Wednesday, May 9, 2018

People power fuels a writer's festival in Makassar

It's been a while since I attended a festival in Indonesia. 

Last decade I was a regular visitor to Java, taking part in Utan Kayu Bienale, (Jakarta, Bandung, Lampung) Salihara Biennale( Jakarta), Perfurbance (Jogjakarta) and Mata Air (Salitiga).

When I told aussie friends I was going to attend MIWF, a writer's festival in Makassar, many replied, where's that?

Makassar is a busy port town on the west coast of Southern Sulawesi, the orchid shaped island formerly known as Celebes (named by the Portugese) and the festival has been running annually since 2011. Each year founder/ director Lily Yulianti Farid with her team of curators and volunteers gathers an impressive line up of international and local authors, poets, musicians and artists for a five day feast of stimulating ideas and art.

As well as writers from all over Indonesia, this year's line up included authors from India, Singapore, Malaysia, Korea, Japan, The Netherlands, Australia and Turkey with most events being held at Fort Rotterdam, a cluster of Dutch colonial buildings near the port, and others taking place at nearby university campuses.

Around seventy events over four days (May 2-5) featured discussions, book launches, workshops, readings and performances culminating each night with programs on the main outdoor stage where audiences of a thousand-plus young Makassans gathered to hear their favourite authors and poets.

This year the festival was commemorating 20 years of Reformasi, Indonesia's reform era after the collapse of Soeharto's authoritarian regime and many of the panels discussed the ways in which Indonesian literature was affected by the new freedoms. While censorship of literary works by government is a thing of the past, academic and editor Melani Budianta warned the threat to freedom of expression now comes from conservative groups within Indonesian society. The festival theme Noise/Voice reminded us of the importance of finding and raising our own voices against the noise of multi media and political static that is all around, especially in Indonesia with elections coming up in 2019. It is interesting to note that many authors of note writing since the beginning of Reformasi are women and a number of them were participants in this festival.

Ayu Utami's novel Saman was the first to tackle women's sexuality and other taboos and was launched in 1998 just ten days before Soeharto's resignation. It sold over 100,000 copies and has been translated into 9 languages. Her most recent books still feature Indonesia's political history. Born in 1968 she is typical of her generation of authors. She says "Everything about me is political: my writing, my work at Komunitas Salihara and my private life." ( Always a forthright speaker and original thinker Ayu spoke on a number of panels.

Like Ayu, Leila Chudori is also a journalist. Her novel Home (Pulang) published in 2012, tells the story of an exiled journalist living in Paris who can never return home due to the policies of the New Order. It quickly became a best seller in Indonesia and has since been published in English by Lontar. Leila has been busy working on two new novels including a prequel to Home titled Namaku Alam (My Name is Alam). "She is considered one of Indonesia’s boldest story-tellers; her style is unconventional and her themes include such taboo subjects as state absolutism, chauvinism and the hypocrisy of public mores." With limited time to attend Leila was in demand as a speaker. Her panel with Australian artist Alana Hunt, moderated by film producer and activist Olin Montiero, discussed their personal response to political, economic and socal conflicts. Alana's art project Cups pf Nun Chai is a must see. Find out more on her website here.

One of the festival curators, journalist Linda Christanty (Jakarta) writes short stories and essays and has won numerous awards for her work, the most famous being The Flying Horse of Maria Pinto. For a number of years she lived and worked in Aceh. Her fiction writing is described as political magic realism and it was interesting to hear her  in conversation with Ziggy Z, a writer of the younger generation to Ayu, Linda and Leila. Ziggy's early works were in the YA horror and fantasy genre and her recent manuscript, Semua Ikan di Langit -All The Fish in the Sky, was the winner of the Jakarta Arts Council Award in the year 2016. This book was showcased in London Book Fair 2017. Linda observed that while Ziggy's stories are not obviously political they carry tragic overtones. In one story the protagonist is a child to which terrible things happen, in another a bus falls in love with a dead boy. Ziggy's latest book, Continuum (she kindly gave me a copy) is an illustrated (also by Ziggy) story book for children and adults.

The huge difference between this festival and those I attended last decade is that in the past few years thanks to the tireless efforts of people like John McGlynn and his team at Lontar Press, many more Indonesian writers have been translated into English. As a result they were the featured country at The Frankfurt Book Fair in 2015 and will be featured at The London Book Fair in 2019. A visiting group of British publishers and members of the British Council were in attendance at the festival checking out the talent and having meetings with Indonesian authors and publishers. At MIWF Lontar was selling books alongside Gramedia and other booksellers and I am happy to say I came home with a bunch of them.

