Rio Helmi mulls over the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival significance both to himself and to his home of four decades.
The Ubud Writers and Readers Festival notifications blip on to my radar fairly early in the year. As co-creator of the website www.ubudnowandthen.com and its accompanying Facebook page, I do sit up and pay attention to that embryonic blip growing into a recognizable shape, the programmers feeding us all progressively more digestible information through a cyber umblilical cord as the months slip by. Then suddenly it’s upon us.
Ubud is a funny old place –part village, part resort town, part cosmopolitan drop out center. It has its own fair share of local internecine political intrigue, and its expat online spats are legend. There are plenty of art events, yoga classes, permaculture hoe downs, organic gatherings, and slow food munch-ins to take the edge off the traffic jams all year round. Plus you can be chatting to earthy farmers in a funky warung over thick muddy Bali coffee just five minutes out of town.
However, intellectual stimulus is definitely seasonal, and it is unlikely that any well-informed person would randomly come here seeking rigorous mental exercise. Eat Pray Love took care of that.
For the past few years I have had the honor and pleasure of sitting on various UWRF panels, whether as speaker or moderator, and listening in on various talks. I personally find it a satisfying experience. As a year round resident of this booming madhouse town, UWRF is like a tall glass of ice tea on a really hot and dry day.
Despite a heavy Australian bias, UWRF is perhaps the most important international event of the year in Ubud for a variety of reasons besides the intellectual. It has spawned a somewhat discreet but significant fringe event, the Bali Emerging Writers Fest. More than BEWF just giving a platform to young writers, film makers and other creatives in Bali, UWRF as a whole gives them an opportunity to meet and exchange ideas and thoughts with others like or unlike themselves.
It is a fact that at UWRF often the younger, emerging Indonesian writers are hampered in fully connecting with the international world of letters and ideas, by a cultural and linguistic divide – and perhaps more fatally by a sense of inferiority to the exalted international names that arrive on their doorstep. But it is total immersion: since several years ago panels segregated by language have been intentionally scrapped. Indonesian speakers appear on panels with English speakers and so forth. Interpreters sometimes struggle but it is a minor irritation compared to the gains of having a truly international experience.
A case in point: a few years ago a poet from Padang, shod in simple sandals, found himself seated on a panel between a noted Polish poet and an equally reputed Scottish poet. The poet from Padang admitted quite frankly that he felt dwarfed by his two colleagues, yet he answered all questions as best he could with the caveat “as far as my own experience goes”. At the end of the panel much to his genuine surprise his two co-speakers gave him a standing ovation and a big hug. It was only then that he realized that his experience and creativity was as significant in its quality as theirs.
This year I was slotted to engage Sir VS Naipaul in conversation. As everyone knows, that is not going to happen. Canceled, scrambled, whatever. However literary festivals are as much about discovering new brilliant minds as they are encountering icons of the modern world.
I have more than enough to engage with. I have the honor and pleasure of talking with Adam Michnik, a fascinating and brilliant Polish activist who knows Putin inside out, about the future of Europe – a subject I do want to know more about and what better opportunity to learn about it. On the flip side of that coin I have been asked to discuss the life and work of internationally acclaimed Balinese artist I Gusti Nyoman Lempad. Need I mention Lempad, who lived and worked in Ubud for most of his 116 years, who helped create the main 20th Century architectural icons of this village – from mud walls to marvels of architecture – was an absolute genius with pen, ink and paper. As it so happens, his son Gusti Made Sumung was my landlord and cultural mentor for years.
So this is the kind of gift UWRF offers –a close encounter with a world that was once as remote as could be from Ubud yet is relevant to it today, as well as a re-examination of an artist who was once an exclusively Ubud phenomena but whose works have gone on to touch the entire world.
Now that’s balance!
photo of Rio Helmi by Beat Presser