Selamat pagi (good morning) from Ubud, Bali. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, a destination literary and arts festival created in response to the Bali bombings in 2002. To mark the occasion, festival founder and director Janet DeNeefe has returned to the theme from the first year: Habis Gelap Terbitlah Terang (Through Darkness to Light), words invoked once again to honor Indonesian women’s rights pioneer R.A. Kartini. In fact if this year’s festival had a unifying theme, it would be women, not just their rights but their work, books, music, art, and their evolving role in the region. At the press conference that kicked things off, bestselling Indonesian author Ahmad Fuadi translated the genre of Indonesian women’s fiction into English as “fragrant literature,” eliciting as many groans as laughs from the overwhelmingly white, female attendants.
In its first year the festival featured readings, workshops, discussions, and other events with 67 writers across 27 venues. The past decade has brought major changes, and challenges, to not only the festival but also its home city, where seemingly untempered expansion has created a “point of no return” fear that is a main topic of conversation. In 2003, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love had yet to make the western world fall in love with—and decide to visit—Ubud. As one Indonesian reporter put it this year, Ubud today is so “congested, crowded and choked with traffic [that] walking is faster than taking a taxi.” During the festival this was certainly true.
Despite the traffic, and the heat, it was news to no one that this year’s festival was “bigger than ever,” according to DeNeefe, with 200 events across 50 venues involving nearly 175 writers, musicians, artists, and activists. Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan (The Narrow Road to the Deep South) called the festival “an extraordinary bridge from the west to Asia,” a metaphor repeated over the four-day fest by a large number of the writers and artists who came to Bali from all over Indonesia, Australia, and Asia, and from as far away as Canada, the U.S., and England.
One of this year’s biggest draws was British author Sebastian Faulks (A Possible Life), who over the course of several events gave attendants much to Tweet about. Whether he was handily summing up his school days (“rum, sodomy, and the lash”) or referring to his creations as “only marks of ink on paper,” Faulks was always engaging, witty, and eloquent, and never more so than when he was asked about the impact of digital technology on reading. “We mustn’t allow this sound-bite culture to prevail,” he said. “It’s up to the existing publishers, while they still exist, before they are disarticulated, to fight back. For all the despair, books remain, of all the art forms, the most hopeful.”
Fulbright scholar, Fuadi, whose novel The Land of Five Towers sold over 100,000 copies in Indonesia in its first year, criticized Indonesian publishers for their bias towards western books. Indonesia’s roughly 2,000 publishers put out about 25,000 titles annually. “Half of them are by Indonesians,” Fuadi said, lamenting how few of his country’s writers’ books are translated into other languages. “Stories from Indonesia aren’t written only for our countrymen,” he said, calling the festival, unique in its cross-cultural impact, “an important stage” from which to share the work of Indonesian writers like him.
Despite the festivals’ admirable aim of bringing Asian and Indonesian writers to western readers’ attention, Fuadi’s criticism was all-too-clear when I asked for the English translation of his book at four local bookstores. While all of them had Elizabeth Gilbert's new novel, none stocked anything by Fuadi.