One of the launches I attended was for the book Happy Yummy Journey by South Korean writer and traveller Eje Kim. Already in a number of languages but not yet in English, the Indonesian publication was launched by Gramedia, complete with a durian tasting. Eje's book details her journeys in SE Asian countries in search of durian fruit, that creamy tiramisu like delight that people either love or hate and which smells so bad it is banned from hotel rooms across Asia. Eje Kim is a durian lover and reports that Indonesia has the largest and most delicious tasting fruit. It relieves stress and brings happiness and Eje travels to Indo as often as she can to partake of her pleasure.

It was interesting also to meet other Australian writers with a connection to Indonesia. Mark Heyward (Tas) has lived and worked in Indonesia for 25 years and at the festival launched the Indonesian translation  his book Crazy Little Heaven. I read the English version (Transit Lounge, 2013) on the way to the festival and couldn't put it down.  It tells of a trekking adventure he made with six friends crossing from one side of Borneo to the other. Beautifully written, Heyward weaves stories of his childhood and life in Indonesia into this journey through" Indonesian culture and geography – a hymn to this ‘sweet disappearing world’."

Apart from being one of Indonesia's closest neighbours if you are wondering what the connection between Australia and Makassar might be, contact between the two islands predates European settlement and trade was being carried out between 1700 and 1907 by Makassan fishermen who sailed regularly to Arnhem land to harvest sea cucumber - trepang.

Leonie Norrington (Darwin) is an Australian children's author who is writing a historic novel set in the 1600s about this connection and Alana Hunt, an Australian artist from WA spent 2 weeks before the festival in residency with Rumata Artspace talking to fishermen and visting rock art in the area. Together with myself and Sandra Thibodeaux, a playwright and poet from Darwin, we formed a panel to discuss our work and gauge whether it might be of interest to Indonesian audiences. Sandra is currently working on a film script about an Indonesian boy who gets thrown in an Australian jail for working for people smugglers and I spoke about my collaboration with Indonesian short story writer Triyanto Trikiwroko, reading an excerpt from one of my short stories set in Jogjakarta.  Our audience at the university campus were students of English and while they said they had never read any Australian literature, we hoped after our talk we may have opened the door for them at least a crack.

Other writers I met...

Shivaji Das is an Indian travel writer who lives in Singapore. His beautifully described books Angels by the Murky River and Journeys with the Caterpillar feature Indonesian travels, the latter through the islands of Flores and Sumba. His partner Yolanda Yu, originally from NE China  is an award winning poet and took part in a panel with creator Rani Pramesti and illustrator Cindy Saja. Cindy and Rani's digital graphic novel The Chinese Whispers describes the chaotic events of 1998 when many Chinese Indonesian women were raped by marauding gangs.  View a trailer for the installation of their work here.

Ryoichi Wago is a Japanese poet from Fukushima who has been dubbed Samurai Poet for the extraordinary performance style of his poems. One long poem he performed on the main stage in fully vocalised Japanese, sounded at times like a train, like thunder, like the roar of a jet. In repetition he would return to the same sound refrains with the tension building and the audience cheering each time he built to a climax.  In 2011 when he witnessed an earthquake trigger the Fukushima Nuclear disaster in his home town, Ryoichi 's mind exploded in words. "Just as I was thinking that Fukushima - that Japan - was over, the poetry just started to bloom in my head almost like a storm. It was only the words that I wrote, one by one, that allowed me to accept the unheard of calamity before me, as my feelings switched to those ready to confront the shadow of radioactivity." He began tweeting his poems to an audience that grew from 4 to 14,000 within months. He compiled the tweets into a book of poetry called Shi No Tsubete or Pebbles Of Poetry.

Magic always happens when I travel to Indonesia and this time it occured before I even got there. On my Air Asia flight from KL, I was sitting next to a couple of young guys who on seeing I had the festival program out (doing my homework for the four panels I would speak on) told me they were poet/publishers from KL and were also participating in the festival. They were travelling with two other women poets and the singer Wani Ardi. Their presentation on the mainstage: Syukri Borhan (poetry) and Wani Ardi (music) was extremely moving.

I was also lucky to meet the Makassan singer/songwriters, Sese Lawing and Is Pusakata who have made a name for themselves on the Jakarta music scene and are back in Makassar working on local environmental amd social development projects. Our panel title was Singing Your Poetry and for the occasion I had composed a melody which I performed acapella for a poem by the renowned Indonesian poet Sapardi Djoko Damano. I had met Pak Sapardi many years ago at another festival and was very much looking forward to seeing him but sadly he was unable to attend due to ill health. Sandra Thibodeaux read her poem to accompaniment by Is and our moderator,  classical composer and pianist, Ananda Sukarlan finished off the session by playing composition employing Makassan rhythms.

