Bombs and Books

The program for the first Ubud Writers and Readers Festival from October 11-17 seemed overly ambitious. The web site was touting Australian-Balinese healing for the first day, ‘How to Write a Novel in 20 Minutes’ for the second day, and activist strategies for Indonesia’s AIDS epidemic by Day 7. In between, the topics ranged from ‘Tropical Cuisine’ to ‘Next Stop, Antarctica’.

The scope of the event didn’t deter me. Never having been to Bali before, or for that matter Indonesia, a literary festival was my perfect excuse to go. Scrap Lonely Planet. I could get the real skinny on Bali from Indonesian and foreign writers giving their first-hand impressions of this battered paradise.

The festival coincided with the second anniversary of the bombing of the two Kuta nightclubs. The timing was deliberate. Australian Janet de Neefe, the festival founder, had conceived of the event to advance Bali’s “economic and spiritual recovery.” A restaurateur of Ubud, De Neefe is also the author of a cookbook cum memoir, Fragrant Rice (2003), that chronicles her long-term “love affair” with Bali and its food.

One of de Neefe’s enterprises, the Indus Restaurant, was the main venue for the festival. On the morning of the first day, the Indus was crawling with cops. I wondered whether Balinese police always hang around the entryways of posh restaurants, stopping traffic for foreign patrons to cross the street. It had been a while since I’d been to an arts event with such an overbearing police presence, at least not a discernable one. (The most recent might have been a punk gig in Butterworth.)

More than 100 of us literary types had already taken our seats, balancing programs and coffee cups on our laps. Just as the dancers finished sprinkling festivalgoers with holy water, a cop squad commandeered the restaurant. De Neefe looked a bit rueful as she announced that “a clearing ceremony,” had to take place before the event could officially begin. Sniffer dogs were ushered inside. They scrambled their way around the aisles, snuffling around the backpacks, briefcases and handbags parked on the floor.

I was idly contemplating whether my backpack contained any contraband (say, cheese?) that might enthuse a sniffer dog, when I suddenly had a stab of panic. I remembered that the Australian, U.K. and U.S. governments all have issued travel advisories about congregating at expatriate hangouts exactly like this one. Then, I came to my senses. Bombing a bunch of peace-loving literati, including journalists from such prominent news outlets as The Jakarta Post and the Australian Broadcast Corporation (ABC), would have to be the stupidest terrorist strategy ever. Nah, I wasn’t going to die in Ubud that week.

Strangely enough, I was grateful for the reveille. During the course of the week, as I sat in that restaurant overlooking verdant rice paddies, I kept having to remind myself that the island was still on the rebound. The 2002 bombings had left more than 180 people dead and 400 injured and had wreaked havoc on the livelihoods of nearly all its residents. Bali’s 70-year-old reputation as a tourist and expat haven has yet to be fully restored even though tourist arrivals are up this year. Despite its insularity, Bali is part of Indonesia: that vast, far-flung, populous archipelago with a turbulent political history – and a literary heritage – that I knew almost nothing about.

After the cops and dogs cleared out, Goenawan Mohamad was free to begin his keynote address. Goenawan is one of Indonesia’s foremost writers and familiar to many Malaysians. He spoke, in English, on the theme ‘Through Darkness to Light’. A founder of Tempo, Indonesia’s leading independent magazine for news and commentary, Goenawan didn’t refrain from attacking his own profession. He criticized journalism for creating “a ritual for dead language” by trying to secure meaning with religious and political catchphrases. Language, he said, is like a galloping horse; the role of literature is to keep language moving and alive.

The potency of literature – as a force for either conciliation or provocation – was a theme revisited by other speakers during the course of the festival. Michael Vatikiotis, a former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, said that in Indonesia, where the press has often been censored or bought, literature has been a locus for democratic struggle. Many speakers remarked on Indonesia’s flowering of expression since the end of the Suharto regime, which brought about a veritable explosion in publishing.

