Reflections from Ubud Writers and Readers Festival

As Asymptote's partnership with this year's UWRF winds down, join our Editors-at-Large as they reflect on all that happened in Ubud.

On the night of October 28, the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival (UWRF) wrapped up after four consecutive jam-packed days. Mornings, afternoons, and evenings were filled with stimulating conversations and lively panel discussions, film screenings and book launches, poetry slams and musical performances, all set in the culturally fertile town of Ubud in Bali, Indonesia. Australia Editor-at-Large Tiffany Tsao and Indonesia Editor-at-Large Norman Erikson Pasaribu were invited to speak in their capacities as writers. In this retrospective dispatch, each of them reflects candidly on their experiences at this year’s UWRF.

One Brain, Multiple Selves (Tiffany Tsao)

There was so much about participating in UWRF that was wonderful and exhilarating, but as I (Tiffany) write this, I’m realizing how exhausted I am! It’s mostly a good exhaustion—the kind that one experiences after being exposed to so many interesting ideas, books, and people. My head and heart are still abuzz, and the festival concluded several days ago!

There’s certainly some physical exhaustion thrown into the mix as well: I brought along my 10-month-old son, Azure. The festival was immensely supportive and bought him an infant plane ticket and made sure there was a crib in the room. Plus, my heroic father flew from Jakarta to babysit while I was busy participating in events and meeting people. Unfortunately, Azure slept fitfully during the nights before deciding at around 5:00 am each morning that it was time to rise and shine, which meant that I gained a new appreciation and appetite for coffee. Glorious, glorious coffee.

However, I think there’s more to my exhaustion than just mental exhilaration and physical fatigue. My participation in the festival required me to straddle several different identities. I was there as a novelist, a literary translator, and also an Asymptote editor, which meant discussing and promoting written work on three different levels—my own, those whose work I’ve translated, and the translated work Asymptote champions. I both spoke on and moderated panels, the latter of which meant doing research beforehand and attempting to facilitate stimulating conversation. And though I was an “international” writer on the one hand (thanks to having lived in Singapore, the US, and Australia), I also identify as “Indonesian” due to my family’s Chinese-Indonesian heritage. I often say that one of the most tiring things about parenthood is having to think about multiple bodies: does Body A need water, does Body B need its diaper changed, has Body C met her writing deadline (yes, I’m Body C). I felt similar at UWRF, having multiple personae to handle despite possessing a single brain.

Still, despite my tiredness, I wouldn’t have forgone any of those personae for the world. Moderating a panel on “Cosmopolitan Creativity” meant being able to initiate a spirited discussion on the challenges of writing cultures and countries not one’s own. Italian author Giuseppe Catozzella averred that fiction shouldn’t be enslaved to ethics because it might prevent voice from being given to the voiceless: case in point, his internationally bestselling Don’t Tell Me You’re Afraid, which tells the story of the late Somali Olympic athlete Samia Yusuf Omar in the first person. To be honest, I disagree on both points—I think an unfettered literary imagination can easily slip into neo-colonialism and I think the best way to give voice to the voiceless is to give them opportunities to speak, not to do so on their behalf. But I also believe that a good panel moderator withholds judgment and personal opinion, so I confess I was extremely happy when the other panel members—Australian novelist Gail Jones, Australian-UK poet Cath Drake, and Palestinian-Syrian poet (and former Asymptote Translation Tuesday contributor) Ghayath Almadhoun—stated each in turn that they did believe ethics applied to literary art. “You have power. You must acknowledge you have power,” Ghayath stated, directly addressing Giuseppe. During the Q&A, an audience member directly expressed her suspicion of that phrase: giving voice to the voiceless. It was very rewarding to prompt and chair such a conversation because these issues are very close to my heart.

As both an Indonesian and “international” writer I found the borderline segregation between things having to do with Indonesian literature and things having to do with non-Indonesian literature somewhat peculiar. Several panels featured either only Indonesian writers or only non-Indonesian writers, and Indonesian books were sold at a different site from the non-Indonesian books. Due to my connection with Norman and my own language abilities and background, I was able to meet and interact with a lot of other Indonesian writers. I’m not sure I would have had the same opportunity otherwise. Oftentimes it felt as if there were parallel festivals going on: one for foreigners and one for locals!

On a related note, I attended a panel about the national language, Indonesian/Bahasa Indonesia, that made me mull over the perceived mutual exclusivity of Indonesianness and English when it comes to writing. Indonesian essayist and poet Theodora Sarah Abigail had to answer twice in the affirmative when panel moderator I Wayan Juniarta asked whether she considered herself an Indonesian writer, even though she wrote in English. She explained that she grew up in the US and despite having Chinese-Indonesian parents, only moved to Indonesia and began speaking Indonesian on an everyday basis when she was fourteen—hence writing in English simply came more naturally to her. This question, “Is Indonesian literature written in English still Indonesian literature?” is one that frankly annoys me: why the hell not? Why would we have any reason to think that Indonesianness and the English-language medium are mutually exclusive, especially in this age, when English appears to be taking over the world?

