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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