UP CLOSE WITH Janet DE NEEFE
Interview by Sharon Bakar
Updates by Eric Forbes
WHEN MELBURNIAN Janet De Neefe stepped off the plane in Bali in 1984, she not only fell in love with Bali’s culture and its warm people and mouth-watering cuisine, she married one of them. She now lives in Ubud with her husband Ketut Suardana and their four children, Dewi, Krishna, Laksmi and Arjuna.
De Neefe, the founder director of the annual Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, is a Melbourne-born artist and restaurateur who has made Bali her home for more than two decades. She is the founder of two famous restaurants in Ubud, Casa Luna and Indus, as well as the Casa Luna Cooking School, which attracts hundreds of visitors each year, all eager to absorb the secrets behind Bali’s spicy and fragrant cuisine. Casa Luna is famous for being the first restaurant to fuse Balinese and Western cuisine.
Her memoir cum cookbook, Fragrant Rice (HarperCollins), is a fascinating account of her journey into and continuing love affair with this most exotic of Indonesian islands, interspersed with mouth-watering Balinese recipes and insights into Balinese culture and traditions. Having had a passion for cooking since an early age, this youngest of three siblings spent most of her preschool days in her mother’s kitchen, watching her cook delicious casseroles, puddings and cakes.
De Neefe, who has been called the ‘Literary Goddess of Ubud,’ first came to Bali in 1974 when she was still at school. She returned 10 years later and met her husband Ketut on the second day of her holiday. One chapter of her life closed and another opened. She decided that Bali was where she wanted to be and slowly made Ubud her home. She decided to research Indonesian cooking for a cookbook and figured she would spend the rest of her time painting.
Of course, that dream didn’t last long, and in 1987, the couple opened their first restaurant and the rest, as they say, is history!
She began writing Fragrant Rice in 1985 as a cookbook but it evolved into a memoir over time. She wasn’t in a hurry to complete it. By the time she started teaching Balinese cooking in 1987, she realised there was so much she didn’t know. So she kept it on the back burner while she attended to business. Then she married and started having babies. In the cooking classes, she started to incorporate stories about raising children in Bali, and people told her that she must include these anecdotes in her book. So she began jotting them down. “Over time, the stories kind of took over!” she says. “And the book became a memoir with recipes. I was editing it when the first bombing occurred, so had to hold it back—and the preface documents my experience during this sad time.”
The Ubud Writers & Readers Festival grew out of the first bombing on October 12, 2002. “It was such a sad, sad time, and for the first time I realised how cruel the Western world can be in times of hardship. No one wanted to know about us. It’s as if the big door was slammed shut in our faces and we were told to fend for ourselves. I still feel a little emotional when I think about this time and I guess it sealed my identity as an Indonesian-Australian—and not the other way round.” She then realised that she had to do something to help the people of Bali because nobody else would. She started to think about events that would bring people back to Bali and since she had been invited to a few literary festivals as a writer, she figured that would be the best thing to do. After appearing at the Melbourne Writers Festival, she decided to do just that. “I jumped in at the deep end of the pool and have been swimming strongly ever since!”
The number of people attending the festival has been growing each year ever since. “I would love for it to eventually take over Ubud, like the Guardian Hay Festival, although, of course, we would need to do our logistics on that one to make sure that Ubud can cope.” For now though, she prefers to keep the festival in the intimate, elegant spaces of Ubud, so that it can maintain its distinct personality. “My focus is on venues and captivating the wow factor, so we use the best that Ubud has to offer and also those places that are particularly charming. We are constantly seeking new places to fit that bill. I imagine we will run more events outside Ubud as it grows.”
Most literary festivals struggle with a dearth of funding. The Ubud Festival is no exception. “Funding is of course a constant worry and I always lose sleep over it. I personally float a lot of the costs myself and look forward to the day when the festival becomes self-sufficient. We spend many days in Jakarta throughout the year begging and pleading, but the food in Jakarta is wonderful, so I rather enjoy these jaunts, no matter how exhausting they are!”
Over the years, the festival has had some pretty big names gracing it. She has a couple of favourites. “I adore Michael Ondaatje; he’s such a sweet man. Amitav Ghosh was also an angel. My favourite in 2007 was Richard Flanagan and the Egyptian women, Iman Mersal and Somaya Ramadan. I also loved Anita Desai and Kiran Desai, you don’t get writers who are kinder and more humble than this mother-and-daughter team. When I interviewed Anita Desai in 2006, some of the things she said made me want to cry.” In 2008, the festival featured Segun Afolabi, Charlotte Bacon, John Berendt, Sadanand Dhume, Tishani Doshi, Camilla Gibb, Jamie James, Moni Mohsin, Preeta Samarasan, Vikram Seth, Bahaa Taher, Chiew-Siah Tei, Alexis Wright, Geling Yan, Lijia Zhang, among others. This year promises to be as exciting as ever with an impressive line-up of international authors comprising Uwem Akpan, Fatima Bhutto, Michelle Cahill, Tom Cho, Kate Grenville, Shamini Flint, Mohammed Hanif, Sonya Hartnett, Riaz Hassan, Lloyd Jones, Hari Kunzru, Alison Lester, Anthony Loewenstein, Mo Zhi Hong, Amir Muhammad, John O’Sullivan, Wena Poon, Thando Sibanda, Wole Soyinka, Vikas Swarup, Jeet Thayil, among others.
She has learned a couple of lessons from managing a festival of such magnitude. “I am learning so many life lessons with this festival, although sometimes I wish I wasn’t! I have to deal with all sorts of egos in a loving, friendly way. It can be extremely exhausting!” she laughs.
The literary festival benefits the Ubud community in various ways. “It brings people to town, the kind of people who appreciate Bali. Everyone benefits as the festival not only boosts the Ubud economy, but that of Bali as well.” She would love to see the festival grow and take over all of Ubud, but retain that lovely intimacy that has become its hallmark.
Organising a literary festival, particularly one of this scale, must be very stressful, yet you don’t see de Neefe becoming frazzled at any point. I asked her how she manages to cope with the stress of putting together such a festival. “Stress? What’s that? I don’t see the point of being stressed out. It’s counter-productive, but luckily I have never been one to worry too much about things. I even enjoyed taking exams when I was at school! Luckily I am pretty easygoing.”
Apart from her own literary festival, de Neefe enjoys going to other festivals because they all do things in their own unique way. Her favourites include the literary festivals in Adelaide and Byron Bay. She also enjoys going to the Perth and Sydney Festivals.
On the books she is reading at the moment or has read, she recommends the following: “I am immersed in Hari Kunzru’s My Revolutions at the moment, and thoroughly enjoyed Richard Flanagan’s Wanting. I have also read and enjoyed Aravind Adiga’s collection of linked stories, Between the Assassinations, Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes, Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture, R.K. Narayan’s The English Teacher, Bahaa Taher’s Love in Exile and Cameron Forbes’s Under the Volcano: The Story of Bali.”