Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Ubud Writers and Readers Festival 2016

Not exactly a cubicle: writing in the Desa Visesa restaurant
This morning we -- my sallow, heavy-lidded family of nostoi -- arrived home from Bali, Indonesia. For a week, I was a guest of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF).

We landed in Denpasar last Tuesday, both Nikos and Sophia overwhelmed by the humidity. They're used to Melbourne's 40ºC spells, but 30ºC and humid is another universe of sweat altogether.

Bali is hot, and we inhabited an odd region of gratitude (Melbourne was 8ºC when we arrived today) and exhaustion (now I understand Pokari Sweat).

After an hour and a bit in the car, we arrived at our hotel: Desa Visesa, the Royal Tulip. I say 'hotel', but it is a resort. An enormous world within a world, with its own permaculture farm, fish ponds, rice paddies, cows and more. And this is before you get to the villa, with its private infinity pool, gorgeous Balinese carvings, huge four-poster beds, outdoor bath and shower, and population of custodial geckos on the walls and ceilings.
Pool fountains, Desa Visesa villa
Sunset, Ubud
A welcoming table, Desa Visesa
Later that day, my first official function was drinks at the stunning Amandari--I rocked up to this gorgeous, architecturally designed hotel in my best formal wear: cargo pants (fresh off the plane) and a Transformers t-shirt.

Epic envelopment: the Amandari pool and valley
On Wednesday, while the kids played with Balinese puzzles and flew kites, Ruth and I had lunch with Annabel Smith, author of Whisky Charlie Foxtrot. Annabel generously introduced us to a few words of Balinese, and we chatted about writing, parenting and other rewarding trials. Marvellous to finally catch up in the flesh.

Later was the festival's gala opening, which featured snacks from local hotels and restaurants: from raw chocolate fudge, to perfectly crisp spring rolls, to a smoked salmon cone that tasted like happiness. (If you don't believe me, ask Anita Heiss.) After some speeches, the opening hosted a new performance by a Balinese playwright: a dance and musical show celebrating the traditional Balinese village, marked by intricate syncopation of claps and shouts, and some powerful singing. (The lead female soloist was incredible.)

Opening night gala performance
Then we had a delicious dinner at Casa Luna, where I enjoyed a chat with journalist and novelist Suki Kim, author of, most recently, Without You, There Is No Us (we first met in Brisbane -- yes, that Brisbane).

On Thursday my gigs began. First was "The Art of Reading", which saw me discussing my latest nonfiction book with Jeni Caffin (former director of Byron Writers Festival, former international program director of UWRF).

The Art of Reading, Indus restaurant.
Photo: Greg Saunders
The Art of Reading conversation, Indus restaurant: JC, DY
Jeni steered the conversation well, drawing me out as a reader and parent of readers, and reflecting on her own literary idiosyncrasies. One of the audience questions was about translation, and how I feel when my words appear on the page in another language. My experience so far is that this adds to the existing alienation of writing (that a finished book no longer feels like it's yours), and congenial powerlessness. All authors take a risk, and must give up some sovereignty--but translation makes this more intense.

Then I was on a panel entitled "Origin Stories", with Indonesian authors Eka Kurniawan and Sidik Nugroho. Our deft host Kirsti Melville nudged us to revisit our childhood literature, with one obvious cross-cultural theme: teenage sex and violence. But we also discussed Enid Blyton novels and Asterix comics (both very popular in Indonesia, it seems), and the importance of supernatural stories. One man asked, in Bahasa Indonesia (so I can only go by the translation), one of my very favourite audience questions. It began with a short lecture on the tropes of Javanese horror, and ended with a direct query: did Sidik plan to depart from these genre cliches? I plan to read Eka's Beauty is a Wound soon, as part of my ongoing #nowhitedudes reading adventure. Eka also recommended Pramoedya Ananta Toer's quartet.

Translator, SN, EK, DY, KM
Don't believe the hype
After a short video interview, I tripped back to Desa Visesa for another UWRF dinner -- this time with just Ruth and I together on a table, chatting like we were on a date. A date with frogs and swallows and bats.

Saturday was Nikos' eleventh birthday, and we began the day with a surprise song and cake from the hotel restaurant. Then Nikos continued with his usual holiday breakfast: bacon, sausages, hash browns, eggs, two doughnuts and a chocolate brownie, washed down with fruit juices.

Birthday breakfast
Birthday cake
Birthday boy
Then I strolled off to my next event: a workshop with high school students from Cikal Amri, Jakarta. The theme was superheroes -- because of my latest children's book -- but the class itself was about poetry composition and illustration. This was an enthusiastic and articulate group of students, among whom were some talented writers and artists. I expect a few will feature in the UWRF in years to come.
That subtle superpower, prosody: teaching the Cikal Amri students
My final event was a 'jalan jalan', or walk. A group of about forty festival attendees strolled with authors around the alleys and backstreets of Ubud (itself a fascinating trail) to Moksa. This plant-based restaurant has its own permaculture garden, complete with huge rainwater tanks and water recycling systems, compost, worm farm. There was elephant dung (this is not a metaphor). While we snacked on Moksa's treats, we authors read briefly from our books. There were passages from Charlotte Wood, Lionel Shriver, Mehjabeen Abidi-Habib, Paul Hardisty, Susana Moriera Marques, and me.
Mad, bad, plaid: on the walk
Philosophy in the Garden, in the garden: Moksa restaurant
More Moksa (more audience)
My favourite reading was from Susana, whose Now and At the Hour of Our Death looks haunting and beautiful. No copies were available in Bali, but I will find a copy soon.

The next day, Ruth dropped in on two sessions: 'The Look of the Book' and Hannah Kent's 'The Good People'. Meanwhile, I took Nikos and Sophia to the Monkey Forest. It is aptly named, and a primal scene of appetites: food, violence and the other thing.

Born from a drinking fountain on a mountain top: Monkey Forest dweller
Hairless monkeys
I've not described the swimming -- sublime, of course -- or eating, but both were enjoyed in abundance. Bali has brilliant local food (from the island itself and the whole Indonesian archipelago), as well as fine quality meals from around the world -- Nikos gorged on penne bolognese. The coffee was fantastic: earthy, nutty, and without the antsy twitch of many Melbourne brews.

Boy and infinity
Nasi campur in full effect
Coffee, ink and other forms of liquid happiness
There is also that Bali hallmark: shopping. I spread the sambal of consumption very thinly, stopping only to buy Ruth a silk scarf. But Sophia revelled in the crafts, picking herself up a lovely wristband and dress, amongst other things.

The Punisher and her father
This was a luxurious trip, rich in literature, conversation, food and drink. Congratulations to UWRF director Janet DeNeefe and other festival staff, with special thanks to Donica Bettanin, Petra Kamula, Imroatun Nafi'ah and Fian Rakhmania Arrafiana. Thanks also to the festival volunteers, who went above and beyond to help. I'm also grateful to Desa Visesa management and staff for their hospitality: we all felt very welcome.

1 comment:

Annabel Smith said...

How nice that you and Ruth managed to have a date night amidst all this action! It was so lovely to meet you.