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Ubud – a Vibrant, Diverse Festival

October 31, 2011

Janet de Neefe in her cooking school

The final of eight posts on the ANZ Ubud Writers and Readers Festival 2011

When Citibank, the major sponsor of the Ubud Writers Festival, pulled out in June this year, the future of the festival looked bleak. But Director Janet de Neefe and her team worked on, seeking sponsorship and arranging an ambitious program. The result was a triumph, with the largest number of writers ever invited, writers from all over the world presenting at a diverse range of lively and thought-provoking sessions. Thank you to the festival team and the many volunteers, and to the ANZ Bank, who stepped in at the last minute as naming sponsor. I never thought I would feel so grateful to a bank.

The previous seven posts describe some festival highlights. Here are more:

Alexander McCall Smith’s books are pleasant but hardly gripping, yet listening to him is pure pleasure – he is the ultimate raconteur. He attributes the success of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series to a nostalgic longing for community and rejects the criticism that his view is too rosy. Unlike Scottish Miserablism, he believes the world is not universally bleak all the time and that the vale of tears is only part of reality.

The Food for Thought session included two of my heroes: the chair, Festival Director Janet de Neeffe, in whose classes I learnt to make the best peanut sauce, and Heinz Van Holzen, whose recipe books have taught me to create wonders such as lawar. Janet, Heinz and the other presenters, Peta Mathias and James Oseland have all written food books that wrap the recipes in stories, culture notes or memoir.

TV food programs are more popular than ever, yet many of us eat crap. Is the food situation getting better or worse? Heinz sees improvement because many more Australians have enrolled in his cooking school due to the influence of programs like MasterChef. But James, who is the mean one on the American equivalent of MasterChef, sees such programs as just entertainment. He believes that immigrant streams have more influence.

Jemma Purdey spoke about her biography of Australia’s foremost Indonesian scholar, Herb Feith, the founder of Australian Volunteers International. She described how the the Suharto regime made it hard for him to do what he wanted to do – to analyse, to develop theory. How could he write about Indonesia when he found the regime so abhorrent? He changed approach, pioneering peace studies in Australia, becoming an activist.

In Out of India, three writers who were born in India but now live elsewhere spoke of their relationship to the country. Aneesha Capur’s strongest memory is the enthusiasm for books: an intimate relationship with the written word is part of Indian culture. All the panellists’ books are sold on the streets. A street boy tried to sell Kunal Basu a pirated copy of his latest book, The Japanese Wife. “What’s it about?’ Kunal Basu asked.
“This book is about waiting,” replied the boy accurately.
“Can I have a discount?”
“Are you kidding?”

Kunal Basu took issue with the idea that India’s time has only now arrived. India has always been hot, he said. There were always exciting things happening, but only when GDP started rising did the world pay attention. The national symbols and philosophies of many Asian nations originate in India.

So much else, such as Marieke Hardy giving former boyfriends right of reply in her memoir, Benjamin Law talking of what makes memoirists’ families squirm, Nury Vitachi’s wit as he demolished The Alchemist (everyone is ‘following their dream’) and Jennifer Byrne taking an axe to the whole self-help genre.

Don’t miss the next festival on 3-7 October 2012!

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