“I think all countries face their own kind of censorship and conversations are always necessary to make sense of this world. Communication is the key to understanding.”
You are the founder of the Ubud Writers Festival, an idea which came to you in the wake of the Bali bombings. What made you think of a writer’s festival as a way to bring visitors back to Bali?
After the Bali bombings in 2002, the community was devastated. At the time I remembered thinking, we have to find a way to survive and in order to bring guests back, it has to be something meaningful. I wanted to create an event that would bring people together, the right sort of people, to experience the magic of Ubud and Bali, lift the jaded spirits of the community and of course provide an economic benefit. At the time I was in the final stages of editing my memoir and was already connecting with writer’s festivals in Australia so I naturally decided on a writer’s festival in Ubud. It seemed the perfect event to hold here.
Did you believe that literature could help fight the fear that was left in the aftermath of the Bali bombings? How?
Literature pushes all boundaries and writers challenge the norm. Writers can create the fear as much as they can dissolve it.
What was your main concern in starting a writer’s festival?
What were the initial challenges and how did you over come them? Initial challenges were funding, and continue to be so, and I guess back then, it was also finding staff with Festival experience. We seek sponsorship every year and are as creative as we can be but we always struggle. For staff, we mentored them alongside professionals and now have a talented local team.
What is role does a writers festival play in society? How important are they and do you think they make an important contribution?
Nowadays writer’s festivals are the salons of the modern world where you can discuss the world’s most pressing issues. People are thirsty for discussion and for hearing about the “others”. The contribution they make is enormous and life changing for some.
Is it even more important to host writer’s festivals in countries that face censorship or limited freedom of expression?
I think all countries face their own kind of censorship and conversations are always necessary to make sense of this world. Communication is the key to understanding.
Have you noticed a change in the local community in last fourteen years? If yes, what?
I have noticed a physical change in the local community. Businesses are now being created by those from out of town, non-Balinese, and the danger is that they will diffuse the very nature of this quaint town. It’s the people that make Bali special and I worry that all these new businesses run by non-Indonesians will dissolve that special, unique Ubud flavour.
Did it take courage to start the writer’s festival? Was it hard to get people to understand your vision in the initial stages?
It wasn’t easy starting the Festival but my husband supported me all the way and bore the brunt of dissatisfaction or objection in the community. People had no idea what it was back then but that has changed now. I knew it would take time for people to understand the vision but also knew that once they did, all would be well.
What is the single biggest challenge that the festival faces year in year out?
The Festival faces challenges we can never anticipate. This year we have been rocked to the core by the volcanic activity of Gunung Agung. Our sales sadly have been affected and when nature is concerned there is not much we can do. We continue to promote the Festival and have some strategies in place to encourage more sales.
What do you think the festival’s impact has been on contemporary Indonesian literature?
I do believe that this has been a growth in literature because of the Festival, especially among young people who seem to be writing more than ever.
Describe the most demanding (but no names please) diva situation/s you’ve encountered, if any?
Everyone has been extremely well behaved but maybe the biggest Diva act was when one of the leading authors threw a tantrum when lunch was not provided and simply flew home. We were a bit confused by that one!
Which novelist or writer would you regard as Indonesia’s most significant and important writer?
Up to date, I would think Pramoedya Ananta Toer is Indonesia’s most significant writer and his work was banned until recently. Eka Kurniawan is the next rising star.
Have you ever considered stepping aside from your role at UWRF and handing the reigns to someone else?
I haven’t really thought about stepping down because the Festival is my baby. It would be like walking out on your children! But I imagine in years to come that I might hand the Director title over but that will be a wage the Festival probably can’t afford. Right now I am still a volunteer!