ON THE COUCH ... Janet DE NEEFE
The Literary Goddess of Ubud
When 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, SHARON BAKAR discovers
JANET DE NEEFE, the founder of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, is a Melbourne-born artist and restaurateur who has made Bali her home for more than 20 years. She is the founder of two 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 learn the secrets of Bali’s spicy 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 personal journey into this most exotic of islands, interspersed with mouth-watering Balinese recipes and insights into Balinese culture and traditions. Having had a passion for cooking from an early age, this youngest of three siblings spent most of her preschool days in her mother’s kitchen, watching her cook casseroles, puddings and cakes. She lives in Ubud with her husband Ketut Suardana and their four precious children, Dewi, Krishna, Laksmi and Arjuna.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to make Bali your home?
I first came to Bali in 1974 when I was still at school. I returned 10 years later and met my husband Ketut on the second day of my holiday. (Why waste time, I always say!) One chapter of my life closed and another opened. I decided that Bali was where I wanted to be and slowly made Ubud my home. I decided to research Indonesian cooking in order to write a cookbook and figured I would spend the rest of my time painting. Of course, that dream didn’t last long and in 1987 we opened our first restaurant and the rest, as they say, is history!
How did your book, Fragrant Rice, come to be written and can you tell us a bit about it?
I began writing Fragrant Rice in 1985 as a cookbook but it evolved over time. I wasn’t in a hurry. By the time I started teaching Balinese cooking in 1987, I realised there was so much I didn’t know. So I kept it on the back burner while I attended to business. Then I married and started having babies. In the cooking classes I started to incorporate stories about raising children here and people said, you must include these in the book. So I began jotting them down. Over time the stories kind of took over! 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.
How and why did the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival begin?
The festival grew out of the first bombing on October 12, 2002—nothing more than that. 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. I realised that I had to do something to help the people of Bali because nobody else would. I started to think about events that would bring people back to Bali and since I had been invited to a few literary festivals as a writer, I figured that would be the thing. After I appeared at the Melbourne Writers Festival, I decided, yes, this is what I will do. I jumped in at the deep end and have been swimming strongly ever since!
The number of people attending the festival has been growing each year. How much larger can it grow? Would you ever consider putting your events in marquees (as it happens in festivals in the U.K.)?
The festival has been growing constantly. I would love for it to eventually take over Ubud, like the Hay Festival although, of course, we would need to do our logistics on that one to make sure that Ubud can cope. However, I am not sure I want to go down the marquee road, especially if all the other festivals use them. I think we can do better than that! I prefer to keep it in the intimate, elegant spaces of Ubud so we can maintain our distinct personality. My focus is on venues and captivating the wow factor, so we use the best that Ubud offers 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 festivals struggle with funding. How do you get yours, and is it a constant worry?
Funding is always a problem and I constantly lose sleep over it. I personally float a lot of the costs myself and look forward to the day 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 you’ve had some pretty big names gracing the festival. Who have been your absolute favourites?
I adore Michael Ondaatje; he’s such a sweet man. Amitav Ghosh was also an angel. My favourite last year 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, some of the things she said made me want to cry.
Do you have any amusing stories of disasters or close disasters?
Only writers who didn’t show up because they were walking in the rice fields and Nury Vittachi and the faux lovemaking session! Otherwise not much goes wrong.
What were some of the biggest lessons you learned from running a festival like this?
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!
How does the festival benefit the local community?
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.
What are your particular wishes for the festival?
I would love to see the festival grow and take over all of Ubud but retain that lovely intimacy that has become its trademark.
Organising a literary festival, particularly one of this scale, must be very stressful, yet I don’t remember seeing you frazzled at any point. How do you cope with the stress?
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 easy-going.
Apart from your own literary festival, which others have you particularly enjoyed going to?
I love going to any festival because they all do things in their own unique way. My favourites are probably Adelaide and Byron Bay. I also enjoy the Perth and Sydney Festivals.
Anything else you would like to say to your Malaysian readers of this magazine?
I am really excited by the support of our festival by our Malaysian neighbours and hope we can develop stronger links in the future.
What are you reading at the moment and which of the books you’ve read this year would you most highly recommend?
I am reading Preeta Samarasan’s Evening Is the Whole Day at the moment and thoroughly enjoying it. My absolute favourites are Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger and Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People and of course, I love Vikram Seth’s work. Carrie Tiffany’s Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living is marvellous, as is Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria. And I love the work of poets Bejan Matur, Péter Zilahy and Bali’s very own John O’Sullivan.
SHARON BAKAR is a freelance writer and teacher trainer in Kuala Lumpur. Her work has appeared in a number of Malaysian publications, including The Star, Off the Edge, Men’s Review, Quill, kakiseni.com and Chrome. She is also the editor of an anthology of short fiction, Collateral Damage, published by Silverfish Books. She teaches creative writing in partnership with the British Council, and organises Readings, a monthly event for local writers, at Seksan’s Gallery in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur. Her blog on writing and publishing in Malaysia, thebookaholic.blogspot.com, attracts a wide readership.
Reproduced from the October-December 2008 issue of Quill magazine