Saturday, May 14, 2011

Delicious, delicious, delicious! The First Ubud Writers' Festival.

First published on
Friday, November 26, 2004
  Arts Hub members will remember Jan Cornall’s feature on the Ubud Writers’ Festival. Written in anticipation of the big event, there was a sense that this was going to be a writers festival like no other. For one thing it was set in Beautiful Bali! Well this year’s festival is over and Jan is back in Australia. And for those of us who didn’t get to Ubud, the bottom line it seems is that we well and truly missed out. Find out what happened at this year’s Ubud Writers’ Festival.

Jan Cornall attended the Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival as a guest writer in 2004. She also ran a four day writers’ retreat for writers prior to the festival.

Delicious, delicious, delicious! If you weren't there, I'm sorry to tell you, you really missed out! This was an experience so special, so unique in the world of writers’ festivals, that you had to pinch yourself several times a day to see if you were dreaming, or if you had in fact died and gone to Writers and Readers Heaven!

Let me try to recap some of the highlights for you. Sunday afternoon, October 10, 2004. Security arrangements had caused a traffic jam at the busy intersection Jal. Raya and Monkey Forest Rd. as a crowd of tourists and locals, gathered to get a look at the arriving VIPs. Unless they recognised someone from a book jacket they happened to be carrying, they would be mystified as to who this unusual looking bookish bunch were!

The spectacular opening, as the sun went down, in the court yard of the Ubud Palace, with speeches by dignitaries, and a performance of the magical kecak dance, set the sensual aesthetic for our week to come.
As we sipped our cocktails, adjusted our name tags, and mingled under the stars, we knew the famous were among us, but refreshingly, fame bought no privilege at this festival. You were a writer or a reader, and even that line was blurred and forgotten. In the end, as the week progressed, we were just a crowd of people inspiring one another, but the venues, the events, the thoughtful attention to detail, the generous hospitality and rich culture of the Ubud people, made us all feel luxuriously famous.

There were a few hiccups of course for first time festival organisers, Janet de Neefe, Heather Curnow and their tireless team of volunteers. But when times and venues changed at the last minute, confusion about where to meet for a walk with Lonely Planet's Tony Wheeler, or a market excursion with recipe memoirist, Janet de Neefe, simply meant you bonded for life with new friends and ended up with more precious material for your Ubud travel memoir.

And while fame was not played upon, the stars of this festival undoubtedly, were the Indonesian writers. Riding a resurgent wave in the post Suharto era of new literature, they are vibrant, articulate and, regardless of age, incredibly sexy people.

‘I have fallen in love here every day’, said an Australian man in tears as he responded on the last afternoon to the inspired stream of consciousness rave of novelist and playwright Putu Wijaya. And it was true!

We fell in love with Ibu Toeti Heraty, Indonesia's first lady of literature, in her opening speech and later when she read her poems in her soft, halting voice; with novelist Dewi Anggraeni's witty and probing interview with writer, editor, and activist Goenawan Mohamed ; and with General Pastika, the Chief Commissioner of Bali's Police Force,who led the Bali bomb investigation, for the compassion, intelligence and insight with which he openly discussed the hard tasks he faces as a responsible (and widely read) community leader.

I fell in love with the young poets from different islands: Kalimantan, Aceh, Sulawesi among others. Men and women who read their work with such force and passion, that my heart called for no translation.

At the Katulistiwa Literary Award ceremony for Indonesian writing we were charmed by the friendly warmth of the Jakarta push; publisher and novelist Richard Oh, writer and editor Arisitedes Katoppo, poet Sitok Srengenge, as we watched the haka like performance of Balinese poet Tan Lioe le and the wild Gus tf Sakai.

We fell in love again at the poetry slam, when around 20 poets, myself amongst them, slammed off against each other in a spirit of warmth, camaraderie and mock competition, the diehards ending up in a Reggae bar, dancing the night away.

And we all fell seriously, on the second last day, in the most popular session of the festival, for four young female writers; Ayu Utami, Dewi Lestari, Djenar Maesa Ayu and Fira Basuki, who are burning a path through the Indonesian literary scene with their frank and open writing, dubbed "Fragrant Literature". These wonderfully articulate young women explained how they didn't care for fame or labels as long as their writing was being read, and intelligently fielded tricky questions from the floor about their "babes-of-the-media " status.

We fell in love with people from other countries too; poets and writers from Ireland, Denmark, Holland, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Singapore, the US, even our own home towns, as we arrived at yet another venue with its marigold strewn stairs; yet another dinner down long candle lit paths in palatial poolside surrounds; yet another book launch in a cocktail bar with toilets that had more style and feng shui than my whole house will ever have.

How could we not fall in love with everyone in this place!

And on the last day as we sadly left, wallets bulging with calling cards and promises to stay in touch and meet again, same time, same place next year, we knew in our hearts we would. For while all is calm for the moment in paradise, in the global media beat up, where fear of "the other" is encouraged and difference is used as a profile indicator for potential terrorists, the sense of urgency to forge new connections with fellow artists, to understand and celebrate our differences and our commonality has never been stronger.

And from one, who has been a bit slow off the mark in discovering this rich Indonesian literary culture boiling away a little north of our north western shores, I say to those like me, don't miss out next year! Start saving your pennies now. The next Ubud Writers and Readers festival October 10 -16, 2005, will feature even more Balinese, Indonesian and Asian artists.

And definitely don't miss this opportunity to defy all subliminal and overt warnings that the world is scary place. World leaders are scary! The world is full human beings like you and me. And getting to know our neighbours has never been so exciting! See you in Ubud next year.

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