What does a book and travel have in common? A lot really. Both take us to new places. Enable us to see the world a bit differently. Books and travel challenge us. They might even cause us to feel fear. Or wonderment. We are shown things that we don’t really want to see. They burst our bubbles. Both build up hopes, crash us down, take us for a wild ride; then give us a satisfying ending. And, hopefully, leave us with fond memories.
We open a book and turn to the first page, or we embark on a journey, map in hand, for the same purpose – to find ourselves. Clichéd? Sure. There is nothing wrong with the occasional cliché. So what can be found when one travels to a different country, to attend a writers and readers festival? Yourself, of course.
It’s the half-way point of the 11th Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. I have traveled to Indonesia for the first time, to volunteer at the Festival. I have a love:hate relationship with travel. As an introvert I like space. I like my home-space. Its quiet, its familiar, it is not crowded. Still, I love travelling: seeing new sights, learning about other ways of living, trying new experiences. However, there is always a point where I feel homesick, or have enough of crowds and noise. Not this time.
I’m enjoying volunteering. It’s a great way of travelling solo. It gives a purpose, an anchor. And it enables you to meet others. Ubud Writers and Readers Festival is an amazing event to be volunteering at. I’ve only been to one writers festival before – the same one – fifteen years apart. Both times I left frustrated, annoyed, dissatisfied. I put this down to the event lacking diversity, devoid of risk, just a tad bland. Not so with the Ubud event. That said, I have already felt frustrated and annoyed. That’s okay though. These emotions are good teachers.
Let me take you on my journey of the past two days, of a first-timer experiencing Ubud Writers and Readers Festival.
Yesterday (2 October 2014) was the first ‘real’ day of the Festival. And I manage to get to a reasonable number of sessions, to hear guest writers. As I am volunteering, I need to fit sessions around my roster. This means that I can’t attend all sessions on my wish list. Rather than be disappointed, I decided before I left home to ‘go with the flow’, and be content with the free time allotted to me. This tactic has served me well.
The first session I attended was a warm welcome to the Festival. Titled Custodians, it paired Clarrie Cameron (Nhanhagardi Elder from Western Australia) and Nyoman Sadra (Tenganan villiage, Bali). Chaired by Emma Masters, the session was like a flowing song. Both speakers had their own unique ways of talking, harmonising well with each other. Clarrie and Nyoman yarned about what it meant to be the holders of cultures that were feeling pressure from outside influences and changing times. They spoke of the importance of learning and maintaining culture and traditions, and the need to pass these on through the generations. Both men shared what it meant to care for their land, their Country. They spoke of the power in words, and being mindful of how its used. And within this sharing, commonalities were found. I left this session with a warm blend of feelings. I left feeling proud of my Aboriginal heritage, and feeling hopeful for the future of humanity.
Walking up the road to Neka, I was looking forward to the next session – The Right Track. I had not read this writer’s book, but had heard of her epic journey some forty years ago. I walked in as Trisha Sertori began her discussion with Robyn Davidson (Australia). Poised, honest and confident, I admired Robyn for her trek across Australia in the 70s. A story that has been shared with the world through print and film. I connected with the way she described her personal revelations in the desert of Australia. That sense of connection was broken when Robyn began to share her views on First Nation peoples of Australia. Her words pricked at that warm feeling that session one had gifted me. When the audience began to asked for her opinions of the ‘Aboriginal problem’, I became annoyed. And then saddened. Leaving the venue with the all-familiar beasts of white privilege and cultural bias snapping at my heels, I stomped back down the road. Trying to put aside my annoyance, I reminded myself that we are all products of our own times, cultures, experiences and word-views. We each have our own truths.
