Friday, 6 October 2017

Ubud writers festival to bring big names to Bali as Mount Agung rumbles

The show goes on: Ubud writers festival to bring big names to Bali as Mount Agung rumbles.

The festival could coincide with the most destructive volcano in decades but organisers have opted to keep calm and carry on.

Ubud writers festival was launched in 2002, to encourage visitors back to the region following the Bali bombings. Photograph: Greg Saunders

Brigid Delaney

Friday 6 October 2017 04.35 BSTLast modified on Friday 6 October 2017 07.18 BST

As Mount Agung started rumbling in Bali last month, Janet DeNeefe, the director of Ubud writers festival, convened a series of crisis meetings.

About 160 writers from Indonesia and around the world, including Ian Rankin, Tim Flannery, Jane Harper and Jung Chang, had been booked to gather in Ubud from 25 October for the 14th iteration of the festival – and a decision had to be made about whether to postpone it.

“When the volcano became active, we went into red alert,” DeNeefe told Guardian Australia. “We had meeting upon meeting to work out what to do. We had a three-structure plan from cutting back on the festival to postponing ... so examining every option. It was very stressful.

“This is the guy that runs the show,” DeNeefe said of the volcano. “It’s not just any old volcano. Bali just can’t help but feel cosmic.”

The eruption is feared to be the worst in Bali in decades and it’s fair to say a destabilised writers festival is among the least of the locals’ concerns: an estimated 140,000 people in surrounding areas have been evacuated and moved into makeshift shelters and formerly bustling travel hotspots have been left virtually empty. In Australia, holiday makers put plans on hold or cancelled their trips, fearing not so much the eruption but transport chaos; airlines would be unable to fly should there be ash clouds in the air and huge consequences loomed over the island’s tourism-centric economy.
FacebookTwitterPinterest A Balinese farmer carried on with her work as Mount Agung hotted up in the background last month. Photograph: Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

But now, weeks after the original rumblings, things are relatively less volatile at Mount Agung and the team at the writers festival has decided to carry on.
The Ubud writers festival was born from tragedy. In 2002, after the Bali bombings, DeNeefe started the festival to encourage visitors back to the region. It is now regarded as one of the best writers’ festivals in the world, highlighting and promoting Indonesian authors and attracting some of the biggest names in the international literary scene.

Writers speaking this year also include Simon Armitage, Simon Winchester, this year’s Miles Franklin winner, Josephine Wilson, the French-Indonesian animator Pierre Coffin and the Man Booker Prize finalist Madeleine Thien. The keynote will be delivered by Malaysian activist Marina Mahathir: a former UN person of the year, a leader at the Malaysian Aids Foundation and an expert on minority rights in Malaysia.

And DeNeefe is no stranger to planning it under extraordinary pressure. While festival directors in Australia may face a headache when a foreign guest pulls out, DeNeefe has had to negotiate government censorship: the festival cancelled three sessions about the 1965 mass killings in Indonesia and their aftermath, as well as a screening of Joshua Oppenheimer’s critically acclaimed documentary The Look of Silence, and a photography exhibition, The Act of Living.

That same year, an ash cloud lingered for weeks, leaving many stranded in Bali, and this year the festival could coincide with the most destructive volcano in decades.

Ubud won’t be directly affected by the volcano and none of the writers has panicked or threatened to pull out, DeNeefe says. “The Balinese are kind of chilled, like, ‘Ehh – this could take months’,” she says. “But there’s lots of frantic expats out there.”

• The Guardian is principal media partner of Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, taking place 25-29 October. Brigid Delaney is visiting as a guest of the festival.

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