The thirteenth edition of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, one of Southeast Asia’s leading literary events, concluded this October 30th. Over five days, around 170 authors, artists and performers from more than 20 countries took centre stage, the largest contingent being from Indonesia and Australia.
The overarching theme for the more than 200 panel-sessions, workshops, art programs and other events held across around town was ‘Tat Tvam Asi’ (I am you, you are me), a call to ‘look into one another and recognise ourselves’. Issues facing the region and the world were on the discussion tables, including environmental degradation and climate change, oppression and human rights, and rethinking borders.
Two Singaporean writers were featured in the main program: New York-based Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, author of the novel Sarong Party Girls, and Amanda Lee Koe, whose short story collection Ministry of Moral Panic won the Singapore Literature Prize. The launch of Singapore-published Tales of Two Cities: Singapore and Hong Kong (Ethos Books), a short story collection of writers from the Singapore Writers Group and the Hong Kong Writers Circle rounded up the Singapore presence.
Keynotes delivered by Indonesian prominent ‘resistant fiction’ writer and journalist Seno Gumira Ajidarma and by Chinese-Canadian actress and human rights advocate Anastasia Lin attracted large audiences on day one. Another highlight was Korean-American novelist and investigative journalist Suki Kim’s recount of her undercover expedition into North Korea, posing as a missionary and English teacher. Her travails didn’t end once she left the secluded country, as she faced further obstacles trying to publish her story as ‘investigative journalism’ rather than as a ‘memoir’, which is how it was eventually published.
One of the biggest draws of the day was Indonesian renowned epic novelist Eka Kurniawan, whose celebrated novel Beauty is a Wound has recently been translated into English. His appearance at the Festival came after last year’s panel-discussion in which he was taking part —about the 1965 massacre— was cancelled due to government pressures.
On day two, it was the turn for powerful accounts of struggle and redemption, such as Shandra Wowuruntu’s, an Indonesian woman victim of the sex-trafficking-industry turned human rights advocate, and American Mitchell Jackson’s journey from imprisonment for drug-related charges to becoming an award-winning author and a faculty member of prestigious US universities.
Well-known Indian authors Githa Hariharan, Amit Chaudhuri, and Jeet Thayil were featured on days two and three. Speaking on the panel The Spell of Poetry, Jeet Thayil expressed his reluctance to talking about poetry to explain it, which would make as much sense as trying to explain dance, in his opinion. He also derided the notion of inspiration as the engine of poetic creation, arguing it is overrated, in detriment of steady work. Reading other authors’ poems right before he starts writing, he disclosed, sets the mood for his own creative flow.
Also on day three, literary luminary Lionel Shriver talked about her latest darkly humorous novel The Mandibles: A Family, 2029–2047, the saga of a well-to-do family whose fortune vaporises along with everybody else’s in the country in a financially dystopian near future. A wall is built in the US-Mexico border, and Mexico did pay for it, she said —alluding to electoral promises made by “a US presidential candidate”. The difference being that in her novel, the wall was built by Mexico to keep Americans out. She likes to think that the presidential candidate took the idea from her, she added.
On the same day, Mexican novelist and translator Juan Pablo Villalobos spoke about his novel Down the Rabbit Hole, and about his current project: a non-fiction account of the ordeals of unaccompanied Central American migrant children in the US-Mexican borders. When he is looking for a voice in his writing, he explains, he is actually looking for a tone, as in music. He mentioned Peruvian Alfredo Bryce Echenique’s Un Mundo para Julius, and J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye as works that had influenced his own.
The last day included impressive presentations, such as American Hanya Yanagihara’s – she is the author of the celebrated novels The People in the Trees and A Little Life; Nigerian novelist Helon Habila, who shared the stories of some of the Chibok Girls kidnapped by Boko Haram; and bestselling Australian novelist Hannah Kent, who talked about her new book, The Good People.
This was my second year attending the Ubud Festival, and it is now even clearer to me why international visitors flood this town for the event. It is a perfect storm of beautiful surroundings, kind hospitality, compelling themes, and a string of original thinkers from the region and beyond.