by Michael Vatikiotis
It’s been ten years since a group of writers gathered rather improbably on the side of an Ubud hillside to speak about their writing in front of a meager audience of tourists and resident expats.
Then, as now, it was an odd juxtaposition: Ubud is known for its laid back vibe – all meditation and yoga to the tinkling of little bells and gongs. Its art scene is primarily visual. We scribblers seemed like interlopers introducing more urgent, contemporary themes, disturbing the otherwise placid waters of the lily pond. Quite literally.
Since then, boutique literary festivals have sprouted across Asia. There are so many that authors are tripping over each other in Bangkok, Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Penang, Yangon and Galle. India has its own circuit and style, and even Bhutan is on the literary map.
There are those who argue that throwing writers into the global mixer and shoving cocktails in their hands when sponsors pay is generating a homogenized literary product. Pankaj Mishra recently argued in the Financial Times that ‘Literature today seems to emerge from an apolitical and borderless cosmopolis’. He decried the emergence of the global novel with its superficial multiculturalism that denuded it of more urgent, pungent nationalist or political themes.
Mishra takes aim at what he terms ‘exotically sited literary festivals’ where he says writers ‘can appear to embody the bland consensus of transnational elites, denuded of the differences and antagonisms that define a genuinely pluralist culture.’ They ‘Bennettonize’ literature, he writes.
Well I beg to differ. As a writer living in Asia, I find no difficulty highlighting the differences and antagonisms that challenge me to write either fiction or opinion pieces. I don’t attend literary festivals to seek any kind of consensus, but rather to advertise what is so different, divisive and defective in our world. Ubud is a soapbox, not a homogenizing mixer.
I can see where Mishra is coming from. One recent year I was on a panel with a Palestinian writer who claimed that when Israeli shells killed his children he felt no hatred. It was pure nonsense, of course. I felt the hatred boiling beside me. I could sense the audience’s empathy with his hatred. There are group settings where we pretend that literature salves the pain of human suffering. We writers sometimes have our passions mistaken for objective observation. We go along with this because we need to sell books.
Ubud has always worked because the setting is Indonesia. The festival rose out of the ashes of the Bali bombings. For those of us who know Indonesia, there was a need to come together, to declare that Bali would survive this outrage. And we did.
Ten years later there is still the anger and the passion, and the need for a safe space for free expression. The organizers cleverly tapped into the so-called Arab Spring. This has helped bring Middle Eastern voices to Ubud – and a much-needed cross fertilization of Islam as it is viewed from here with Islam in the Arab context. Too bad some see this as a dumbing down or suppression of complexity.
I come to Ubud to mingle and exchange worldviews; I come to assert myself and peddle my scribbling. It’s up to the audience to decide what they like. It’s the responsibility of the writers to keep faith with what they believe. ‘Om santi Om…..’
Michael Vatikiotis is a novelist and a writer who has worked in Southeast Asia for thirty years. He has participated in the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival for ten years. His latest novel, The Painter of Lost Souls, is available at Periplus outlets.