Within the stifling humidity that built ahead of Bali’s overdue wet season, the 12th annual Ubud Writers and Readers Festival was swollen with pregnant conversation.
Several thousand visitors gathered in the last days of October for the literary festival – much more a robust contemplation and discussion forum than a commercial book fair – and all were talking candidly about freedom of speech, because the ogre of censorship had reared its ugly head. Local officials had banned three sessions from the 220-event program, only a day before the festival commenced, because they focussed on the widespread massacres of communists across Indonesia in 1965, after a military coup led by General Suharto usurped the Surkano government. It remains a prickly issue 50 years after “the year of living dangerously”, as many of its perpetrators remain alive and the current government still prefers to suppress its discussion. So, of course, it subsequently became the most pronounced whisper on everyone’s lips at the festival. Three panel discussions had been dedicated to the topic, along with a screening of Joshua Oppenheimer’s powerful documentary The Look of Silence, plus a photography exhibition called The Act of Living, and the launch of Indonesian author Eliza Vitri Handayani’s new novel From Now On Everything Will Be Different. They were all cancelled, to ensure that the festival’s operating permit was not revoked. However, in trying to quell the subject, the ban only served to en flame the world’s interest in the topic. The New York Times, The Guardian, and the ABC, among many news outlets, ran items questioning why this discussion was being suppressed 50 years after the event. A petition of international writers made an appeal to reinstate the events – ultimately to no avail, although it made a ashpoint out of the issue, especially as most of these books and the film have been seen widely outside of Indonesia. It illustrated that the banning was an o fficial exercise in denial – and suggests that the Suhartos, while no longer the force driving mainstream politics, remain a signi ficant in fluence within Indonesia. This denial evoked sadness among the festival participants, but also steeled resolve. Keynote speaker Mpho Tutu, the daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, expressed this most eloquently on the first morning of the festival. “It’s crucial that we understand the process of forgiveness,” she told a capacity audience at the Neka Museum auditorium. “Reconciliation is a painful, searching process, but we have to understand the reasons why reconciliation is needed. We have to show the courage to let go of con flict that has happened.” Gatherings in bars and conversations outside of the sessions buzzed with discussions about 1965, although an element of bewilderment was attached to this furore. Indonesian writers were featured guests at the massive Frankfurt Book Fair only a few weeks prior, and spoke at length about the 1965 massacres. It showed, though, that what happens in Indonesia is subject to a rising tide of conservatism and repression. This was a warning issued by Indonesian human rights journalist Andreas Harsono, who held the feisty first session of the festival, making pointed criticisms on journalism in Indonesia. Beyond this hubbub, the Ubud festival excelled for bringing issues of regional importance into sharp focus: from the death penalty, refugee displacement and human tra fficking, to the plight of violence victims in Sri Lanka, to environmental discussions on sinking islands and wildfires across Indonesia. British journalist Christina Lamb, who wrote the compelling biography I Am Malala about Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, launched her new book Farewell Kabul and painted a vivid contemporary portrait of Afghanistan. London-based Chinese writer Xinran explained that the end of China’s one child policy is presenting unexpected social di fficulties. Fiesty Indian journalist Deepika Shetty led discussions on India’s rape crisis. While the star literary figures of Michael Chabon, Teju Cole and Mohsin Hamid had their share of attention for their festival sessions, the series of informed regional discussions held the deepest fascination for audiences. Adelaide philanthropic group MUD Literary Club also has a signi ficant in fluence in Ubud. Each year, MUD sponsors two Australian authors, and this year presented two current stars – 2015 Miles Franklin Award winner Sophie Laguna and 2015 Stella Award winner Emily Bitto. Where the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival heads next is a pointed question. Its organisers anticipate some form of o fficial reaction in the aftermath of the banned sessions, but cannot presume to know how that will play out. Any punitive measures would certainly be counterproductive, as the festival is an economic force to be reckoned with, bringing $1 million into Ubud for the four-day event. Curiously, the most virulent voices during the event were several guest writers and journalists who angrily criticised festival organisers for agreeing to remove banned sessions from the program. These critics, of course, have no stake in the festival or its future, and they failed to appreciate that the worldwide conversation sparked by the bans showed the festival and the conversations it generates have muscle that flexes in unexpected and impressive ways.