Writers festival in Bali aims to break down barriers and dissolve division


“I am you, you are me” (Tat Tvam Asi in Sanskrit) is the theme of this year’s Writers & Readers Festival in Ubud on the Indonesian island of Bali.

janetprshot-199x300“Tat Tvam Asi is a bold recognition that, in our purest state, all humans are identical and equal kindred spirits,” said festival founder and co-director, Janet DeNeefe (pictured left). “If our souls are identical, then to hurt one another is to ultimately hurt ourselves.”

Now in its 13th year, the five-day Ubud Writers & Readers Festival (UWRF), which runs from October 26 to 30, will bring together more than 160 authors, artists, performers, and activists from 25 different countries. The main issues on the agenda are identity and inclusion, migration, and how we encounter and counter extremism.

The festival celebrates extraordinary stories and amplifies brave voices, DeNeefe says. “Our focus is on dissolving the social, cultural, political and geographical barriers that divide us.”

The UWRF is organised by the not-for-profit foundation, Yayasan Mudra Swari Saraswati, which works to enrich the lives and livelihoods of Indonesians through the development of community-building arts and cultural programmes.

The foundation’s other major annual projects are the Ubud Food Festival and the Bali Emerging Voices Festival.

“The primary goal of the foundation is to give full expression to the creative needs of individuals and the community in order to better equip them to interact in our rapidly changing global society,” DeNeefe said.

DeNeefe, who was born in Australia, but has lived in Ubud for more than thirty years, co-founded the foundation. She conceived the Writers & Readers Festival as a healing project in response to the bomb attack in Bali in 2002, in which 202 people were killed and 209 were injured.

She wanted to help to revive the local community, and bring people back to Bali. Inviting writers to Ubud, and focusing on human rights and other national and global issues, seemed to DeNeefe to be the ideal path to take.

DeNeefe sees Ubud, with its strong community and culture, as the perfect place for a writers festival.

“As someone said, this is really a human rights festival posing as a literary festival. We’ve always been really concerned about the human condition.”

A second bomb attack, which struck Bali in October 2005, killing twenty people and injuring more than 100, happened just six days before that year’s UWRF. A few invitees did pull out, DeNeefe says, but the tragedy actually brought people closer together and there was an enormous sense of solidarity.

The UWRF has now grown into Southeast Asia’s largest and most renowned literary event.  In 2015, it attracted more than 27,000 people from more than twenty countries.


There are now three main UWRF venues. The packed festival programme includes talks by authors, panel debates, literary lunches, film screenings, workshops, music and arts performances, food tours, cooking demonstrations, a craft market, street parties, cultural master classes, book launches, and poetry slams.

“In order to retain the intimacy of the festival,” DeNeefe said, “we’ve created more events that still keep a small audience. We don’t want it ever to feel too big.”

The organisers are also strengthening their satellite programme. “That’s almost like a mini-festival that starts after the main event. We travel to about six different islands around Indonesia with various writers.”

While much of the UWRF is ticketed, there are also numerous free events.

Last year, the festival hit the headlines because the authorities made the organisers cancel several events about the 1965 massacre of alleged communists, in which about 500,000 people were killed.

Panel discussions, an exhibition, a book launch, and a film screening had to be cancelled, but the 1965 massacre was discussed, nevertheless, throughout the festival as “that thing we’re not supposed to talk about”.

The organisers were also obliged to cancel a session about the reclamation of land in Bali’s Benoa Bay for a massive luxury development.


stanny-angga-sinister-side-of-paradise-taman-bacaUWRF sessions in 2015. Photos by Anggara Mahendra and Stanny Angga.

This year’s festival theme emerged after last year’s censorship, DeNeefe says. The concept of shared identity came to the fore. “The world is becoming increasingly divided so we felt this was a really appropriate thing for now. As Sutardji, the poet, said: ‘What pierces you will make me bleed’.”

One of the writers who will be speaking at this year’s URWF is Helon Habila from Nigeria, who grew up in a period of political dysfunction and military dictatorships.

