Bali Diary: At the 2015 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival

By Maria BustillosDecember 3, 2015

Bali Diary: At the 2015 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival

Image Credit: Anggara Mahendra. Made For Goodness. Neka.


OCTOBER 27TH. I knew Australia was vast and empty in the middle (imagery courtesy of A Town Like Alice) but flying over it is another matter entirely. It is outer-space crazy down there. There is literally nothing, nothing but dry red hills, and now and then a thread of road so slender and minute it might have been laid down by a spider. An hour passes, and then another, with no variation at all in the coral and grey landscape. Then, across from our little craft, a cloud, just one in all the sky there is, casting a shadow on the land beneath, whose length I cannot guess; let’s call it a zillion miles across. But the airplane’s shadow cannot be seen; its toy wing alongside me is crisply outlined against cold clean cerulean.

I’m reading Teju Cole’s Every Day Is For The Thief and have been blubbing intermittently since we left Melbourne for Bali, starting around the moment I read this, about the narrator’s little cousin: “The completeness of a child is the most fragile and most wonderful thing in the world.” The lovely young Indonesian lady seated next to me looks a little worried about what antics I might get up to next, and no wonder, the prospect of being trapped next to some bawling matron for four hours really does sound unnerving. The lunch is a grotesque mockery of gnocchi but I am transported by my reading, and by the changeless landscape below.

The best thing about Every Day Is For The Thief — aside from the fact that Cole wields his pen with the sharp, elegant insouciance of Tim Roth’s sword in Rob Roy — is its narrator’s love of art, and how worthwhile and good it seems to him that someone, anyone, even some awful random rich corrupt private person, should have seen to it that Molière’s work was performed in beautiful surroundings in Lagos, Nigeria. This is in contrast to his earlier visit to the local museum of African art, which has gone to rack and ruin in the hands of the apathetic civil servants charged with its care. “Keeping culture alive” means care, not just for exhibit spaces, nor only for scholarship, cleanliness, and order, but for the intellectual practices in which such disciplines are rooted. “It is important for a people to have something that is theirs, something to be proud of, and for such institutions to have a host of supporters,” the narrator says.

And it is vital, at the same time, to have a meaningful forum for interacting with the world. So that a French play can appear onstage in Lagos, Nigeria, just as a Nigerian play appears in London, England. So that what people in one part of the world think of as uniquely theirs takes its rightful place as a part of universal culture.

But while I share the desire of Cole’s narrator for culture as “a meaningful forum for interacting with the world,” reality is that hardly anyone anywhere on earth has the foggiest clue who Molière is, or cares, either. There’s just a few people sprinkled randomly around. So, is it just an empty vanity, to care so much about keeping Molière alive, whether in Nigeria or Los Angeles or anywhere else? 

No! Jokes so hilarious must never be forgotten! And this conviction really has given rise to the beginnings, precarious and uncertain as they are, of the “universal culture” Cole describes: there’s this little gang of people who are ready to whoop appreciatively at Tartuffe, a 351-year-old play that could have been written yesterday, in any nation, about any best-selling snake oil salesman you care to name.

I love the feeling of sharing this with Teju Cole’s nameless narrator, way the hell up here in the air. A long-dead French playwright, a fictional Nigerian art lover, and a mostly harmless middle-aged American mom of Latin extraction, all hurtling toward Bali in a wingèd metal box toward the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, now in its 12th year. Cole himself will be there too, and a great many other literary potentates besides.

And then, suddenly, the unbroken expanse of the Indian Ocean below is interrupted at last:

We have begun our initial descent into Denpasar; make sure your seat belt is securely fastened low and tight around your lap.

And soon we alight in another green world.

This wildly lush, luxurious place, Chapung Se Bali, is literally in a jungle, and it has infinity pools and koi ponds and an amazingly pretty jungle kitchen garden with its own miniature rice paddies. Inside your room, they put frangipani all around. A little flower on the pillow. On the television, even, there is a little golden flower.


October 28th. A big scandal was erupting here at the festival just as I left Los Angeles: several panels relating to Indonesia’s 1965 communist purges were summarily canceled at the request, or demand, of local authorities. Also canceled: a screening of Joshua Oppenheimer’s new film, The Look of Silence, a sequel to his earlier, much-decorated 2012 The Act of Killing. The latter is an unforgettable, luridly terrifying portrait of several of the now-elderly, horror-bland butchers of some half a million people. 

Presumably it is partly Oppenheimer’s work that has made government officials so jumpy in this, the 50th anniversary year of the massacre. Indonesia’s archconservatives and radical Islamists are still virulently opposed to communism, which they consider to be decadent and secularist. That is to say, it appears that the Indonesian political landscape, regrettably, contains elements that are not 100 percent anti-massacre, which would explain why they haven’t gone in for much truth or reconciliation over the last 50 years.

So there is a certain frisson of discomfort and panic around the opening of the festival. The Australian papers and elsewhere covering it talk of nothing but the cancellations. In attempting to quash discussion of the atrocities, the government has instead drawn a dark circle around them.

