Ubud Writers and Readers Festival 2012
October 2012: Ubud Bali is now a de facto Australian colony over-populated by expatriates and
immigrants from the Indonesian archipelago. It is an island where the sprawling rice fields of yesterday
have sprouted villas and cement residences, the roads are jammed with wildly careering motor scooters,
mostly driven by small children trying to emulate Valentino Rossi. Mass tourism and unfettered mass
construction has made a mess of this once upon a time Indonesian paradise.
'You can't stop change', protested the Chinese lady boss building a new village of mini villas on a vast
expanse of lush green rice stalks, in fields fed by gurgling water canals barely out of Ubud. What you
want? Turn back time? Don't you realize all the world is going this way!'
No compassion for the rice fields.
So what else is new?
Definitely not the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. I did manage to sneak into that
expat-run snooty four-day event without paying the $350 bucks Readers had to disburse to
listen to the Writers. This at a time when book sales are scraping the bottom of the barrel and
every second housewife and offspring born with a silver spoon between their gums has
discovered a literary vein and a publisher.
The Fest was an ego-pump for everyone, authors who could boast they were invited, organizers who
kept boasting it was one of the world's six most significant literature fests and Readers who could go
home and boast they had breakfast with Nick Cage or John Pilger or Jeffrey Eugenides (who wrote
Middlesex) without probably mentioning that sitting with any of those gents cost them another hundred
bucks on top of the $350 they had already handed over.
No, I didn't gatecrash the breakfasts though I did enjoy the book launches, sixteen of them, four every
day for four days. At these talk-you-into-buy-and-love-me shows waiters plied the Reader-audience with
delicious snacks and plenty of bubbly, all gratis! You could hurry from one launch to the next launch and
feast and booze to your stomach's content.
The books were launched in up-market restaurants or resorts like the Uma Ubud (which charges $500
US for a night in a city where you can have a decent room for $20). The authors had to shell out $500 up
front before they were even considered for a launch of their literary litanies. Some authors digested this
fee with a sense of humor, like the delightfully witty Shamini Flint (of Inspector Singh fame) a former
corporate lawyer who would do also well as a stand-up comedian. Shamini urged her audience: 'Drink
up, people drink up! and generously delayed the launch of her fifth Singh adventure for fifteen minutes
to give the Readers (and gatecrashers) a chance to have a second or third refill.
Of course the majority of Readers did the right thing and paid the 4Day or 1Day fees, sufficiently
exorbitant to keep away the amateur riff-raff and hip-hops of the literary world, leave the show exclusively
to the pros and the elitist book club members, the Readers.The paid up participants were tagged like
Swiss cows roaming alpine meadows. But instead of the bells placard-sized cardboard labels dangled
from their necks. The labels read: Writer,Sponsor,Media,Juror,Volunteer or 4Days. (No label was
available for non-paying Guest)
Such labeled folk populated Ubud during four days. The cardboards dangled down manly
chests and bumped across mighty Antipodean hillocks. And if you didn't have one of these
things hanging on your neck the Readers the bulk of them stern matrons of generous girth -
looked at you with utter disdain and raised eyebrows. On the other hand the Writers raised
only compassionate smiles, obviously having classified you as a non-reading moron.
The not unexpected surprise was that the majority of Writers were female and often very young
though already with a lot to say, mostly about their own (short) lives. Guess their dominance had to do
with the gender of the (women) organizers and the general coming of the matriarchies.
Then there were the veterans, those who had written more then one book. These folks were endowed
with stentorian voices, weighty figures, both in tone and physique. Unfortunately the authors present
were impossible to ID from the photos displayed in the festival brochure or on the back covers of their
books. These photos must have been taken in the daguerreotype era. Everyone looked young,
handsome, seductive, not a single pot belly or, heavens forbid, a wrinkled face.
Since I had no intention to pay for the ego trips of the 173 People Youll Meet as promised by
the Festival's elaborate brochure, compiled by the ubiquitous Janet DeNeefe, the Australian
founder, president, cookbook author and local star of the festival who handed out trophies at
the public farewell party with a sound system so bad no one knew what the trophies were in
aid of. Janet made a long thank you speech, perhaps even including the dustman (we couldn't
hear) but mainly intended for those who stayed at her hotel, ate at her restaurant, boozed at
her bar and donated to her festival fund.
(A whole week after the Festival Ms DeNeefe and her co-organizer, - a middle-aged strawberry blonde
with honed skills as an ego-masseuse - transcendence-d one another over the success of the Festival
during a duet performance in front of an audience of the faithful at Ms DeNeefe's bar.)
I was interested in the more significant panel sessions where people had something to say
about the world, not about themselves; people like John Pilger and Jose Horta-Ramos
debating the pros and cons of 'reconciliation' in South Africa and East Timor and the
resurgence of dishonored men who should be facing war crimes tribunals but are now
seeking presidencies and high office.
Former East Timor President Horta favored a say sorry and forgive approach but the pugnacious
Pilger had a different idea. Pilger is a man on a mission to expose the lies of the mass media, serfs of our
governments and corporate powers. He presented his chilling film: 'The War you Don't See and supports
whistle-blowers like Julien Assange, a modern day Daniel Ellsberg.
Pilger argued saying sorry was not good enough. It only encouraged others to do evil and when caught
repent and apologize. Then walk away into the sunset.
Some of the panel sessions were good value, if you could sneak in without a tag. Three methods
Number One: You clutch the Festival brochure against your chest and smile as you join the throng
squeezing past the ushers at the entrance. The ushers are young volunteers, untrained, unpaid lovable
local Balinese who would never ask you to show your (non-existent) tag beneath the brochure. That
wouldn't be polite in Balinese culture.
Number Two: Rush in once the debate has started. Squeeze yourself into a seat. No usher has the
courage to meander through the audience to challenge you for your credential. (Keep that brochure
tugged against your chest).
Number Three: Seat yourself on a balustrade, under a banyan tree or in a cafe' on the premises
where you can clearly hear the loudspeakers.
This way one managed to attend everything worthwhile with one exception. On the last day a
beanstalk of a young Australian female usher kept signaling me across the audience to remove the
brochure from my chest so she could see the tag. I kept smiling back at her which made her signal more
frantically. Eventually I blew her a kiss which disconcerted her so much she dispatched one of her
underlings, a young Balinese, to investigate. The guy knew I didn't have a tag but he obviously thought I
was entitled to listen all the same. This is an important discussion about democracy in the Middle East,â
€� he whispered: Everyone should hear this. Stay and enjoy. He was about one third my age but the boy
has a bright future, though perhaps not as a sniffer dog at the W&R Fest.
The venerable ˜Writers' were an odd assortment.
The festival's elaborate brochure detailed all of the 'People Youll Meet One' was a young Chinese
woman. The caption below her photo explained: Zhang Su Li is a traveler with no sense of direction. She
prefers it that way because that's when the world reveals its secrets
Another celebrity was identified as a leader of multiculturalism; another four line blurb referred to
one man's tragically failed attempt in writing poetry.Yet another participant wrote soccer commentaries. A
dapper type in a brown suit was described as a senior partner in a law firm. And another guy was
featured because he managed the arty part of the 2000 Olympics.
I certainly expect to see the owner of the winning horse at this year's Melbourne Cup to be included
among People You'll Meet at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in 2013.
Uli Schmetzer is a former foreign correspondent for Reuters and the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of
˜Times of Terror. 'Gaza',The Chinese Juggernaut' and 'The Lama's Lover . (Ten short stories from
around the world). All are available in print and digital on www.amazon.com.