Image credit: Abdul Qayyum Jumadi
Malaysian writer Abdul Qayyum Jumadi was recently selected by Fixi Novo to experience the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival 2016 at Bali, Indonesia from October 26 to October 30, 2016. The author of Deathwritten, a short story part of Fixi’s KL Noir: Yellow shares with Eksentrika his experience at the literary festival.
If Bali is the Island of the Gods, then Ubud Writers and Readers Festival is where the titans meet.
On my third day here, my supir (chaffeur) told me something that ties the spirit of this island: “In Bali, we take care of three relationships: with man, with god, and with nature” – and you can see the evidence of this everywhere. The temples or “pura” are everywhere, carvings and stone-works still dominate the aesthetics, the people here are, in general, very spiritual.
The people of Bali have a long tradition of narratives so I figured it’s only natural to host a writer’s festival with the theme “tat tvam asi”, a Sanskrit saying that loosely translates to “I am you, you are me”. It’s utterly humbling to have these people gathered who were either gigantic in contribution, thought, talent, accolade, or simply just because their character is larger than life.
Like a good traveler that finds himself at the feet of giants, I seek to learn as much as I can to bring back at least something to my homeland.
The Struggle For Identity is not a Lonely One
The session couldn’t escape talking about political Indonesia – because Seno Gumira Ajidarma, who spoke in the slot, was reached out by Suciwati to write about the death of her husband, Munir Said Thalib, who was an activist that was poisoned on the plane on his way to Amsterdam – but then the conversation naturally shifted to talking about identity, as identity and politics is intertwined in the narrative of Indonesia for decades.
The “Indonesia” identity, Seno believes, is an illusion.
“Our concept of identity is a classical one. We think, or many people think we can isolate identity into becoming one and isolated – actually we cannot. We can always try, have a dialogue. But you can’t say because this is me, this is Indonesia. That causes trouble.”
The struggle is further added by the exponential growth of the digital age that creates stronger diversity of opinion. “During election, it seems like Indonesia is split into two … We (the people) seem to have a acute schizophrenia, it’s like everyone’s brains exploded,” one speaker in another session noted.
It seems that the conversation is going on all over the region, and I think this is a lesson we all can use to widen the conversation here at home.
There is Magic in Literature
There were many slots that talked about how the authors used literature to work around some of the limitations other forms of expression may have.
Paul Hardisty, the Director of Land and Water of Australia’s National Science Agency, explained how years of work with engineering and environmental science became the drive of his book, The Abrupt Science of Dying. “My whole career, I was writing reports for United Nations, the World Bank … Nobody reads these reports. Later in life I chased the dream I had since I was 18 (to write) and the only way to tell the truth is by making it into a story.”
Eka Kurniawan, one of Indonesia’s most celebrated contemporary writers, when asked about the grotesque and absurd nature of some of his characters, he replied “The grotesque elements (in my writing), they’re for scary things but at the same time they are funny – with a lightness. We have a lot of grotesque figures in Indonesia. The characters have big eyes, funny face. They play a funny role so in a way it’s more bearable to see these characters” – suggesting that there are more elements we can employ when narrating literature.
Kurniawan’s book, Beauty is a Wound (translated originally from Cinta itu Luka), tells a story of a ghost narrating her life of abuse and torture going back to the colonial days.
In the same session, Hanya Yanagihara added that “”Fiction writers don’t provide solutions, it brings readers to confront the problems … The writer ask questions that keep her awake, it’s a way to say – here is what I’m wondering, do you wonder too?”
Helon Habila, writer of The Chibok Girls and Oil on Water, said that fiction has an advantage to represent totality in a way news cannot. “Even if it (fiction) deals with the news, it does it on a more rounded way because a murderer is a father as well. Fiction gives you a totality”
The Digital Social Age is In
I attended a very peculiar session on the third day. It was a panel of highly esteemed writers talking about how pessimistic or optimistic they are about how social media will impact literature. They offer very interesting narratives in the backdrop that Indonesia is the third largest population using Facebook in the world.
“Once you post things up online, you are post-human” Triyanto Triwikromo said.
It was argued that writings on social media mainly focuses on immediacy and not quality. But the panels did not discount that those are literature as well, it’s just a question of which ones are “great works of art”.
They all agree that we as a society will miss the feeling of holding a book.
“People miss storytelling, developing narratives. These are the things that do not happen in mosquito literature (referring to social media posts and blogs). It just buzzes around and maybe sometimes it stings” Elizabeth Pisani said.
Also, online, people will connect, form like-minded coalitions online but because of the openness of it there will be abuse and as evidenced by news that turn out to be false or at worst, dangerously exaggerated. Social media will be defined by people who use them.
“In social media, you get heaven and hell” the moderator aptly closed the session.
There is no way I could write even a trickle of the wisdom that spurred from the four-day festival and there is so much more for me to tell. These are some of the moments that have stuck with me – tugging on me to tell everyone. But ultimately, I hope open discourse such as the ones I’ve heard here at Ubud can be more of a common occurrence back home in Malaysia. I hope the titans at home can converge too.
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