There’s also the fact that Indonesian isn’t necessarily a language all Indonesians are comfortable with—it was made the official national language when Indonesia gained independence. As such, it itself can be considered a tool of state suppression. For many Indonesians, especially in less urban areas, the language of their particular ethnic group comes more naturally to them. Poet Aan Mansyur, who was on the panel, said that he considers Indonesian a second language—he writes in Indonesian, but he thinks in Buginese. Another question that arose: Can Indonesian as a language be divorced from the ideology of the nation-state that concretizes and enforces its usage? French columnist and author Jean Couteau seemed to hint as much when speaking of his decision to write in Indonesian, alongside French and English: “it’s more than a national language just for Indonesians.”

There was one incident that made me genuinely sad at the festival. Every year, UWRF puts together an anthology of selected Indonesian writers they would like to bring to the attention of the festival’s non-Indonesian attendees. The anthology features these writers’ works in the original Indonesian and in English translation. Two of Norman’s poems were selected for this anthology and he submitted my translations for inclusion. However, the anthology’s editors chose to have the poems retranslated by Indonesian poet Debra Yatim (who usually translates the poetry for the UWRF anthologies), without asking Norman or me for permission, or even letting us know. I was dismayed and perplexed, as was Norman, who will recount the events from his perspective if you read on!

One Shelf, Multiple Languages (Norman Erikson Pasaribu)

I came to this year’s UWRF with a suitcase full of brochures. I was there as an author of two books in Indonesian, and also as Asymptote’s Indonesia Editor-at-Large. I had three kilos of excess baggage and needed to rearrange my things at Soekarno-Hatta Airport. Later in the taxi to Ubud, Nguyen Phan Que Mai, a Vietnamese author who was on the same flight with me, asked if the long stick wrapped in the plastic that I brought with me was for a poetry performance. It was actually a banner for Asymptote (a stunning one!).

This is my fourth time coming to the festival since my first experience in 2015 as one of the festival’s emerging writer fellows. That year, I saw censorship imposed on the festival regarding its panels about the 1965 genocide. It was rather strange for me since the festival had showcased the topic in the past without garnering any visible protest. There were whispers saying the censorship was actually to silence the panels about coastal reclamation, a very sensitive issue in Bali at the time since it involved money from mega-conglomerates.

My experience this time was, overall, pleasant. I found joy in talking to Tiffany until late at night; in meeting Will Buckingham and Hannah Stevens of the UK project Wind and Bones; in having a truly funny dinner with Lian Low and her partner Kylie Johnston, who both came from Melbourne to see the festival; in telling Reni Eddo-Lodge (as we waited for the press call to start) a funny anecdote about an interreligious-cum-interracial relationship between a Bataknese and Javanese person, in which they had to endure more than six ceremonies and rituals in order to become partners. I, however, also have some lingering feelings that are bothering me after the festival’s conclusion.

As Tiffany noted above, sometimes it felt two festivals were going on at the same time, one for Indonesian authors and another for foreign authors. The two panels I was on were all-Indonesian panels. Nevertheless, I felt very privileged to discuss topics that are considered taboo in Indonesia today, along with Djenar Maesa Ayu, Feby Indirani, and Nuril Basri, and the journalist Febriana Firdaus as the moderator. It’s good to share our voices, with the hope it will attract more people to speak up and share theirs.

However, when I first got to my hotel, I found in my tote bag the festival anthology of Indonesian writing. I was stunned to see that the festival didn’t use Tiffany’s translation, the one that I sent them when they asked me about my work. They didn’t even inform me of this decision. Even worse, after a close reading of the translation, I disliked it. I didn’t want to call it a “homophobic translation,” but that was what I felt when I read it. One example was the phrase “the love in their breasts,” which sent me over the edge because it sounded so overly sexualised (Tiffany translated it as “the love in their hearts”). I have no problem with breasts, of course, but “man with breasts” was the phrase used by some people in my childhood to mock me for being a fat, effeminate boy. It’s so ironic to feel alienated by a translation of your own writing, and I sincerely think that in a time where so little writing from non-English-speaking queer writers of colour sees publication or gets read, the strategy of translation is crucially political.

During the week, people kept saying that my English was “very good” and asked if I had gone to the US to study. Why do these foreigners keep thinking Indonesians can’t speak English? I was curious about the roots of that “very good” assumption and how to resist it. But then I realised the festival program was quite segregated, which might have contributed to this.

Regarding the Bahasa Indonesia/Indonesian panel, I felt that it was missing something due to the absence of writers advocating our local languages. Ivan Lanin, whom the moderator termed an “Indonesian language expert,” noted how Indonesian is a part of national identity and how today you can speak Indonesian to all Indonesians, including ones who live on the edges of the country. I found Ivan’s opinion too presumptuous. I have visited several places in Eastern Indonesia where many people don’t speak even a little Indonesian, and also where the younger generation starts abandoning their mother tongue, turning the older people of the area into “the last speakers of —.” We also need to acknowledge how Indonesian has been used by Soeharto’s New Order to impose discrimination on the people, and even to soften human rights abuses. Acknowledging our post-colonial reality doesn’t only mean being aware of English as a language of imperialism. It also means admitting that Indonesian has been used as a filter to prevent access, a tool to oppress people who don’t speak it. I would like to remind myself that an equal society won’t require the use of one specific language. And no language should be “primary.”

I want to see Indonesia as an enormous bookshelf, full of books in different languages.


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