Friday, February 15, 2013

Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2012: A Storytellers’ Soiree

ZHANG SU LI learned that the world is truly “Bumi Manusia” at the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2012

PRAMOEDYA ANANTA TOER was one of Indonesia’s greatest contemporary writers. While subjected to hard labour, torture and deprivation as a political prisoner on the island prison of Buru in eastern Indonesia, he wrote a story set at the end of Dutch colonial rule. Without pen and paper, he did not actually “write” this story; he narrated it to his fellow prisoners, who then spread it to the other prisoners. This was how his story was preserved. Years later, when he was granted access to writing materials the story evolved into the epic, This Earth of Mankind (Bumi Manusia). The title of Pramoedya’s novel was the theme of this year’s Ubud Writers & Readers Festival (UWRF), celebrating the enduring power of storytelling. From October 3 to 7, 2012, a diverse group of 140 writers from 30 countries congregated in Ubud, the cultural heart of Bali, to share their stories.


Anuradha Roy, author of An Atlas of Impossible Longing
and The Folded Earth
I arrived at Samhita Garden, a lovely little resort on a quiet lane off the main road, on a Tuesday afternoon, one day before the festival. The familiar sounds of gamelan floating softly in the air, moss-covered stone frogs with mouths agape shooting thin streams of water into a pond, roosters crowing from a distant village, and a gardener greeting me with a smile and a “Selamat siang” transported me to a universe far away from the world of meetings and stressful deadlines. Here were stories of adventure and exploration, of joy and sadness, of courage and endurance, stories of the mind and of the heart. From their hotels all over Ubud, participants are brought to their first dinner together.

For me, this dinner is always a little exciting and daunting. One had to find somebody to talk to, a few to mingle with, or suffer the fate of standing in a corner with a drink in one hand and a canapé in another, hoping that someone would come over and start a conversation. A traditional Balinese dance started halfway through cocktails.

“What dance is that?” A lady with a northern Indian accent asked.

“It’s a traditional Balinese dance.” Of course it is, I thought. “But I do not know exactly what it’s called,” I continued.

She introduced herself as Anuradha Roy.

“Oh! I saw your name in the programme. At first glance I thought it was Arundhati Roy.” As soon as those words flew from my lips, I realised how offensive they were, especially to an author as accomplished as Anuradha Roy. The programme notes stated that she had won several awards for her novels.

“Oh, yes,” she smiled. “In fact, someone wrote on her blog that Arundhati Roy has a new book out!”

I immediately liked her. Over dinner, I learned that she and her husband live in a cottage in Ranikhet, north India, at the foot of the snow-capped Himalayas. She told me about how they first saw the derelict cottage, at the tip of a slope.

“We had to stand on tip-toes because the place was a soggy mess of plastic bags, warped shoes, dented tins and bottles. The cottage had broken windows blinded with sheets of newspaper browned with age. Inside, the floor was a mound of dank mud. Rotted sacking hung from a ruined false ceiling. Beams of wood sagged from it. And in one corner, stood a dog.” Anuradha’s face lit up. “Its eyes shone in its sooty face. Its peaked ears were the colour of copper, and its fringed tail waved slowly side to side, like a banner. Only a few things in life can be pinned to particular moments. And this was one: we knew immediately, my husband and I, that we would live there, in that cottage, on that hill.”

In the same year that they began restoring the cottage, they were also struggling to establish their publishing house. Being in a desolate place, with no Internet access or mobile phone lines, things naturally moved at a different pace. A tree fell onto a wire and they had no power for several days.

“Days passed,” she said, “weeks.”

The carpenter didn’t turn up because his fruit trees had been ravaged by monkeys. Not long after, the plumber went back to his village to tend to his sick buffalo.

“We waited.”

When he returned, he had nothing to do because the taps had not arrived—a landslide had blocked the road.

“We waited.”

Anuradha began planting lily bulbs and rose cuttings. An elderly lady herding goats approached her and said, “Everything happens in its own time. Flowers bloom in their own time.”

Anuradha’s first novel, An Atlas of Impossible Longing, was rejected sixteen times, but she persisted in sending out her manuscript. Weeks passed, months. She waited. When it was finally published a year later, it was translated into 15 languages across the world. Soon after, it was shortlisted for The Economist Crossword Award, longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and was named by World Literature Today as one of the 60 most essential books on modern India. Her second novel, The Folded Earth, was longlisted for the Man Asia Literary Prize, and won The Economist Crossword Award for Fiction 2012.

Flowers bloom in their own time.


Janet Steele
The festival atmosphere started to gather momentum the following evening when the rest of the writers arrived. Small groups of people had already gathered on the streets just outside the entrance of the Ubud Palace where the opening festival was held.

An elegant lady dressed in a colourful tropical print halter-neck dress sat on the edge of a gazebo. I had met Janet Steele at the UWRF two years before, and was delighted to see her again.

I sat next to her and asked her what she had been up to. After telling me with child-like excitement about the Malaysian claypot egg tofu with fish roe that she experimented with recently (it turned out delicious), we moved on to the book on journalism and Islam in the Malay Archipelago that she’s currently working on.

I’ve always wondered what drew Steele to Asia. Originally from Florida, and now Associate Professor of Journalism at the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, she has lectured on the theory and practice of journalism as a State Department Speaker and Specialist in India, Malaysia, the Philippines, East Timor, Taiwan, Burma, Sudan, Egypt and Bangladesh.

Based in Jakarta, she makes frequent visits to Kuala Lumpur where she works closely with Malaysiakini, Malaysia’s only independent news portal. Her Anglo-Saxon looks—golden hair and blue eyes—always causes a few surprised stares from strangers whenever she speaks Indonesian or Malay, and fluently too. “I’ve always had an interest in the intersection of news and culture,” Steele said when I asked her why she decided to write a book on journalism and Islam.

