South-East Asia’s most significant literary event, the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, is a chance to not only nurture local writers but also to reflect on global issues. By Alison Croggon.

Ubud Writers & Readers Festival

Two women speak at a festival event.
Author Tanaïs speaks at a festival event.
Credit: Ubud Writers & Readers Festival

It’s a day after landing in Bali. I’m slightly jet lagged, still reeling from the sensual shock of South-East Asia – the smell of petrol, incense and clove cigarettes, the exuberant foliage, the humid heat. As part of a packed audience under a bamboo canopy at Taman Baca, the central site for the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, I’m listening to Bangladeshi–American writer and perfumer Tanaïs.

“Perfume,” Tanaïs says, reading from their book In Sensorium: Notes for my people, “is a way to wrest back our bodies from the hard damage of colonisation.” It’s a startling comment, but during a riveting conversation with their interlocutor, writer, poet and artist Eva Fernandes, they unpack their case. How colonialism is an ideology that privileges sight over all other senses, how the intimate senses of the body – touch, smell, taste – are rendered lesser, feminine, base, other. How they have used scent to access memory, both personal and ancestral, and how they create perfumes as a way both to remember trauma and to heal it. “After everything,” they tell us all, “the memory of scent remains.”

After the talk, I immediately buy their book. Later, I go back to my hotel and begin to devour it. Tanaïs is an author whom I might not have discovered without attending this festival, and in this moment is all the justification I need to be here: the thrill of discovering a new and exciting writer.

Writers’ festivals are peculiar beasts. The idea is to put on display a category of human beings who, by definition, prefer to mediate themselves through the written word. Some writers are natural performers but many are introverted creatures who find, at the very least, such public exposure challenging. And yet readers – mostly women – flock to these events, hungry for the magical aura of authorial presence.

It’s a phenomenon that’s often puzzled me – aren’t the books themselves enough? – but, of course, writers’ festivals are now such an established part of book marketing that it’s no longer surprising to see events such as this overflowing with audience members. Authors come not only to connect with readers but to meet other writers, to extend and create networks. Publishers get to promote their authors. Cafes and bars do a roaring business.

In the case of the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, the lure doesn’t seem mysterious at all. It offers a winning combination. The festival, now celebrating its 20th year, takes place in Bali’s premier cultural and food destination. Here is a range of tourist accommodation, from five-star luxury hotels to humbler guesthouses, and an array of eateries, from acclaimed restaurants to cafes and warungs – small family-owned businesses – where you can eat well, astonishingly cheaply. Add a fascinating and diverse program of writers, art and performance events – and voila!

As with so many such events, this festival’s genesis is cultural tourism. Founder Janet DeNeefe is an Ubud hotelier and restaurateur – she runs the Honeymoon Guesthouse and eateries Indus and Casa Luna. She came upon the idea when tourism nosedived after the Bali bombing in 2002.

“I asked myself, what can I do to benefit the community after this devastating act of terrorism?” DeNeefe tells me in Melbourne, a week before the festival opens. She is from there originally and is visiting for the imminent birth of her first grandchild – who arrived, as she announced at the launch, the day before the festival.

“I was finishing my book, [the memoir and cookbook] Fragrant Rice, and just starting to move in literary circles. I had no financial support. But, I thought, I have restaurants, I have venues. And if I bring in the right kind of people, why not start a writers’ festival? The first one was enormously successful. People came, there was an incredible sense of goodwill. And people were so excited.”

From these humble beginnings, the Ubud festival grew to be the most significant literary event of its kind in South-East Asia. Its roll call of attendees is distinguished, and this year’s program is no different. It includes hundreds of authors – many Australians writing across a broad range of genres – from Leigh Sales to Marcia Langton, Antony Loewenstein to Geraldine Brooks, Anita Heiss to Pip Williams. There are two Booker Prize winners – Bernardine Evaristo and Shehan Karunatilaka – and a plethora of Indonesian writers, beginning with festival stalwart Goenawan Mohamad, a novelist and visual artist who attended the first event in 2004 and this year designed the image that adorns the program cover.

What’s clear in almost every event is the festival goes far beyond its mandate to assist the Ubud economy. It’s tempting to think of it as a white grafting onto local culture, but its significance as a driver and enabler of Indonesian literature is widely acknowledged. From the beginning it has nourished the writing and careers of Indonesian writers, with awards, emerging writer programs, a satellite program across the archipelago that aims to foster and nurture literary communities throughout Indonesia, and other initiatives aimed at supporting local literary talent.

The press conference before the festival opens is at DeNeefe’s restaurant Indus, a stone-floored, open-walled building that looks onto the jungle. Speaking in both English and Bahasa at the press conference before the festival opening, DeNeefe’s daughter, Laksmi DeNeefe Suardana – who was Miss Indonesia 2022 and the festival’s ambassador – says while Indonesia has a 98 per cent literacy rate, most people don’t read creative writing, a point reinforced by Goenawan.

“Indonesian literature is not included in world literature,” he says. “The world map is defined by American and British military aggression. Here, creative literature has a very small number of readers. Bad education means they are not growing up with books.” In Indonesia, he says, small publishers pay more than the big ones and – interestingly – the emphasis for creative writing is on books rather than digital publishing. “Print,” he says, “is big.”

