22 Nov A way with words
One hundred and twenty authors will appear this year including singer and writer Nick Cave, expatriate Australian writer John Pilger and former East Timor president José Ramos Horta.
The festival is the brainwave of Australian Janet de Neefe and has attracted many outstanding writers over the years, including Kiran Desai and her mother Anita Desai, Amitav Ghosh, Michael Ondaatje, former frontline journalist Kate Adie and Ma Jian. From Australia, writers have included Richard Flanagan, Thomas Keneally, travel writer and historian William Dalrymple, Cate Kennedy, Sophie Cunningham, Frank Moorhouse and Christos Tsiolkas, whose multi-award-winningThe Slap was long-listed for the 2010 Man Booker Prize.
De Neefe is a human powerhouse, and she needs to be. This is the ninth time she has pulled this massive event together virtually single-handed. And when you run several businesses in this beautiful Balinese town and write cookbooks, it’s a busy life.
The idea for the festival struck de Neefe after the bombings in Bali in 2002. She wanted to reclaim the island from the terrorists, and invited writers from around the world to the inaugural event. The first year was a shambles, she says, but she powerered on, persuading corporations to offer sponsorship money and asking friends to volunteer.
“It’s always a struggle to garner enough sponsorship, and this year is no exception … (but) something always turns up. It’s distressing because of course a literature festival is on the bottom rung. If it was a sports event or some sort of marathon I’d be getting millions. It’s just the nature of the beast. In this country it’s like ‘What? A reading festival?’,” says de Neefe.
De Neefe uses her renowned charm to woo writers from around the world. “I write and say ‘Hey, would you like a holiday in Bali?’” she says.
The festival funds as many writers as possible through grants from the Australia Council and various foundations. In 2009, about 16,000 people attended at 42 venues across Ubud, including the local soccer field. In 2011, the festival attracted around 25,000 people and featured more than 100 writers, a third of them Indonesian, the rest from more than 20 countries.
The events are staged right across Ubud. “We have loads of different events happening over the four days – panel sessions, literary lunches, workshops, book launches, readings, performances and cocktail parties,” de Neefe says.
“There are tonnes of local volunteers helping us. And we use lots of local venues so that everyone benefits. People go shopping, eat in the local restaurants and stay in the local hotels. You can’t do better than that.”
De Neefe is passionate about keeping the festival going even though the workload as she sustains her other businesses can be crushing. “Next year is our 10-year anniversary so I can’t really get beyond that right now,” she says. “The work involved never ends. I dream of a year when I won’t lose sleep over funding.”
One hundred and twenty authors will appear this year at the writers festival including singer and writer Nick Cave. “That for me is really special,” she says. Also appearing are expatriate Australian writer John Pilger and former East Timor president José Ramos Horta. “We felt we needed an East Timorese presence because of the anniversary of their independence,” she says.
The festival has been a boon to local businesses. “Of course the festival has been great for local businesses and from all reports they can now really feel the difference when the festival is in town,” de Neefe says. “We have put Ubud on the international literary circuit which is pretty exciting.”
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