“I started working on the book after it occurred to me that although the values of good journalism—truth, balance, verification, independence from power—are universal, people the whole world over understand those values through the prisms of local culture.”

“So, what then,” I asked, “in your opinion, is good journalism?”

“Giving the people the information they need in order to make wise decisions in both their public and private lives,” she replied.

What could be nobler than that?


The sound of the gong proclaimed that the festival had officially begun. The afternoon sun that felt like tiny pins on my skin earlier on had let up a little. There was even a cool breeze to announce the approaching evening. We headed to Casa Luna for dinner.

Dr. Neal Hall, a muscular man with jovial face and an extremely pleasant personality, joined us at our table. He earned his undergraduate degree at Cornell University where he achieved All Ivy, All East Coast, and All American Honors. He also has a medical degree from Michigan State University, and obtained his ophthalmology surgical subspecialty training at Harvard University.

In his anthology of poems, an introduction reads:
Christians speak of being born again.
The Buddhist speaks of enlightenment.
Not until I experienced
the Zenist’s satori,
this sudden awakening,
did I come to the realization that
despite all insurmountable obstacles
faced and overcome,
to white America,
I am a Nigger for Life
I asked Dr. Hall if the situation really was that bad.

“As a young boy, I was taught to believe Washington never told a lie, Lincoln freed the slaves, that the American dream was a reality well within the reach of every American,” he answered with a smile. “And that all I needed to do to make this dream a reality was apply self-motivation, discipline, hard work and education. After years of academic rigours, freshly minted from a Harvard ophthalmic medical and surgical subspecialty in tow, I discovered, painfully, that despite all my hard work, enthusiasm and drive, America does not deliver equally. Whether I work as an ophthalmologist or poet, my reality is clear-cut. In the eyes of ‘unspoken America’, I am a Nigger for Life.”

The next day I bumped into Dr. Hall again at Casa Luna, waiting for a shuttle van. A Caucasian couple was sitting at a table near the entrance. We took a table next to theirs. Soon after we sat down, the couple moved to another table. Hall took out his book—Nigger for Life, showed it to them and, with a big smile, pointed at himself. I didn’t turn to see how they responded, but we both chuckled with amusement.


Don George, editor of Better Than Fiction:
True Travel Tales from Great Fiction Writers
I shared the panel session, “Honest, I’m working”, with Don George, author of the bestselling Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing and editor of eight travel anthologies, including The Kindness of Strangers and Better Than Fiction: True Travel Tales from Great Fiction Writers. George is also editor-at-large for National Geographic Traveler.

We were each asked to share with the audience the most touching story from our years of travel. Many stories came to mind. I had to choose only one. So I told the one about the day I truly believed that my life was about to end in the most horrifying way.

“An auto-rickshaw driver took me to his friend’s restaurant for a ‘free and delicious’ dinner. While waiting for the food to arrive, Sunil gave me a glass of Indian gin, which he said was ‘very special’. I tried it, and after a few gulps, I felt dizzy and terribly uncomfortable. The room was spinning. I was close to passing out. I told Sunil to take me back to my hotel, but he insisted that we stayed on. After much insistence from me, he reluctantly agreed.

“Although I was almost unconscious, I realised that the route we were taking looked nothing like the one we took to get to the restaurant. We were in a jungle, on a narrow dirt path. We were in complete darkness, and all I could hear was the sound of bushes and twigs brushing against the sides of the auto-rickshaw. Even though it was clear to me that my life was fast reaching its end, and that my soul would take the trauma with it into my next existence, I did not panic. I was simply too ill to feel any fear. And besides, we were alone in a dark jungle. Nobody would hear me if I screamed.

“Half an hour later, we came to a halt. My eyes were closed, but I heard Sunil talking in Hindi to two men who dragged me out of the auto-rickshaw. Then I saw the lights of my hotel lobby. Sunil told me that he had instructed the men, who were the hotel staff, to take me as far as the door of my room, and that they were not to enter. “

The next day, Sunil came to check on me. For the next few days he took me to some magnificent places that hardly anyone knew about, let alone tourists. There was nobody in sight for miles, and I felt perfectly safe with him.”

George’s story was about a boy who suddenly appeared out of nowhere to help him. “I was lost in a crowded bazaar in Cairo. After hopelessly trying to get out of the maze-like market, I felt a small hand on mine. Turning round, I saw that it belonged to a little boy. The boy led me through the narrow snake-like lanes until we were out and facing the main road. I felt the boy release his hand. When I turned to look at him, he had disappeared. I’ve met many people like this little boy, who were like angels that suddenly turned up from nowhere when you needed help.”

* * *

These are just a few of the stories I heard at the UWRF. Everyone had one to tell. But every success story was preceded by a sad backstory—stories of rejection, horrible contracts, bad distribution, non-existent marketing and publicity, and a list of other miseries that often made them wish they had taken up law or accountancy instead. Yet it is these struggles that make them so human: humble, wise, light-hearted, full of life, and devoid of the feeling of self-importance—traits that all truly good writers seem to have.

And my story? I want to tell something to all those people who assume I lead a glamorous life, people who, after discovering I’m a writer, predictably exclaim, “Wow, that’s a dream life you’re living” or, “You must get a really good ‘advance’, right?” Or, “So, you have a cottage by the sea, or a villa in the highlands that gives you the peace and quiet you need to write?” I want to tell them that for five days in the year (provided I get invited to the festival), yes, I do lead a glamorous life!


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