17,000 Islands, Infinite Sources of Inspiration

Posted: 27 October 2015 Author: uwrf


By Julia Winterflood

At the opening ceremony of the recent Frankfurt Book Fair, where Indonesia was Guest of Honour, Indonesia’s Education Minister Anies Baswedan declared, “diversity is a source of strength, not of weakness.” In Frankfurt Indonesian writers revelled in the spotlight, and this radiance will prevail as UWRF 2015 presents its most Indonesia-focused program yet, in what is perhaps the most diverse and extensive celebration of its history, arts and culture the nation has ever seen.

17,000 islands, 1340 ethnic groups, a vertiginous variety of cultural treasures and ecological splendours: naturally the world’s largest archipelagic nation constantly captures the hearts of countless artists, writers and adventurers. A smorgasbord of sessions at this year’s Festival are devoted to discovering the myriad ways Indonesia snares the imagination of visiting creatives, and to unpacking the complexities of Indonesian identity.


Indian journalist-turned-author Ashwini Devare recently tweeted “From Borobudur to batik, shadow puppets to ikat, Indonesia never ceases to inspire. No wonder it is many a writer’s muse.” This is the essence of the Influenced by Indonesia panel, featuring Ashwini, whose collection of short stories Batik Rain has won critical acclaim since its launch this year. Former journalist and US diplomat Stanley Harsha, who was acculturated into a Javanese family through marriage almost 30 years ago, will also impart his unique perspectives. Joining them is Dutch graphic novelist Peter van Dongen, who garnered a fervent following with his Tintin-esque diptych Rampokan Jawa and Celebes, about the Dutch military actions in Indonesia, while renowned Swiss photographer Beat Presser will regale you with rollicking tales behind his photography of the seafaring Buginese of South Sulawesi.


For a stronger taste of Peter van Dongen’s works nab a seat for his Festival Club slot. At Rampokan he’ll reveal moving accounts of his Indonesian maternal ancestry and share treasured photographs and documents. The gritty history of Rampokan itself will also be revealed. At Surabaya Beat, the title of Beat Presser’s latest book, his photographic celebration of maritime Indonesia will be exhibited in Sea of the Ancestors. If your thirst for swashbuckling stories isn’t quite quenched, catch Beat again in An Archipelago of Discovery, alongside fellow intrepid adventurers Andreas Harsono, Avi Sirlin and Bayu Maitra.

As a nation it’s been labelled “improbable” and “unlikely”. With more than 1340 ethnic groups, and 546 regional languages, Indonesia endlessly grapples to preserve its unity and define its shared identity. A leading scholar of Indonesia Adrian Vickers will moderate the panel An Imagined Country, in which four acclaimed Indonesian writers, Ali Syamsudin Arsi (South Kalimantan), Raditya Dika (Jakarta), Raedu Basha (East Java) and Eka Kurniawan (West Java) reveal what makes them Indonesian and, more importantly, what Indonesia is.


Once again The Festival Club offers intimate insights into lesser-known aspects of Indonesian culture, all wrapped up in the bohemian embrace of Bar Luna. The people, history, craft and lifeblood of the Baduy tribe (featured above), the oldest Sundanese community living in West Java, will be honoured in Tribal Tales, while just over that beleaguered border lies a captivating land of intrigue, rumours and magic, conjured in the Magic of Timor-Leste.

Ubud Writers & Readers Festival commences October 28 and runs until November 1, 2015, celebrating the theme 17,000 Islands of Imagination. Buy your tickets here.

Baduy photo courtesy Napak Rasa


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