But the delicacy of the festival organizers at the press call is a marvel. They are seated on a raised dais behind a table skirted in gold-patterned fabric in the open pavilion of the Neka museum complex. There are six of them: Michael Chabon, the American novelist; Janet DeNeefe, the festival’s founder and director; Ketut Suardana, co-founder of the foundation that backs the festival, Yayasan Mudra Swari Saraswati; Wayan Juniata, its national program manager; the author Eka Kurniawan; and the filmmaker Nia Dinata. 

It is very damn hot, and not in the least a dry heat. There’s a big crowd of journalists, amid which there is a faint, not unpleasant scent, the human scent of a gathering of some 200 souls, seated on folding chairs, fanning themselves, taking photographs and notes, listening attentively. Every face and body pearled with warm dew.

The organizers want this matter of the cancellations to be reported. There will be deliberately empty stages where the panels would have been. It’s important to resist any governmental incursions into hard-won press freedoms, we’re told. “In Indonesia what we call censorship is basically a legal problem,” says Juniata, the program manager. “There are so many regulations and existing laws that allow the government to, let’s say, request that organizers pull something down or cancel an event.”

This is how the velvet glove of political pressure is applied. In these circumstances, he goes on to ask:

What is the moral responsibility of this current generation? […] The problem is, there are still existing laws dating back to 1966, and to 1987, that still state very clearly that discussing Marxism, Leninism, Communism in public, by somebody who is not officially appointed or sanctioned by the government, is illegal. 

(Here there were a few intakes of breath, and quiet murmurs of “Wow” from the crowd.)

So, even though there have been public discussions of the communist purges of 1965 in the media and in festivals past, they have always been technically illegal, and this technicality has all of a sudden been … mentioned, by the authorities. The official permit for holding the whole festival could have been revoked owing to the offending panels.

In the case of the Oppenheimer film there is still another source of pressure: the government’s film board, which is a bit like the Motion Picture Association of America, except a giant hellmonster. It is called, with admirable frankness, the Film Censorship Institute (LSF). “We’ve been working on censorship,” says Dinata, the filmmaker.

We are one of those countries in Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei, that still cut film before it is able to be screened in the cinemas; we have to give the film to the censorship board, and they will cut. They are going to cut the film according to vague standards.

There is a new law for the film industry in Indonesia, stating that the censorship board should consult with the filmmaker first. “But we are still fighting for it to be a classification board, instead of a censorship board.”

Just a month ago, though, there was a bad setback: the conservative congress changed the censorship board from a cultural commission to a military and international relations commission, Dinata says. “Because why? According to the speaker of the government coalition … we want to be like Hollywood, because they use film as a ‘soft war.’ […] What kind of absurd words are ‘soft war’?!”

That is a good question, I’m thinking. Here in Los Angeles we are free to see most any film we please, and I in no way intend to disparage that freedom; but there can be no question that Hollywood has certain political biases with regard to what kind of films get made, however incidentally these may arise out of the Profit Motive. Our big-budget studio films are made according to a tamely narrow-minded worldview. Democracy is good and always wins; there’s a hero who will overcome his early troubles, and he is all for freedom. It is eye-crossing to be agreeing a little bit with the Indonesian film censors’ views in this matter, but there you are.

The wry, quiet humor and the extreme care and patience with which these local cultural figures practice their activism make a real mockery of the Russell Brand kind. Easy as pie to strike a defiant pose, when the danger of being tossed in the clink yourself is precisely zero. Strikingly, but on reflection unsurprisingly, there was no talk at the press call of Neil Bonner and Becky Prosser, the two British documentarians who’ve been detained in an Indonesian jail for more than eight weeks, for the crime of filming their documentary on tourist visas rather than press ones. (Note: Prosser and Bonner were finally released in early November, after the end of the festival.)

I know only the barest outlines of the conflicts here and I am sure as hell not going to embarrass myself by airing my views on the political situation in Indonesia. But how do I not make a complete hash of this, in my ignorance, and still say all I can to help these writers and artists? So here is my question, during the question time:

As a guest in this beautiful country, I am very mindful of not causing trouble for my hosts, and yet I want to tell the truth about these things in the best way for English speaking readers, who will be reading what I write here, to understand what is going on. So if I want to be delicate, and truthful, what is your advice?

“Wow,” replies Nia Dinata. “That’s a very … hard question.”

Then I am reassured by Juniata and Suardana that we invited journalists can write whatever we wish.

The novelist Eka Kurniawan comes at this matter from a different angle, noting that since 1998, there has been no explicit censorship of books. You can write anything. But after a book is published, sometimes, things have happened; it might be pulled from the bookstore, or be burned in public, or discussions of it might be cancelled. The cancellation of these events is nothing new, he says, but we have to speak out, and “fight against this kind of censorship; because if we don’t speak out about this one thing right now, today, maybe in the end, we cannot speak anything at all; so we have to speak, more and more.”

Applause, for this.


