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Sunday October 18, 2009

Words amidst beauty

Once again on beautiful Bali, writers and readers from around the world gathered to share their thoughts and experiences.

FOR five days last week, a gathering of writers from 25 countries discussed the great themes of our time.

Censorship, colonialism, ethnicity and identity, exile, gender issues, human rights, identity, literary expression and the state, race, religion, the postcolonial voice, they were all debated at the Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival in Bali, Indonesia, from Oct 7 to 11.

This literary festival was conceived in 2004 by Janet De Neefe to counteract the disastrous effects of the 2002 Bali bombings that killed more than 200 people and led to dwindling tourists and a sinking economy.

The writer (standing) speaking at an Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival panel. With her are authors (from left) Shamini Flint, Julia Leigh, Sonya Hartnett and Sushma Joshi.

Since then, the festival has become “one of the six best literary festivals in the world”, according to the British Harper’s Bazaar magazine, and it continues to attract world-class writers from around the globe, as well as an international audience.

The theme for this year’s festival, Suka-Duka, loosely translated as “Compassion and Solidarity”, comes from Bali’s ancient communal wisdom that focuses on the balance between good and bad, sadness and joy, suffering and compassion. This principle, one of the main pillars of Bali’s traditional institutions and communities, has guided its people to act as one single entity in dealing with life’s hardships and blessings.

Writers attending this year’s festival included Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka (Nigeria); Vikas Swarup, author of Q & A, the book that was made into the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaires (India); Hari Kunzru and Jamal Mahjoub (Britain), Fatima Bhutto and Mohammad Hanif (Pakistan); Lloyd Jones (New Zealand); Julia Leigh, Sonya Hartnett, and Anthony Lowenstein (Australia); Bejan Matur (Turkey); Thant Myint-U (Burma); Seno Gumira Ajidarma and Cok Sawitri (Indonesia); Woon Thai Ho, Wena Poon and Shamini Flint (Singapore); Stephen McCarty (Hong Kong) and Sushma Joshi (Nepal). All together there were more than 100 writers – a truly diverse gathering.

Two writers had been invited from Malaysia: short story writer, essayist and award-winning indie filmmaker Amir Mohammad, and myself, author of three best-sellers, Malaysian Flavours: Insights into Things Malaysian, A Nyonya in Texas and Manglish: Malaysian English at its Wackiest.

Among the many interesting and diverse panel sessions the festival offered was one that delved into the festival’s theme directly with a discussion of The Future of Compassion. Wole Soyinka, the first African to receive a Nobel Prize for literature (in 1986), made a telling point of having compassion for his jailors but being less forgiving of those who made the decision to imprison him for his expressions of dissent (in 1967-68, he was placed in solitary confinement for 20 months in Nigeria).

Soyinka also talked about the need to be true to one’s own values rather than choosing political opportunism over the freedom of expression. His sentiments were echoed by Indonesian writer Seno Gumira.

Among the many In Conversation sessions I enjoyed were those with Lloyd Jones, who read from his highly acclaimed novel, Mr Pip, a heart-wrenching military fable set in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea; with Soyinka and his protegee Tara June Winch, a young winner of numerous literary awards; and with British novelist Hari Kunzru, author of The Impressionist and My Revolutions.

Genres such as the novel, short story, non-fiction, essays, political discourse, poetry, humour, translation works, travel writing, biographies, narratives, creative non-fiction, blogging and even food writing were covered during this very complete festival. Panel sessions had interesting themes such as A New Frontier: Blogging Dissent and Solidarity; Bali: A Paradise Questioned; First Person: Finding the Voice; Global Nomads; Interplay: Words, Music and Pictures; Lit Chefs: Passion, Food and Words; Literature and Activism; and Writing the Subcontinent.

I myself took part in two panel sessions. One was entitled Wanderlust: Travelling Stories and featured Aussie outback traveller and writer Andrew McMillan and Brian Thacker, who specialises in travel off the beaten track.

In the other panel session entitled Across Genres: Identity, Family and Place, I talked about multiple identities and shared stories and identity experiences from my Peranakan and Malaysian heritage.

I was invited to do readings from my books with other selected authors at a Literary Lunch in a beautiful setting amidst emerald-green rice fields at John Hardy’s unique estate and at a panel session entitled Dangerous Women held at the magnificent Alila Hotel, which is dramatically set on a cliff overlooking forests with two narrow gorges running through the lush valley below. I must say that, apart from the attraction of meeting writers from all over the world, another pulling power of this festival has to be its ambience. The settings were superb, rich with the natural beauty of Bali.

Apart from the three main venues, the Neka Museum, the Indus Bar and the Left Bank Lounge, other settings ranged from candlelit dinners at Ubud’s elegant hotels and gracious homes; poetry recitations and readings under the stars in grass-roofed venues amidst rice fields, in the woods in Ubud’s sacred sanctuary, the Monkey Forest, or in Ubud’s grand palaces and temples set in frangipani and lotus gardens amidst waterfalls and fountains ... it was easy to be inspired by words when they were uttered in such wonderful venues!

Workshops were held on how to write for the screen and on subjects like food, sport and travel; there were also sessions on poetry, memoirs, and editing in between book launches, performances, art exhibitions, parties and celebrations. The festival was open to the general public as well with children’s workshops and a street festival at Ubud’s well-known Jalan Kajeng featuring poetry, gamelan and performances.

As a non-profit event that receives no government funding, the festival relies on the generosity of corporations, international funding bodies, and especially individuals. The international festival is the major project of the Ubud-based Mudra Swari Saraswati Foundation.

The festival has today become one of the largest and most prestigious literary gatherings in South-East Asia and, indeed, the world. I consider it a great honour to have participated in this festival, and plan to return again to the magical isle of Bali to renew my ties with this beautiful land and its kind and gentle people who have succeeded in keeping their culture alive amidst the challenges of globalisation.

Dr Lee Su Kim is an Associate Professor at the School of Language Studies and Linguistics, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

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