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Women’s Voices, Art, and Activism at the Fifteenth Ubud Writers & Readers Festival

By Eliza Vitri Handayani

Eliza Vitri Handayani reports from the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, which occurred October 24–28 in Ubud, Bali.


This year is the fifteenth anniversary of the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival (UWRF) and it was my best experience at the festival so far. I was there to talk about House of the Unsilenced, a huge collaborative art project that produces and showcases artwork, writing, and performance by writers and artists working alongside sexual abuse survivors.

The first festival event that I participated in, the “#MeToo” panel, was a deeply meaningful experience. I spoke alongside Clementine Ford, an author and feminist from Australia; Tishani Doshi, a poet and dancer from India; and Saras Dewi, a poet, academic and activist from Bali who has just published her book of poems The Bay’s Beloved, translated into English by Debra Yatim. Hera Diani, cofounder of the online feminist magazine Magdalene, served as moderator.

Image: Clementine Ford, author of Boys Will Be Boys, speaks with Kirsti Melville at the 2018 Ubud Writers & Readers Festival. 

Saras pointed out that activists like herself have been fighting for more than ten years for a law that would recognize fifteen forms of sexual abuse and task the government with the responsibility of survivors’ healing and empowerment. She said, “It was particularly heavy talking about #MeToo in Indonesia, but I bear in mind that I was among sisters in solidarity for the fight for gender justice.”

While following the #MeToo movement, I’ve noticed that there are not as many stories coming from Indonesia as there are from other countries, including other Asian countries. There are still heavy obstacles that may prevent survivors from speaking up—for example, rampant victim blaming and defamation laws that can be used to silence women who speak up against powerful individuals. I believe that one way to amplify their stories is through writing and the arts, which can help survivors give form and voice to what they wish to say. “By using the arts to educate the public about the nature and effects of sexual abuse,” I said on the panel, “I believe we begin to chip away at rape culture.”

“By using the arts to educate the public about the nature and effects of sexual abuse, I believe we begin to chip away at rape culture.”

During the Q&A, a teenage girl broke into tears and asked us what she could do so that the boys in her high school would realize that their harassment is hurtful. “How I can change their minds,” she asked, “when they are so close-minded?” I told her that she could reach out to allies whom the boys would listen to, perhaps respected figures in their community. “You are not alone, and all of us are together in this struggle. Trust in our solidarity,” said Saras. “That is all true,” added Clementine, “but it’s not your responsibility to engage people who are ridiculing you. You can focus on developing yourself and harnessing your own energy.” The large venue at Neka Museum was full and so was my heart. After the panel, many people approached and thanked us, including a man who told me his daughter was sexually assaulted and only through art could she find her way back to herself.

The “Off Limits” panel, about writing on controversial topics in Indonesia, was at the same time as the “#MeToo” panel, so I wasn’t able to attend, but I did have the opportunity to speak with the participants, including fiction writers Feby Indirani and Nuril Basri. “We all have an important story to tell, even our creative process is a story of courage,” said Feby, who just published her collection of short stories, Not the Virgin Mary, translated into English by Marjie Suanda. Nuril, who has published six books of fiction, including Not A Virgin, about life in an Islamic school, agreed with Feby: “One question that brought tears to my eyes was, ‘How do you handle criticism that is directed at you, instead of your works?’ I get so much of that, and my answer was, ‘I channel the energy that I feel—whether it is anger, disappointment, or love—into my creative output.’” Some of Nuril’s books are not even available in Indonesia, as he found it easier to publish them abroad. “That is why appearing at the festival means a lot to me. It’s a chance for my work to reach Indonesian readers. I'm very thankful to be here,” he said.

Image: “Ladies to the Front” panel participants Shrabani Basu, Cat Wheeler, Eliza Vitri Handayani, Balli Kaur Jaswal, and Jane Caro.

On the third day, I served as a participating moderator on the “Ladies to the Front” panel, about women’s leadership and the transformative power of  telling and listening to women’s stories. The panel took place in Taman Baca (a garden for reading) beside the busy festival hub with many eatery stalls. We started by asking what “women's stories” are. On the one hand, we need to claim a space for women; on the other hand—as well-known Australian author and public figure Jane Caro said—why are men’s stories considered stories for everyone while women's stories are a niche? Women’s stories are human stories and women’s rights and gender equality should concern everyone. Shrabani Basu, historian and author of Victoria and Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant, pointed out that many women suffer from both gender and racial discrimination, and there are many women leaders who are ignored or forgotten, such as the subject of her book Spy Princess: the Life of Noor Inayat Khan, a WWII heroine from Britain.

