“Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate, and to humble.” – Yehuda Berg
As an avid lover of the arts and a resident writer in the cultural haven of Bali, the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival has always piqued my interest. Its historical roots hold profound importance in fostering a sense of community. The festival was conceived in 2003, as a response to the heartfelt aftermath of the first Bali bombing. During this period of darkness, Melbourne-born Janet DeNeefe along with her Balinese husband, Dr. Drs. I Ketut Suardana, recognised the community’s need for healing. Over the years, this event has significantly evolved into a global platform for writers, thinkers, and performers.
This year marked the 20th anniversary of the festival, taking place from 18th to 22nd October 2023, under the theme “Atita, Wartamana, Anagata: Past, Present, Future.” While the theme might seem broad at first glance, it seamlessly aligns with the pressing social and environmental issues dominating global discussions. It calls for reflection on the past, assessment of the present, and a commitment to bettering ourselves for the future.
The Main Program venues had a charming open-air space layout decorated with bamboo elements situated at Indus Restaurant and Taman Baca. There were three stages present, Alang-Alang and Valley Stage at Taman Baca, and a stage at Indus Restaurant. The festival provided a unique opportunity for attendees to freely mingle and engage in conversations with fellow visitors and speakers during breaks between sessions. I had the privilege of approaching two fascinating women, and gaining insights into their perspectives and the topics they were passionate about. I delved into the conversation under the impression that they were visitors, but to my pleasant surprise they introduced themselves as speakers Hollie McNish and Illya Sumanto.
Born and raised in Malaysia, currently residing in Thailand, Sumanto has returned to the festival for a third time. She shares her thoughts on this year’s theme and its alignment with the current global theme, especially amidst numerous climate crises. “We don’t even know when they’re going to end. And with the conventional wars coming back, to be honest, I don’t even know where I am now”, she expresses. “Am I in the past? Am I in the future? Things can be overwhelming, and anxiety-inducing. So, the best thing to do is to just come back to the present moment.”
Hailing from Britain, McNish shares a similar sentiment, adding that “with the state of things at the moment, there’s so much learning to be done from the past as well, to actually do something.” She adds, “I think a lot of what I’ve been listening to has been about people learning from the past and trying to actually put it into action.”
Upon an inquiry of what themes they would like to see explored in the future, McNish conveyed her inclination for a theme that focuses on the younger generations. However, not in the context of them being the individuals solely responsible for taking actions and implementing changes. “There’s so much talk of how “This is the generation that will save us.” Just let them be children. The adults should be doing the work.” As a mother to a 13-year-old daughter herself, she adds, “I think it’s quite a lot of pressure. I feel like a focus on the youth in terms of us actually helping them rather than them doing all the work.”
Sumanto, stated a desire to focus more on the water crisis in Bali, emphasising the alarming situation the island is currently facing in terms of water scarcity. She recalled a period seven years ago in Bali when she associated with an organisation that was advocating awareness around this particular issue. “They said that 10 years from now, it’s going to be gone. It’s going to be drying up.” Her added concern lies in the potential impact towards the local community, given that many locals are unaware of the water crisis and its implications.
Following these enlightening conversations, I found myself exploring the festival on my own. Flipping through the program book and attending more sessions, I moved from one stage to another. Observing both attendees and speakers, noticing the sheer number of the crowd coming in from various corners of the globe, engaging passionately in matters of the arts; matters of the world. Watching the panels of thinkers skill-fully weave their words to spark thought-provoking discussions, one can’t help but yearn for a system that would enable attendance at every single program—an impossible feat, but appealing nonetheless.
By sundown, the talk shows concluded, but the festival’s energy endured. Catering to diverse art enthusiasts, the event featured film screenings, dance performances, and music, creating a delightful sensory overload. I found myself surprised that despite the day spent delving into challenging topics, the atmosphere remained anything but grim. How could it be, when one is surrounded by individuals who are hopeful enough for the world to even be here and speak of changes for its future?
As I continued to navigate through the event, I could see how the vibrant atmosphere and diverse array of sessions underscored why The Telegraph recognised the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival 2023 as one of this year’s five best literary events. Now 20 years after its conception, it not only fulfils its initial purpose of community healing but has become a cultural beacon, fostering intellectual exchange, and bridging the past, present, and future through the power of words. The festival remains an indispensable annual celebration for those who cherish literature, ideas, and the enchanting spirit of Bali.