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Ubud writers festival still standing after COVID-19 twists the plot

If it was a book it would be a page-turner: the Australian woman living on a tropical island who founded a literary festival imperilled by terrorist attacks, smouldering volcanoes, the shadow of a massacre and a global pandemic.

“I can think of no other festival that has had to deal with as many issues, tragedies and dramas as we do – it’s never-ending,” says Janet DeNeefe, a former Melburnian who moved to Bali after meeting her husband, Ketut Suardana, on holiday there in 1984.

“So many things have happened our risk management plan is like a bible.”

A Balinese man prays over the rubble of the Sari Club in November 2002. The idea of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival was a repudiation of that year's terrorist attacks on the island.
A Balinese man prays over the rubble of the Sari Club in November 2002. The idea of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival was a repudiation of that year’s terrorist attacks on the island.CREDIT:KATE GERAGHTY

The Ubud Writers and Readers Festival was born out of tragedy.

In 2003, a year after a bomb ripped through the Sari Club and Paddy’s Bar in Kuta, the future for Bali looked grim. Unemployment was rising, shops were being vacated and idle drivers gathered in groups on footpaths.

“Every person on this idyllic island is suffering from this massive tragedy and it doesn’t seem to be getting better. There’s a feeling of being abandoned by the rest of the world,” DeNeefe wrote in her memoir Fragrant Rice.

Janet DeNeefe and Nick Cave at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in 2012.
Janet DeNeefe and Nick Cave at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in 2012.

And so DeNeefe conceived the idea of a “healing project”, a writers’ festival that would reclaim Bali from the terrorists and attract tourists back to the island.

Fast-forward 16 years and British newspaper The Telegraph named the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival among the top five literary events for 2019.

It’s beloved of festival goers – some 25,000 attend in normal years – and authors alike. Luminaries over the years have included Vikram Seth, Jung Chang, Jeffrey Eugenides, Michael Ondaatje, Hanya Yanagihara, Lionel Shriver, Ian Rankin, Eka Kurniawan, Hanif Kureishi, Nick Cave, Yotam Ottolenghi and Richard Flanagan.

“A visiting writer may feel as if she’s entered an alternate reality, where at any moment Bianca Jagger might ride in on a horse, or a flying champagne cork might hit you on the head … It’s all very Mustique in the 1970s,” Australian author and festival guest Brigid Delaney wrote in The Guardian in 2017.

But there is an eerie sense of deja vu this year: the mood is more Bali 2003 than 1970s Mustique.

Street vendors sit together in the absence of tourists in Tanah Lot, Bali, last month.
Street vendors sit together in the absence of tourists in Tanah Lot, Bali, last month. CREDIT:BLOOMBERG

“When you drive in Kuta, it’s like a ghost town, 90 per cent of businesses are closed,” DeNeefe says. “People are just hanging in there. There are a lot more little warungs (roadside food stalls), people out the front of their houses selling Nasi Jinggo (a Balinese snack wrapped in banana leaf) for 20 cents.”

But despite the pandemic making international travel an impossibility, postponing the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival was never an option. “Rebuilding Bali has always been part of our identity,” DeNeefe says.

Like many literary festivals, Ubud has pivoted online. This year Kembali 2020 (kembali is the Indonesian word for ‘return’ or ‘come back’) features a digital program of panel discussions, book launches, poetry readings, film screenings and cooking demonstrations.

“While we are not on the ground building the economy, in this case we are about rebuilding the creative communities and giving them a voice,” DeNeefe says.

She is typically upbeat: she’s “over the moon” the festival has snared Talking Heads frontman, author and filmmaker David Byrne, who will reflect on his new film with Spike Lee and how isolation has impacted his creativity.

DeNeefe has been trying to get Byrne to the festival for years.

He had an interest in Bali, having studied gamelan, the traditional Indonesian ensemble music made up predominantly of percussive instruments, on the island in the late ’70s.

DeNeefe says this time he couldn’t say he was too busy: “He doesn’t have to leave the house!”

But despite her sanguinity, it’s been a tough year. Earlier this year DeNeefe was forced to lay off a quarter of her staff: “I don’t even know after this festival if we’ll have anything in the kitty, but the show must go on.”

She is a veteran of force majeureIn 2005, six days before the second festival was due to begin, more bombs exploded in Bali, this time killing 20 people at Jimbaran Beach Resort and Kuta.

