Not buying the Obama “dream” in Indonesia

The following article appears in Saturday’s Jakarta Post:

A discussion about writers’ views on the United States President Barack Obama and on the Middle East peace process stole the show during the third day of the annual Ubud Writers and Readers Festival on Friday.

Speaking at the discussion were Benazir Bhutto’s niece, Fatima Bhutto, Australian author Antony Loewenstein and novelist Jamal Mahjoub, whose works have been widely translated and received several awards.

Delving into the world’s hottest war zones was never going to be solved in an hour-long discussion, but what panelists did was to dissect the rhetoric from the reality of Obama’s much-hyped potential for global change.

Fatima Bhutto said Obama – who was named on Friday as this year’s Nobel Peace Price laureate – had yet to bring changes in Pakistan and Afghanistan because the US would still add more troops.

Similar sentiments came from Antony Loewenstein, author of My Israel Question, who just got back from a trip to Palestine. He said things had never been worse in the West Bank.

Even novelist Jamal Mahjoub, the most optimistic among the panelists conceded that perhaps the power of Obama was largely as a symbol rather than a testament to change.

Another lively discussion was on the theme of “Breaking the Taboos, Queer Asian Writing”, featuring Balinese poet Cok Sawitri, who is known for her works on spiritual and gender issues; journalist and gay activist Ng Yi-Sheng of Singapore, Malaysian writer Amir Muhammad and Ernest JK Wen, a novelist on homosexuality issues.

In another session, Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka and Tara June Winch shared their experience about their relationship between mentor and protegee.

Winch has won numerous major literary awards including the coveted international Rolex Mentor and Protegee Arts Award in 2008-2009, which sees her working under the guidance of Soyinka.

“My approach to Tara was very different from my previous mentors. They were very strict, but I was too lazy. But they appeared to be satisfied with my work, ” he said, drawing laughter from the audience.

“Writing is a process of dealing with creative minds, so various choices are open to writers. They should not be constricted.”

At Friday’s Literary Lunch, Soyinka also discussed his life and achievements with Hari Kunzru. Known as a political activist with a fierce commitment to individual liberty and human rights, Soyinka shared his stories of growing up in Nigeria and his subsequent imprisonment and exile.

A roundtable discussion for publishers was also held to discuss steps that can be taken by publishers, publishing organizations and governments to promote co-publishing and licensing agreements among publishers in the Southeast Asia region.