After a turbulent year in global politics, the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival (UWRF) drew to a close on 30 October, celebrating another successful, vibrant event, and highlighting its role as a regional powerhouse for diverse debate and intercultural exchange.
From human rights and politics in Asia, to activism, art and language, the Festival traversed five days of enthralling panel discussions, dynamic performances, readings, film, poetry, exhibitions, workshops and food, cementing its position as Southeast Asia’s leading festival of words and ideas.
In its 13th year, the UWRF again saw strong attendance figures of over 30,000, with Main Program ticket sales growing by 4.1%, 1-Day Pass sales up by 23.8%, and significantly greater diversity, with Indonesian audience numbers up by an impressive 31.5%.
The expansive and inclusive theme – the Hindu philosophy Tat Tvam Asi or ‘I am you, you are me’ – established a broad and diverse program, which championed homegrown voices. Eminent historian and Festival stalwart Ian Burnett remarked during the Festival, “There is no country more diverse – culturally, ethnically, linguistically – than Indonesia.”
The theme was embraced by the Festival’s 200 speakers and performers, as well as by audiences. Indonesian activist and filmmaker Emmanuela Shinta tweeted: “We can be different, but we are not meant to be divided. We can complete each other. Tat Tvam Asi. I am you, you are me.” Festival Founder and Director Janet DeNeefe commented, “Our theme’s all-encompassing nature reflects the Festival’s ethos of being as much about readers as it is about writers.”
Local literary luminaries Seno Gumira Adjidarma, Dewi Lestari and Eka Kurniawan delighted fans and snared the attention of new listeners. Young activists from across Indonesia and the globe, including writer and photographer Agustinus Wibowo, World Poetry Slam Champion Emi Mahmoud, Muslim hip hop stars The Brothahood, and Kalawai Rap Crew, who formed in a North Sulawesi refugee camp, kept the conversation firmly on the role each individual has in making change in the world. The remarkable resilience of human trafficking survivor Shandra Woworuntu, whose organisation Mentari helps fellow survivors reintegrate into the community and find meaningful work, brought many to tears.
The program’s spotlight on Indonesian cinema, and the role of its storytellers in tackling taboo and shaping Indonesian identity, attracted major audiences. Bringing celebrity status to the Festival were firebrand Indonesian auteurs Slamet Rahardjo, Djenar Maesa Ayu, Richard Oh and Joko Anwar, along with the filmmaking wunderkind Wregas Bhanuteja.
The Festival brought together a host of international names, including Mitchell S. Jackson, Çiler İlhan, Amit Chaudhuri, Kamila Shamsie, Juan Pablo Villalobos, Cheryl Lu-Lien Than, Hannah Kent and Helon Habila. Habila’s in-conversation, including discussion of his latest non-fiction work on the kidnapping of Nigeria’s Chibok Girls by Boko Haram, was heart-wrenching, yet hopeful. “Who does a Nigerian have to turn to for hope?” asked moderator Michael Cathcart. Habila replied, “To the people.”
Literary heavyweights captivated capacity crowds with Hanya Yanagihara, Lionel Shriver, Magda Szubanski and Suki Kim exploring the Festival’s core topics of identity, belonging, human rights and dignity. Addressing a packed house on the Festival’s final day, Yanagihara stated, “Fiction should make us look at things we turn away from in many other realms and many other worlds.”
The 16 Emerging Indonesian Writers – selected from 894 entrants to be included in the Festival’s annual Bilingual Anthology – were a prominent force throughout. Many of these rising stars lauded the linguistic diversity of Indonesia – and the urgency to preserve it – writing and speaking in Minang, Madurese and Balinese. Emerging Writer Deasy Tirayoh said, “Ubud Writers & Readers Festival shows us that Indonesian writers can rightly stand alongside the global greats.”
At the closing night ceremony DeNeefe noted that UWRF – at 13 years old – is now a teenager. “It has truly found its feet in the international literary festival landscape,” said DeNeefe, “while staying strong to its commitment of raising regional voices to be heard alongside recognised names. This is evident in the increased audience diversity which, in line with the wider goals of the Yayasan Mudra Swari Saraswati to which UWRF belongs, we’re incredibly proud of. We look forward to building on this in the future.
DeNeefe continued, “I applaud the brave artists and speakers who joined us this year, and the audience – from young Indonesian students to our UWRF stalwarts – who helped create the powerful, magical space for which the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival has become famous.”