On the last day I attended the “Art for Impact” panel at Indus Restaurant. The upper part of the restaurant had been converted into a cozy discussion space overlooking a green valley. Kadek Sonia Piscayanti—a poet, academic, and theater director—presented her project 11 Mothers, 11 Stages, 11 Stories. Sonia interviewed eleven Balinese mothers from various backgrounds, from a stonemason to a professor, and developed a script with each of the mothers. The mothers then performed the scripts in their own homes. “The workshop aims to show who we are as women and mothers, and what we want to say about womanhood and motherhood. We are also redefining what a stage is,” said Sonia. “For these mothers, their stage is their home. Instead of asking them to go to the audience to perform, I asked the audience to come to them to show that we want to listen.”

Sisterhood is a powerful force, but we need solidarity beyond sisterhood to realize a more equal society.

The moderator noted that it was good that women have each other to turn to because others won’t listen to them. I think that is missing the point, which is to make more people—not just women—pay attention to women’s stories and life struggles. If men believe women should only share their stories with other women, it perpetuates the marginalization of women’s voices. Sisterhood is a powerful force, but we need solidarity beyond sisterhood to realize a more equal society.

Another artist on the “Art for Impact” panel was Rani Pramesti, who was there to launch the English-language version of a digital graphic novel, The Chinese Whispers, by Rani P Collaborations. “We made the decision to launch at UWRF because we wanted to tap into an international audience,” she shared. “ was initially launched in Indonesian in May 2018 for the twenty-year commemoration of the May 1998 racial and sexual violence toward Indonesians of Chinese descent. Now, six months later, our team is ready to share the work with an international audience.” Rani recalled an audience member’s question after the screening: “They asked me if the creative process had been healing for myself personally. It led to a very interesting conversation about healing on a personal and collective level, as well as a discussion on justice and, most importantly, the role that storytelling has to play in both healing and justice.”

Another powerful aspect of the festival is the Emerging Writers Program, which invites submissions from early career writers across the country and then funds the selected writers to come and speak at the festival and have their short work translated into English and compiled in a festival anthology. At this year’s “Emerging Writers” panel, one of the writers, Darmawati Majid from South Sulawesi, said that appearing at the festival opened many doors for her. She said, “In the panel ‘Small Towns, Big Imagination’ I met other writers who are also writing about their hometowns. I loved finding out that even though we come from different continents, how we write and feel about our small hometowns is not that different.” Another UWRF emerging writer, Rosyid H. Dimas from East Java, said, “I loved meeting wonderful people—speakers, audience members, staff, and volunteers—who have similar hobbies as I do: reading and writing. I got to exchange thoughts about books, writers, and current affairs.” He said he also loved listening to fellow emerging writers’ creative journeys: “We come from different parts of Indonesia; it’s fascinating exchanging stories with them.”

Image: The “Emerging Writers” panel.

Other than the panel discussions, there were also captivating performances, including Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods by Tishani Doshi, Since Ali Died by Omar Musa, and the Women of Words Poetry Slam. And it was wonderful to catch up with writer friends and to make new ones—at free dinners in villas with infinity pools, walking narrow roads lined with restaurants and shops, passing monkeys lounging by electricity cables, watching women make flowery offerings, taking pictures in front of rice fields, reciting poems in the car ride back to our hotels, and browsing handmade dresses in the market.

On the last day, I asked my friends about their festival highlights. “I loved listening to Uzodinma Iweala on the panel ‘Africa is Not A Country,’” said Rani Pramesti. “I loved hearing about the macro-conceptual frameworks, such as how the external narratives about Africa shape the internal realities of the people, all the way to the more nuanced narratives that he wishes were more commonly known, such as the rollerblading subculture that exists in Lagos, Nigeria.” Tishani Doshi mentioned being charmed by Indonesian writer Agustinus Wibowo’s reading at the event This Alien Nation. Shrabani Basu said, “I love cooking and learning about the history of spices and how they travel, so one of my favorite sessions was a cookery demonstration by [festival director] Janet DeNeefe. She taught us how to make Ayam Betutu. I learned so much, including the fact that there are five types of ginger.” Nuril Basri said he’d never forget meeting writers Djenar Maesa Ayu and Avianti Armand. “I’d also like to appreciate the writers’ liaisons and the volunteers; I think they are the true heroes of the festival,” he added. Kadek Sonia Piscayanti was impressed with the “amazingly brilliant and humble” Shrabani Basu. She added, “I also would like to give a shout-out to Avianti Armand’s fantastic new collection of poems, Museum Masa Kecil (Childhood Museum).”

Wandering around evening venues, I heard some people whisper, “What happens in Ubud stays in Ubud.” But I will spread the magic and spirit I experienced there far beyond the festival. I’ll let the ideas enrich my imagination and my writing, I’ll deepen the friendships I made, and I’ll encourage everyone to continue our work to understand and better the world, one nuanced story at a time. 

Published Nov 16, 2018   Copyright 2018 Eliza Vitri Handayani

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