Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2006

UBUD ~ The Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2006 marked its third year with a larger number of writers from over 16 regions, such as Australia, Southeast Asia and the Subcontinent.

Flocking into town, the festival’s guests brought some novelty to otherwise sleepy Ubud. A different energy lingered on the streets and for sure traffic control was an issue.

The many panel discussions and encounters with the authors made choices sometimes hard for the fans of literature with so much at offer. Discussions were held on the airy second floor of Indus restaurant, from where the views of the adjacent valley are spectacular. Not as much can be said of the second venue, the nearby Second Bank building, chosen probably for the convenience of its location rather than its beauty.

The nightly free events hosted by local restaurants gave way to a totally different cultural energy, one much younger and livelier. These night events shed a light on the suppressed creative youth of Indonesia. Young poets, musicians and innovative performers like dalan-puppeteer and topeng dancer I Made Sidia found a stage on which to perform that gave them credit and visibility at an international level.

The festival, in the minds of the organizers back in 2003, was meant to counteract the devastating effects of the Bali bombing on the Ubud economy, to give courage and hope to the local community and to help it recover from the material and psychological shock caused by the bombing. Those times are gone; yet for many Balinese it is still a recent past, some wounds still open. The high suicide rate signals to all of us who care to take notice. Overall, the faith of everlasting income from thriving tourism has been deeply shattered.

Tourism Talk

The influence of tourism and foreign ideas on contemporary Balinese life and literature was one of the many panel sessions held at Indus during the four-day festival program. It featured Balinese poets Putu Fajar Arcana and Gede Aryantha Soethama, together with American writer Diana Darling, based in Bali since 1980.

Each writer tackled the issue from a different perspective. While Putu Arcana talked about the influence that Western ideas, particularly science, have had on his life, broadening his horizons and giving depth to his work, Gede Soethana saw tourism, money and capitalism as a important matter in Balinese life. But at the same time it doesn’t monopolize Balinese people’s lives since history has shown that they can adapt quite easily to change – culturally, socially and economically. Besides, tourism is affecting precise areas of the island, leaving other regions more in control of their traditional social life.

Diana Darling had the unpleasant task, in the dual capacity of being a Westerner and a woman, to address tourism-related issues from the view of an unwanted disease that most think it is. In her view, after the Dutch colonial rule and Java central power, Bali had since 1969 become “a colony of the tourism industry.” To her the Balinese “through tourism have become self-conscious about their culture and have become aware that they have to preserve it to better survive.”

She concluded her contribution by remembering what happened in the aftermath of the 2002 bombing: “Balinese people found themselves above all, peaceful. Even though the orders from Java were ‘no backlash will be allowed,’ given the social tension present in Bali at that time, I can very much presume that the temptation to break up into violence must have been high.”

Darling sees “the ability to reject violence” as a very important achievement of the Balinese today, one that can put the island on the map of a new world.

Sweetly Powerful

Anita Desai is a beautiful woman of 69 with piercing dark eyes, a sweet, thin voice, high cheeks, an enchanting persona that releases strength combined with sweetness and stubbornness melded in deep understanding. She is a strong presence – ultimately feminine, and sweetly powerful – and was one of the highlights of the festival.

This writer is an interesting example of a cross-cultural persona. Born in India of a German mother and a Bangali father, she embodies Eastern sensibilities with Western-German logic. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize for In Custody (1984), which was made into a film by Merchant Ivory Productions, she has written children’s stories, adult fiction and short stories. A mother of four, she confessed to the festival that her children accepted her as a writer only when they became adults. Before that, they hadn’t been able to cope with her having a separate life. The same was true of her husband.

Desai found the inspiration for a life as a writer from a neighbor, the accomplished Indian writer Ruth Prawar Jhabvala. She had been her model since Anita’s childhood.

“Books are my private, secret world. I couldn’t imagine a different career, a different life for me. Being slightly apart, observing, is a way of being for me. My work comes out of my observing, not my solitude, and I think the paradox between solitude and the necessity to participate in life creates a tension, a tug, that is very good for writing.

“I’ve written since the age of nine, when I wrote for the school journal, and my family started calling me ‘the family writer,’ and I’ve always stuck to that,” she said.

Desai explores the life of outsiders within Indian society, and more recently within the West. Currently living in the United States, she teaches creative writing in Massachusetts. Her fiction has covered themes such as women’s oppression and a quest for a fulfilling identity, family relationships and contrasts, the crumbling of tradition and anti-Semitism. As she told the Ubud audience, “Even though I start a novel with a setting and the main characters, I don’t know what’s going to happen. My characters make their own choices and every time I finish a novel I’m a bit sad, feeling that many other choices were available.”

As she herself admits, her novels are not populated by heroic characters; her protagonists are marked by a certain passivity, swept away by historical and social forces, and they often meet tragic ends. Ever since her novel Boumgartner’s Bombay (1989), East and West have been treated as mirror images of each other and not at odds anymore.

Desai finds that “East and West are parallel, not contrasting, worlds,” and probably this coming to terms with the two reflects a personal inner accomplishment of Desai as a writer and as a person with two heritages.

By Fiorella Carollo

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