Friday, January 27, 2006

What Enlivened the 2005 Ubud Writers Fest

The Second Great Annual Ubud Writers Festival was just as great as number one, if not better.
If All Things Childlike was an unofficial, underlying theme to the 2004 fest, All Things Sexy was 2005’s. Attendees were treated to an epic love poem set to avant garde music, a raucous evening debate on whether men or women write the best sex scenes, and the President and First Lady of East Timor read selected texts from their courtship in an intimate Cliffside hideaway.

One of the last decade’s hottest love stories, The English Patient, was perhaps the fastest mover in the festival book bazaar. This makeshift bookshop had the atmosphere of a cleaner, neater Ubud marketplace… boxes of great stuff to buy, colorful displays, a tempting gauntlet for attendees to pass through, to get to all events held at the Indus. English Patient author, Michael Ondaatje, signed copies and was a genial guest. At times thronged by fans, lit star Ondaatje was friendly and a good listener to boot. I don’t know if there’s another festival out there which offers such an atmosphere of intimacy and leisure.

This festival is part intellectual salon, part master class, and part dinner party. The fact that founder deNeefe is a restaurateur deeply informs the tone of the week. There is always food, drink, a comfortable place to sit, and someone wonderful to sit next to. Seemingly all of Ubud, from the grounds of the royal palace to the charming restaurants that serve as venues, constitutes the setting. Wine (courtesy Australian consulate and any number of wineries) flows gently, menus abound with the best international flavors, and the whole town smiles warmly. This is entertaining on a very grand scale indeed.

The high-ticket literary lunches were in fabulous settings like the Maya Ubud (one of 04’s hot spots, too), luxurious Begawan Giri and the almost overwhelmingly grand Chedi Club. Unfortunately, the food at the lunches which I attended were not up to the level of the meals in the preceding year. Chicken breast and overcooked veggies followed by gelatin dessert is Hotel Banquet Cuisine 101. Bali is supposed to have great chefs, people. What happened? I suspect a profit motive, inappropriate on the hotel’s part, in what is essentially a PR opportunity.

A successful literary festival is not just about glitter, glam, and gladhanding. Some panels of writers had excellent, challenging moderators. Ubud novelist Jamie James, art dealer Mary Northmore, and renaissance woman Janet de Neefe were possibly the best, displaying fresh insights, and diligent research, with an attitude of humility and respect.

I felt several profound connections during this festival. Playwright and raconteur Putu Wijaya, speaking of his inability to be Balinese now that he is a citizen of the world, revealed some of the freedoms and bindings that accompany the third culture. I could also relate to Kirsty Sword Gusmao’s motherly ties conflicting with her other duties. She was as genuine and frank as my own mother, a great role model for me. An unexpectedly strong voice of female solidarity came from Ayu Utami, whose Saman was newly launched in English at the festival. Everyman’s eye candy in tight jeans and gorgeous face, Utami was nobody’s fool. During a progesterone-filled afternoon panel on underground Jakarta, the diminutive writer cried foul from the front row of the audience, when writers in the panel (all male) tossed off a general declaration that Jakarta sex workers love what they do. Perhaps I, too, had dismissed Utami as a sex kitten, for I looked at her in that heroic moment and thought, “yes, yes, you speak for me when I am intimidated.” And isn’t that the stock in trade of our best authors ? Truth and beauty wrapped in words.

Yes, time to wrap it all up. October 2006 is coming again and we’ll have another glorious smorgasbord of writers. Book your tickets to come to Bali and keep watching the Casa Luna website for details.

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