Jul 09 2011
The clock is ticking in Bali’s Ubud: the 2011 Writers and Readers Festival is just three months’ away. Janet De Neefe, founder of the festival — also author, restaurateur, hotelier and cooking teacher — sat down for half an hour over a glass of wine last week to tell Travelfish.org just how loudly that clock is ticking, with major sponsor Citibank pulling out just a few weeks ago.
What’s getting you excited about the festival this year?
I guess it’s the line up. It’s the most extraordinary line up of amazing writers. They all offer something new and different and again it’s just a really good cross section.
You’ve told the story a billion times before, but for those who don’t know, can you tell us how the festival came about?
It started after the first Bali bombing. Well, I might have done it otherwise … we were talking about doing literary events here anyway at Casa Luna because my idea of Casa Luna was always that it should be a community venue, so I was already moving towards that, and at the same time I was writing Fragrant Rice [Janet's memoir of her life in Bali].
So when the bomb happened and the place was deserted, I just thought, “I can’t stand this, and I can’t sit back and watch this happen.” I started thinking, “What are my own skills and what can I do?” I thought I have to create an event that brings in international stars, then everyone else will follow … I started to think: writers festival — because writers are fearless. They’ll be imprisoned for what they believe in. They’re bold, they’re daring, they’re compassionate, they’re activists, they’re radical. I thought that’s it, they’re the people we need need in Bali now and maybe forever to open up issues we need to have addressed.
Did you have trouble getting writers to come that first year?
No! … We put it out there and people were like, yeah, cool, we’re there! So there was a really wonderful spirit the first year, people knew we had no money, they knew we were a festival with a cause, and that it was the first one ever of its nature to be held in Bali, in Ubud.
Has it grown over the years?
Yes, it has. It’s grown wonderfully, dramatically — at least 20% each year and I think one year we recorded 30% growth.
This year possibly seems to be the best line up yet?
The downside of that is I have to bloody well pay for all those airfares, and that’s what I’m losing sleep over! It’s easy to get big names, but you’ve got to pay for them. I’ve gone out on a bit of a limb this year. We’ll find a way I guess — but gee whiz, the team must hate me! [You can see latest list of confirmed writers for the festival here.]
How do you decide whom to invite?
It’s kind of a group thing. I say that publicly, it’s a group thing, but it’s usually me [laughter]… We look at the theme actually and just put names into a hat and see what happens. But we really try and focus on the theme, because that’s what unites the whole programme.
It seems like this year’s names have been announced earlier than usual? It’s been good as it helps people plan.
I announce names earlier and I don’t tell anybody [on the team] — I just send out press releases and say yes, I did that. I don’t see the point hiding them, as you say, people need to plan. We were talking about telling people about Alexander McCall Smith next month and I thought bugger that, just tell them now!
What’s been the biggest disaster over the years from the point of view of organising the festival?
The second year, the second bombing happened six days before the start of the second festival [October 2005]. It was really interesting because we had some of the writers drop out, not a lot, but some, and of course the audience was kind of low, but you know — it was really an amazing festival because everybody was there again with this kind of spirit, again, that they wanted it to succeed. There was this strength and solidarity that made it for me one of the most wonderful festivals we’ve ever had.
But also because I had Michael Ondaatje there and Amitav Ghosh, all to myself! That’s when it rang home that I really was communicating with some of the world’s best authors, who would then be having dinner with us, even staying in my house. I think the kids were like, “Mum, would you shut up!” For a month before they arrived, every day I was like, “They’re coming, they’re coming!”
So that was a disaster that turned out to be in one way a highlight. What have other highlights been for you?
I suppose there were two — getting Wole Soyinka in (on a Nigerian passport). And Etgar Keret from Israel. The odds were against us, but I made it happen, I worked overtime to get him here… There’s been so many highlights, and the different writers I’ve met — I cannot imagine life now without having known these people.
Do writers call up and ask to come back?
Yes. When I went to the Sydney Writers Festival this year Fatima Bhutto announced in front of a huge audience, “Oh my god, there’s Janet De Neefe!” and she told everyone in that room chockablock with people, “The Ubud Writers and Readers Festival is the best festival I’ve been to in my life.” And she was telling Anthony Bourdain and AA Gill, “We’re all going next year as a team.” I’ve been talking to Anthony Bourdain for years (about coming).
So will he be coming?
He said, “Next year, but we’re a package: AA Gill and Fatima Bhutto.” I said, “Okay, I’m there. I do packages like that.”
Could you share some tips about how to get the most out of the festival? The four days can be quite intense.
The first year was six days, but I cut it back to four — I just thought six was too much. I just felt energy-wise for us to pull it off as a team, that’s enough.
It’s really important to look at the special events, because I think there’s nothing nicer than a literary lunch, to be lounging around, to be having lovely food, sipping on wine, your favourite author right in front of you talking about their work. It’s a small audience, it’s about 80 people, so it’s almost like having a dinner party with, you know, Alexander McCall Smith or whoever. For me, I love those.
I think too you really need to keep your eye on the night-time events. Because the thing is, there’s a lot of free-ness about the festival — I mean you can just hang out at all the night-time events and still capture the essence of the festival.
There’s a serious side — I have to be careful with that, it’s not just party, party, party. It’s about serious discussions and serious inspiration through the words of these amazing authors. So I guess too it’s really important to examine the authors that will be appearing, read their bios and think, “Do I want to hear that person?” If you do invest in a one- or two- or three- or four-day ticket, really target who you want to see. I never do my homework enough when I go to other festivals — and then later I’m kicking myself because I’ve missed the sessions I really wanted to see.
Even four 9 to 5 sessions, plus nights, is very intense.
That’s what it’s designed to be. The idea is when you walk away after four days that you’re just in a state of awe … We’ve got some serious people coming this year, they’re going to really shift things for some people.
Can it get difficult to book accommodation in Ubud around the time of the festival?
It can be, yeah. Last year we tried to offer packages, but we found that wasn’t so successful. People wanted to do their own searching and look for that information themselves. For the bigger hotels, most would be booked already, like The Ananda, across the road [from Indus, one of the festival's chief venues].
Have you got some suggestions for things to do unrelated to the festival?
To me Ubud is just worth a jalan jalan. You just walk around, especially in the mornings. You go to the market, you walk through the side streets, you go to the warungs, you go to Ibu Oka’s, you go to those sort of places. Ubud is all about the people, just sitting and chatting as much as you can.
Is there anything else you think people should know about the festival at this stage?
Well, I’d like to say that my huge problem now is that Citibank (last year’s major sponsor of the non-profit event) have pulled out. So we’re in deep shit. We’re up to our neck at the moment trying to target anybody to sponsor us. And you get to that point where you feel like you’re pleading with people. I guess it’s good for us because it forces you to be creative, but it’s not a good feeling.
What we’re trying to do now is sell each panel session if possible and also say here, here’s a writer, cover this guy, which I’ve had measured success with. This is just not a country that sponsors a writers’ festival. So that’s our big dilemma at the moment.
It’s just amazing how many wealthy people you cross paths with, but then at the end of the day when you plead on their doorstep to help pay for an airfare, they’re just too busy or they have other excuses. They praise you in that lavish way: “You’re doing a wonderful thing to help the island!” But then when you turn around and say, “Can you help me?” The doors slam in your face.
The Ubud Readers and Writers Festival this year will take place from October 5 to 9. The theme is Cultivate the Land Within, Nandurin Karang Awak. See the Festival’s website here for full details.
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