Rio Helmi interviews Diana Darling, who talks about Ubud’s past (“You could feel the invisible world on your skin, and it was quite ordinary”), present, and future and her own life and work.
RIO HELMI: For people who have lived decades in Bali the cliché question is “Has it changed a lot?”. It’s kind of a ‘duh’ question but it has to be asked: “What is the biggest difference, for you, between Bali in the 1980s and Bali now?”
DIANA DARLING: It’s always hard to work out whether things have changed or one has just gotten old. But for me what feels like the biggest change — apart from the appearance of things — is the religion. It used to feel casual but fierce, intimate and omnipresent; you could feel the invisible world on your skin, and this was quite ordinary. These days it feels like people have become pious where they used to be funny, and ritual is more like producing a show. The dance is different, too. Female dancers used to stare into the middle distance, as if they were addressing the gods; now they smirk at the audience, like in a floor show. I can’t speak for the gods, obviously, but it seems to me that they’ve retracted.
So the upshot is that whereas in the 1980s I was a temple groupie, now I stay in and get my spiritual thrills watching “Tukang Bubur Naik Haji” on TV.
RH: You live immersed in a Balinese family situation and you write descriptively from the inside, yet your perspective and style is distinctly unique: a kind of modern extraction of Bali, a retelling of myth. Does that simply flow or do you really craft it?
DD: If you mean, is my approach deliberately set up, no. But I don’t like to write about my views or my life (ho hum) unless I can turn it into something that I can bear to re-read, that will reward a reader for his time. That doesn’t simply flow. So I work on what I write.
RH: The Painted Alphabet is about the most inspired novel/”fiction” that I have read about Bali, and many others agree. In fact for me personally it is one of the best descriptive novels that lives and breathes a specific culture. It’s deceptively light, deft, intriguing, and touches deep into the reader’s emotional imagination. Is that a hard act to follow? Do you live in its shadow?
DD: You are very kind about The Painted Alphabet. Is it a hard act to follow? It is in the sense that I wasn’t a writer when I wrote it, and I wrote it for my own entertainment. Ideally one should always be in this state for creative work, and that’s surely possible, but it’s not always easy to achieve. But I don’t live in its shadow. It has never occurred to me to write something like that again.
RH: Word is you are working on a historical novel about Bali. Is this so? Is it going to be an epic? How far along are you? Can we have a glimpse of what it’s about?
DD: I’ve been working on a historical novel about Bali for longer than I’d like to say. Yes, it will be an epic. It’s about the history of tourism in Bali, as a series of invasions. I’m not yet half-way through. Actually you may have seen a glimpse of it already: it is called Transit Fields, and part of it was published serially in The Bud (now defunct). But I have structural problems with it and can’t fix it without taking more time than I can afford to … which I think leads to your next question. Meanwhile, though, I’ve just finished putting together a collection of writings from when we lived up in the mountains, called Watching Bali. This might appear soon as an e-book, published by a new group in Jakarta.
RH: Being an independent creative person in Bali and maintaining a decent living has its challenges. Does earning a living intrude deeply into your personal creative space? Do you manage to partition these two?
DD: Having to earn a living intrudes hugely on creative work. The partition is that I must give primacy to my freelance work. But since I earn a living by writing — and these days more often by editing — there’s some room for creativity in that. I don’t think, though, that I’m really on top of this problem. It might be just a matter of time management — getting up at four in the morning and doing with less sleep. I hope not.
RH: The Ubud Writers and Readers Festival really boosts the awareness of literature here for a few weeks. Is that enough? How about a serious library? Or is Pondok Pekak and Ganesha Bookstore enough?
DD: God bless the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival and Pondok Pekak and Ganesha Bookshop. No, they’re not enough. A serious library would be wonderful, but even that wouldn’t be enough. We need New York in Ubud: more terrific people working hard all the time. Perhaps we need a literary center that could invite writers-in-residence and hold workshops and even publish stuff. (A place where you could also get your roadside signs proof-read.) Something like that can probably emerge only organically.
But a more urgent need, perhaps, is an outlet in Ubud for reading material in Bahasa Indonesia, so that the Balinese population of Ubud could also enjoy being readers and writers. We can’t even find the Indonesian version of Tempo here. My husband (who will read anything) says the people of Ubud aren’t readers; but I think that any child who is introduced to good books at an early age will become a reader. It would be great if Ubud’s identity could expand to include literature in its mantle of cultural nurturing. On the other hand, who benefits if a population turns intellectual?
RH: What about Ubud keeps you here?
DD: My marriage. As you know, my husband is from Ubud; we live in his family compound and when we married twenty years ago, I married his family and ancestors as well. I hope this will remain in place for the rest of my life. Fortunately, it is a happy marriage.
You know how the soul is supposed to learn things over a lifetime? I think that what I still need to learn has to do with working with things as they are — which in my case means not wishing I lived in Sanur or Paris, or that I had a lot of money, or that I were younger, or that Ubud was a kibbutz, or that my husband was into Hilary Mantel.
Quite aside from all that, there’s much about being in Ubud that I’m grateful for. If you don’t try to walk anywhere, it’s very easy living: a gently paced suburban bubble with regular outbursts of pageantry in the street. The people of Ubud are extraordinarily tolerant of foreigners and fairly good about disguising the fact that they love us for our money. Although I don’t go out much, there’s a lot going on, and it seems to be a place where it’s easy for people to try new things. As Goenawan Mohamad says of Indonesia, it’s a work in progress. Like the rest of us.
top photo by Mila Shwaiko
archive photo of Diana Darling at Candi Sukuh by Eve Ridoux