The Ubud Writers & Readers Festival’s significance for national pride is clear in the spectacular opening gala at Ubud Palace, where a phalanx of foreign and Indonesian dignitaries, including the Indonesian minister for education, lined up to praise what the festival is doing.

It wasn’t always so. DeNeefe explains not everyone welcomed the festival at first.

“Some locals were asking why was it called Ubud Writers Festival, who was I to use that name? But I didn’t want it to have my name, I wanted it to enhance the international profile of the arts and performance and writing here.”

The key, she says, was the increasing community support in Ubud as local businesses saw it was generating an influx of visitors. There have been political challenges as well.

“In 2015, we wanted to commemorate the 1965 killing fields in Indonesia,” she says. “But the government, which gives us the permit for the festival, doesn’t like being seen as bad guys. We were told if we did anything, the permit would be withdrawn. So we put out a very carefully worded press release that announced that we had cancelled those sessions, because of censorship. It just went viral, phone calls 24/7, and our numbers skyrocketed because of that.”

She laughs. “We’ve survived earthquakes, volcanoes, planes being rerouted, SARS, just everything. And we are still here, whatever happens!”

Another key is DeNeefe’s genuine passion – she is an unabashed fan. “The best thing is meeting writers,” she says. “I still can’t believe that, I keep pinching myself. It still gives me a thrill.”

Unlike with most literary festivals, she’s not beholden to publishers’ marketing programs. “I invite people who have something important to say,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if they have a book out.”

The 20th anniversary program is informed by a theme – “Atita, Wartamana, Anagata: Past, Present and Future” – that draws on the Balinese notion of nonlinear cyclical time. Like the inaugural festival, this year’s occurs under the spectre of international events – the Israeli bombing of Gaza following the Hamas attacks is sending palpable shock waves through both audiences and writers. I speak to several Indonesian audience members who express a sense of betrayal, anger and dread at the continuing devastation – historical and current – of colonial violence.

Meanwhile, in his session Behrouz Boochani says the failed referendum on the Voice to Parliament has left him with very little hope for change in Australia. It feels like a just indictment of a country that refused to recognise the humanity of Boochani and his fellow refugees on Manus Island, and now can’t grant First Nations peoples even the courtesy of an advisory role on governmental decisions about their own lives.

Current events lend the proceedings a faint sense of surreality – sitting amid such peace and beauty, speaking of books. But the global context also gives the festival a sense of urgency. It has been described as a writers’ festival that’s actually a human rights festival in disguise. There are sessions on the Israel–Palestine conflict and many others about decolonisation, indigeneity, environmental activism, climate change and other associated issues, featuring authors from around the world – not only the United States and Britain, but Ecuador, India, Columbia, Finland – as well as Australian First Nations writers.

You can feel, here, the new world struggling to be born. It feels significant that although English is the dominant language, Bahasa Indonesia is a close second, and even though the audiences remain predominantly white, the panellists are not. The program opens perspective in refreshing and necessary ways beyond what often feels like the bell jar of Australian political and cultural life.

I hear the young Ecuadorian activist Helena Gualinga, from the indigenous Kichwa Sarayaku community in Pastaza, speak about co-founding Polluters Out. Driven mainly by young people, the group collected enough signatures to force a referendum on banning future oil extraction from the Amazon’s Yasuní National Park. In August this year, Ecuadorians overwhelmingly supported the ban, which will protect Yasuní land and its indigenous people from development. Environmental protection, says Gualinga, is inseparable from indigenous rights.

It’s hard not to reflect on our own dismal referendum, hard not to wonder why the conversations we need to have on a national level so often dwindle and die in deserts of toxic platitude.

At the same time, it is bracing to be reminded that words, ideas, ideals can have purchase, and that this realm – of imagination, of possibility, of connection – is not impotent. It is how we create new realities, not only in our minds but in our material worlds.

In true Balinese fashion, the festival insists on the importance of the small as well as the large, the present moment in all its dimensions. Given DeNeefe is a restaurateur, it’s not surprising the events are as much about food as writing – many are designed to promote Indonesian and Balinese cuisine. On my third day there, the festival invites me on a daytrip with the Canadian adventurer Professor Wade Davis, an ethnographer, anthropologist, chair in cultures and ecosystems at risk at the University of British Columbia, filmmaker and author of 23 books. He manages to combine a hair-raisingly improbable biography – how he set himself on fire to save himself from the Tonton Macoute in Haiti, say – with a charming lack of machismo.

We drive over the mountains to north Bali to visit Pengalaman Rasa, a cultural centre built and run by architect Gede Kresna, who left conventional architecture to focus on designs that use traditional Balinese techniques and sustainable materials, and his wife, chef Ayu Gayatri Kresna. Ayu serves us a 14-course meal, cooked in her open kitchen, that showcases the local Singaraja Peranakan cuisine, with some Chinese fusion. It includes five different kinds of mango, four kinds of satay and some of the most delicious ice-cream I have tasted. Ayu uses local ingredients – small heads of Balinese garlic and long pepper, for instance – the couple grow themselves.

It’s a memorable day, nourishing the spirit as well as the body: a generous meeting across cultures. It reminds me that the words “hospitality” and “hospital” are kin: both are related to the care and healing of strangers. Seldom – in our large and small worlds – have we needed these things more.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 28, 2023 as "Worlds collide".

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