Reflections upon Ubud’s 2018 Writers and Readers Festival

Jaghadita was this year’s theme for Ubud’s Writer’s and Readers Festival (UWRF) that I attended last week. Drawn from an ancient Hindu philosophy that speaks of happiness and prosperity, the festival’s 15th anniversary celebration took place from 24- 28 October on the Indonesian island of Bali. For four days, I took part in a festival that celebrated writers, artists, intellectuals and activists from Indonesia and abroad, all of who contributed greatly in maintaining harmony and prosperity. “In the present moment, when the differences separate us to forget the equations we have, we will ask how prosperity and harmony will be sought in 2018”, said founder and director of UWRF Janet DeNeefe. From humble beginnings in 2004, the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival has evolved into one of the world’s most celebrated literary and artistic events – an annual pilgrimage for lovers of literature and conversation. Below are some of my reflections on UWRF’s talks.

Susi Pudjiastuti: Sink It

Day one started with Indonesia’s current Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Susi Pudjiastuti, who in Indonesia enjoys near rockstar status as she leads a tough crackdown on illegal and unsustainable fishing, and on whose order hundreds of boats have been blown up. Bu Susi, as she is referred to in Indonesia, spoke with BBC’s Indonesian editor Rebecca Henschke about her fight to protect the country’s millions of fishers and vast marine resources. She has been painted as Superwoman on a public mural, where she is depicted as a half mermaid-half warrior. Her carefully crafted social media image is shaking up Indonesia’s normally conservative political style.

Evolving Islam 

Having newly arrived in Indonesia where, five times a day, Muslims are summoned to prayer by the surrounding mosque’s muezzins, this is the first time I have lived in a country where the main religion is Islam. For a long time, but especially since my arrival, I hoped to gain more insights into this religion, and to be allowed to step away from the current negative thoughts that lead us to believe that all muslims are extremists.

I therefore much appreciated the 2018 international global business and interfaith peace award winner Haidar Bagir, who stated that Islam is a religion of love and inclusion that embraces us all. The Author of Islam – The Faith of Love and Happiness, and President Director of the Mizan Group, contributes to interfaith understanding and peace in Indonesia by publishing books that champion pluralism. He also supports the Charter for Compassion International, and funds the Yasmin Foundation (a Salvation Army-like charity). He also gives advice on peace education and leads the Compassionate Islam Movement, which galvanizes and mobilizes moderate Muslims in the face of increasing extremism and inter-religious tensions in the country.

Janet Steele (associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University) moderated talks with Haidar Bagir, Sydney Jones (Director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict), and Malaysian author and columnist Dina Zaman (I Am Muslim, The King of The Sea and Holy Men, Holy Women). In a heated discussion, the four of them examined faith in its many manifestations, from everyday lives in Indonesia and Malaysia to the extreme edge of violent terrorism.

Art for Impact

Theatre director Kadek Sonia Piscayanti talked about how she assists mothers in staging their own plays. When asked what the audience’s reaction is to his art, pantomime slash social activist Wanggi Hoed stated: “I accidentally touch their hearts”. Artist Budi Agun Kuswara, who is also the co-founder of Rumah Berdaya Denpasar, a rehabilitation center for people living with schizophrenia commented: “Everything becomes fluid when art is involved”.

Tensions rose briefly when Uphie Abdurrahman (moderator and cultural programmer at the US Embassy Jakarta) asked actor Rani Pramesti and illustrator Cindy Saja about Chinese Whispers about the May 1998 Riots. Unfamiliar with this part of history, where more than a thousand people were killed in incidents of mass violence mainly targeted at Ethnic Chinese, I am grateful to Rani Pramesti for leading an Indonesian-Australian team to create the beautiful bilingual, and digital graphic novel, Chinese Whispers with the message: “We cannot heal what we will not face.”

Fighting for the Forest

In the last half-century, more than 74 million hectares of Indonesian rainforest have been logged, burned, or degraded, with devastating effects for humans, animals and the land itself. In “Fighting the Forest”, Rebecca Henschke spoke with South East Asia’s Executive director for Greenpeace Yeb Saño, who believes that a carbon tax, a fee imposed on the burning of carbon-based fuels, is the ideal solution. He is also an admirer of Costa Rica that, as a global leader for its environmental policies and accomplishments, helped the country build its Green Trademark.

Tom Owen Edmunds, who heads the Climate Change Unit at the British Embassy in Jakarta, but who is also a photographeronce described by the British Journal of Photography as “one of the world’s leading travel photographers” quotes from a lecture at Bogor by stating: “Forests are about people”.

Bustar Maitar who is active in the Econusa Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports local organizations in Papua on social and environmental issues, is adamant about the future of Papua’s forest: “Papua for Papua, – they will protect it”, and further: “Indigenous communities have lived without access to cash for centuries. Now we tell them they need cash, – it destroys them. If we want to protect the forest, we should stand in the forest and not in the palm plantation.”

The Pledge

Long before it was known as Indonesia, youth across the archipelago converged on present-day Jakarta and made the bold pledge to unite as one nation with one language. 90 years later, moderator and journalist Wayan Juniarta spoke with four language lovers who revealed their unique relationship with the evolving, dizzyingly diverse and underestimated language that is Bahasa Indonesia.

Among those on the panel, award winning Indonesian language expert Ivan Lanin who, as a member of the Kamus Besar Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian Dictionary), regularly campaigns for correct usage of the Indonesian language. Also on the panel, author and anthropologist Jean Couteau, – a Frenchman who settled in Bali in 1975, and who, in 1986, received a doctoral degree for his thesis of art history and iconographic art of Bali. His statement: “Multiple identities lead to multiple misunderstandings”, left me wondering about what exactly he meant by that. Maybe next time I’m in Bali, I will get a chance to ask him.

Chinese-Indonesian essayist and author Theodora Sarah Abigail, whose main focus is on the concepts of identity, heritage, and belonging, writes in English. Despite her young age, I was impressed with how eloquently she spoke as she took part in the panel’s discussion.

Rain Chudori is an Indonesian writer, curator, and actress and also the curator of Comma Book. I loved her statement: “my trunk is Indonesian” although she did leave me wondering about my own…!

At Home Everywhere 

Home is a place in my heart and mind and not a geographical place anymore.

I agreed wholeheartedly with Serbian-Australian writer and storyteller Sofija Stefanovic’s quote at one of the Festival’s last lectures. Together with Malaysian-Australian author Omar Musa and Indonesian travel writer and travel photographer Agustinus Wibowo, she pondered the question: “Is home everywhere, or nowhere?” and how coming of age with a dynamic sense of home shaped their lives and work.

The End

Bringing together some of the world’s most powerful voices in a melting pot of artists, authors, thinkers and performers, the Festival lived up to its promise and was indeed a platform for meaningful exchange and cross-cultural dialogue. A place where artists and audiences alike could discuss shared inspirations, ideas and concerns, the Festival transcended cultural and geographical borders to create a truly global community.

After all this, I didn’t make it over to the closing party, but instead I relished the serenity of my hotel at Murni’s. Among hibiscus and frangipani blessings, I enjoyed a glass of wine and a quiet night, and realized that Jagaditha’s individual pursuit of universal harmony and prosperity had fully embraced me.