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A scene from a previous year’s Ubud Writers & Readers Festival. After being forced online by the Covid-19 pandemic, the festival makes a full return to Ubud, central Bali. Photo: Ubud Writers & Readers Festival

Southeast Asia’s biggest literary festival, in Bali, is back, with a focus on Ukraine war, after going online during Covid-19 pandemic

  • Covid-19 forced the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival to go online, but it returns to the Bali town in full physical form on October 27 for its 19th edition
  • Co-founder Janet De Neefe reveals what to expect this year, from live music to appearances by Ukrainian poets, musicians and chefs
Asia travel

Few literary events in the world have endured more calamity than the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival. On October 27 it returns to verdant central Bali for the 19th time, with four days of book launches, film premieres, long-table dinners, panel discussions, workshops, live music and cultural performances.

Born from the ashes of the Bali bombings of 2002 as a way to attract foreign tourists back to the island, the festival got off to a fine start in 2004 before terrorists bombed the island again only days before the second festival in 2005, reducing attendance.

In 2015, the festival’s permit was nearly revoked over a proposed session on the mass killing of alleged communists in Indonesia in the 1960s. And in 2017, Bali’s Mount Agung volcano erupted five times before the festival took place, disrupting air travel to the island.
All this drama simply added to its allure, and made the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival the biggest festival of words and ideas in Southeast Asia.
Audience members at the Ubud Writers & Readers festival. Photo: Ubud Writers & Readers festival

Over the years it has attracted writers, artists, activists and philosophers such as Xanana Gusmao, the first president of East Timor, Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen and cult novelist Irvine Welsh.

In 2019, it was named one of the top five literary festivals in the world by British newspaper The Telegraph.

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The party should have come to an end during the coronavirus pandemic, when Indonesia closed its borders and Bali’s tourist industry collapsed. But festival organisers and patrons refused to let go, organising an online version in 2020 that drew 30,000 global participants.

Last year, in November, as the Covid-19 situation in Indonesia began to ease, a hybrid festival, partly online but with some on-the-ground events, was held. But with the borders still closed, attendance was low.

This year the festival returns to Ubud – known as Bali’s centre of traditional culture for its numerous historical sites and art museums – with an on-the-ground programme hosted by more than 100 writers, thinkers and artists from Indonesia and around the world. Co-founder Janet De Neefe tells us what festivalgoers can expect this year.
Ubud Writers & Readers Festival co-founder Janet De Neefe. Photo: Ubud Writers & Readers Festival

What was it like running the festival during the pandemic?

“I think it’s incredible that we were able to pull it off, even if the events were mostly online. It was actually pretty exciting planning under such a different landscape. In both years we still had fantastic writers and the bonus was that we didn’t have to pay for their airfares and hotels.”

You’ve been running this festival as a volunteer for 19 years. Where do you find the energy?

“Well, it’s addictive. But I have found it a bit of a struggle this year because my daughter was recently named Miss Universe Indonesia and I now have three months to get her fully prepared for the Miss Universe competition. Micromanaging her is a festival in itself.”

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What is attendance looking like this year? Are you going to draw 15,000 people per day as you did before the pandemic?

“No. Ticket sales are still about 30 per cent lower than in 2019. But that’s OK because we’re not using the big venues this year and are scaling things back to reclaim the sense of intimacy we had in the first couple of years when the festival wasn’t too busy.

“I think all of our staff are going to enjoy it before next year’s festival when it will be full steam ahead.”

The festival typically includes traditional Indonesian cultural performances. Photo: Ubud Writers & Readers Festival

Most people visit Bali to eat, drink and party and have fun in the sun. Why should they come to a nerdy book festival?

“If you want to drink, we have some groovy craft beer, lots of handmade local alcohol and a session with jewel-coloured cocktails at Boliche, Ubud’s hidden lamplit bar.

“If you want food, we have a massive street food market every night, literary lunches, long-table dinners intended to encourage conversation, and a cute afternoon tea session with handmade macaroons.

“If you want to hear music and dance, we are going to have some fantastic live music and tons of local bands. Nerdy? I don’t think so.”

The festival’s live music from local bands is part of its appeal. Photo: Ubud Writers & Readers Festival

What part of the festival are you looking forward to most this year?

“Our theme this year is Uniting Humanity, and while we don’t want to get too political, we couldn’t ignore the war in Ukraine because it’s a global humanitarian issue. So we brainstormed about how to have Ukrainian involvement, and came up with the idea of a Ukrainian poetry and music night.

“We’re flying over two Ukrainian poets who are now living in Warsaw, a Ukrainian pop singer, a Ukrainian opera singer and an international pianist from Iran. On top of that, there will be a Ukrainian chef making snacks.

“Normally I’m so busy during festivals I can’t commit to attending particular sessions, but there’s no way I’m missing this one.”