Writing became Habila’s means of protest. He is the author of three novels, Oil on Water, Measuring Time, and Waiting for an Angel.

helon-habila-uwrf16-wHabila (pictured left) has written about the kidnapping of more than two hundred schoolgirls by the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram in the town of Chibok in April 2014. At the UWRF, he will talk to Australian radio reporter Michael Cathcart, and share the personal stories of some of the girls who were released.

Another speaker who DeNeefe is herself eager to meet is social advocate Shandra Woworuntu, who will talk about surviving human trafficking and domestic violence. In 2014, Shandra (pictured below) founded the Mentari Human Trafficking Survivor Empowerment Programme.


mitchell-s-jackson-uwrf16-wAnother story DeNeefe is keen to hear is that of American writer Mitchell S. Jackson (pictured left), whose remarkable journey from drug dealer to author and professor of English inspired his highly praised debut novel, The Residue Years.

The novel brings readers face to face with the issues of race and poverty in Portland, Oregon, and shines a light on inequality in the United States.

Leading literary luminaries who are headlining this year’s Ubud festival are the acclaimed Indian novelist Amit Chaudhuri, the American journalist and author Lionel Shriver, whose novel We Need to Talk About Kevin won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2005, the award-winning Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie, the Indonesian author of the Supernova trilogy Dewi Lestari, and Australian Hannah Kent, who, in 2011, won the inaugural Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award for her novel Burial Rites.

emi-mahmoud-uwrf16-wAlso in this year’s line-up are the Sudanese-American World Poetry Slam champion Emi Mahmoud (pictured left), and the Turkish writer Ciler Ilhan, whose collection of stories Sürgün (Exile) won the European Union Prize for Literature in 2011.

A group of Scottish poets will be performing in a free “After Dark” event.

The investigative journalist and novelist, Suki Kim, who went undercover in North Korea for her most recent book, “Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite”, and the Polish writer Wojciech Jagielski, whose focus is conflict zones in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Africa will also be at the festival.

The 2016 Stella Prize-winner Charlotte Wood, the Indonesian writer and social commentator Seno Gumira Ajidarma, and the feminist film maker, actress and screenwriter Djenar Maesa Ayu will be reflecting on the transformative power of art, and how it navigates the fine line between controversy, confrontation, and empathy.

anggara-mahendra-made-for-goodness-nekaPhoto by Anggara Mahendra for the UWRF (2015).

DeNeefe says there is a good balance between literary content and the issues being tackled. “And our writers are writing about real issues, too, but we are aware that this is a writers festival and some people come along because they simply want to learn more about the craft of writing.”

The Australian hip-hop group The Brothahood (pictured below) will be performing at the festival, and talking about how they use hip-hop to break down stereotypes and misconceptions about Muslims and convey positive insights through their music.

brothahood-uwrf16-wDisillusioned with modern hip-hop’s celebration of gun play and misogyny, the Brothahood produces music that reflects on real life and on the struggles of real people who are deemed by society to be outsiders.

Alongside the debates about using art to change hearts and minds, there will be discussion about “The ground beneath our feet”. Invitees from Australia, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Tibet will reflect on displacement, homelessness, and statelessness: “body, geography, and connection”.

anastasia-lin-uwrf16-wThe reigning Miss Canada, award-winning actress, and human rights advocate Anastasia Lin (pictured left) is also in this year’s festival line-up, along with the iconic Australian comedian and now memoirist Magda Szubanski, the Mexican author Juan Pablo Villalobos, whose first novel, Down the Rabbit Hole, was the first translation to be shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award (in 2011), and the winner of the 2014 Singapore Literature Prize for English Fiction, Amanda Lee Koe.

The Chinese authorities have declared Anastasia Lin persona non grata because of her outspoken views on the country’s human rights violations, including the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners.

Other speakers include the Singaporean author of Sarong Party Girls, Cheryl Tan, the indigenous Australian chick lit writer Anita Heiss, and Yassmin Abdel-Magied a young Australian author, mechanical engineer, and ardent social advocate who founded Youth Without Borders.

