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.