One of the festival’s goals was to nurture an Australian-Indonesian cultural exchange. The organizers hoped to support “the healing process” in the aftermath of the bombings. Hence, the large proportion of Australians on the program. Only a few speakers from Asian countries with English-language writing traditions were present Hong Kong (3), Philippines (2), Singapore (2), India (1), and Malaysia (1).

The Malaysian was Raman Krishnan of Silverfish Books. Krishnan participated in the panel on ‘Trends in Southeast Asian Publishing’. According to Krishnan, in Malaysia over the past two years, there’s been a reversal of the proscription against writing in English. With the rehabilitation of the English medium, he’d like to see Malaysians quit practicing self-censorship in their story writing. Krishnan was joined by James Murdoch of Periplus, a well-established multinational publisher and distributor, and American Mark Hanusz, an upstart in the world of Indonesian English-language publishing.

According to Hanusz, with the newfound freedom of expression in Indonesia, the top-selling books in Indonesia have been about either sex or religion. Equinox has managed to capitalize on other hot topics as well, e.g., crime and corruption, with Ken Conboy’s books Kopassus and Intel. The former spotlights Indonesia’s special forces, and the latter, the Badan Intelijen Negara, Indonesia’s State Intelligence Agency. Approximately 1,500 people attended the launch of Kopassus in 2002. Military personnel were there in force that night, but they were only buying books. More than 800 copies were sold.

In Ubud, the bomb inspections and traffic escorts were not the only evidence of a police presence. An hour was given over to a talk by Inspector General I Made Mangku Pastika, the Bali Chief of Police and head of the bombing investigation team. He briefed the audience on the measures the police have taken to safeguard the island. Many audience members were impressed by his understanding of Bali’s increasing social problems, such as drugs and theft, which have come with modernization.

More inspiring, for me, was the account given by The Jakarta Post reporter I Wayan Juniartha of the local heroism displayed after the Bali bombings. During a panel on ‘Responsible Journalism’, he described the outpouring of Moslem assistance with victim relief and peacekeeping immediately after the blasts. Religious leader Haji Bambang led the volunteer efforts. In covering the story, the Hindu journalists emphasized the role of local Moslems in the emergency operations – a subject that was underplayed in the international media.

The literary festival gained momentum as the week progressed and streams of new people arrived, many from other parts of Indonesia. Ten writers had been sponsored from Flores, Sulawesi and Sumatra. A sizeable Jakarta contingent boosted the festival’s charisma quotient, with appearances by such Indonesian celebrities as Ayu Utami, who also spoke at the Silverfish Books international literary festival in Kuala Lumpur last July.

Translation was both a major theme and a major problem at the festival. Part of the festival’s mission was to expose Indonesian writers to a foreign audience of writers and readers. But, none of the festival volunteers could say whether the sessions with Indonesian speakers would be translated into English. Most of the Bahasa Indonesia sessions were held at separate venues, in time slots that conflicted with the “main” program at the Indus Restaurant.

One panel discussion was about issues of translation, per se. Australian-New Zealander Jennifer Lindsay, from the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore, gave an excellent overview of current controversies in the field of translation. She countered the idea of “translator as traitor,” while acknowledging the power dynamics involved in translating works into a hegemonic language like English. She criticized the festival organizers for failing to make even abridged translations of the sessions available in Bahasa. Without translations, many Indonesian participants were, in effect, excluded from the English-language proceedings.

One night, a Balinese buffet dinner was given, in part, to fete the winners of the Penghargaan Sastra Khatulistiwa 2003-2004. A Jakarta-based foundation, Khatulistiwa offers annual literary awards with generous cash prizes to promote Indonesian literature (100 million rupiah for fiction, 30 million for nonfiction). The function was held on the premises of the Agung Rai Museum of Art (ARMA), but outdoors, in a large open area fronted by a lighted stage. The foreign participants were seated at banquet tables towards the front. Mysteriously, most of the Indonesian festivalgoers, even the award nominees and other celebrities, were sitting in plastic chairs, in the dark, at the very back.

