Between, and Among, Words and Wordsmiths

How quick a year flies. I still remembered my first Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF) last year, already on its 9th by then, and suddenly I was there again for the 10th UWRF last week. Flying in rather tired after a Wakatobi trip, I again floated from an interesting session to another, trying to catch various panels of writers and journalists.

Just like last year, I admittedly was curious to ‘discover’ in flesh the minds who crafted the works I’d read and admired, or heard about. I wanted to see how they’d voice out their thoughts openly, away from the intimate confines of their desk and laptop. What I discovered was that not all great writers were engaging public speakers, and the eloquently-speaking writers often lost their luster when talking in foreign language. Meanwhile, people who’d witnessed and written such harrowing conflicts, plus having been imprisoned, could remain gracious and retain the twinkle in their eye—this year’s Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho and former Sinn Fein director Danny Morrison came to mind.

But does it really matter? Should we limit ourselves to the tales, or should we care about the artists as well? In his keynote address, literary giant Goenawan Mohamad referenced D. H. Lawrence and Roland Barthes when he discussed the concept of “writer in-absentia”.

And there’s a huge truth to it. Most people I know decide to read something because the premise pique them, yet voracious readers do tend to develop preference over time—the promise of a good read built through a writer’s previous works. Yet new writers are discovered and heralded continuously, so in general readers still leaf through pages written by a writer—and fully savor the tale without ever meeting him or her in real life. It’s been like this since texts were invented and I suspect, for most readers, it will continue so.

So, why people flock to literary festivals? Take Indonesia for example— aside from the established Salihara Literary Biennale in Jakarta, we now also have Makassar International Writers’ Festival, Bali Emerging Writers’ Festival and, making their inaugural step this weekend, the Borobudur Writers’ Festival. There must’ve been a decent demand for the festivals to be sprouting around.

An argument immediately presented to me is the enraging celebrity culture. It’s not an entirely cynical view. I’ve witnessed participants who reserved less energy in immersing themselves in panel discussions, be it listening or volunteering thoughts, than in chasing authors or poets for autograph and photograph. But that also can be said about any festival, including on yoga—where the whole idea was to shed off worldly attachments.

What I personally relish, past quenching my initial thirst of meeting the writers in flesh, is the chance to get further context through story behind the story, and to peek into their mind by bringing up issues related to their works. There’s always something to surprise you– often to teach you– that comes out of the responses.

After ardently singing out her nationalistic tribute poem to the glory of Brunei, poet Kris Karmila struggled when asked if it had freedom of expression. Her seemingly random quips of “We’re trained this way”, “If there’s a complain, we go to the appointed official” and “The Sultan takes care of the people and everything” actually gave out a picture clearer than whatever government-sanctioned answer she probably wished she had.

Young poet Dea Anugrah’s almost disinterested demeanor and inability to draw comparison of Kartini beyond a fictional character written by Pramoedya Ananta Toer illustrated most Indonesians’ ignorance over Kartini’s letters although, as a paying audience, I wished he could’ve made more effort to engage the discussion.

When I asked renowned filmmaker Garin Nugroho about the absence of films depicting the real story of Indonesia’s rising middle class, he admitted there are legitimate dramas in that demography to be told in honesty, not in mockery.

The extra panel (thanks again, UWRF) of Aristides Katoppo, Goenawan Mohamad, Adam Schwarz and Michael Vatikiotis was almost in unison about the importance of KPK but offered such different views in how to eradicate corruption and curb religious intolerance beyond 2014. Moderator Wayan Juniarta chided me afterwards for posting such big questions, but hey, I wasn’t going to insult the combined intelligence of such luminaries by just asking about the 2014 election now, was I? Ha.

And of course, there are cherished chance encounters with other participants. People you kept bumping into and struck up conversations with like the lively silver-haired Marek or the hijab-wearing lady who dedicatedly bringing her kids to any Indonesia-related session. Nameless faces who came to offer comment or comfort after a panelist, in slapdash, branded your remark “some upper-middle class thinking”. And of course, last but definitely not least, the hilarious pair of young Liza Minelli dead-ringer and pink-scooter-riding photographer who wore a holster-like contraption to store her whips, toothpicks, and iPhone (in that order, she insisted).

I wholly support the idea that a text should be loved or critiqued because of the tale being told, not because of who tells the tale. I found it a huge compliment when someone cited something I wrote, although they may not realize I wrote it. In that sense, yes for “writer in-absentia”. But I think I’ll still go to literary festivals for the contexts and characters, even upon chance encounters, that cannot be gleaned off printed or electronic pages.

Or maybe I’m just a festival junkie. Oy.

As published:

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