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Sunday, Nov. 14, 2010

Bali beckons 'literary tourists'

Ubud Writers & Readers Festival offers culture in a paradise


Special to The Japan Times

Ubud, an enchanting town in tropical Bali's undulating hills, has arrived with panache on the global literary scene.

News photo
Driving force: Janet de Neefe.

Judging from this year's splendid 2010 Writers & Readers Festival, it would be worth blocking out Oct. 5-9, 2011 for some top-class literary tourism. The 2011 theme is "Nanduring karang awak": Cultivate the land within" — a line from an old Balinese poem. Attendees will be encouraged to explore the great global commons of mind and heart in just the spot to do so with stunning views of Mount Agung.

In the wake of the Bali terrorist bombings in 2002, which left locals scarred and tourists scared, Janet de Neefe, a long-term Ubudian, decided to try to transform a disaster into an opportunity. Mix a bit of paradise and lavish creature comforts, add a dash of cultural magic, stir with persistence and presto . . . Ubud has become one of the top literary festivals in the world.

Now in the top six of such festivals, according to Harper's Bazaar, Ubud attracts an impressive array of writers from around the globe and draws devoted pilgrims in ever-greater numbers.

For writers, the call to duty in idyllic Ubud is almost as hard to resist as it is for the growing audiences of readers.

Booker Prize-winner Ann Enright ("The Gathering"; 2007) admitted it was hard to tear herself away from her home in cold and rainy Dublin, but she was rewarded with rapt audiences eager to imbibe her thoughts about her books, writing and the human condition.

Among the others who joined her in Ubud this year was self-styled "faction" writer Tash Aw, the Malaysian author of "Harmony Silk Factory" (2006) and "Map of the Invisible World" (2010); as well as Christos Tsiolkas, the controversial Greek-Australian author of "The Slap" (2009), who defended his use of vulgarity, arguing that critics are guilty of class bias and that he doesn't just write for the privileged.

But writers beware, this is no laid-back lotus-eating holiday, as the organizers have them — young or old, famous or not yet so — performing yeoman's work on panels and in individual sessions.

Despite the demanding schedule, by all accounts it's an energizing experience as there is so much interaction between writers and with readers in a variety of settings. Perhaps the most enjoyable is over dinners and drinks at places ranging from Ubud's swankiest venues to some of its legendary watering holes such as Naughty Nurni's, as famous for its dry Martinis as its succulent ribs.

And what a feast it was this year, with 135 writers from 27 countries spread out over 183 panels and workshops with 37 special events organized around the theme of "Bhinneka Tunggai Ika: Harmony in Diversity." One of the highlights was the increased attendance of Indonesians and the chance for readers to discover the work of many Indonesian writers.

Readers have an opportunity to meet their favorite writers and discover new favorites in an intimate setting that maximizes interaction and closes the chasm that often separates artists from their audiences. The venues are cozy, often bursting, but relaxed and friendly, creating a wonderful festival vibe where interaction and exchanges flow easily and informally.

Having endured the rigors, backstabbing and networking of academic conferences, it was uplifting for this correspondent to discover that large gatherings of intellectually curious people can be so exhilarating and exuberant. Instead of moody prima donnas, noses to the heavens, minds in the clouds, the literary stars come across as down-to-earth people who muck in with undisguised joy. Maybe it's something about being in Bali, where everyone can leave all their metaphorical baggage behind and rediscover something precious as they unwind and reorient.

It is 25 years since my first visit to Ubud, and today there are only a few traces of what was then a simple, unhurried, tranquil artists' village of unpaved roads lurking under vast canopies of greenery and spartan accommodations nestled in terraced rice fields.

Yet the transformed Ubud remains enchanting, and weary visitors can now enjoy far more pampering and tastier grazing options. But old Ubud hands can't stay away from the roast suckling pig served at Ibu Oka's in the center of town, across from the palace. Same great food, same low prices, but now this overgrown shack has added real tables and chairs on its crowded terrace — a comfortable upgrade that detracts nothing from the scruffy ambiance.

The new Ubud boasts a slew of five-star hotels, including the plush Aman and Four Seasons that help support the festival and offer special packages. For those with tighter budgets, there is a range of options from pensions to excellent hotels at reasonable rates, many of which can be found on the festival website.

Organizers have transformed this festival from its original shoestring operation to one that boasts significant corporate sponsorship, perhaps most abundantly evident in the ubiquitous Citibank hospitality vans and banners fluttering all over town. Seldom does corporate social responsibility look so commendable as it does at the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival.

Janet de Neefe, the Australian-born founder of the festival, married a Balinese and raised a family in Ubud while opening two restaurants and a cooking school. It is amazing that she has enough energy and enthusiasm to organize this festival and also answer questions from the press.

What were your goals when you established the festival, and to what extent have you achieved them?

From the start, our aim was for the festival to be a bonus to the people Bali, both economically and educationally, and also to encourage understanding through literature and cross-cultural exchange. As well, we wanted to promote an awareness of Indonesian literature to our international audience and create opportunities for local writers while providing ongoing inspiration to the youth of Indonesia.

I believe we have achieved most of these goals but it's a work in progress.

My focus now is to start translating Indonesian literature to reach a wider audience, and I am already speaking to local publishers.

What are the benefits for Bali and Ubud?

Clearly there are economic benefits. Ubud is a much busier place during the festival, and everyone can see that. The festival has also placed Ubud on the global literary circuit, and it is now a name associated with the literary arts. Bali is no longer only known for its Kuta beaches and beer, but for Ubud, culture and books.

How has the festival evolved, and what do you think needs to improve?

The festival has grown rapidly. I think the sheer location of Ubud and the hospitality of the local community is a part of that success. I would still like to see Indonesians more integrated in the program, between the writers and readers. It's really a confidence issue and we are trying to bridge that gap. I would also like to see more events in Denpasar (Bali) and other parts of Indonesia. Next year I am hoping to start an Emerging Writers Festival in Denpasar purely for Indonesians.

How do you select writers?

We use our theme to guide us and I focused on that more closely than ever this year. For Indonesians, we have an Indonesian curatorial team who read and select work. This year we had more submissions than ever.

How have you been so successful in lining up so many sponsors?

I guess we are irresistible! Just joking! As you can imagine, I am truly passionate about this event and spend a lot of time meeting corporate sponsors who eventually heed my pleas! Seven years down the track, the support of sponsors is a testimony to our professionalism and integrity. We are here to stay and they know it.

Citibank, for example, sees our worth as global cultural players and we are happy to be associated with them. Our generous local sponsors support us because my husband, Ketut, is from Ubud and we both have a solid reputation in the community, something you can't buy! We have owned businesses here for more than 20 years and employ many of the local sponsors' children. We are one big family.

There were no Japanese writers or readers at the festival. Is it hard to identify and attract Japanese authors? Do you do anything to promote the festival in Japan?

I have often tried to secure Japanese writers, but to no avail. We nearly had one a few years ago, but she pulled out at the last minute. I just don't seem to get anywhere and even the publishers can't seem to help me. I wrote to a Japanese publisher last week so fingers crossed, but I wonder if language is the issue. I will keep trying because we have a large Japanese expatriate community here. Sadly I don't have any media links in Japan.

Since this interview, the promising young Japanese author Mariko Nagai, author of "Georgic Stories" (2010), has accepted an invitation and will attend the 2011 festival.

Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.



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