Ubud Writers & Readers Festival: Purpose, people and place

How does one catch five minutes with Janet deNeefe, Founder and Director of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival? Believe it or not, it’s when she’s days away from inaugurating her food festival. Renee Melchert Thorpe spoke to Janet and her International Program Director, Summa Durie, about Ubud’s famous annual literary festival.

Q: Any drama you can share?

Janet-DeNeefeJanet: This is very much a family-run festival and maybe that adds to the charm. We are not held to ransom by publishers so can freely select the writers of our choice. Our funds are terribly limited but we are determined to survive no matter what! Behind the scenes…well there is often a little drama here or there but that adds to the excitement! 

Screen Shot 2015-05-31 at 3.44.06 pmSumma: Writing the program is a bit like piecing together a giant human jigsaw puzzle. With 165 writers appearing in over 220 sessions and events over 4 full days, making sure everyone is in the right place at the right time is a tricky process. I often write a draft of the main program which is shared with my programming colleagues, we then sift through session by session refining and checking scheduling before the program is handed on to marketing. Marketing will then continue to tweak the copy before it’s all locked down and uploaded to the website or sent off to print. I think we all then take a deep breath and hope no one gets sick or can’t make it, as once you move/change one piece of the puzzle it has a ripple effect to the whole program.  Anyone that works in festivals must be a master of coming up with ingenious quick fix solutions on little sleep. Believe me, it’s a skill. 

Q: With programs in Indonesian and English, yearly themes that are often from Indonesian culture, what are you looking for in terms of writers?

Janet: We select authors based on our theme and also consider those who we think will suit Indonesia and our audience. The young Indonesians are mainly chosen from submitted work and a curatorial team selects about 15. This is a particularly hard job as we now receive more than 600 entries a year and have to trim it right back to a small amount. 

Summa: Each year we work with a central theme and key storylines that are woven throughout the program. The audience is able to follow a specific thread throughout the program if they wish and they can curate their own festival experience. The ideal festival program is a bit like a symphony: big notes, soft notes, light and dark. We try to make sure we have a bit of everything to keep our audiences engaged.

We’re also finding our audiences want more than the ‘talking heads’ experience – they want to engage with big issues or be able to ask questions of the writers. We always create spaces where the audience can participate, ask questions and interact with the writers. Writers and audiences comment that the barriers (invisible or not) are broken down between the audiences and the writers at the UWRF. 

While we’re a writers’ festival at heart we’ve also developed a strong arts program to complement the Main Program. The days are full of big discussion and ideas – the nights full of music, dance and art. We believe storytelling across art form is important to showcase – especially as we’re based in a country with a strong oral storytelling tradition. At UWRF we don’t believe stories belong only in books.

Q: How do you find sponsors?

Janet: Finding sponsors is like a comedy these days, or maybe more like a Shakespearian tragedy! Either way, you need a great sense of humor to deal with it. It doesn’t get any easier either. The fact that we don’t even have core funding is a bit depressing. Winning the lottery is probably the only solution.  
It is generally known amongst writers that we are not able to cover fees, but we make up for it by offering a magical, memorable time in a lovely, fascinating part of the world. Sometimes they, the writers, expect more than we can offer and while we do our best to please, we just can’t meet huge demands.

Q: What awaits the writers who participate?

Summa: Without doubt most writers fall in love with Ubud when they arrive – the UWRF is definitely a destination festival for both the writers and the audience.
Many of our speakers arrive the day before the first public event and are welcomed at a private event for writers and media. Most years this has been held at one of Ubud’s stunning hotels – with an array of delicious Indonesian food, drinks and performances on offer. Writers often exclaim that Bali is overwhelming for the senses, the landscape, the people, the spice of it all. This first event is a bit like the beginning of school camp. Writers mingle and get to know each other and quite often form strong little groups that stick together throughout the week, whether these are formed by genre of writing (e.g. the poets) or by personality, geography, et cetera. It’s wonderful seeing this bonding happen between writers from all over the world and more than once these bonds have extended beyond the Festival – both in ongoing personal and professional relationships. 

Q: What’s the Festival team working on all year?

Janet:  Indonesian program coordinator, Kadek, and her team are masters of logistics and have a timeline that is strongly adhered to. It’s a matter of making an enormous task list and ticking off one by one as completed. This part takes absolutely months of hard work and attention to detail.

I think 2011 was the first time we closed Jalan Gautama for a street party and the team spent many hours chatting with village heads, shop owners, residents and all, for everyone to agree. Of course it was a great success and even better the following year. Then we had to move it to another street because they asked for a street party too. The best part is it’s free for locals.

Summa:  I was at a festivals’ conference last year in Edinburgh and we discussed what makes a successful festival. The key three things were purpose, people and place. Janet created this festival in response to a tragedy. The purpose of the UWRF was to bring writers, thinkers and artists back to Ubud and Bali after the bombings. It has achieved this and now brings in over one million US dollars in economic benefit to the local community over the four days. For people, Janet has assembled a great team who deliver the Festival, but equally as important are the individuals in the local community who support and have a sense of ownership of the Festival. And finally, for place, Bali is one of the most beautiful places in the region it’s a stunning back drop for the Festival and will always be a place that draws artists and big thinkers.

Q: Some special memories you haven’t had a chance to talk about before?

Janet: The special events which revolve around limited admission lunches and dinners. The biggest names usually speak at tables best matched with chefs from a similar background. We did a wonderfully long lunch focusing on Vietnamese writers and a Vietnamese chef’s tasting menu. Another memorable lunch featured writers from the Middle East with Lebanese food.

Summa: Once the Festival has begun the actual program whizzes by in an absolute blur. I think the saddest thing for any curator is that the program you’ve spent 12 months nurturing and carefully crafting you barely get to see, as you’re so busy running around making sure simultaneous sessions are going up without a hitch. I truly relish those sessions I get to catch and I’m oh so thankful the audio from most sessions is recorded so I can relive the conversations later!


Screen Shot 2015-05-31 at 3.40.14 pmRenee Melchert Thorpe has been a staff writer for the Ubud Writers Festival since 2003. Her short stories have appeared in Dim Sum and the Asia Literary Review.