In the afternoons a large audience would gather on the grassy area near the food stalls to listen to A Cup of Poetry. Young poets, male and female, were busy reading and performing their work, including six emerging writers chosen from around the archipelagogo. I was lucky to meet the young poets from Ambon and Makassar at an afternoon tea put on by the Australian Consulate who have been a sponsor of the festival for the past three years.  The Consul-General, Richard Matthews is very keen for more Australians to visit the region and get to know some of the fascinating history that links our two countries.

Never before at a literary festival have I heard the director thank the volunteers first. Usually they are well down on the list after the famous writers, important dignitaries, sponsors and so on. But this is what makes MIWF so special. As Lily Yulianti Farid stressed, without the volunteers there would be no festival.  With no government funding,  and just a few major sponsors this festival is run on people power. The army of young drivers, liason people, graphic designers, sound engineers, backstage runners, roadies, riggers, MCs, cleaners, ushers, film makers, and more,  kept the whole thing going 24/7. At the same time they are gaining valuable experience in people handling, collaborating, organising, problem solving, trouble shooting and having a jolly good time!

Thanks to Lily and the team and a special thanks to my translator Sudarsono Sonom and my PA Ridwan Limpo. Terima kasih banyak!!

The day before I left Abdi Karya took Leonie and I on a tour of Rumata Artspace in nearby Tamalate. As well as producing MIWF, Rumata has hosted hundreds of events: exhibitions, readings, theatre/ music performances, residencies, discussions, community events, even weddings and local celebrations. They are keen for artists of all modalities to come and make art in Makassar and can provide contacts with local artists and artisans. At this stage they are unable to proved stipends or free accomodation so the residencies must be self funded but there is a huge rehearsal space, exhibition space, studio space at your disposal. Contact them for more info here.

I'm sorry I wan't able to mention everything and everyone. Find a list of the speakers at MIWF 2018 website here and check out all the photos on MIWF 2018 Facebook page.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Mountain Echoes Literary Festival, Bhutan, 2016

I am a great fan of Asian literary festivals and have been lucky to take take part in a number in the region over the past decade. So when I heard the seventh edition of the Mountain Echoes Literary Festival was to be held in Bhutan this August, I knew I had to be there. I had met one of the directors  the previous year at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Mandalay, and was delighted when Mountain Echoes producer Mita Kapur (CEO of Siyahi Literary Consultancy in Jaipur) asked me to be involved. My task at Mountain Echoes 2016 was to be in conversation with best selling Australian author Graeme Simsion on his books The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect. We were the Aussie contingent among a list of seventy-eight authors and commentators (mostly Indian and Bhutanese) and proudly so. It was a great privilege to be sharing the festival bill with festival patron, Her Majesty the Royal Queen Mother of Bhutan, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk (herself an author), Amitav Ghosh, Pico Iyer, Damey Tenzin Norgay ( the son of Everest climber Tenzin Norgay Sherpa), Kunzang Choden ( Bhutan's first female novelist) and all the other esteemed guests. See the full list here.

A lucky autograph hunter gets a signature from Her Majesty, The Queen Mother of Bhutan.

Full house for all sessions at the Royal Bhutan University Auditorium.

Amitav Ghosh also signing autographs, Dhamey Tenzin Norgay in foreground.

Myself in conversation with best selling author Graeme Simsion (The Rosie Project)
As is my habit I organised an itinerary for other writers to join— a twelve day tour of Bhutan including two days at the festival and a climb to the famous Tiger's Nest Monastery for our grand finale. By the time we arrived at Mountain Echoes we had a little more understanding of what it means to live in a country of tall mountains and rushing rivers, where the only way to anywhere is via a single wild, winding mountain road (made even wilder by the national road widening project currently underway). A journey from one valley to the next, timed to take four and a half hours, took eleven, due to landslide delays, rain and mud — all grist for the writer's mill, with some great poems and stories eventuating from my group. Each valley so different from the next, each monastery, temple, dzong, totally unique. How perfect then to arrive at the festival with so many questions on our minds about this extraordinary mountain nation we had been traversing.

Our Writer's Journey group, happy they have made it across another pass.

The famous iron link bridge.

The Dzong in Trongsa, with moody Sept skies.

