The Ubud Writers & Readers Festival showcases the best of Indonesian, South East Asian and international writing. It runs this year from 11 – 15 October, and it will feature more than 170 writers, performers and artists, working across all forms of storytelling – from travel writing to song writing, via plays, poetry, comedy and graphic novels.
Michael Vatikiotis is a Singapore-based author and journalist. He has worked for the Bangkok Post, and for the BBC World Service. He was the editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review. His books include: Indonesian Politics under Suharto, Political Change in Southeast Asia; Trimming the Banyan Tree; Debatable Land, Stories from Southeast Asia; The Spice Garden; The Painter of Lost Souls.
Michael will be blogging from Ubud. Here he introduces himself, and talks about how his immersion in the cultures of South East Asia has influenced his own writing.
Southeast Asia offers a colourful palette for the writer. You have the chaotic crush of its mega cities, with their multitude of sounds and smells. They are the focal points of societies in transition, throwing together the very rich and the very poor in volatile close proximity. Then you have the remote margins where barely ruled people walk on the wild side carrying ancient grudges and modern guns.
My first published fiction was a series of short stories, loosely conceived to reflect the contemporary social and political transformation then affecting countries I knew well such as Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. The region was in flux and seized with hopes for a democratic future, but at the same time fearful of losing newfound prosperity. I was living in Hong Kong, where a group of writers and poets had started to exchange literary views and stories, using online chat rooms and plotting a way to gain more of a hearing for their fragmented voices.
The stories in the collection delved into the exciting transitions in Thailand and Indonesia, reflecting on the clash of traditional cultures and brash new material values.
There was the Thai migrant worker returned from Saudi Arabia who one night builds a brick wall across a lane in Bangkok to protest his son’s death at the hands of a careless new-rich driver. There’s the idealistic student in Jakarta who drives a car into a line of troops at the height of the pro-democracy protests in 1998.
The end of the century was marked by violent conflict as these transitions got underway. In my first novel, The Spice Garden, I created a cast of characters taken by surprise when their island paradise, a model of religious and social harmony, is invaded by mysterious dark forces that generate a vicious religious war between Muslims and Christians.
Indonesia survived the trauma of its transition, and a thriving democracy is in place. But freedom has unleashed new forces of extremism and intolerance and exposed the truth about the country’s dark past. For my second novel, The Painter of Lost Souls, set in Central Java, I wanted to explore the memories of Indonesia’s traumatic first few decades and the historical tensions between the forces of pluralism and dogma that currently plague Indonesian society.
This is a novel of the times, for when I embarked on it some five years ago, no one was willing to debate the country’s dark past – the fact that as many as a million and a half people were killed in a brutal crackdown on communist party members and sympathisers across Java and Bali in 1965.
It has been left to the artists, writers and filmmakers to delve back in time to bring some of this unspeakable tragedy to light. It’s the main reason I chose to tell the story through the eyes of a painter. The artist has license. And so it is, that by writing fiction, even in English, I hope a little of the complex tapestry of society in Southeast Asia is more easily exposed to a wider audience. At the same time I hope my writing becomes part of a useful dialogue with friends and colleagues from the region on what makes it tick and how it might become a better place. For the artist has an obligation as well.
Look out for Michael's posts over the coming few days.