I’m sitting at a table on the verandah of my villa at the Pita Maha Resort in Ubud, Bali, in the midst of a tropical downpour, on the last day of the Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival. There’s water running coming from all directions. The lush foliage all shines and drips. I want to stand out in the rain but a few days ago I gouged my leg and the doctor has ordered me to keep the wound dry (I’ve started a short story in honour of what was a pretty minor injury).
Although Ubud is of course very much its own place, since I’ve been here I’ve been thinking a lot about my previous trips to Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia. Little details, like smells, the quality of the light, encounters with packs of dogs, trying to cross the road, more so than the ‘big’ things like, say, walking down the causeway to Angkor Wat.
There’s something about being somewhere else entirely that is invigorating. Like exercise, somehow. In my Australian way, I imagined the drive from Denpasar to Ubud would mostly meander through open countryside: tropical forests or rice paddies or …. . In fact, it involved tiny snippets of countryside, but mainly lots of people, lots of buildings and a cracking number of cars, trucks, buses and, especially, motor bikes.
Earlier this year, I attended Wordstorm in Darwin. There was a large contingent of Indonesian and East Timorese writers in attendance (as well as others from the Southeast Asian region), and Darwin the city seemed culturally as well as geographically connected to its close neighbours. I wondered then if the Australian government could truck we southerners up to the Top End a couple of times a year to help remind ourselves that we don’t live in splendid isolation from Indonesia and Timor, from Asia, from the world. Maybe it would be enough for the government to truck every member of the House of Representatives and the Senate up, given that they represent us (or so it’s said). I suppose then we’d all whinge and moan about pollie’s perks and travel expenses. They’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
On this trip, I’ve been struck by the number of people who juggle living arrangements between Ubud and other places, sometimes other places in Bali or Indonesia, sometimes other countries: Australia, the US, and so on. Even though some bits of Ubud do have that tacked-on tourist feel, it’s easy to see why people come for a holiday and suddenly find themselves living here six months of the year.
I’ve also been struck on this trip, even after just a few days and even after so far having only visited Bali, just how little Australians comprehend about Indonesia – and I’m sure the reverse is true too. I think instinctively we know we don’t know much, and that what we do know is stereotyped or cliched or just plain wrong, but Indonesia seems to fall into the ‘too hard to get our heads around’ basket. We know about bombings, we know about Schapelle Corby and the Bali Nine, we know (kind of) about people smugglers and rickety boats. We know there’s a lot of people there. We know we fly over them, more or less, to get to Europe.
The other interesting thing about being away from home is how utterly apathetic I’ve been about keeping up with Aussie news online, even though we’re in the early days of a quite gloriously messy minority government, and even though it is AFL trade week. I have read the International Herald Tribune (the global edition of the New York Times) at breakfast a couple of times, but it’s a funny hybrid sort of paper that seems to exist to service a weird conglomerate of readers. It’s got an ‘all things to all people’ sort of feel to it. Every time I picked it up I flicked through it cursorily and took up a book instead … although yesterday I did read keep at it long enough to learn that the ex-editor of Indonesia ‘Playboy’ had failed to turn himself in to start his jail sentence for printing images of scantily-clad women (from memory, he got two years). It’s unclear if he’s now on the run; maybe he just got the day wrong. Anyway, the fact that it’s Indonesian ‘Playboy’ should not obscure the fact that there’s a free speech and other political/legal issues that the case highlights.
As I write, just down Jalan Raya Ubud, the last couple of sessions of the Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festivals are finishing up. This has been a terrific festival to both participate in and to be in the audience for. Every writers’ festival should be a writers’ and readers’ festival. Probably the highlight for me was Jennifer Byrne’s riveting ‘in conversation’ with the BBC journalist and writer, Kate Adie, held in the quite ludicrously swanky Amandari Hotel. Adie spoke with great passion and swagger about some of her experiences, especially of the frantic, extraordinarily dangerous hours she spent in the streets surrounding Tiananmen Square in 1989, and the lengths she had to go to – running for her life, beating up soldiers – to get herself and a film cassette to safety. She also raged against one questioner from the audience who wanted to know if the huge number of journos wanting to go to war was making it difficult for the military. ‘Tough titties’, Adie said. With apologies for my rough, rough paraphrasing, she argued – forcefully – that when democracies go to war in our name, we really ought to want to know what they’re getting up to. She suggested it’s the politicians not the military who are most worried about war correspondents. This might, however, depend on who the war correspondent is. And who the military leader is. And who the soldier is. And who the politician is.
Another highlight was Israeli short story writer Etgar Keret. Etgar came to the Adelaide Writers’ Week one year and absolutely wowed the crowd. I was working in the book tent that year and I can still remember the queue of people to buy his book. At the festival opening here, he read a terrific story about a man whose girlfriend has a secret she needs to tell him. In his ‘in conversation’ session, he talked about how he came to write via his compulsary army service. He read a very early short story and he generally exuded humanity and good humour, even if that good humour is laced with the hard edge of the political and military realities prevalent in his part of the world.
My own sessions were fun, and I hope interesting and entertaining for the audiences. On the Thursday, I attended the Long Table Lunch at the John Hardy Jewelry Estate, outside of Ubud. My mission involved eating food, drinking wine and chatting with my fellow diners: it’s hard to imagine a more convivial festival event. Lunch (which was indeed eaten on a long table) was held in a remarkable bamboo pavilion, one of those spaces that looks completely different depending on where you stand.
Also on the Thursday I read from Figurehead in a great little bar called Bar Luna. The session was called ‘Love Bites’, and was pitched as ‘authors telling tales of love, longing and other assorted edibles’. Although this is hardly the stuff of Figurehead, the section I read from the book did at least include a little bit of groping and drunkenness.
On the Friday, I was honoured to share the stage with the legendary Tom Keneally, the well-on-the-way-to-being-legendary Tash Aw and moderator Dédé Oetomo in a session called ‘Rhyming with the Real’, in which we talked about how faithfully – or not – we represented the lives of people caught up in terrible events. It’s a striking element of this festival’s program that there were other similar sounding sessions: ‘Alternative Histories’, ‘Truth in Fiction: the Art of the Novel’, and others. A word on Tash Aw: I’m 70 or 80 pages into his second novel, Map of the Invisible World. I should hold off any detailed assessment until I finish it, but he’s a seriously good storyteller. Good bloke, too.
Saturday I participated in a rather cruisy session on reading and reading habits, chaired with aplomb by the excellent journo and broadcaster Caroline Baum (I hope that’s reasonably close to how she’d like to be described). I talked about my old imaginary friends Bulla and Boozie and their friend Bogga (definitely not my friend!), and I confessed that I sometimes want to lick my copy of Peter Carey’s Illywhacker. I Possibly could have kept that to myself.
Next stop Semarang on Java.