Sessions on Climate Change (with Amitav Ghosh), Brand Bhutan, Retelling Our Stories and Histories, Of Everest and Unclimbed Mountains, Story of The Lotus Born Guru, all helped to expand our knowledge and fuel our group's discussion on the Bhutan Government's aspirational policy of Gross National Happiness.  Is it working or not?  How can a government gauge if its people are really happy, or not quite happy yet? It was interesting also to witness the close relationships between Indian and Bhutanese writers, and the support given to this event by one of their chief sponsors, the Tourism department of the Rajasthan Government. Represented at the festival by their Chief Minister, Vasundhara Raje  who spoke in the session enitled, Of The People For The People, about her hands on approach to governance and helping to empower village women.

The Chief Minister of Rajasthan in converation with Malvika Singh.
A wonderful introduction to Kashmiri poet, Lal Ded.
In a performance event by Mita Vasisht and Sangita Kathiwada we learned of the fourteenth century Kashmiri poet Lal Ded. Married off at age 12, and mistreated by her husbands family, she renounced material life and marriage to wander naked as a follower of Lord Shiva. Her poems are the earliest compositions in Kashmiri language and she is still quoted and worshipped by everyday Kashmiris.  How wonderful to discover her in this place!

At the writer's dinner at the Taj Tashi Hotel, I was able to catch up with Bhutanese authors I had met on my first trip to Bhutan. Rinzin Rinzin and Chador Wangmo were launching their new books at the festival— Chador's novel Kyetse, is the tale of a girl born in a time rife with superstitious beliefs, and Rinzin's Depa Bondeypa's Relatives tells "of the world of a legendary mermaid and riches, and also to the times of kings when modern road was not even a dream." Launching with them was Lingi Jamtsho's Gyalo — a sneak peek into the life of a Bhutanese soldier. It was great to see local and emerging writers being supported by the festival. Chador introduced me to Bhutan's grand dame of letters, Kunzang Choden. I'd read her wonderful novel Circle of Karma and a number of her childrens books after my last trip and was thrilled to experience in person her softly spoken wisdom and  generosity of spirit. 

Ciler Ilhan, myself and Chador Wangmo.
I also met  festival co-director Siok Sian Dorji, a wonderfully intelligent and articulate speaker who gave the opening address,  along with screen writer and author Venita Coelho and Turkish writer Ciler Ilhan. Ciler's collection of short stories, Exile, won the EU Prize for Literature in 2011. Each monologue tells of the suffering of fictional and real life characters caught up in global injustice. While the moderator at her first session, Zak O'Yeah, a Scandanavian crime writer and translator, described her work as dark, if not very dark, Ciler is a delightfully bubbly person. At the same table I met Sadaf Saaz, poet, writer, entrepreneur and women’s rights activist who co-founded the Dhaka Literary Festival in 2011 and  is the author of That Which Cannot Be Said, a collection of stories about Bangladeshi women's experience. Another festival to add our wish list!

Pico Iyer in conversation with Namgay Zam
On day two, the renowned Indian travel writer, Pico Iyer, stole the show with his session on The Art of Stillness, telling how after his family home burnt down he went to stay for three days at a Benedictine retreat centre  As well as stillness, he discovered that "home is not where we live, but what lives inside us"and urged everyone to try just sitting still for at least five minutes a day. (See his Ted talk on stiillness here).

Another highlight of the day was the session with singer and ex diplomat, Dasho Tshering Wangda, and Indian musician Rahul Ram, in conversation with Kunga Tenzin Dorji.  Each told their musical history in song, playing and singing together and apart, treating us to Hindi and Bhutanese favorites that had the crowd swaying in nostalgic bliss. The Memory Project introduced us to the writings of Renuka Narayanan, whose memoir, A Madrasi Memoir details her story of growing up female in a high caste Brahmin family in Tamil Nadu. Her Bhutanese counterpart Lily Wangchuk, author of Facts about Bhutan: The Land of the Thunder Dragon, recalled her journey to discover the father she never knew, through the photographs he took from the 50s until his early death.  

In the afternoon, following a delicious lunch, I listened to Omair Ahmad (India), Witi Ihimaera (New Zealand) and Kunzang Choden (Bhutan) in conversation with Sadaf Saaz (Bangladesh) on Retelling Our Stories and Histories. Each had important things to say on the value of storytelling, and when Witi began his talk in Maori song, I found myself moved to tears. His way of story telling had much in common with the next panel, where oral story tellers, grandmother Angey Nagley,  and ex monk Agey Dregang, told tales in dzongka, with translations on the screen for non dzongka speakers.  They introduced us to lozey, stories told in poetic form, sometimes sung, which were commonly performed at festival times or when workers gathered together in the village.

Dancers at the festival entertaining the writers and delegates.