Was it because the Indonesians hadn’t paid the extra fee for the buffet that they were relegated to the plastic chairs? Or were the Indonesians simply being good hosts by foregoing the good seats? This form of segregation was a shame, considering that another goal of the festival was to “foster the exchange of information, inspiration, and opportunities between cultural communities in the regions….” As most Malaysians know, community is fostered when people makan together.

And, what regions, exactly? The emphasis of the festival was on the Australian-Indonesian relationship, but what other regions were supposed to be represented? Publicity – and travel sponsorships –must have been spotty because certain parts of Southeast Asia weren’t represented at all. I was struck by the near total absence of Malaysians. The cost of attending such an event for most Malaysians is prohibitive, but another explanation is the lack of an ongoing literary exchange between the two countries. Most Malaysians don’t read Indonesian books and vice versa.

Maybe the language barriers were daunting, but I couldn’t help notice the formation of cliques – the old Bali hands, the hip Indonesians, and the uncategorizable ‘others’, like myself. All the while, many Balinese worked in the background to create the perfect, sensuous Ubud experience – between the meals, the performances, the ceremonies and the visual displays. Chalk it up to my naive enthusiasm about Malaysia’s racial harmony, but I didn’t see the same spirited mingling in Ubud that went on at the Silverfish literary festival.

That being said, there were moments of genuine communion between writers from different parts of the Pacific Rim. Alvin Pang, a Singaporean poet, moderated a session on recent literature in the Philippines with authors Vincente Groyon and Dina Roma. Pang and the Filipino writers had chemistry. Earlier in the week the Filipinos had performed at a poetry slam with Pang, along with Toh Hsien Min, the founding editor of the online Quarterly Literary Review Singapore (QLRS). They received rave reviews. Another successful collaboration was between writers from the State of Tasmania, in Australia, and Indonesia who launched the bilingual magazine Paradox.

The Bali-based magazine Latitudes also crosses boundaries ( The new editor is Laura Noszlopy, an anthropologist from the U.K., and the contributors are international. The October issue had an article called ‘Malicious Gossip’ by Associate Editor Bodrek Arsana from Denpasar. It was a translation of a conversation in Indonesian between friends who were shooting the breeze at a food stall. They remarked on the rise of rape and petty theft in Bali and disagreed about how to identify a criminal. With this piece, Arsana challenges the Balinese prejudice that outsiders are responsible for most of the crime on the island, defying fixed categories of us vs. them.

Despite the language and integration problems of this fledgling fest, the fact remains that a valiant attempt was made at bridging cultural and geographical divides, whether through impromptu translations or the not-so-simple act of listening. Many people, including me, enjoyed a crash course in literature and other genres. We never would have had this intense an exposure within our usual orbits. And, that is the beauty of cultural tourism.

I left Bali with the renewed conviction that there are many dubious ways of trying to prevent terror: governments’ slamming their borders to shut out foreign workers and immigrants; nationalistic policies that place tit-for-tat restrictions on tourist visas; the institution of biometric passports; and, even, beefed-up security forces and walls. A better way of promoting peace (besides eliminating worldwide poverty which would do wonders) is by creating openings instead of barriers – glimpses of cultural vistas other than our own; passageways into other people’s lives, real or imagined.

Perhaps it’s simple-minded to believe that the world would be a safer place if we read each other’s literature. But, through cultural exchanges like the one provided by this annual festival, we can begin to dispel the ignorance and xenophobia that underlie both terrorism and misguided responses to terrorism. One can only hope that next year in Ubud we’ll be spared the sniffer dogs.


Lucy Friedland is a freelance writer and editor from the U.S., tooling around Asia with regular pit stops in Penang.

First Published: 24.11.2004 on Kakiseni

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