With its old craft culture, mildly bohemian cafes and array of misty hilltop vistas, Ubud in Bali seems to have grown almost to fit its twin industries of art and tourism; travelers here have been feeling the pull of poetry, paint and drama for decades. But where this reputation had always been more of a well kept secret or a nice surprise, it is now official: bottled, capped and priced for the greater good each October, as the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. Now for four days every autumn the town’s venues – its museums, restaurants, bars and yoga studios – become host to professional wordsmiths and their fans as they grapple with literary themes over thick Bali-grown coffee. Sound good? Well it is, mostly.
As the brainchild of an Australian local business owner and her Indonesian husband, the festival was born to regenerate tourism after the bombings, and six years on is doing so, while becoming a who’s who of Asian (and Pacific) literati: this year saw Pakistani journalists and novelists Mohammed Hanif and Fatima Bhutto, India’s Vikas Swarup, who wrote Q&A (better known by its screen title, Slumdog Millionaire), and Singapore’s Shamini Flint, author of the irreverent Inspector Singh Investigates series, among nearly 100 other poets, journalists and literary critics from across the continent and beyond. It also bagged itself a Nobel Laureate; Nigerian novelist and playwright Wole Soyinka.
To a backdrop of free events – a couple of play readings, a poetry slam night and book launches – day pass holders were offered a tight schedule of writer’s panels, many of them lightly academic and vaguely instructional. In a seminar called ‘Make ‘em Laugh’, un-comically early on a Sunday morning, British-Kashmiri novelist Hari Kunzru observed that good humour writing follows the pace of a good joke; it’s all about a well drawn out punch line. Black Canadian writer Dany Laferriere, author of How To Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired (and whose twelfth novel gave rise to the 2005 movie, Heading South), explained the pitfalls of choosing a scandalous book title: very few talk about your content. Yet he is unrepentant and his latest book will be called I am a Japanese Writer, despite the best efforts of the Japanese consulate to make him change his mind (due to concerns, he says, that he’ll obliterate real Japanese writers on Google).
With writers like Bhutto and Soyinka in town, the content was also often political. Though most of the festival-goers were from Australia the panel perspectives were gratifyingly Asian, and African. US President Barack Obama received a drubbing in a panel called Writing in the New World; Obama and Dissent, with Bhutto (niece of former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto) reminding writers of their responsibility to stay critical. She was joined by Antony Loewenstein, an Australian writer whose book My Israel Question robustly tells fellows Jews that ‘it’s time to stop living like its 1948’. Loewenstein also appeared on a panel on blogging, alongside Singaporean gay activist and writer Ng Yi-Sheng (lastboy.blogspot.com) and Aceh-based writer Doel CP Allisah (doelcpallisah.blogspot.com).
Soyinka, who spent nearly two years in solitary confinement for his activism and first wrote his poems there on toilet paper, spoke at length on the concept of forgiveness. As strident and satirical as his works tend to be, he noted that writing is about understanding the choices people make to survive, and that how, although atrocities are and will always be ‘part and parcel of our very existence’, literature can play a part in reconciliation.
Many of the writers present have explored critical Asian themes in their novels; Mohammed Hanif, a BBC reporter and one-time Pakistani air force recruit, has written the mostly comic A Case of Exploding Mangos about the life and times of Zia–ul-Haq, a dictator who put Pakistan on a massive ‘Islamisation’ drive that it struggles with today. Former lawyer Shamini Flint has had her Inspector Singh investigating a case of marital injustice in Malaysia, caught between its Shariah law and the penal code, and says that Singh will next be sent to Cambodia to uncover a mystery with a Khmer Rouge undertow. Vikas Swarup, who reportedly wrote Q&A in two months while his family were away for the summer (to many a fellow panelist’s annoyance) has followed it up with murder-mystery Six Suspects, another look at Indian caste and corruption.
However possibly the greatest value held by the festival was its introduction to visiting readers of good under-exposed Indonesian writing, and its political backdrop. A number of the panels were bi-lingual and the festival organizers worked closely with Indonesian critics and journalists to join emerging local writers with old hands, like firebrand Seno Gumira Ajidarma, known for his work on East Timor, and Cok Sawitri, an outspoken lesbian poet, novelist and playwright.
Many of them lamented the reluctance of Indonesians still, to look into the brutality of General Suharto’s three-decade New Order regime, in which books were burned, activists were ‘disappeared’ and secret agents mingled in the hallways of universities. They also complained about the lack of accurate records of the time. “It makes it very hard to get the feelings and experiences of ordinary people back then” said critic Nurhady Sirimok. “We writers have to really use our imagination to tell history from the bottom up.”
Most Indonesians at the festival said that they feel a little undernourished, but free to write. But others, who still vividly recall the brutality of ’98 and before, spoke of self censorship and of covert intimidation by state agents. As one academic pointed out, Bali newspapers were full that week of the murder of local journalist A.A. Narendra Prabangsa, who was abducted and killed this year while reporting on corruption connected to a regent.
Yet the festival prompted some liberal outpourings. Well-heeled literary lunchers at the Alila Ubud saw the rousing performance in Bahasa by Cok Sawitri of her short story Womb, which is about women sterilizing themselves as an act of political protest. At another such event author Laksmi Pamuntjak read from her upcoming novel The Blue Widow, which translates characters from Hindu myth into the New Order years – her warrior becomes a dissident medical student – and puts them on Buru island, a notorious tropical gulag for political prisoners.
This gulag is where one of Indonesia’s most celebrated dissident writers, the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer (who many believe was Asia’s best contender for a Nobel), wrote his epic ‘Buru quartet’ about the oppressive cocktail of Javanese feudalism, Dutch colonialism, militarism and communism that makes up Indonesia’s history. At a lunch Sirimok described the covert operation it once took just to get a ‘Pram’ novel, and of the bittersweet feeling he gets now seeing the books, on the shelves but passed over by young Indonesians who prefer modern tales of horror and romance.
As such, despite some glitches and the feeling of it having sprawled a little large for its organisers, Ubud’s lit fest injected as much vital discussion into the town as it did tourist dollars. “Indonesia is not used to a society full of critics,” Sirimok commented, “and when you don’t read critics what can you learn from? We need a culture of polyphonic voices.” This much has been ensured.