byrne, who’s perhaps best known to Australasian literary pundits as the host of the ABC’s My Favourite Book programme, chaired this event with an astute and informal manner which proved the perfect compliment to Pierre’s comic, dark and often edgy repartee. The sold-out audience was treated to a witty and engaging hour in which Pierre remembered the funny and serious moments leading up to and post his Booker win, including being prepped by his agent in a loser’s award night protocol, and how his rural Irish neighbours gave the global press the run around during their hunt for the one-time fraudster turned best-selling author. Pierre also offered some sage analysis of current international political events, talked about his new book and the projects he most hungers to complete, including a film project and memoir.  

This was followed by ‘Indigenous Voices: Longing and Belonging’, a panel which brought together prolific Aboriginal author, Anita Heiss, leading Indonesian dramatist and short story writer, Putu Wijaya and our own literary icon, Albert Wendt (right) to talk about concepts of land, identity, community and belonging. The result was a session which though strikingly different to its predecessor in terms of pace and atmosphere, offered as much wisdom and insight, particularly thanks to Heiss’ discussion about her creative work with indigenous La Perouse Public School students and Wendt’s advice about indigenous writers crafting indigenous characters.

On day two, I took part in ‘Far Away but Close To Heart’ which took place in the second of the Festival’s three primary locations, the Left Bank Lounge. Accompanied by Australian poet and 2010 Poetry Slam Champ, Kelly Lee Hickey, and Indonesian short story writers, Ida Ahdiah and Jaladara, we discussed writing about our adopted homelands and, thanks to our chair, Maltese academic, poet and journal-writer Norbert Bugeja, explored the ways in which writers use literature to tackle issues of displacement. It was Bugeja who, for me, was one of the real ‘finds’ of this festival. His intelligent understanding of neo-colonial and migrant literatures globally gave us guest-writers a wonderful arena in which to voice how our writings are shaped by being outsiders in foreign homelands.

Saturday’s highlights included two mid-afternoon sessions in the Left Bank Lounge. The first was a short but evocative session entitled ‘Blanket of Dust….’ in which Indonesian travel writer, Agustinus Wibowo discussed his wanderings. The session title was inspired by Wibowo’s new book, a travel-homage to Afghanistan. The author spoke with warmth and compassion about the country, yet was always realistic about the pitfalls encountered during his 3 year stay in it, including going into detail about the time he was held hostage by the Taliban and was only released when his captors discovered he was Indonesian. Apparently, upon finding this out, his captors turned from hostage takers to best friends, offering him not a guarded cell but an open home and according him the status of honoured guest. Wibowo also screened two short film showcasing images taken during his journey in Afghanistan. At only half an hour long, this session left the packed audience wanting more.  

‘Where Do I Begin?’ came next. In this sometimes rowdy, but always thoughtful session, an international medley of writers examined their creative inspirations. American poet and memoirist, Stephen Haven, Russian poet and short story writer Oleg Borushko, Danish poet Janus Kodal and chair, Australian author and Victoria Premier’s Prize for Poetry winner, John Mateer engaged in an amicable literary spat about how writers source their muse, with Kodal and Haven taking a relaxed position about how their creativity comes to them against Borushko’s more serious tenet that his writings were purposed by definitive sources. Keeping both sides gently in order, Mateer took the session into some heady cerebral waters from the start, including probing each participant about how their early lives influenced their genesis and development as authors. 

The Festival was so busy and offered such diverse inspirations it was a surprise, expressed by many writers and chairs, to find that its final day came so quickly upon us. In one of the concluding sessions, ‘Story Making: Mapping the Inner Landscape’, which took place at the third Festival venue, Indus Restaurant, I was joined by Stephen Haven, Hong Kong novelist, Janice YK Lee and Japanese poet, fiction writer and translator, Mariko Nagai to talk about our meditative and imaginative internal literary journeys. As with my session on the second day of the Festival, this was a panel which benefited immensely from the input and diligent management of our chair, Asia Literary Review Editor in Chief, Stephen McCarty who opened up the floor to audience questions from the start. This meant that though the session traversed territory augured by McCarty’s analysis of the panellists’ creativities, it also focused upon our experiences of working with editors, the role of good poetry anthologies, our individual working styles and so on.

The true close of the Festival arrived the next day when those writers who hadn’t yet departed for home, joined  Janet and Jeni for a relaxing lunch-cum-birthday party (for Jeni). The exquisite Balinese culinary delights on offer coupled with the convivial conversations which ensued was both emblematic of the rich reach of the Festival (on mental, sensory, visual and emotional levels) and its laidback, friendly and accessible tenor. I left, motor-scooting back to my accommodation, my flight back to New Zealand a few hours away, knowing that my experiences at the Festival will stay with me a very long time. 

Siobahn Harvey (right at Ubud) is a NZ poet, editor, and literary activist 

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