Literature can change the world: Wrapping up the 2014 Ubud Writers & Readers Festival


As the ocean of readers and writers from around the world depart the 11th Ubud Writers & Readers Festival we can look back at how Saraswati – the Balinese Hindu goddess of wisdom and knowledge, and this year’s festival theme – made herself present throughout the festival by energising the streets, rice paddies, majestic bamboo pavilions and royal palaces of Ubud.

The majestic entrance to the main street of the festival
The majestic entrance to the main street of the festival. Photo: Benjamin Pratt


With over 150 writers gathering from more than 25 different countries and over 25,000 people flocking to this year’s festival, it was truly a celebration of global issues, big ideas and some extraordinary stories. 235 programs were rolled out ranging from in-depth panel discussions to poetry slams, literary lunches to intensive workshops, reinforcing the festival as one of the most culturally invigorating literary events in the region, clearly becoming a prominent fixture of the world’s thriving artistic and literary scene.



A Mocktail Stand at the festival preparing for a busy day.
A Mocktail Stand at the festival preparing for a busy day. Photo: Benjamin Pratt




A running theme of the festival was the idea that the world is at a turning point and the youth of today (and tomorrow) should take the reigns of the future. As the cultural anthropologist, environmental activist and filmmaker from Japan, Keibo Oiwa, said, “We need to regress in order to progress… [Change] production and consumption to smaller, simpler, and slower – the basic principle of redesign is shrinking.”


Apart from that gem of wisdom, Keibo also offered the next generation of thinkers and doers a mantra to continue into the future: corporate globalisation has nothing to do with cultural globalisation.

“Every country is sharing the same problems: bad governments, corporate laundering etc. The collapse of old systems is not only inevitable but it is already happening…”

Keibo Oiwa speaking at his keynote event: Slow, Small, Simple
Keibo Oiwa speaking at his keynote event: Slow, Small, Simple. Photo: Benjamin Pratt

“There is a thing called global commons: nobody owns it but everybody has access to it – air, water, time. The only thing we really have is time, and we translate that into money here in our lives,” he said. “Mother Nature is the mother of all economies, the source of all real wealth … we talk about democracy and freedom but are we really democratic? Are we really free?”

If there was one thought that pervaded this year’s festival it was how all the ‘little’ things will come together and end up changing the world, and how literature and communication is the driving force behind those changes.

The empty streets as the festival concludes its final day.
The empty streets as the festival concludes its final day. Photo: Benjamin Pratt


Akhil Sharma, the award-winning Indian-American author said, “Capturing change involves being brave enough to pierce the myths and expose the truth and vulnerabilities.” His latest book, Family Life, took thirteen years to write and exposes the truths and vulnerabilities of an outsider living in America.


Sharma’s words were reiterated by the award-winning author of The Iraqi Christ, Hassan Blasim, who said, “all the world is interconnected, through feelings, words and other secret channels.”


Blasim is Iraqi born and endured the Hussain regime before fleeing to Finland as a refugee, individually trekking across the Middle East on a personal quest for civil freedom and expression.


“If I look at the world I don’t understand it, but I understand literature so that’s how I understand the world, through literature,” he said. “Life is a dream and literature is something to believe in.  Literature teaches you that life is short and it’s all a dream.”

Hassan Blasim speaking at on his panel: A Surrealist Inferno
Hassan Blasim speaking at on his panel: A Surrealist Inferno. Photo: Benjamin Pratt


Can Xue, Chinese avant-garde fiction writer and literary critic, summed up the duality of self/world, fiction/truth and the existential themes the festival touched on with her philosophical remark, “A mirror is a mysterious thing; if you look into it long enough you can see your own soul.”


Guy Vincent, CEO and Founder of Publishizer, a platform that helps emerging authors self-publish through crowd funding specifically focused on their readers, gave this advice when asked how literature could change the world: “Start small and realistic and then see how big you can make it.” Although speaking about the publishing platform, the advice runs true to the spirit of this year’s festival and the duality of the advice can apply to writing and ideas that influence the way we live.


After four days of enlightening discussion and inspiring ideas, the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival came to an official close as the sun set behind the Volunteers Party and Closing Ceremony at the exotic ARMA Museum. Media director Holly Reid said that the volunteers are greatly responsible for the smooth running of a world-class festival.

Volunteers, Artists and Media Partners celebrating at the Closing Ceremony
Volunteers, Artists and Media Partners celebrating at the Closing Ceremony. Photo: Benjamin Pratt


“The volunteers who travel to Ubud every year to help with the festival are the reason this is one of the best six literary festivals in the world,” she said. “This party is mainly for them; it’s our way of saying thank you for your involvement.”


Surfing legend Rusty Miller said that Ubud, “is the place I started believing in magic, because the spirits are alive here, people believe in it and everything is animated and has a certain spirit to it.”


Elizabeth Pisani also described the landscape of the festival aptly, as she said,  “Indonesia is like a boyfriend that once you’ve grown to know keeps reinventing himself… it is so visually compelling and I love it.”

Elizabeth Pisani speaking on her Indonesia Etc. panel
Elizabeth Pisani speaking on her Indonesia Etc. panel. Photo: Benjamin Pratt


While the volunteers, media partners and artists reflect on being a part of one of the six best literary festivals in the world, in such a mystical place as Ubud, it is only fitting that the final words of the Festival go to its wonderful Founder and Director, Janet Deneefe.


“That we can bring together a number of the world’s leading authors and artists, together with established and emerging talents from Indonesia, is one of the best things about the UWRF,” she said.

Festival Director and Founder, Janet Deneefe
Festival Director and Founder Janet Deneefe. Photo: Benjamin Pratt


“The calibre of this year’s program and the enduring enthusiasm of our audience has once again eclipsed the standard of the UWRF that we raise each year. Never have I received so many comments and words of praise from the audience, the authors and our sponsors about what a fantastic and inspirational event it was… Now on to 2015!”


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