May 30, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Ubud writers festival

New Indonesian writers receive international exposure.

Pam Allen

After three highly successful annual events, the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival has established its place on the international literary festival circuit. In 2006 novelist Anita Desai, ABC foreign correspondent Eric Campbell, cultural critic Ziauddin Sardar and historian William Dalrymple, mesmerised large audiences in the picturesque venue overlooking the Sungai Cerik valley.

But the festival also fosters Indonesian writers and provides them with a forum to present their work to a wider audience. Their involvement got off to a somewhat shaky start in 2004, when a relatively small contingent of Indonesian writers was marginalised both by the absence of interpreters and by being scheduled in small venues away from the main festival venue, as if they were part of a fringe festival. By 2006 professional interpreters and integration into the program proper meant that Indonesian voices were prominent, and they drew large and interested audiences, including many participants who were previously unfamiliar with Indonesian literature.

The opening event of the festival was a tribute to Pramoedya Ananta Toer, including an eloquent analysis by Goenawan Mohamad. There was also a moving account by Pramoedya’s publisher Joesoef Isak, whose decision to publish Pramoedya’s work landed him in prison under the New Order regime, and readings of Pramoedya’s works. A number of Indonesians commented on the irony that presenters such as myself had been able to engage more fully with Pramoedya’s work than they had, because of the ban on his work that is still officially in effect.

For many non-Indonesian festival participants, Putu Wijaya and Sapardi Djoko Damono were just names in a program, until they heard Putu Wijaya’s evocative keynote presentation on the meaning of the festival theme ‘Desa Kala Patra’ (place, time, identity), and Pak Sapardi’s reading of his work. But, importantly, the program also included young and emerging writers from Papua to Aceh.

Before reading his poems, JP (John) Waromi invoked the earth spirits from his Papuan homeland in a captivating chant that enthralled his audience. Waromi, who acknowledges the tension of a Papuan writing in Indonesian, has worked in Jakarta with Rendra’s theatre workshop and the culture discussion group Gorong-Gorong Budaya.

Poets Reza Indria, Zen Hae, Raudal Tanjung Benoa and Iswadi Pratama, writing from and/or about Aceh, Jakarta, West Sumatra and Lampung respectively, each wore fringed scarves in gentle mockery of the title of their panel — ‘Literature from the Fringes’. They not only brought Indonesian poetry to the attention of non-Indonesian speakers, but also proclaimed the irrelevance of the centre-margins (read Jakarta-regions) divide by, in Reza’s words, denying the very existence of a centre, rather acknowledging many centres. It was impossible for Reza and his fellow Acehnese, playwright Fozan Santa, to talk about their writing without reference to the troubles of Aceh, a theme picked up by Linda Christanty (head of the Pantau Foundation news agency in Banda Aceh).

A number of new and inspirational female Indonesian writers were also present. Laksmi Pamuntjak gave an extraordinary account of the influences of Homer’s Iliad and art on her writing, and launched her collection of short stories, written in English. Nineteen-year-old Vira Safitri told her audience that she had written her first novel in three days, with an initial print run of 9000 copies, a remarkably large print run in the current economic climate in Indonesia. Arguably, the Balinese playwrights Kadek Sonia Piscayanti and Maliana generated the most discussion. They have addressed the issues of sexual exploitation and empowerment of women in their plays. Moderator Wayan Juniartha (Jun) wondered repeatedly how women so young (and, yes, so beautiful) could have such insight. But I am willing to forgive Jun his lapses into such sexist language on account of his charm and intelligence as a moderator and his role, as part of the festival organising committee, in bringing together such an outstanding group of Indonesian writers.

Pam Allen ( is Head of the School of Asian Languages and Studies at the University of Tasmania.

Inside Indonesia 89: Jan-Mar 2007

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