DeNeefe was dining with Indian writer Amitav Ghosh when they learned of the attack. “Amitav said ‘Oh my goodness, I have to go there tomorrow, I want to interview the people and see how they feel’,” DeNeefe recalls.

For some years after this, DeNeefe was warned she was “brave” to hold a festival where foreigners could be attacked by terrorists. “I had to try to have careful screenings when people came into sessions, there was always a bit of a fear we could be a target.”

In 2017 the festival was again in jeopardy after Mount Agung – Bali’s largest and most sacred mountain – began rumbling. The volcano had been dormant since 1964. Bali’s tourism industry was thrown into turmoil, with people cancelling trips amid fears planes would be unable to fly if there were ash clouds in the sky. The festival went ahead but for a while it was touch and go.

But DeNeefe says the most fraught year was 2015, the 50th anniversary of the 1965 massacre of an estimated 500,000 suspected communists and their sympathisers.

The mass killings are one of the darkest chapters in Indonesian history and remain extremely politically sensitive today.

The festival had scheduled several panels on the mass killings and a screening of Joshua Oppenheimer’s film The Look of Silence, which examines the fallout from the massacre.

But it was forced to cancel the sessions after authorities refused to issue a permit for the festival if they proceeded, in the first act of censorship in the history of the festival.

Eka Kurniawan, the first Indonesian writer to be nominated for a Man Booker International prize, said at the time the cancellation was embarrassing. “Seventeen years after reformasi [the end of the Suharto era], we are still being haunted by such things,” he told The Age in 2015.

Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan.
Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan.CREDIT:JEFRI TARIGAN

“If censoring ideas is tolerated, it will continue until it reaches its peak: eliminating the lives of men considered different.”

Kurniawan is also a guest at this year’s festival.

“I think [the anniversary of] 1965 was the hardest,” DeNeefe says. “All the natural disasters we took in our stride but that year we didn’t really know what was going on, with a lot of police sitting in our office and making everyone extremely edgy and nervous. That rocked our team. They are gentle folk and some left after that.”

At the time DeNeefe was criticised from some quarters for not calling authorities’ bluff and proceeding with the contentious panels.

Panellists' chairs were shrouded in black in protest at censorship during the 2015 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival.
Panellists’ chairs were shrouded in black in protest at censorship during the 2015 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival.CREDIT:SONNY TUMBELAKA

“I’m used to being criticised, but the thing was the authorities said they were not going to give us a permit,” DeNeefe says. “They didn’t stop us going ahead but anybody in Indonesia knows if you don’t have a permit you are insane – they have every right to close you down.”

In the end DeNeefe says the censorship provided the “best possible publicity” – both for the mass killings of 1965 and the festival. “I was on the phone 24/7 to journalists from all over the world.”

This year the pandemic means writers will not be put up in villas in Ubud and feted like rock stars. There will be no festivalgoers sipping cocktails. No impassioned authors will speak at exquisite venues nestled in the mountains.

Janet DeNeefe at the opening of the festival in 2018.
Janet DeNeefe at the opening of the festival in 2018.

DeNeefe will not be called upon to stage 11th-hour interventions to get writers into the country. (She once managed to persuade authorities to allow Israeli writer Etgar Keret, who was camped outside the Indonesian embassy in Bangkok, into Bali on an Israeli passport. Israel and Indonesia have no formal diplomatic ties.)

But DeNeefe remains excited. In collaboration with one of Bali’s young filmmakers, Wayan Martino, the festival is producing a video series to document Bali’s food and cultural heritage. The first episode will capture the life of a vanilla farmer at Mupubati Farm in Bali.

“This young Balinese actor went back to his parents’ deserted vanilla farm and decided to revive the family business,” DeNeefe says.

She says this is a common story. The pandemic has seen many Balinese youth pivot from tourism to the land, cultivating Balinese black heritage pigs or making coconut sugar or the distilled alcoholic spirit Arak.

“I find it really heartwarming to see how resilient and creative people are,” DeNeefe says.

“We decided let’s try to incorporate that in the festival. It’s not just a writers’ festival, it’s a story about Bali and what’s been happening here. Nobody else does that – that’s our job. You can’t come to Bali, so we’re bringing Bali back to you.”

Kembali 2020 will be held from October 29 to November 8. Jewel Topsfield will interview Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan on November 1 as part of the festival.

Jewel Topsfield is a senior reporter at The Age. She has worked in Melbourne, Canberra and Jakarta as Indonesia correspondent. She has won multiple awards including a Walkley and the Lowy Institute Media Award.

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