October 29th. The opening ceremonies are held at the 18th-century Puri Saren palace down the road. It is a tall and fantastically improbable structure, like a wedding cake made of stone, set in a fine garden with huge trees and thick waxy-blossomed flowers. Somehow nearly every bit of wood and stone and fruit here has been carved into a bewitching and fanciful shape. 

“Where are you going?” “Oh, I’m just going to the palace,” I tell people, and mean it, which is exciting on its own.

Inside the courtyard there are hundreds of guests milling about the garden and having chicken and shrimp hors d’oeuvres and vegetables, all flavored with curry spices, cardamom and a richly perfumed variety of what we call “Thai basil” at home, plus the local Bintang beer and delicious Australian wines. No wonder so many Australians spring for an annual holiday here. A four-day pass for the festival costs international visitors around $300, so it’s like Coachella, only in a ravishing, maddeningly beautiful steaming hot jungle, and with writers and heady herbs and satay and a glorious gamelan orchestra instead of rock bands.

Representatives of government and police are in attendance, all in their finest official dress: peace has been restored, and now there will be speeches. There is talk of literature and culture and international comity. All quite correct, exactly as it should be, and as much as it may be just the form and not the essence of freedom of speech, I’m very grateful for it. It’s the absence of these dry official ceremonies that would be really worrying. 

Oh! — but I forgot to tell about the vividly costumed and made-up dancers, who are delightful. From Julie Taymor to Cirque du Soleil, the producers of colorful entertainments in the West have been lifting this aesthetic forever. Doubtless one would be accused of “appropriating” if one did so, but I defy anyone who likes clothes to see these magnificent bejeweled headdresses and turbans without simply longing to try them on. At least Cher got to wear such things, I guess, without shame or fear, simply enjoying them for their beauty. (Bless you, Bob Mackie.)


October 31st. There was a gala and there have been panels and coffees and drinks and lunches and interviews and carousing, and I am more or less reeling. Tonight was the long table dinner, which I attended with the poet Nathalie Handal, whom I adore unreservedly. Dinner is a huge production in the glorious garden of our host, Janet DeNeefe. The chefs are Indonesian celebrities: the glamorous Rahung Nasution, a Jakarta chef, and Bara Pattiradjawane, one of the judges of Junior Masterchef Indonesia

I nearly lose my marbles when I have to feed 20 people, and here 10 times that many are served five or six kinds of fish and shrimp curry, plus chicken and pork and soups and a dozen side dishes, each more delicate than the last, flavored with spices and leaves I’m not in the least familiar with. A fragrant, astringent ceviche made from an unusual kind of tuna, in particular, blows us away.

And we have been read to all the while, by a very wide range of writers. We get a taste of a soft historical romance; a graphic novel; an extremely racy bit of chick lit; a comic scene from Eka Kurniawan’s soon-to-be-classic-I-am-not-kidding, mind-blowingly immortally ultrafine novel Beauty Is a Wound; and at the end, a denunciation of the government censorship in the strongest possible terms from the brilliant firebrand and activist Andreas Harsono. It is weird to be treated so finely in these luxurious surroundings while listening to a political speech of such intensity about the persecution of religious minorities. In particular, Harsono describes how the dhimmi principle has been modernized as “religious harmony,” which turns out to give cover to Islamic extremists by mandating “respect” for the majority religion.

We repair to the bar for nightcap and after a long talk about all we’d learned I found it was quite late, and all the cabs had dried up. So suddenly this guy from the hotel comes back with a guy on a scooter, explaining: “No cabs!”

Okay, how much?? 50,000! Which is like four bucks or so. I have to ride sidesaddle, owing to my dress. No helmet, very late, hanging onto this kid careening through the Balinese jungle in the moonlight. So many impressions, so much beauty, and so much to learn, and so much desire for all this and everyone here to be safe and preserved forever.


November 2nd. I take my leave very sadly of the beautiful carved breakfast fruits, and still more sadly of the organizers of the festival, Janet and Holly and Angela, Ben and Rachael, some of whom are sticking around. Others peripatetically seeing the world for months or years, in the immemorial manner of young Australians. Maybe some will turn up in Los Angeles eventually, where I hope to be able to show them a tenth as much as they’ve shown me.

I am leaving with newly expanded senses, and a commensurately augmented awareness of the fragility of universal culture, the myriad threats surrounding it. So astronauts are said to feel when they see the earth’s solitude and beauty from such a great distance: protectiveness, a mingled love and pity, shot through with an improbable, invincible hope.

There are forests of stone figures and stacks of flagstones racing past the window of my cab. Thousands of carved wooden doors, half-built dwellings covered in a lacy carapace of bamboo, and signs the import of which I will never learn (including “Semen Conch” and “Cat Oven,” I kid you not). Scooters weave around us on a narrow road which gives way to a broader thoroughfare. And, suddenly, there comes the airport through the jungle air, humid, warm, and still.


Maria Bustillos is a Los Angeles–based journalist.

LARB Contributor

Maria Bustillos is a Los Angeles–based journalist.


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