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Jakarta Post

Urban Chat: Between and among words and wordsmiths

  • Lynda Ibrahim

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Fri, October 18, 2013   /  12:53 pm

How quick a year flies. I still remember my first Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF) last year, (the festival was already in its ninth year by then) and suddenly I was there again for the 10th UWRF last week. Flying in rather tired after a Wakatobi trip, I floated from one interesting session to another, trying to catch various panels of writers and journalists.

Just like last year, I was curious to discover in the flesh the minds who had crafted the works I'€™d read, admired or heard of. I wanted to see how they voiced their thoughts openly, away from the intimate confines of their desks and laptops.

What I discovered was that not all great writers were engaging public speakers and eloquent writers often lost their luster when talking in a foreign language. Meanwhile, those who had witnessed and written about harrowing experiences remained gracious and retained a twinkle in their eye '€” this year'€™s Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho and former Sinn Fein national director for publicity Danny Morrison came to mind.

But does it really matter? Should we limit ourselves to the tales, or should we care about the artists as well? In his keynote address, literary giant Goenawan Mohamad referenced D. H. Lawrence and Roland Barthes when he discussed the concept of '€œwriter in-absentia'€.

And there'€™s a huge truth to it. Most people I know decide to read something because the premise piques their interest, yet voracious readers tend to develop a preference over time '€” the promise of a good read built through a writer'€™s previous work. Yet new writers are discovered and heralded continuously, so in general, readers still leaf through the pages written by a writer '€” and fully savor the tale without ever meeting him or her in real life. It'€™s been like this since texts were invented and I suspect, for most readers that will continue to be the case.

So, why do people flock to literary festivals? Take Indonesia for example '€” aside from the established Salihara Literary Biennale in Jakarta, we now also have Makassar International Writers'€™ Festival, Bali Emerging Writers'€™ Festival and '€” making its inaugural step this weekend '€” the Borobudur Writers'€™ Festival. There must be decent demand for these festivals to emerge.

An argument immediately presented to me is the enraging celebrity culture. It'€™s not an entirely cynical view. I'€™ve witnessed participants who reserved less energy immersing themselves in panel discussions, be it listening or volunteering thoughts, than in chasing authors or poets for autographs and photographs. But that can also be said of any festival, including festivals on yoga '€” where the whole idea is to shed worldly attachments.

What I personally relish, past quenching my initial thirst of meeting the writers in the flesh, is the chance to discover the story behind the story and to peek into their minds by bringing up issues related to their work. There'€™s always something to surprise you '€” or often to teach you '€” that comes from their responses.

After ardently singing her nationalistic tribute poem to the glory of Brunei, poet Kris Karmila struggled when asked if her country had freedom of expression. Her seemingly random quips of '€œWe'€™re trained this way'€, '€œIf there'€™s a complaint, we go to the appointed official'€ and '€œThe sultan takes care of the people and everything'€ gave a clearer picture than whatever government-sanctioned answer she probably wished she had given.

Young poet Dea Anugrah'€™s almost disinterested demeanor and inability to draw comparisons of Kartini beyond a fictional character written by Pramoedya Ananta Toer illustrated most Indonesians'€™ ignorance of Kartini'€™s letters although, as a paying audience member, I wished he could have made more effort to engage in the discussion.

When I asked renowned filmmaker Garin Nugroho about the absence of films depicting the real story of Indonesia'€™s rising middle-class, he admitted there were legitimate dramas in that demography to be told in honesty, not mockery.

The extra panel (thanks again, UWRF) of Aristides Katoppo, Goenawan Mohamad, Adam Schwarz and Michael Vatikiotis was almost in unison on the importance of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) but offered different views on how to eradicate corruption and curb religious intolerance beyond 2014. Moderator Wayan Juniarta chided me afterward for posting such big questions, but hey, I wasn'€™t going to insult the combined intelligence of such luminaries by just asking about the 2014 election now, was I?

And of course, there were cherished chance encounters with other participants. People you kept bumping into and striking up conversations with, like the lively silver-haired Marek or the hijab-wearing lady who brought her kids to any Indonesia-related session.

There were nameless faces that came to offer comment or comfort after a panelist branded your remark '€œsome upper-middle class thinking'€. And of course, the hilarious pair of a young Liza Minelli lookalike and a pink-scooter-riding photographer wearing a holster-like contraption to store her whips, toothpicks and iPhone (in that order, she insisted).

I wholly support the idea that a text should be loved or critiqued because of the tale being told, not because of who tells the tale. I found it a huge compliment when someone cited something I wrote, although they may have not realized that I wrote it.

In that sense, yes for '€œwriter in-absentia'€. But I think I'€™ll still go to literary festivals for the context and characters, even for the chance encounters, which cannot be gleaned off printed or electronic pages.

Or maybe I'€™m just a festival junkie.

Lynda Ibrahim is a Jakarta-based writer and consultant with a penchant for purple, pussycats and pop culture.

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