Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2008
A Bamboo Room with an Exceptional View
By Charlotte Bacon
For The Bali Times
August 23, 2008
WE MOVED TO BALI LAST NOVEMBER, just as the rainy season began. My husband had recently begun working as the director of Green School in Sibang Kaja, to help build, define and find teachers and students for this new school rising from the jungle. I was here to support him, tend to our children and have the chance to write full time. From a bamboo house at the edge of a river, that’s what we’ve been doing—creating and shaping an educational vision, looking after the kids, and, at least in my case, engaging in the slow task of assembling a new novel.
My mother recently asked if I was happy and I took my time answering. What I said was this: yes, deeply yes, and not because it has been an easy transition from Brooklyn to Sibang Kaja. It has involved more insect life than I realized existed, a lot of geckos falling from the ceiling and the adjustments required to living in a culture and language that are utterly new to me. But I was able to give her a clear, positive response because it has also been one of the most engaging and vibrant years of my life. We embarked on a stimulating project with a lot of risks involved and we’ve staked our whole family on it. That’s daunting. And it has been entirely worth it.
And not only because the school is opening in September with beautiful buildings, amazing teachers, lovely students. Not only because I have managed to write a lot and that the children are growing and healthy and I have made friends and found places I enjoy. There are other and more subtle reasons that I am glad we came.
People always ask if I’m writing about Bali and I’m not. There’s already been so much written about the island, but that’s not exactly what holds me back. Firstly, I’m already in the midst of a writing project about India in the 1830s and while functioning inside the reality of a tropical climate—heat, ants, humidity—certainly helps me evoke the conditions in which my characters live more easily, that may be the extent to which I draw on Bali for detail for now.
More, I think the older I get the more reluctant I am to claim to know something certain about a place, a culture, even a person. I’m very taken with how layered the world is and how complex even simple phenomena are. It will take me a long time here to feel that I’ve acquired anything interesting to say about this island. It may never happen.
But perhaps that’s a sign of Bali’s influence on me already. There’s a lot of humility in living here among people who exist with remarkable grace and gentleness in spite of serious hardship. Humility in learning to speak and use a new language. And in watching people treat children with incredible tenderness that my culture has apparently forgotten or, sadly, never learned. I’m calmer here and as I like to joke, I’m a New Yorker who drinks coffee and does not meditate: not a natural candidate for calm. I’m not having lots of massages or even doing tons of yoga.
I think the relative peace that has been bestowed on me might come instead from quite a straightforward source: I’m deep in the mix of mothering and writing inside a culture that honors love and art. Bali orbits around family life and right now so do I. Saraswati, goddess of learning and books, has her own holiday, her own rituals. It’s understood here that words and art are fundamental to a well-lived life. So my work, my way of being, is nurtured here and that creates a terrific sense of relief.
I have the privilege of not having to choose between being a stay-at-home mother or working full-time here. In the West this dilemma can all too easily lead to defensive postures, each position contested with equal passion by its proponents.
With that weight gone, it’s a rich surprise to find within that lightness, a hope and pleasure in sensory life. Sun, wind, kites, sambal. Padi, ducks, purnama. The mynah learning to speak its own name. For those discoveries, my gratitude is boundless. Here in the land of offerings, I offer up thankfulness that Bali simply is.
Charlotte Bacon is a novelist and short-story writer whose books include A Private State, Lost Geography, There Is Room for You and Split Estate. Her collection of stories, A Private State, won the 1998 PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction. She will be appearing at the 2008 Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, which runs from October 14-19, 2008. For more information, visit www.ubudwritersfestival.com
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Bali Times of August 23, 2008