At some point in our lives we all pay homage to something dear and near, like Mom and I paid homage to The Beatles in Liverpool last year, or Dad to Rio’s Copacabana beach the year before (don’t ask). This past weekend I had the pleasure of paying homage to one of my first loves—books.
I didn’t grow up with money, but one thing my parents always strived to provide was access to books, newspapers and magazines. I might not have gotten certain stuffed animals or bicycle du jour, but I couldn’t remember my parents not bending over backwards to buy any book I fancied.
As for writing, Dad is a published author and Mom once wrote a couple of short stories (one penned as she was nursing the little measles-stricken me). That I finally got the writing bug later in life wasn’t much of a surprise.
So, after years of wanting to go, I finally paid my homage to Ubud Writers and Readers Festival last week. And what a thrill that was.
Beyond meeting and listening to the gems dispensing by the literary or journalism celebrities, it’s also the meeting of minds between panelists and audience members, or among themselves, that often felt like a light bulb, ‘a-ha’ point, or a moment to cherish in knowing laughter and silent hug.
The audience roared as Pulitzer winner Jeffrey Eugenides—from the famed The Virgin Suicides—told the tale of being fired for writing novel on the company stationery. And we took mental note as he humbly admitted of having abandoned five manuscripts, and borne the risk of being seen as not productive in this age of instant gratification, because he did not think they were worth his readers’ time. If that’s not a Pulitzer quality, I don’t know what is.
On another session we were silenced, some teary-eyed, as Neal Hall, MD rose to voice out 400-year of historical injustice and inter-generational pains through his raw For Black Americans, 9/11 is 24/7 poem. I won’t pretend to know the angst that runs through the vein of any African-American, but as an Asian, Moslem girl, with “Ibrahim” last name no less, who tried to find gainful employment in the US right after 9/11, the poem sent chills down my spine. And to think that Neal Hall is not exactly your stereotypical “angry black man” either, with his Ivy League degrees and all, yet he still found out that in life he’d always been seen first as black man instead of as Harvard-trained ophthalmologist. I’d never heard of him before yet I immediately went to grab a copy of his Nigger For Life poetry book and, as I approached him for autograph the next day, couldn’t resist of telling him some of my own experiences and giving him a hug. The man gave me a bear hug and for that several silent seconds, two souls that had never met shared a moment of knowing the misery of having been treated as the person born with wrong physical traits at the wrong place and time.
Joyful moments were also aplenty. HK-based columnist Nury Vittachi, whose syndicated columns I’ve faithfully read on Sunday Jakarta Post for years, proved that he’s also as witty and hilarious in real life as in writing. I was also fortunate to make acquaintance of the deadpan-funny Jessica Zafra, whose longstanding columns are treasured by many in Manila. Jessica Zafra, whose newspaper columns went to blog a few years ago, readily admitted that though there’s a satisfaction of seeing your work published instantly, the lack of vetting editors caused the proliferation of garbage on the Net these days.
I found pride in seeing many of Indonesia’s own young writers on panels, aside from household names like Debra Yatim and founder of Makassar Literary Festival, journalist Lily Y Farid. I’m only hoping that these promising young talents will also brush up on their English so that every audience could hear their thoughts in their chosen expressions, like when hijab-wearing, Madurese Benazir Nafilah poignantly calling us to treat others as we want to be treated– helpful interpreters notwithstanding. As for young poets, it’s exciting to see quite a handful of them rocked out the festival’s Poetry Slam and winning international audience’s cheer.
All in all, I’m glad I went. I learned that every successful author or columnist worked tirelessly on drafts, and as award-winning poet Lemn Sissay pointed out, 90% of writing industry is about rejections, which eventually serve to improve our craft. For a fleeting moment I even summoned up enough confidence, or suicidal tendency, to speak my mind in the room full of literati and Opening Session panelists, former Timor Leste President Jose Ramos Horta and Indonesia’s beacon of human rights, lawyer Todung Mulya Lubis. Typical of me, I didn’t realize how nervous I was until I realized I was fumbling through my English and at the end I wasn’t sure if Horta actually understood my point.
Yet beyond regretting of butchering the English language in such public occasion, I have none. As the late Frank McCourt said; sing your song, dance your dance, tell your tale. In those blurry moments, carrying into the whole festival, I think I did them all.