Performance writer Jan Cornall, a guest of the Utan Kayu International Literary Biennale in Indonesia in 2005, tells us about a side of Indonesia we won't see on TV. Jan was one of three Australians invited to take part in this year’s Utan Kayu International Literary Biennale, held from Aug 25-Sept 3 in Indonesia. Jan talks about the unique features of this festival.
Eight international writers, 30 Indonesian writers, a published anthology of all writers work, three venues in three Indonesian cities, seven nights of reading/perfomance, ten mins per writer, visual translations, no panels (well only one), no formal discussions, instead informal mingling every night with food, Bintang, music and dancing. A veritable literary roadshow!
The non–Indonesian writers came from Australia, Turkey, Suriname, Curacao, The Nederlands, South Africa, and the USA. Along with our hosts, some of our fellow Indonesian writers, two festival administrators from the Winternachten Festival (Nederlands), and one from Darwin Writers Centre, we bonded as we travelled together in our charming Bluebird bus. Through rice paddies, tea plantations, mountain passes, via hot springs and the slopes of a volcano, across an aqua sea by ferry to Sumatra and back again, eating in roadside warungs, padang restaurants, and being fed delicious jajanan (snacks) in little boxes, we swapped seats, stories, information and got to know the sound of each others laughter.
In each place we arrived; first Bandung , then Lampung and finally Jakarta, we were warmly welcomed with speeches, food, hand woven scarves, traditional drumming and dancing, songs of oral tradition and traditional musicians. In the evenings local writers, and some from other parts of Indonesia ; Surabaya , Makassar, Solo and Yogya karta, joined us to read or perform their work.
We stayed three nights in each place with two nights of readings in Bandung and Lampung and three nights of readings in Jakarta. Over the seven nights of performance the international writers read four times, intermingled with local writers who read once. As a result no one evening performance was ever the same. As the order changed, the hierarchy of fame that often exists at writers festivals could never get a grip. Each writer shared their work in the true spirit of inspired exchange and were appreciated on the merits of the work they presented.
A ten minute limit on each reader meant the evening moved along swiftly and never bogged down. With a consistently high standard of writing, and at most only ten readers per night, there was plenty of energy left for informal discussion and enjoyment with our audience and hosts.
Many of the Indonesian writers of both prose and poetry dramatised their readings physically or vocally. As one Indonesian chuckled at me when I commented on the experimental nature of some of the work: “Oh, everything we do in Indonesia since Suharto is an experiment!”
Humour was a common element in all the work, with the most popular reader/performer s eliciting loud vocal comments from the crowd.
Our audiences, predominantly young people, in strong contrast to older audiences at most Australian writers’ festivals, were never shy to talk to us about their art . One young man noting from my biog that I was a screen writer, wanted help with his film idea. In 15 minutes with the help of a translator, I gave him a quick tutorial on writing for the screen.
Others befriended us, danced with us, took us sight seeing, shopping, to their favourite cafes and brought us gifts, so that saying goodbye was a genuinely sad occasion.
Back in the hectic pace of Jakarta our cosiness dissipated a degree, but returned when our faithful bus ferried us to and from KUK. (Komunitas Utan Kayu.) This is the compound in central Jakarta that is home to a theatre(TUK), a bookshop, gallery, café, fm radio station, and offices of the TUK team (our hosts) and other organizations like JIL, a liberal Islamic group who has been recently under threat from Islamic hardliners.
Set up originally as a centre of resistance under the repressive regime of President Suharto, the spirit of commitment to freedom of expression is still strong. All their events, including our festival are free of charge.
The TUK theatre is quite small, so they had set up a large video screen in the courtyard with other monitors dotted about, so a larger audience could take part. And we were off again on a new round of performances in a new place.
On day two in Jakarta we attended the only panel of the festival - a discussion between poet Antje Krog, who worked on the Truth and Reconcilation hearings in South Africa, and poet and short story writer Azhari , from Aceh, who is working to collect the stories of his people caught up in the conflict there.
Interesting questions were raised about the cultural differences and history of both conflicts, but it was clear by the end, that while solutions may be difficult to find, it is vital that the victims of such conflicts have a voice.
On the last night after our final reading, on a low stage in the court yard, a North Sumatran band of men and women in gold and white jewelled satin, traditional dress, played and sang the most extraordinary array of dance tunes. Writers, organisers, audience, onlookers, danced as they had never danced before.
It was only then I could articulate what was different about this festival experience.We had not just been invited to a festival, but had been welcomed into a vibrant community of writers, thinkers and artists used to supporting one another against all odds. The generous hospitality they extended to us during our stay came naturally to them, and provided an example of how Living Together (the theme of the festival) is possible. We, the invited guests, came away with an impression of a country and it’s people that runs counter to the dramatic media grabs usually presented to in our living rooms. Back home we will write and talk about our impressions for some time. We will invite our new friends to visit our countries, take part in our festivals and continue to be excited by the possibilities our connections can contribute. In spite of the alarming self destructive trends, on so many levels, of our our current world climate, we simply remind each other that people, and the words they write, do matter and do make a difference.
The writers were
Thanks to Our Hosts - The TUK Team: Director -Sitok Srengenge
Deputy Director -Nirwan Dewanto; Curator and Editors - Goenawan Mohamad, Hasif Amini; Tour 0rdinator – Indah Maharukmi; Secretary –Veronique Rompas Admin- Asty Leonast; Foreign affairs –Juliana Wilson; and Tony Prabowo, Mulawarmansyah, Eko Endarmoko, Wican Satriati, Rusdi Rahinggrat, Waryo, Selo, Santo. And teams at Bandung and Lampung.