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Byron Bay Writer's Festival

Cynthia Webb, Contributor, Brisbane, Australia.

Lovers of literature gathered from Aug. 3-6 for the 10th anniversary of the Byron Bay Writers Festival, themed Place, in one Australia's most trendy and colorful towns. Byron Bay sits at the foot of a lighthouse-crowned headland at Australia's most easterly point, and is a favorite destination for backpackers, surfers and holidaymakers.

Byron Bay's literary festival began in 1997 and it has expanded in scope and prestige to become a major event on Australia's literary calendar. It is now an outdoor festival held in large marquees, with four or five venues running simultaneous discussions. There is also a full program of workshops before the festival weekend and other special associated events in the town.

Jill Eddington, who has been festival director for the last seven years, said: "Our festival has steered away from dry, 'high-end' literary discussions which had usually been the style of the longer established festivals in Australia's big cities. We wanted to attract the widest possible audience, so we brought in the ideas-based discussion format. People loved it. People like a forum where they can hear the informed voices of Australia, the writers, discussing topical issues. Now the idea is catching on with the southern city writers festivals too."

Over the last few years, Eddington has developed a commitment to including Asian writers, and with financial assistance from the Australia Indonesia Institute, the festival was able to invite author, publisher and film director Richard Oh and singer-writer Dewi Lestari Simangunsong to represent the exciting new trends in Indonesian literature, along with Ketut Yuliarsa, a Balinese poet and performer.

From further afield in Asia, Hong Kong's Nury Vittachi -- an internationally published author, editor of the Asian Literary Review, founder of the Hong Kong Writers Festival and all-round witty raconteur -- was also in Byron Bay, as well as Singapore's Deepika Shetty, TV producer of Prime Time Morning, which has a weekly literature segment called Off the Shelf.

Gender, literary education

The Indonesian contingent took part in several lively discussions, including "Young Writers: New and Exciting Words", for which Dewi Lestari joined two 20-something new Australian writers. She also sat on the panel for "Women's Fiction: Is It About Them or for Them?" with two successful Australian woman writers, Liz Byrski and Monica McInerney.
Dewi said she feels somewhat "genderless" when writing, and that she doesn't write specifically for young women, but for her peer group, both male and female. Her interest is in humanity, and she has a strong attraction to spirituality and how it can be linked with modern scientific research.

Following her self-published sci-fi novel Supernova, which was an immediate bestseller, she knew she had struck a chord from all the positive feedback she received from her contemporaries, who said they recognized their own feelings in her book.

"There are a lot of young spiritual seekers like me in Indonesia, and they are sick of living in turmoil and insecurity about the future. I want to contribute by offering insights to them," said Dewi.

Dewi mentioned the emergence of other young women writers in Indonesia, and there was discussion of the so-called "chick-lit" (literature written by young women) and "fragrant writers" -- the latter being the more polite and poetic name given to this rising group by senior writers and critics.

Byrski said she objected to this trivialization, as did McInerney, and all three women looked forward to the day when a "writer is a writer", without their gender affecting critical commentary.

However, Byrski, who is over 60, said that as she became an older reader, all the heroines seemed to be much younger than herself. Finding a major gap in the literary market, she began to write about issues and experiences relevant to older women -- and book sales showed it was appreciated.

At the "Focus on Indonesian Writers", Ketut Yuliarsa joined compatriots Richard Oh and Dewi Lestari. A poet, musician and actor, Ketut divides his time between Sydney and Ubud, Bali, where he and his Australian wife run the Ganesha Book Shop. He commented that as Asian literature comes from many different parts of the region and many different cultures, this probably contributed to its slower global dissemination.

Ketut has started publishing a Balinese-language literary magazine to encourage local people to read as, he said, "In Indonesia, people are usually glued to the TV." He also observed from living in Australia that "Indonesian libraries are comparatively poor in quality", and that the government had yet to agree on a national literary curriculum.
"The reading curriculum usually features the same old stories from (the classic texts) the Mahabarata and the Ramayana, and some local folktales. How can this develop a love of books?" he said.

"And the government cannot agree to implement a direction for a university-level writing program -- with competition between Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Christian viewpoints -- so we don't have many good literacy education programs," he added.

Each author read from their work: Ketut from his new volume of poems, Falling in Silence, and Richard Oh from his latest novel, The Rainmaker's Daughter. Dewi, on the other hand, sang two songs to the delighted audience, since she did not have the English translation -- recently completed by Harry Aveling, visiting professor of Translation Studies at the University of Indonesia -- of Supernova.

