Having celebrated its 15th anniversary in high style, the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival stands apart from Adelaide Writers’ Week – in delivery and ambition.
Ubud Writers and Readers Festival has its own allure, its own cast of diverse characters. This year several thousand travellers, expats and locals were all eager to engage and be challenged by a program that provided plenty to chew over.
Beyond celebrating books, the Ubud festival deliberately wrestles with difficult regional questions and many discussion panels adopt a robust tone that is defiantly provocative. It doesn’t follow the measured, polite flavour that most contemporary literary festivals now promote; certainly not the easy discourse that Adelaide Writers’ Week has adopted in recent years.
It has been quite a journey for a modest festival that began 15 years ago with the sole ambition of elevating Ubud’s appeal as a tourism destination after the Bali bombing in 2002. The Ubud festival’s ambition and sense of purpose has since shifted and refocused several times. In addition to supporting literature, it wants to foster diverse expression and the fullest exchange of information.
This has brought significant growth in the size and reach of the festival, which presented 140 writers from 30 countries for 2018. Nick Cave continues to give his blessing as festival patron. Festival organiser Janet DeNeefe said the growth has thrilled her. Its initial launch at an Ubud restaurant was in front of only 50 people. “The event is the now best teenager that I’ve ever known,” she proudly declared.
The 2018 UWRF program was a multi-faceted examination of identity. This year, the theme was Jagadhita: The world we create. “It’s how we define our personal world, and recognise what divides us,” explained DeNeefe.
The festival kicked off with a tough, engaging session that challenged a panel to consider whether society is suffering from compassion fatigue. Former president of the Australian Human Rights Commission Gillian Triggs skewered the issue with searing, focused intelligence. “Immoral leadership has led to a decline in Australia’s moral position. Now we are seeing a public call for the return of these core moral values that our leaders have neglected.” Her forthright views, articulated with crystalline clarity and framed by optimism, drew a standing ovation.
Australian author Gail Jones was a participant at the first Ubud festival, and remembered how exciting it seemed to be a part of such a bold new venture. She returned this year, making the trek from Berlin where she currently has an academic posting.
Jones expressed surprise at how the festival’s influence has grown, especially among a larger Indonesian audience, and used her session to illustrate how the festival’s literary component can take flight beyond book promotion. She explored how words connect with other forms of expression – visual art, cinema, song, dance – and delved deep to fathom the importance of literature. “We are now surrounded by a visual economy, but I love words – the poetic economy of meaning,” Jones explained. “We don’t have to live under the tyranny of argument, but instead to embrace the possibility of question.”
The festival’s international program consultant, Donica Bettanin, said Ubud doesn’t try to compare with other events. “It quite deliberately strives to have its own personality – and this is all about poly-cultural issues, speakers and audiences”.
The Ubud festival program now has a more deliberate Indonesian expression, with at least one of three simultaneous sessions focusing on either the work of Indonesian writers, or issues pertaining to Indonesia – from freedom of expression, to politics, to regional welfare, to religion. And this has happened because the festival, since its infancy, has fostered Indonesian writers to publish and promote their work in English. There are still writing workshops throughout the event that allow budding authors from many countries and cultures to learn from successful published writers.
The 2018 Ubud program poked into curious quarters, asking how Muslim journalists think about the stories they cover. The audience learned that they seek justice, beyond the American ideal of seeking “truth”. We learned that Islam is not a monolithic faith, and that its adaptations in different countries reveal especially complex and nuanced beliefs. The Indonesians proudly note their nation’s position of being both a Muslim and democratic society, making it a model worth paying close attention to.
As audiences plugged into the pulse of such strong local issues, it underlined that Australia is a rather poor regional citizen, largely ignorant and lacking sympathy for the views and perspectives of many neighbouring cultures.
Such robust social discourse has ebbed away from Adelaide Writers’ Week, which now largely profiles authors and their specific works. Ubud, in contrast, directs their expertise into more rounded thematic discussions. While there are vastly different commercial realities at play – Adelaide Writers Week is a free festival underwritten by government funding, while UWRF is a ticketed event, costing about $400 for a four-day pass – the absence of roaring ideological stoushes in Adelaide is mourned.
In Ubud, journalists had a significant voice on panels and raised the temperature of discussion several times, voicing grave concern over the trumpeting of fake news and its implications regarding what the public is prepared to trust and believe to be the truth. A session asking whether it is still possible for society to engage in civil discourse on urgent issues in the age of social media ended with moments of prickly discourse and disagreement between some sections of the audience and the panel. It dovetailed into another session about whether public discussion of issues is being hijacked and reshaped as lectures rather than an exchange of ideas. “People don’t listen. They reload,” offered American writer Christine Bader.
A question at one session resonated about whether these earnest discussions just keep reverberating in an echo chamber. So, why does this matter? Gail Jones had no hesitation in explaining her drive to write complex literary fiction, and discussing it at festivals. “I want to give weight to something that is worth thinking about.”
Reni Eddo-Lodge in discussion with Australian writer Clementine Ford (Photo: Anggara Mahendra / Ubud Writers and Readers Festival)