The Ubud Writers & Readers Festival: First Impressions
The Ubud Writers & Readers
Festival is a yearly event that brings pen handlers, readers and critics from
all over the world to Bali. Arriving in Ubud, the banners on the side of the
road, suggested that this is no intimate tea party, but an extremely well
organized festival. The program I leafed through incessantly during the day
only furthered that impression. From 5 until 9 October over 40 venues in and
around Yoga capital Ubud are the scene of seminars, panel discussions, book
presentations, workshops and art performances/exhibitions.
To name a few examples, what to think of a workshop on
travel writing? Or a discussion on colonialism and its effect on literature? Or
sharing a three course rice based meal with Anthropologist Stephen Lansing, who
has been researching the cultivation of rice and the intricatesubakirrigation system on Bali for years?
There is so much to choose from, we felt bedazzled amidst it all!
Today we joined a wonderful panel
discussion about “The cycle of rice”: how the traditional subak irrigation
system in Bali is based on sharing and maintaining balance, while ongoing
development yearly turns close to 1000 hectares of Balinese rice paddies into
villas and resorts. This is a very current, multifaceted and complicated
matter, that Yvette Benningshof will delve into further.
After that we went to a panel discussion involving three
heavyweights in Indonesian literary/arts circles: writer Andrea Hirata, who
wrote the bestselling novelLaskar Pelangi(Rainbow Troops 2005), dramatist Putu
Wijaya and photographer Rio Helmi. The subject matter was the
multi-interpretable slogan of this years’ edition of the Ubud Writers and
Readers Festival: Cultivate the Land Within (Nandurin
The panelists narrated the profound
connection they have with their ‘land’, their birthplace, their hometown,
adopted cities and revered motherland. Andrea Hirata, who uses his home
‘village’ on Biliton often as a setting for his novels revealed:
Usually people say that if you create some distance with
your home country, everything becomes easier and easier to describe. Maybe if I
hadn’t left, i couldn’t have written my novels.”
Rio Helmi on the other hand comes
from a very mixed background (his mother is Turkish and his father Indonesian)
and told the audience he is fascinated by how different people and different
cultures see their land. He likes the way he can switch between cultures,
because he is from a mixed background. His photography is about seeing people
his way and sharing that with others.
Putu Wijaya was born in Bali, but
doesn’t feel Balinese. Dramatically he stated:
I am a contaminated Balinese. I like western music and
western films. I spend most of my time in Yogyakarta or Jakarta. But the whole
time I am away, I think of Bali. I think I’m cursed to be Balinese.”
The Indonesian saying “kacang lupa
kulitnya”(the peanut forgets its shell) doesn’t seem to hold true for either of
the panelists. Each has his own way of connecting with land and home.
Rio Helmi sees it more like
traveling through a landscape, instead of having a land within oneself.
According to him it is in the heart and in the mind where you create home. He
recalls an occasion when he was in a boat with a Buginese father and son. They
were arguing about where the coral reef was in regards to the boat. The father
said: “It is there, 15 feet from here. I can smell it I can feel it.” The son
disagreed and they kept on arguing. So Rio took out his flashlight and there it
was, just as the father had said. he had felt it and smelled it. That is what
cultivating the land within is.
The biggest change he has seen in
Bali is in the attitude of the people. “People used to be contented with their
lives. I am not saying they were enlightened or anything, but they were happy
with the way things were. But now, everybody on this island is in search of
something, of a dream, grasping and searching. The biggest disputes on Bali are
about land, there are heritage claims, family arguments and so on.”
Once again the land issues on Bali
seemed to rear their ugly head, an issue we will surely pay closer attention to
in the near future.
After the discussion it was time for
some questions. A question I found particularly interesting was: “Does the
theme Cultivate the Land Within perhaps signify that we have no more land
outside to cultivate? Doesn’t it mean that we have lost our culture or land and
we are only left with land within to cultivate?
Rio Helmi answered poignantly: “No,
it means we understand we don’t own anything. You can imagine and think
something is yours, but you can hold on to nothing. You can have a certificate
or official paperwork, but in the end we are transient. This theme of
”cultivate the land within” is a recognition of that. We are aware of the fact
that we don’t own anything.
The Ubud Readers and Writers
Festival was named “Among the top six best literary festivals in the world” by
Harper Bazaar. In the coming days the Latitudes Tag Team, consisting of editor
Emma Kwee and journalist Yvette Benningshof will explore this wonderful
festival. In the meantime, if you’re in the neighborhood, get to Ubud to join
in the fun! If you’re not, read our posts and weep…