Greetings from the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF), which has just concluded its second day. Here’s a bit of historical background: founded in response to the 2002 Bali bombings, the festival celebrates its fifteenth anniversary this year. Since then, UWRF has successfully surmounted several challenges: In 2015, the local government censored festival discussions of the 1965 mass killings in Indonesia; last year, volcanic activity took a toll on festival participation, with many attendees and speakers canceling their flights. This year, we (Norman Erikson Pasaribu and Tiffany Tsao) were both invited to speak at the festival in our capacity as writers, and we thought we would share some of our impressions so far.
On Wednesday, the festival held a press call immediately before the festival’s official opening gala event. The press call featured festival founders Janet DeNeefe and Ketut Suardana, as well as some of the festival’s speakers, including Hanif Kureishi, Reni Eddo-Lodge, Avianti Armand, and Norman Erikson Pasaribu (hooray!). Ketut Suardana spoke about how they coined this year’s theme, Jagadhita – the world we create, and how we should live life according to dharma (goodness) and strive to attain ultimate happiness. When Norman was asked what he expected his writing to achieve, took the opportunity to observe that perhaps “goodness” and “happiness” shouldn’t be so universalized. Quoting a line from Marianne Katoppo, that “language is where theology begins,” he noted how we rarely refer to either concept in plural form. Such language places limitations on what it means to be happy and good, pressuring queer communities in Indonesia to conform to society and engage in self-erasure. Reni, when asked what advice she had for Indonesian feminists, humbly answered that she isn’t in a position to suggest anything to them without listening to them first since their experiences are very culturally specific and very different from hers as a British-Nigerian woman.
Childhood came up as a major topic during the Q&A and Hanif Kureishi said people of color need to write their own stories in order to achieve better representation in literature. Reni, who grew up in the 90s reading the Harry Potter series, for example, observed how we also can learn through reading other people’s stories, and that we shouldn’t limit our imagination in our reading. Norman said that he rarely found queer characters in his reading growing up, so he writes, in a way, to fill that childhood void and that queer liberation can happen if it is imagined.
Tiffany’s festival experience began in earnest on Thursday, which was the first day of the main program, with panels galore. As she sat in the audience for a panel on “Crossing Cultures,” she couldn’t help but feel the strangeness of sitting in a town in Bali listening to Iranian-UK writer Kamin Mohammadi talk about tomatoes in Florentine markets. On one hand, one of the most exciting things about attending a large literary festival like UWRF is getting to hear what writers from all over the world have to say. On the other hand, there is something about this internationalisation of festival offerings that can be oddly dislocating.
She next attended a panel featuring four Indonesian poets from different “poetic” generations: the venerable Sapardi Djoko Damono and established poet Warih Wisatsana, alongside younger poets such as Gratiagusti Chananya Rompas and Andre Septiawan. Damono read his poem Berjalan Ke Barat Pada Pagi Hari [Walking to the West in the Morning] and shared how the poem was inspired by his habit of walking in the morning. He also noted how a writer shouldn’t be afraid to change their style. Rompas spoke of the pressure she felt to live up to a mythologized version of her mother in the wake of her mother dying of breast cancer. Strength comes from accepting our vulnerabilities, she asserted, in keeping with observations she has made on other occasions about the harmful effects of society stigmatizing mental illness.
There are still three more days of the festival to go, and tomorrow is the first day we’re both scheduled to speak. Stay tuned for our second dispatch on the first of November!
Tiffany Tsao is a writer and literary translator. She is the author of the Oddfits novel series (AmazonCrossing) and the literary thriller Under Your Wings (Viking, 2018). She has translated several Indonesian works into English, including Dee Lestari’s Paper Boats and Laksmi Pamuntjak’s The Birdwoman’s Palate. Her translation of Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s poetry collection Sergius Seeks Bacchus is forthcoming in 2019 from Tilted Axis Press.
Norman Erikson Pasaribu is a writer of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. Dubbed by English PEN as “part of a long tradition of queer Catholic writing,” his first book of poems Sergius Seeks Bacchus won a PEN Translates Award in 2018. In 2017, he won the Young Author Award from the Southeast Asia Literary Council. He’s working on his first novel now. You can find more about him at normaneriksonpasaribu.com.
Read more about UWRF from the Asymptote blog: