For a (very) special event of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival 2019, noted writing mentor Shelley Kenisberg (of Editing in Paradise fame) cooked up a special recipe for a special evening and sent us this report: Stories by the Sea, UWRF 2019.
lead photo Shelley Kenisberg in conversation with Idanna Pucci and Richard Fidler at the Tandjung Sari Hotel in Sanur..
photos ©Amit Janco
Here’s a recipe for a special evening. Blend Sanur fresh seaside evening air; the iconicTandjung Sari hotel with a delicious dinner and an invitation to share stories; then, sprinkle liberally with interesting storytellers — Richard Fidler, Idanna Pucci and moderator, Shelley Kenigsberg and you have Stories by the Sea, the final event of UWRF 2019.
Idanna Pucci, Florentine by birth, Balinese by adoption launched her latest book: The World Odyssey of a Balinese Prince(Tuttle, 2019) last week, It chronicles the life of the remarkable Anak-Agung Made Djelantik,Balinese prince, physician, cultural visionary and humanist whose daring adventures embrace much of the 20th century, from feudal Bali to today’s globalized modern world. Idanna Pucci is author of The Epic of Life: A classic on Balinese cultureand Brazza in Congo: A Life and Legacy that inspired her award-winning documentary, Black Africa White Marble, shedding light on Central Africa’s colonial past and its troubled present. As film producer, Pucci was involved in Talk Radio Tehran, focusing on intrepid women facing the vicissitudes of Iran’s gender-apartheid.
Her next, The Lady of Sing Sing to be released in 2020 by Tiller Press of Simon & Schuster, chronicles the first campaign against thedeath penalty which her American pioneer activist great-grandmother waged, in 1895, to save from execution the firstwoman sentenced to the electric chair, a 20-year old, illiterate Italianimmigrant.
In conversation with Idanna was Richard Fidler, consummate interviewer, broadcaster, and writer, presenter of Conversationswith Richard Fidler, on Australia’s national broadcaster, the ABC which hasclose to four million downloads every month.
Fidler’s books: Ghost Empire, A Journey to the Legendary Constantinople coversthe dazzling Byzantine Empire – centred around legendary Constantinople and sweeps up some of the most extraordinary tales in history. The clash of civilisations, the fall of empires, the rise of Christianity, revenge, lust, murder. (There’s passion for you!) Brought vividly to life at the same time as a father navigates the unfolding changes in his relationship with his son with whom Fidler journeyed. and Saga Land, A journey into the sagas of Iceland (co-written with a friend. Kári Gíslason).
“Words are events,” says Ursula K Le Guin. “They do things, change things. They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.”
Our conversation, was the amplification of these understanding and emotions and ranged from writers’ passions for their stories/subjects and the idea of storytelling itself, to the research process for their works, from which came the revelation of some long-held secrets and we landed, on the concept, so powerfully evoked throughout UWRF 19, of Karma.
Shelley Kenigsberg holding the fort Ubud Writers and Readers in Sanur
Idanna Pucci: Of course, you cannot embark on anything without passion. To work with a personality like Dr Djelantik, who had so much passion – which means curiosity about the most simple things and the most sophisticated things — it was impossible to relate to him or have a relationship with him if you’re not passionate about being there in his presence. I was, and was also in awe. …This was a man who had survived so many obstacles in life and it’s always incredible to me a person who has survived the unthinkable. Twenty-five life-threatening events from early days till he eventually died.
He was a man of science — a doctor and an expert in malaria; he’d travelled the world and was exposed to many different cultures, but at the same time he was a Balinese man with his understanding of traditions and rituals. He was a man science and of letters and arts. He represented a parallel way of being.
(At 80, Dr Djelantik was ill, in a coma and not expected to survive. But he did and begin painting — scenes from his life, his dreams. These are now the illustrations in The World Odyssey of a Balinese Prince.— SK)
I told him, if you continue to paint scenes from your life; close your eyes and paint scenes of survival, then you can dictate the stories to me, and I will make from them a book. After a year, he had 43 paintings, and this is how this book was born.
Dr Djelantik lived his life as a good ancestor. I did this book also for young people, because he was, in a way, a child, because he was so curious, every moment, every day. he had the freshness, the wonder of a child. At the same time, he was a wild man.
My first book was Ghost Empire. Joe, my son, had turned 14. In Australia, we don’t really have coming of age ceremonies; Jewish people do, Aboriginals do, but Anglo-Irish people like me just don’t do those kinds of things. I wanted to come up with a coming of age ceremony for my son… which would take me overseas on a fabulous holiday. We both love history, and both want to place us ourselves in the great stream of events and people that have preceded us. That way we can locate ourselves in time. You want to know who your parents are, right? And how you came to this point in time?
I didn’t know about the Ancient Romans, but I figured at some point in my life I would get around to learning about the Ancient Romans. And I did. My point of entry was through a wonderful podcast by Mike Duncan, called ‘The History of Rome’. I became quite obsessed with it.
If we’re from a Western country; we’re told the story of the Empire falling in 476, when the last of the emperors, Romulus Augustulus is chased off the throne in Rome (Ravenna) by a German chieftain. And that’s it. But it’s not true. There’s another Roman Empire based around the city of Constantinople, the city we now know as Istanbul.
When I was kid. it wasn’t quite put this way, but I was always told that civilization went west; born in Mesopotamia, ancient Sumeria, then west to ancient Egypt. And then, it leaps over the Atlantic to the US and… civilization ends up in California, where it dies. That’s how we’re brought up.
Now, Constantinople was the biggest city in the world, for a large part of its history, rivalling with Baghdad or Beijing. The descriptions of Constantinople from the middle ages are so wondrous. It’s wise to see Constantinople as the western most parts of the silk roads. The chain of civilizations that connected Byzantium to Persia to Arabia to India to China and to the great kingdoms in SE Asia as well.
It’s a time of great empires and culture and technology and trade and ideas and wars and plagues, all going along the silk roads. Constantinople dazzled people. Those who ‘made’ it felt a religious obligation to build a city that was a mirror of heaven.
Talk about dazzling!
On research and revealing secrets:
I never look for a story. If you have to look for a story, it means you don’t know what your path is. Stories find me in the most incredible ways.
For the book, (The Epic of Life: A Balinese Journey of the Soul)I saw the ceiling of the Court of Justice of Klungkung, Kerta Gosa. I was a complete amateur and trying to understand the significance of the images. Perhaps, if I want to enter this culture, I have to do it through a monument.
Somebody said it was scenes of the journey to hell and heaven. I started to research. I made a model with my friend a photographer, in black and white, of the roof. I went around Bali and I said this is oral transmission so I have to consult people who can tell me the story. There were no books. The Court of justice of the royal house of Klungkung was used until 1952. Which meant that High priests would sit, point at the ceiling — no court of law — and administer justice. They’d be adjudicating on a poor man who had probably stolen. Maybe just some small bit of food. And next, on a murderer.
I had so many interpretations that it was difficult to get a true sense of the stories. So, I wanted to find the most popular dalang (puppet master) in Bali, bring to him the model of the ceiling and see if he could perform a Wayang (puppet show). It took me two months to arrive at the dalang of Buduk. When I went in, there were many people waiting outside — he’s a medium, brahman, a very holy figure, I unfolded my ceiling. I had an interpreter with me, a man who was working here at Tandjung Sari, as my research assistant. Knew a lot and had a lot of patience. The dalang looked at it, recognized it, and said fine, I will do this. But, he said, the secret would have to wait to be unfolded. I would have to wait for the right moment.
Richard Fidler: The secret is part of the book I co-wrote with my friend, Kari Gislason. Kari was born in Iceland but spent most of his life in Australia. When he was born, his father refused to have his name on Kari’s birth certificate because he was already married with five kids. His mother agreed to this and promised to keep the father’s identity secret. But when Kari found out, he felt he couldn’t keep the promise; it was a promise that negated his existence. So, he decided to write to his family. He wrote to his siblings and said: “You have a brother”.
When, after some communication, Kari and his father met. The father asked him what he wanted to do, and Kari said he wanted to be a writer. Kari’s father told him, that it all made sense. “Because ,” he said, “you’re descended from Starri Storiison — the country’s greatest national hero and the greatest of the Saga authors. When Kari and I were planning the documentary from which this book emerged, I asked him if this was true, if he was really a descendant. He didn’t know. That was the secret, to find out whether he was, indeed, descended from the greatest of Saga authors.
The evening’s karma was that there wasn’t time for much more than those tantalising pieces. But we had heard stories of people and places across western ancient and eastern ancient traditions; we’d talked about writing and, glimpsed the treasures that awaited when we picked up and read each of their books. We made a start on trying to wrestle with the idea of Karma (the theme of UWRF19) in that we tried to begin to think about how to answer the deepest of all questions in this, tense and turbulent world: How may we live?
It’s a big concept for ‘just’ an evening, but we made a start.
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