I went in search of other truths, ones which I feel more comfortable with. Luckily, the next session was Patricia Grace (Maori writer of New Zealand), speaking on the Small Holes in the Silence. A quietly spoken speaker, Patricia talked of the influence culture and family had on her writing, and what it meant to tell everyday stories that some may see as political. With thoughtful questioning by Nic Low, the idea of changing aspects of stories was discussed, with the position of outsider or insider playing a big part in perception. Patricia has a grace and sense of humbleness that enabled young audience members to feel comfortable enough to ask for writing advice. And her suggestion was simply good: to write we must read, and read some more. Of course published writers know that it takes a lot of hard work, but being a reader is the core element of becoming/being a writer.
Then I tried one more session – Stepping Back from Consciousness with Eimer McBride (Ireland). As a new writer, thrust into the world through a highly awarded first novel, Eimer was a refreshing speaker. She is obviously attached to her characters, talking of them as if they were family. Some call her work experimental, which is another word for hard to market, but I felt that her writing was from another time. A time when words had beauty and a storyteller was a respected member of community. More poetry than prose, her writing might be challenging for some. Writing should be challenging, like it was before commercialism became the gate-keeper of publishing. Eimer’s personal journey to becoming a published novelist would be inspiring for many people who dream of becoming writers. Her patience, determination and trust led to being published by a small, emerging publishing company. Within a year, her first book has accumulated major literary awards, and has earned her the title of the new James Joyce. Big shoes to fill for a first time writer.
At that point, I called an end to day one and returned to my villa – to read. Under a mosquito net, I read a book by a Balinese author that was written in 1930s [Anak Agung Pandji Tisna’s The Rape of Sukreni]. With a book and a punnet of strawberries, I was soon lulled by simple words of every day life, and fell asleep.
I awoke determined not to succumb to crankiness, and went for a night walk, and a beer. Returning with a new attitude. Combining the words I had gathered from all four sessions, I acknowledged that I can’t change others. I can only change myself, and be more aware of the power of my own words. And with words I can perhaps plant seeds that will grow. There are many people out there, planting seeds. I had heard many caring gardeners that day, who perhaps had nurtured some brave and hopeful thoughts among their eager audiences.
On day two, I woke with determination to listen in a different way. The first session reinforced my aim for the day. Wide Awake Language was a celebration of the songs within prose. Again, it was full of reminders of how culture and everyday life mold us as people and as writers. The speakers were from diverse cultures and nations, but each had a deep respect for the rhythm of storytelling. Panel chair Eleanor Limprecht lead the discussion, allowing it to weave magic on the audience. Bumyamin Fasya (Taskikmalaya, Indonesia), Eimear McBride (Ireland) and Sjon (Iceland) are proud writers of difficult books. Books that make the reader work, leading them to a more fulfilled experience. As a fan of difficult books, a lover of complex prose, I really enjoyed hearing the panel members read extracts from their books, and share their passion for words.
From there I entered the underbelly of expats and tourists. In a packed session called Poison or Passion: The Rise of the Super Bule, Balinese Putu Semiada and Wayan Juniartha, and expats Made Wijaya, Rucina Ballinger and Peter Wall had the audience in laughter, squirming in their seats and questioning where they fit in the equation. In the end, the answer to the question was probably that expats and tourists were a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly.
Next I went to sit with the Great Greats. Clarrie Cameron (Australia), Patricia Grace (New Zealand), Fiona McFarlane (Australia) and Sulfiza Ariska (West Sumatra, Indonesia) shared their perspectives on the role of Elders. Chaired by Nic Low, this session paired speakers from different generations and cultures. However many common threads were evident. Like the earlier sessions, I felt a connection to what was being shared. So with the frustration of day one well and truly soothed by three excellent sessions, I reported to my afternoon shift as a volunteer.
Now day two is done, and I’m looking forward to tomorrow. I can fit in three sessions before I have to do another shift in First Aid. There are a few comfortable choices in the program, but perhaps I should pick at least one challenging session. After all, if I continually choose the same familiar book to read from, then I lose invaluable opportunities to discover myself. Does that sound too clichéd? I don’t care – I’m in Ubud.