Outside in the tea breaks writers and students attending the festival gathered for delicious snacks entertainment by dancers and a roving jester. Groups of students had came from Rajisthan, Nepal and other parts of Bhutan and had asked some of the best questions at the end of sessions. I was thrilled to meet a group of literature students from a college in Trongsa (where we had spent a magical day and night) and was more than happy to be mobbed by autograph hunters from Mayo College, Rajasthan.

With the students of Mayo Colllege from Rajasthan.

Amitav Ghosh in conversation with journalist Namgay Zam  ended the panels for the day, describing how writing a character is a long process — slowly you get to know them, then you find you can't let them go, which is why he ended up writing his Ibis trilogy. To finish the day a group of Rajasthani folk musicians took to the stage as a warm up for a free evening concert in the Clock Tower Square with Rahul Ram's band Indian Ocean and local band Yangchen and The Able. The square was packed as young and old came out to see and hear their compelling raga rock rhythms.

Singer, songwriter Shisir at the open mike. Photo Mt Echoes.

Sadly we had to leave on day three, but with two venues running it was even more jam packed with great panels and events. The festival ended with an open mike event where many visiting and local authors and poets gave readings and performances. Catch up with all the fun here.

While it is impossible to mention all the sessions and writers, I hope  to have given a taste of the literary and cultural delights that Mountain Echoes offers. With its efficient team of organisers and volunteers it is surely one of the best festivals in Asia and maybe one of its best kept secrets.  It usually takes place in the second half of August, attendance is free for all, so start making your plans now to visit the hidden kingdom of Bhutan, with Mountain Echoes as an added bonus.

Mountain Echoes Festival is produced by the Sihayi team in association with the India Bhutan Foundation and the Rajasthan government's Department of Tourism.

Many thanks to festival producer Mita Kapur and her team at Siyahi, as well as directors: Siok Sian Dorji,  Namita Gokhale, Pramod Kumar KG, Tshering Tashi, and all officials and volunteers!

View Mountain Echoes website here and their Facebook page here.

Siyahi is India's leading literary agency and works towards carrying Indian literature to the world. They also organise literary events of all types, from international festivals to intimate readings and book launches.

Jan Cornall is a writer, performance poet and singer based in Sydney Australia. Since 2004 she has taken part in a number of festivals in the Asia Pacific region, including: Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (Bali)  Utan Kayu Literary Biennale (Java)  Irrawaddy Literary Festival (Myanmar), Hong Kong International Literary Festival, The Northern Kingdoms Poetry Festival (Cambodia),Open Art Festival (Beijing), Women's International Playwrights Conference (Mumbai), Wordstorm (Darwin), Two Fires Festival ( Braidwood),  Woollongong Writers Festival,  Sydney Writer's Festival.

Jan also teaches writing and runs international writing retreats. Her next writer's journey is to Morocco in Jan/Feb 2017. Find out more at

In Bhutan Jan travels with Bhutan and Beyond and the Tourism Council of Bhutan.

(c) Jan Cornall  Sept 2016. Photos by Jan Cornall except first and second last pics from Mountain Echoes Facebook page.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Stitch, Weave, Write

Last month we were fortunate to have a new venue for some new writing workshops. Author Jennifer Smart  (her novel Wardrobe Girl is published by Random House) invited us to workshop in her new venture in Newcastle, Mulberry and Flax, a wonderful store filled with fine fabric, yarns and wool.

I asked writers to bring a piece of favorite fabric and our exercises were based around this and other memories we had of stitching, sewing, and messing around with yarns, wools and threads.

Helen Stevenson brought an embroidered table cloth she purchased in pre war Syria. 

Others brought a piece of clothing, a woven cloth from Burma, an embroidered piece from Laos, and we had a bunch of remnants to inspire us as well.

Attendees included poet, Samantha Ogilvie and her seeing eye dog Roscoe, novelist Jennifer Moore who took the train from Sydney, poet and memoir writer Helen Stevenson, former midwife and teacher Cath Whelan (working on a history of the midwifery movement in Newcastle in the 80s and 90s, jeweller, former fashion designer, Cyd Joyce, her kids (my grandkids) Alfie and Vivian and our host, novelist and blogger, Jennifer Smart.

Sam and her faithful Roscoe
Such a patient being!
My grandkids Viv and Alfie
Cath and Sam exlporing the feel of Syrian embroidery
Jennifer stitches and writes in her  Mulb &Flax workshop space
Helen is a quilter, knitter and embroiderer from way back
   My daughter Cyd and her daughter Alfie 
Yummy snacks courtesy of Mulb & Flax

We did do some writing too!