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I'd write more, like you said I should. If only, there was more to me.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Between Worlds: The Ubud Readers & Writers Festival

Between Worlds: A Journey Through the Ubud Writers Festival
By Deepika Shetty

When it comes to literary festivals, you can't get any better than this. It was born with a sense of purpose and while the Ubud Readers and Writers Festival is only into its second year, its drawing authors, readers and visitors from across the world and the recently concluded festival truly lived up to its theme ‘Between Worlds.’

It was tragedy - the Bali blasts in 2002 that led to the birth of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in 2004. Its aim was to use the power of the written word to heal, strengthen and bring visitors back to the resort island of Bali.

Ironically, another senseless act of violence rocked Kuta just a week before the Festival entered its second year. But as the writers and readers clearly demonstrated, the way to fight terror was not to be terrorised by it.

And they showed up in large numbers for the spectacular opening ceremony at the Ubud Palace which turned out to be a tremendous show of support for the organisers.

As Festival Director Janet de Neefe put it: "we weren't sure how it was going to pan out given the tragic bombings but the writers have been very supportive and some people who heard my interviews on Australian media actually bought their tickets the next day and came to attend the festival, this has touched us all deeply."

Day One of the show featured internationally acclaimed Booker Prize winning author Michael Ondaatje, who peppered his conversation about his more serious work with all the tales that ran in his family. His warmth and willingness to read from my favourite book ‘Anil’s Ghost’ sure went a long way in putting me perfectly at ease at the session I moderated.

That funny bone was tickled even further by Hong Kong ’s stand-up comedian Nury Vittachi over a literary lunch that was filled with laughs. Sample this for instance:

“Nury: Michael, I’ve been inviting you for the Hong Kong Writers Festival, I’ve promised you a six star hotel, a First Class airfare, but you’ve told me you don’t travel. What is it that Janet has, that I don’t?

Michael: (Laughs) She has Ubud and Bali.”

Another repartee ran along these lines:

"Nury: Sri Lankans are these tiny people with small hips like me - are you really a Sri Lankan?

Michael: No, the real Michael Ondaatje is back home in Toronto – he didn’t want to travel (laughs)."

With all the literary laughs over it was time to say cheers and move on to the more serious issues. 'Passages From India' that featured celebrated Indian author Amitav Ghosh and Randhir Khare covered the troubling issues of violence, natural disasters, terrorism and the need for writers not to glorify such incidents.

It was a sentiment shared by a special panel put together to deal with the issue as well, something that spilled into the poetry sessions too.

And dealing with terror, was something that was on the minds of several of the authors attending the event, who felt together they could overcome this threat.

Australian poet, author and the publicist for this year’s Festival Hal Judge pointed to the fact that only 7 or 8 writers dropped out of the festival in light of the bombings and he stressed the need to “confront terrorism in its all its forms.”

Indian author, Randhir Khare was more optimistic in his assessment. He said, “I know for sure that no amount of violence is going to crack or chip or peel that spirit of Bali which is the spirit of peace and no act of terrorism will make its mark on these amazing people.”

Beyond issues of terror, some writers stretched themselves to the limit entertaining the old and the young readers alike, but not without capturing what Ubud had truly achieved.

They dubbed it a part of “a bigger movement where Asia is asserting itself."

Buoyed by so much support, the festival truly lived up to its theme - 'Between Worlds', which reflects a life between peace and violence and how we survive in a changing world. It’s a theme that’s bound to strengthen the spirit of the Festival in the years to come.

October 17, 2005

Deepika is a Producer with Channel NewsAsia's breakfast show, Prime Time Morning, where she produces amongst other things, the book segment - Off The Shelf.

The article first appeared on Channel NewsAsia's website

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Literary Fests

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Literary fests are discovery zones

THERE is something about writers’ festivals — the high adrenalin action, the no-holds-barred debate, and the heroes who for a change get to be with their fans.

Something as exciting as that happened recently in the sunny shores of Singapore. Most of the events were held at the futuristic National Library Building and the opening session put the spotlight on Asian writing on a global stage. While the session packed punch, the author who stood out the most, in my view, was none other than the 25-year-old Thai-American Rattawut.

His collection of short stories Sightseeing has received rave reviews and it’s easy to see why. I recently finished reading it and wait with bated breath for his first novel tentatively titled The End of Siam. Sure he was a tad confused, but through that confusion emerged his earnestness as a writer. Australian Peter Goldsworthy, who holds down a full-time job as a doctor, regaled us with all the fun times he had signing off Peter Carey’s books as his own, since no one in the UK, where he was on a book tour, knew any better. Things sure have changed since then, but Asian writing still has a long way to go, said the panelists.

Over the next one week, what unravelled were dialogues at various levels with legendary bloggers like Cory Doctorow and science fiction heavy weights such as Bruce Sterling. ‘Text in the City,’ which was the theme of the festival, took an interesting twist with bedtime readings presented by titans like the award-winning and amazingly charming Mexican author Alberto Ruy-Sanchez of ‘Mogador’ fame. As the name suggests, these came complete with champagne and strawberries and continued into the dead of the night. I always knew there was a lot more to reading.

After some of these nocturnal sessions, getting back to ground zero was a bit tough for some festival regulars, but the two sessions I moderated saw its share of book lovers in our midst. People turned up in full force for Tarun’s magical reading of Alchemy of Desire. Sitting right in the front, I spotted Manju Kapur (of Difficult Daughters, Married Woman’ fame), Suhayl Saadi (of Psychoraag and The Burning Mirror fame) and Rattawut. That’s not all, my good pal Janet de Neefe who has put together the remarkable Ubud Writers Festival in Bali, flew in especially for this talk. And what a session it turned out to be.

There are tonnes of stories to narrate, but since there is a word count to be kept, let me stick to the best Tarun quote, one which packed a lot of punch for budding writers: "Writing journalism is like hugging the shore, to use an Updikian phrase. But writing a novel is like navigating in the open sea. You need to have your senses gathered to navigate the ship to a piece of a land. That’s the ability needed to write a good novel."

The panel had an eclectic mix. There was Dr Suhayl Saadi from Scotland, Ouyang Yu from Australia, Laxmi Pamuntjak from Indonesia, Dr Rudhramoorthy Cheran from Canada and Felix Cheong from Singapore.

The panelists, attempted to look at the issues of identity, especially in the context of living and writing in an alien culture and sometimes in a second (alien) language.

Suhayl was the most impressive. The passage he read from Pscyhoraag saw everyone rushing to buy a copy of the book. He made some pertinent observations about writing: "I am a monolinguist. English is my first language. But in a way, my using Urdu and Hindi and Punjabi words in my novel is an attempt to connect to the languages of my ancestors. I try but I fail and there’s a struggle in that.... Probably people who know and use more languages are better at writing."

With those thoughts in mind I signed off the Other Voices session, but had the fortune of another stimulating session over dinner with Bruce Sterling, Aniruddha, Suhayl and the Chairman of the Writers Festival, Peter Schoppert.

Over the next four days, I met more writers, including the unstoppable Malaysian Chef Wan and Alexander McCall Smith. And when it was time to bid adieu, I was almost sad and mournful that all the rocking good times were over in just a week’s time. Time flies, as they say, when you are having a great time.

And while the cynics may dismiss literary festivals as book tourism, I firmly believe that such festivals are art for everyone. They give us a sense of shared culture and by interacting with authors, you get a chance to be a small part of something so much bigger. And, as someone mentioned to me "literary festivals are discovery zones. There is no obligation and no sense of failure." Now, that surely is something worth celebrating.