In 2009, my Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali, Indonesia was 72 hours of guilt. I was up all night working, fielding emails from my boss as she trekked through the fall-out of Padang City following the West Sumatran earthquake in search of solutions. It wasn’t enough. Nothing was enough: 1 117 dead, 1 214 injured, thousands upon thousands shattered and homeless ahead of the monsoon rains.
I stepped off the plane from Jakarta into clean Bali heat. Sat with my head out the car window all the way up the hills and into Ubud feeling my eyes burn at the lushness of it all.
I’d only been living in Jakarta for three months, but already my brain was inured to the suffocating scream of the city, the grey concrete and the dirt tracks between glass buildings. Just breathing in Bali felt decadent, rich.
During the day, I sat and watched other people’s stories unfold through clammy eyes. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, not really. I wondered at all that talking, at what it meant to shape so many words up there in the hills above the poverty and the dogs that wound their way through the streets of Denpasar. During the night, I sat with the glare of my computer and the slow pass of the hours.
On the way back to Jakarta, the Javanese day labourers crouched on the edge of the road, waiting.
This time last year, the process of thought felt decadent to me. There was too much to do. My response to disaster, to the long hours and heartbreaking slog of my development agency’s earthquake mobilisation, was to shut down, to stop listening.
Ubud’s response to the disaster of the 2002 Bali bombings, on the other hand, was to open up. Festival founder and Director Janet Deneefe has described the Ubud Readers and Writers Festival as more than an economic development project: it’s a process of healing, for the community and its visitors alike. In the ceremonies, in the sessions, in the ritual of eating, in the steps you make over the smouldering offerings left out to the gods in the morning cool, it feels like it could be.
135 writers from 27 countries as diverse as China, Malta, Palestine, Bosnia, Canada, France, Turkey, Australia, and, of course, from across the Indonesian archipelago spoke at the festival this year. Thomas Keneally, Kate Adie, Ma Jian, Anne Enright, Tash Aw. From the lilting weave of M Aan Mansyur’s poetry, to the troubled debating of Meanjin writers discussing the fine line between writing and politics in the rising morning heat. A myriad of different stories and struggles played out through interpreters and in the raised hands of the audience.
In Bali, they say that ‘suka tanpa wali duka’. No pleasure comes without pain. Balinese culture isn’t about embracing pleasure and ignoring pain, but about achieving balance. Acknowledging that they exist together, and attempting to find a way in which to achieve harmony.
What can be disturbing about visiting Bali as an outsider is that the tourist culture on the island often seems hell-bent on throwing pain out the window, turning a blind eye to suffering, on stomping browned, cellulite thighs down the beachfront in Louis Vuitton underpants over washed-up rubbish and the driftwood stalls of women selling shells and stickers for cents.
But attending the full festival this year, with enough distance between myself and Jakarta’s screaming, I could see the contours of what Ubud is attempting to do. Walk the line between the politics of stories and stories of politics. Ask us to think about balance, and what it means to write in a world where all our actions have consequences. It asks its readers and writers alike to interrogate the politics of privilege.
I had the honour of chairing a Q&A with Ma Thida, a Burmese surgeon and writer who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for her political activities in the 1990s. After enormous pressure from Amnesty International and International PEN, Thida was released after serving five and a half years. She lives and continues to write in Burma under the threat of fourteen and a half years imprisonment. Our session was shaped by the things she couldn’t say, by silence and sadness.
The night before, at a dinner hosted by Janet in the breathing space of her home, I’d caught Thida’s eye across the room as we sat over the laughing tables, scooping saffron rice from baskets in the heat of the low Ubud night.
We both smiled.
And listened, hoping for balance.