Festival visitors were as impressed by the multitalented Dewi's intellect, sophistication and amazing command of the English language as by her youth and beauty. She stressed that she was just one of the modern, well-educated, city-dwelling younger generation, and hoped to communicate to the wider world that Indonesia was more than the stereotype tourist image of exotic, tropical villagers in sarongs.

What's Asia reading?

Another panel discussion was "Asian Literature, Asian Markets: What is Being Written, Published and Read".
Nury Vittachi pointed out that "the world is mixing up faster and more colorfully than any of us anticipated" as ideas and things from various cultures rapidly cross borders and travel around the global village.

Amid this climate of change, however, Nury thinks there's a long way to go in terms of literature, as generally Asian children still don't read much.

"The bedtime story thing just doesn't work there," he said. "Until last year there was no literary agent in Asia, and there were no literary festivals until five years ago."

Jakarta's Richard Oh has been part of a rapid change in the Indonesian literature world, opening his own publishing house, (Metafor) and a chain of quality bookstores (QB World Books), penning three books in English and initiating the Khatulistiwa Literary Award to encourage young writers.

In addition, he recently wrote a screenplay for his first feature film, which he also directed. Koper (The Lost Suitcase) premiered at the Asian Film Festival in Yogyakarta on Aug. 10.

Richard studied English literature in the U.S., but it was seen as an eccentric decision by his Chinese-Indonesian family. He commented that in Chinese culture, parents have always -- and still -- steered their children to professional pursuits and in acquiring material possessions, rather than toward artistic career paths.
When he returned to Indonesia, which did not then have a large reading public, he first put his writing skills to work in advertising.

Both Richard and Dewi commented that no author in Indonesia is able to make a full-time career of writing. There are not enough people buying and reading books yet, print runs are therefore not very large, the royalties are small and so far there are no international readers for their work.

Richard added that Indonesian writers were little known outside the country, with the exception of Pramoedya Ananta Toer: "There are knowledgeable Australians translating the great past literary works of Indonesia, but the editions are small, and they don't get much attention outside a small scholastic circle. I think international publishers should do some work on this."

Richard also took part with Australian author Frank Moorhouse on a topic very relevant to these times, on "Sedition Laws: Their Impact on Writers".

Moorhouse was seriously concerned by obvious signs that civil rights and freedom of speech are being eroded in Australia by new laws that have been passed as part of the government's response to terrorism. Recently, there have even been cases of certain journals getting calls from a government department pressuring them to "kill" certain articles, websites or books.

"It seems to be OK by the Cabinet, this damping down of freedom of expression," said Moorhouse. "...We are abandoning our values and mimicking the enemy, heading back towards McCarthy-ism. Almost every TV program, website manager and organization which has a stake in this, has protested... Human rights and equal opportunities organizations in Australia say that a line has been crossed. Every group should be alarmed and protesting."
Richard spoke on the subject from the opposite perspective, based on Indonesia's historical lack of freedom of expression. Now, social commentators are much bolder and trends are headed in the other direction, but he also mentioned negative developments. For example, private organizations such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) are threatening citizens and have even gone so far as to threaten former president Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid.

"That's how it is in my country at this stage" he said, apologetically. "But it's better now, we can vote and these nominated officials are beginning to pay attention to the people. We need to return the power to the people."
Of the Byron Bay Writers Festival, Richard said: "This is a very good cultural exchange and only a more established neighbor like Australia can initiate a program like this to improve understanding and a cultural bond through this exchange. The benefit will certainly be mutual, but I think Indonesians will definitely benefit more. We are in a position where we need to be aided in this instance.

"We have a lot of good writers in our country, but we were a colony of the Dutch, instead of part of the British Commonwealth, so therefore we have not had the good fortune of being introduced internationally. That, really, has been the obstacle for our writers to be able to earn a living from their writing."

Dewi commented: "Australia is close by, and for Indonesia to have a close relationship with a Western country, for learning and developing certain aspects of social life and culture, Australia is the most efficient choice, yet we don't know much about Australia. It's such a wasted opportunity ... until Janet De Neefe set up the Ubud Writers (and Readers) Festival we didn't know anything about the literature of our own geographical region.

"I feel blessed to be invited to come here. I want to know more. I want to make the most of it," she said.

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