Travel writers will include the founder of Lonely Planet, Tony Wheelerjoining, the Australian writer Heather Ellis, who rode across Africa on a motorbike, and Richard Loseby, the author who went in search of Chairman Mao’s lost son.

As well as supporting established writers, the UWRF has a mission to discover and promote emerging voices, especially from Indonesia.

Each year an Emerging Writers Prize is awarded, and this year there were entries from 894 writers across 201 Indonesian cities and 33 provinces.

DeNeefe loves seeking out new authors. “I feel a bit like a detective sometimes. Uncovering stories is so exciting, or just finding writers that nobody’s really heard about and then bringing them to the fore here.

“I think it’s important to bring along new voices; emerging talent. We really love finding the emerging Indonesian writers. And we are stretching into the ASEAN countries to find their emerging stars and create platforms where they can engage more with the emerging Indonesian writers.”

The UWRF will pay tribute to the boom in Indonesian cinema, which has experienced a significant revival over the past two years.

Invited film makers include Wregas Bhanuteja who – at just 23 years old – won this year’s Leica Cine Discovery Prize for the best short film at Cannes.


Prenjak (In the Year of Monkey), which won the Cannes award, will be screened as part of a showcase of Wregas’ short films and there will be a Q&A with the film maker afterwards.

DeNeefe says there has been a boom in the creative arts in general in Indonesia, and young people are at the forefront.

Issues relating to news reporting will also be on the agenda at the UWRF. Whether “constructive journalism”, with its focus on solutions, could change the face of reporting and bring positive benefits is the question that will be tackled in a debate featuring the editor-in-chief of The Jakarta Post, Endy Bayuni, the award-wining Australian reporter and author Andrew Fowler, and Janet Steele, who is an associate professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University in the United States.

The renowned Indian journalist and author Pallavi Aiyar, the editor in chief of GQ Magazine Thailand, Voranai Vanijaka, and the award-winning Indonesian journalist Leila S. Chudori will also be at the festival.

Ubud is a reputed culinary hub, and DeNeefe runs a cooking school, has written two recipe books (one of which is also a memoir), and is the owner of two restaurants and a café, so food is naturally on the agenda at the UWRF.

DeNeefe and naturopath Lola Taylor will be giving a class about Balinese plants and spices and, in a “Plant to plate” session, Made Janur and Made Runantha, who set up Ubud’s restaurant Moksa, will introduce attendees to Balinese ingredients that delight the tastebuds and the soul.

One speaker who will be bringing particularly unique insights and talents to the UWRF is Panida Tancharoen from Thailand.

panida-tancharoen-uwrf16-wPanida (pictured left) is a design researcher, toy and game designer, and illustrator. She designs toys and games to solve social issues and improve people’s quality of life. Her work has included designing toys for disabled children, and games about human rights, money management, law and education, disaster preparedness, and the environment.

From 2014 to 2015, Panida was a fellow of the HANDs! (Hope & Dreams) Programme For Disaster & Environmental Education + Creativity, a youth exchange programme hosted by the Japan Foundation Asia Center. She is now working on a game about climate change and disaster management.

Other environmentalists who have been invited to speak include the director of the Orangutan Information Centre in Medan, Sumatra, Panut Hadisiswoyo; Hotlin Ompusunggu, who spearheads a ground-breaking project in Indonesian Borneo that provides healthcare while combatting environmental destruction; and Indonesian film maker Emmanuela Shinta (pictured below), who works tirelessly to empower local people, and lives in one of the areas of Borneo that was worst affected by last year’s horrific forest fires.


Can a festival like the UWRF have a long-lasting impact? DeNeefe thinks it can. Her hope is that when people leave the festival, they have experienced a shift in their thinking.

She has herself been hugely impacted by some sessions. “One of the most powerful sessions was with Akhil Sharma, the Indian author, who had the saddest story, and he was being interviewed by Michael Cathcart … You could have heard a pin drop. It was so intensely moving. You never forget those things.”


matt-oldfield-closing-night-party-blanco-museumClosing night party, 2015. Photos by Matt Oldfield.