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The Ubud Writers & Readers Festival: An Interview with Janet DeNeefe

By Jessie Chaffee

We spoke with Janet DeNeefe, founder and director of the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival. Now in its fifteenth year, the festival will occur October 24–28 in Ubud, Bali. Check back on WWB Daily for festival coverage.


Words Without Borders (WWB): You created the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival fifteen years ago. Can you speak a bit about the inspiration for the festival?

Janet DeNeefe (JD): We created the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival as a healing project after the first Bali bombing in 2002. We wanted to draw visitors back to the island, celebrate the diverse beauty of Indonesia through literature and art, and create a platform for writers and artists from across the archipelago to share their work with the world.


WWB: How has the festival evolved over the last fifteen years?

JD: From humble beginnings, the festival has evolved into Indonesia’s leading platform for showcasing its writers and artists, and also into one of the world’s top literary events. It’s become an annual pilgrimage for lovers of words and ideas and meaningful cross-cultural connection. Most visitors in the early days said they knew nothing about Indonesian writers, and this has slowly changed over the years. People are now sitting up and taking notice.


WWB: For those who are not yet familiar with the festival, how does it distinguish itself from other literary festivals?

JD: There are hundreds of literary festivals around the world, but we like to think that none are as magical and diverse as ours. As Bali’s cultural heart, Ubud is renowned for its vibrant Balinese Hindu ceremonies in ancient temples amongst jungles and rice paddies. Most of our venues have sweeping views of the lush landscapes, and our program is rich in Balinese culture, history, and current affairs. As we like to keep things intimate, allowing for meaningful exchanges between speakers and audiences, our venue capacities are quite small. With speakers from more than thirty countries and audiences from around the world, our festival creates a global hub of dialogue. It’s a place where old friends meet and new friendships are formed.

The UWRF has often been described as a human rights festival in the guise of a literary festival . . . Through its diversity, the festival transcends cultural and geographical borders to create a truly global community.

WWB: How did you select this year’s theme, “Jagadhita”? What is the meaning behind it and what types of discussions do you hope that it will inspire?

JD: Like many of the festival’s previous years, the theme is drawn from a Balinese Hindu philosophy. “Jagadhita” is the individual pursuit of universal harmony and prosperity as one of life’s primary goals, interpreted in English as “The World We Create.” The festival’s five-day program will explore countless ways to create a world that we want to live in; how we strive as individuals and as communities to manifest positive change; and how to nurture this goal through respect and action that sustains compassion for each other and ourselves.

At a time when disparities rather than shared values are shaping political decision-making, we’ll ask what harmony and prosperity look like in 2018, and consider the tensions that have emerged between personal and collective fortunes in contemporary life.

In our fifteenth year, we’ll be celebrating the authors, artists, and activists from across Indonesia and the world who have made a powerful contribution to our harmony and prosperity. Through the Balinese Hindu philosophy of Jagadhita, we’ll explore the world they create.


WWB: For those who are attending the festival for the first time, what are some of the events and who are some of the speakers that they can look forward to?

JD: If you’d like to learn more about Indonesia and Bali, we have dozens of diverse sessions, from discussions about the island’s hidden historical treasures to the myriad ways Bali has changed after almost a century of tourism. We’ll hear from rising Balinese literary star Saras Dewi; the island’s most popular cartoonist, Jango Pramartha; and contemporary Balinese artist Budi Agung Kuswara, the creator of our 2018 artwork.  

Image: Janet DeNeefe speaking at the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival.

WWB: Magazines like Words without Borders and events like the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival are committed to bringing international literature and conversations to a broad audience. One of the challenges is to reach people who might not already be interested in picking up a book in translation or attending a festival that is global in its focus. How does the festival strive to reach a broader audience and how do you feel those of us committed to this work can most effectively bring more people into the conversation?

JD: Since its inception, our festival has strived to be as inclusive as possible, which is why 40% of our program is free, and for ticketed events we have a tiered pricing system. Program diversity has always been key to our success in reaching an extremely broad audience, from local to national to international. The UWRF has often been described as a human rights festival in the guise of a literary festival; from environment to religion, feminism to immigration, regional politics to how Indonesia’s place in the world is changing, we explore these topics from as many different perspectives as possible. Through its diversity, the festival transcends cultural and geographical borders to create a truly global community. I look forward to welcoming WWB readers to our fifteenth year as Southeast Asia’s leading festival of words and ideas!

Published Oct 15, 2018   Copyright 2018 Jessie Chaffee

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