Ubud Writers and Readers Festival’s spin-off, Bali Emerging Writers Festival, works hard to bring in a crop of new discoveries every year, traveling through the archipelago to seek out and nurture new talent. This year the BEWF has reached out even further.  text Rio Helmi, photo of Cok Sawitri, all other photos Anton Muhajir

The team also always makes an effort to bring inspirational figures to help inspire the new talent (at the launch on Friday at Danes Art Verandah, poet Aan Mansyur from Makassar didn’t disappoint; his powerful imagery certainly set a strong literary tone that struck a chord with the younger generation).

But the most striking presentation for the audience that evening was a Bali-based writing workshop project spearheaded by Sloka Institute’s Luh de Suryani and carried out by Bali’s own powerhouse “poet laureate”, Cok Sawitri, an Ubud Writers and Readers Festival favourite over the years.

_DSF8195The project’s aim was to introduce the inmates of the Gianyar Juvenile Detention Centre (confusingly enough situated in Karangasem) to writing.

Cok Sawitri took the time to explain to the audience how she approached the task of ‘opening up’ the teenagers behind bars. Most telling was her statement: “I felt blessed to have the opportunity to teach them”. She went on to speak about the simple honesty of the inmates, their lack of artifice.

Initially Cok had to simply get the kids to actually write, to write anything without feeling the pressure of following any sort of format. At first there was some question as to whether they could indeed do creative writing. “But I saw that they could write SMS texts and had Facebook accounts, so that gave me confidence” Cok said, “At first some simply wrote their names and identities and such, simply experimenting with writing longhand”.

As their trust and confidence started to build up, they moved on to actually writing about themselves and their situations. “It’s mostly quite simple writing mixed with slang. One really gets a clear impression that nearly all these cases have grown out of problematic modern urban life situations. There is a lot of confusion reflected, and lack of education at the home front. But above all they are honest.”


Reading their work, clearly the workshop was more about catharsis and emotional journey than a tool to focus on the legal aspects and details of their cases. One could almost say it became a kind of personal redemption through expressing feelings.

Thumbing through the anthology that was put together from the project, it seems that the majority were busted for having underage, extramarital sex and ‘kidnapping’ their girlfriends for the night. It’s no surprise that there is a streak of romanticism to much of the poetry:

I will write about you

            Until this ink runs out


            The story of you

            Will never run out

“Agung” / Tentang Mu (About You)

 But bitterness inevitably creeps into some of the poetry, as in this excerpt from”Dito Capoenk”s poem R.I.P.J. (The Republic of Indonesia full of Promises):

           “Oh Father number One

            I will always remember your promise

           You are like an Angel

           That sometimes looks benificent with your false mouth

           You’re sometimes even like a blade

           That one day will wound me…”

 The prose writer “Jarot” tells his story mostly in simple dialogue, the sparseness of which itself tells a story about the author. Others have more art with their words. Take for example “Kadek Botol” in his piece called The Wall of Suffering:

“It was not rare that I often spoke to and asked of that wall: “What has made you this cruel?” but that wall never answered, as if that wall wanted to hide the secret of its strength.

 “In reality there are a lot of hardened criminals here but I’m not afraid of any of them except this wall that surrounds me. This wall is a secret monster, because no one knows the secret of its strength, for it will tell nobody, especially me.”

 The final output is admittedly a fairly slim volume called “Di Balik Jeruji” (On the Other Side of the Bars), all penned under aliases. But it is already a huge quantitative and qualitative leap from where these kids were. What is remarkable also is the preface by the chief warden who seems to have been infected by the project. Clearly a religious man, some of his quotes capture the spirit of the project. For example: “A good person is not someone who has never erred or sinned, it is one who realizes his mistakes and regrets them…”