The Jakarta Post
It is hard to believe that the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF) is celebrating its 15th anniversary this week. The annual event, held in the hill town of Ubud on Indonesia’s most renowned tourist island, was first held in 2003 as part of an effort to help revive tourism, the island’s main economic lifeline, after terrorist bombings devastated the island’s Kuta district a year earlier.
The attacks seemed like they happened only yesterday and memories of the tragedy remain with us today.
The Ubud festival itself, however, has grown into something beyond what it was intended to be and has continued to grow larger and livelier each year. After 15 years, the festival has gained international recognition as a major item on the calendar of events in the literary world.
The 2018 UWRF features over 180 international and Indonesian writers and activists, including the United Kingdom’s Hanif Kureishi and Geoff Dyer, Australia’s Kim Scott, Pakistan’s Fatima Bhutto and Italy’s Giuseppe Catozzella. There are book launches, panel discussions, book and poetry readings and screenings of the latest documentary films, and writers are sharing their stories, passions and unique writing techniques. The informal atmosphere breaks barriers between writers and readers as they rub shoulders in over 200 events throughout the six-day festival.
The Bali setting may be the reason why the Ubud festival has been so successful. Its cultural backdrop brought Elizabeth Gilbert here to write the last part of her best-selling memoir Eat, Pray, Love. Ubud became more famous thanks to the book and its movie adaptation starring Julia Roberts, but the festival will likely far outlive the popularity of the book.
The UWRF this year received an official stamp of approval of sorts with the presence of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti on Thursday, the opening day — not that the festival needs an official endorsement. The reason why it has continued year after year is precisely because it is a private initiative and the brainchild of its founder, Janet DeNeefe, an Australian who has made Bali her home. Her tireless efforts, passion and energy, along with support from her team and sponsors, has made the UWRF what it is today.
Ultimately, the recognition and endorsement that matters most comes not from the government, but from writers and readers. This is one area in which the UWRF could improve, as it needs to work more to gain recognition and appreciation from the wider public at home. Admittedly, it is a struggle, given the poor reading habits of the nation and lack of appreciation for literature.
For Indonesia, Ubud is an important launching pad to help local talent take on the global literary world. There is no other festival like it. Being the guest country at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2015 was certainly a great opportunity for Indonesian writers to go global, but it may be decades before Indonesia has that honor again. The UWRF, in contrast, is here every year.
Indonesian writers, rise!