Day One of the 12th Ubud Writers & Readers Festival kicked off with a true sense of freedom. Jakarta Post editor Endy Bayuni explained that “without freedom of expression all freedom fails”. This sentiment was reciprocated by Reverend Mpho Tutu in her chills-inducing keynote speech, “forgiveness is the seed that nourishes the dove of peace… without forgiveness peace cannot fly.” The lesson hung in the air, said one attendee, and the intimate lunch with Reverend Tutu was the same, you could hear a pin drop as the attendees were enthralled with her every word.
All the speakers were ready to touch on the dicey issues, as Mpho Tutu said, “it’s infinitely better to lick our wounds than to let them go.” Teju Cole, one of the most outspoken and therefore most interesting panelists of #uwrf15, continued the theme saying “we have to push back against the abolition of history”. His interesting style reflected the city he lives, saying of New York; “places are like people, they have a public life, a private life & a secret life… My book Open City can best be described as the exact opposite of Sex and the City,” making him and his published work even more intriguing.
At the same time at the open-air pavilion NEKA, acclaimed journalist Andrea Harsono, who now works for Human Rights Watch, was lamenting Indonesia’s ‘Religious Harmony’ ideology that is supposed to allow the majority to protect the minority and the minority to respect the majority religious beliefs. He sees racism as the underlying issue in the perception of Papua in media and enlightened the audience on the difficulties for women in Indonesia, especially those wanting to become involved in the police who must submit to intense, intimate evaluation.
Harsono answered questions expressing his views on the internet and NGOs disturbing and disrupting the business models of centralised media companies, citing Charles Lewis’ paper on The Rise of NGOs and Non-Profit Media as a major influence, and the New York Times as the best news organisation and, despite his own criticisms, Tempo as Indonesia’s best media.
Indonesia, of course, was a major topic of this years Ubud Writers & Readers Festival with panelist Okky Madasari (pictured above at left) saying, “the more Indonesian books translated, the more the impact they will have on Indonesia,” further cementing the relevance and necessity for the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival to continue. Babara Epler said of non-English literature, “once you’re published in English it’s easier to go anywhere,” with noted literary agent Toby Eady adding that the difficulty in this is that “a mediocre translation is a disaster” because “the arrogance of the English language is dumbfounding.”
Thursday was an incredible day for open and honest talk about women’s issues, especially in the Am I Making Sense? session on self-sabotage, where the Indus venue was jam-packed with standing room only. The five female panelists expressed their opinions on working as a female writer and acknowledged the male audience as being important parts of these issues, with Xinran thanking the males in the crowd. Anna Krien discussed the difficult-to-address problem of gender disparity in writing organisations revealing how these organisations had to start altering rejection letters to female writers because they would take them so negatively. Even panelist Anne Buist, the Chair of Women’s Mental Health at the University of Melbourne, had misconstrued a rejection letter and given up instead of seeing the letter as encouragement, the way she understood it in retrospect. Just a further example of the panels ambition to uncover female self-sabotage and apologetic natures.
One of the most entertaining sessions of the day was between husband and wife writers, Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, who made the crowd laugh with their tales of family life, worrking habits and editing each other’s work.
“I used to be really worried about it but now we’ve learnt to use the Praise Sandwich technique to diffuse most arguments, unless there’s a deadline,” said Ayelet, however, as Michael said, “the only things you really get angry about are the things you know are true.” They embodied what Xinran had expressed earlier, “women are like water, men are like rocks, without men women are as scary as the sea, without women men are a barren wasteland.”
There is so much more wisdom and poetry to come over the next three days of the festival. We are sure to see and hear more from the panelists who will likely validate Okky Madasari’s quote, “Reading is the simplest political activity we can do. Writing too,” and Mazin Qumsiyeh when he says, “truth telling is a dangerous business.” As well as amazing writing advice and discussions on philosophical and political problems, as Mpho Tutu said, “the only way to get us through the fierce and searching process is by telling our stories and having the courage to let go.”