Festivals, conferences, forums all have their formalities. Even here, on the edge of the Indian and Pacific oceans, in Sydney and Perth, they can begin with long official speeches, intellectual humour, and the buzz of excitement. Or, they can begin, as the Ubud Writers Festival did, with Balinese court dancers glimmering in their finery to the sound of gamelan until the culmination of the striking of a large ceremonial gong, loud enough to wake the God of Attention.
Still, having travelled in various parts of Asia, I don’t think any intellectual event in this part of the world actually begins until a proper dinner, until everyone can sit around a circular table with a nest of plates revolving in its centre, shout their names to one another, and then, for good luck, toast and toast again the nascent event.
In the mountainous centre of the Indonesian island of Bali, every evening at the Ubud festival was a banquet, partly I’m sure because the festival director, Janet De Neefe, is a famous author of cookbooks and like many other Westerners on the island is ‘involved with hotels’. It was likewise in Sydney a few weeks later, where on the first night after the launch of the China-Australia Literary Forum, I was spontaneously invited by Mabel Lee, the translator of the poet Yang Lian and the Nobel Prize-winner Gao Xingjian, to join her and a number of local Chinese writers, artists and journalists at a nearby Sichuan restaurant.
There we made toasts, and I made the acquaintance of Ouyang Yu, the Chinese-Australian translator and writer, as well as the quietly spoken Julia Leigh with whom I discussed her novels and the controversies surrounding of her recently released feature film Sleeping Beauty. She managed to keep it secret that William Defoe would be the lead in her friend’s then forthcoming film adaptation of her first novel The Hunter. Then Mabel, talkative, in her Australian accent, was saying something about the fun she’d had the last time she was in Beijing.
On the other side of the table was the painter Guan Wei. He and the other Chinese painter and Ouyang Yu conversed, laughing, in Mandarin. At one point the entire table switched to speaking English to allow Julia and me to understand what the journalist beside them had said about Tibet. She had met the Dalai Lama on two occasions. She explained that the Dalai Lama’s brother had studied with one of the forthcoming leaders of the Chinese Communist Party. This gave her cause to believe that in the next few years it is likely there will be a change in policy on Tibet. We fell silent, pondering what that might mean.
Why do I remember all this about a meal, merely the first dinner of the four day China-Australia Literary Forum, where Australian writers and their Chinese ‘peers’ – among them Mo Yan, whose novel many know from the Zhang Yimou film Red Sorghum – sat in a room, all wearing headphones, while two besuited interpreters in soundproofed telephone-boxes decoded the speech? Why, when I think of Ubud, do I remember most clearly the enormous outdoor dinner of a hundred or so ‘select’ guests at a mansion behind a hotel, a residence we reached by being led down a long lane lit by tea-candles, where I started to feel violently ill, as if my head were reasonable and diplomatic but my guts remained virulently anti-capitalist? And why do I recall, vividly, that occasion in Perth, where I booked the conference dinner for Jane Camens’ now Hong Kong-based Asia-Pacific Writing Partnership at the trendy Raffles Hotel overlooking the dark shimmering Swan River, embarrassed that an international yachting competition had meant we ended up at a restaurant named after the British founder of Singapore? No one from the ex-colonies seemed to mind.
That meals are key to the success of writers’ gatherings is in keeping with the very ancient tradition of making offerings of food to the ancestors and gods and then having the living eat last, together, harmoniously.
It was at those meals that we poets and writers could stop our publicity, our performing, and speak as individuals, talking our way into friendship. If dinners are intimate theatres of conversation, the events themselves – the presentations, the panels and the readings, enacting our Presences – might be our offerings to the disembodied God of Attention.
There were surprises, too.
In Sydney, the moment at the forum when Ouyang Yu – many seemed concerned he was going to throw a firecracker into the political silence – asked the renowned Aboriginal author Alexis Wright if it was true that she has Chinese ancestry. Indeed, it is. There was that awkwardness when the crime-writer Shane Maloney wanted to cajole Zhaxi Dawa, the president of the Tibetan Writers Association, to admit to his not really being a Tibetan writer because he isn’t writing in the Tibetian language, with all its implications.
On a panel entitled “Sense of Place” with Alexis and Julia, the courtly Zhao Mei, whose distinctly Manchurian visage is fixed in my mind’s eye like an ahistorical portriat, spoke of the Westernized cosmopolitanism of her youth in Tianjin, while the deceptively girlish Sheng Keyi, dressed like a bleak hippy and the only writer to disrupt the cool, diplomatic tone of the forum, astonished us with her direct affirmation of the importance of Kafka to her writing. She declared that he is the only writer she finds relevant, then described the poverty of her native village, the desperation of the villagers and the ecological devastation of the surrounding landscape. It was dystopic. She admitted that she was very pleased to have left there and to now live in a city. She added that she had returned to the village after the outbreak of swine-flu. Everywhere there were slaughtered pigs and the river of her childhood was bloated, black with their stinking corpses.
It is striking that the most memorable panel sessions of the past months, like the one above, all featured women writers.
At Ubud, the best attended session I managed to get into was “The Motherland”, with the poet-architect Avianti Armand, the filmmaker Djenar Maesa Ayu and famously outspoken sociologist Julia Suryakusuma. In defiance of the festival directive that participants couldn’t read or smoke ‘while performing’, the first thing Djenar did was light a cigarette and take a slow, theatrical sip of a beer. She frequently referred to her sex-life in a light-hearted, emancipatory way that Westerners associate with the Swinging Sixties. Arviati and Suryakusuma addressed their literary and gender concerns without feeling the need to charm the audience, as if they were comfortably responsible with the time allotted them by the God – Goddess? – of Attention.
I had met Aviati, an associate of the circle of Jakarta intellectuals gathered around the alternative culture forum Salihara and the legendary Goenawan Mohammad, the night before when a few of us had gone to Denpasar, the capital of Bali, to give a reading. On the journey there and back in the minibus she had translated a three-way conversation between myself, the young Achinese novelist Arafat Nur and the Iraqi poet Rodaan Al Galidi. We were intrigued by Arafat, not only because he was still living in the conflict zone in Aceh, a small but important province at the northern end of the island of Sumatra, a province that until the Indian Ocean Tsunami a few years ago had been actively fighting a war of resistance against Indonesian occupation, but also because he had managed to write seven novels. He told us that he felt that the purpose of his work was to share with the world the reality of life in Aceh. He was born in Medan, the Sumatran city I visited shortly after Suharto, the nation’s long-running dictator, had been forced out of office, describing my experience in poems and the prose book Semar’s Cave: an Indonesian Journal. Medan is also the birthplace of Indonesia’s first modern poet and literary hero, Chairil Anwar, a figure whose work is still well-known and widely quoted.
The Balinese novelist Ni Komang Ariani had read first. When Avianti read her poems the audience of students and political activists was spellbound. When those of us who couldn’t understand the Indonesian asked her what her poems were about, she replied that they merely used contemporary ways of thinking to retell biblical stories. In a country, like Indonesia, where most people are Muslim, this would be a surprising thing to them, she quietly said.
Along with the meals and the encounters there were the readings that resonated. Foremost was the Japanese translator Kyoko Yoshida reading “(spectacle and pigsty)”, a poem by Kiwao Nomura she that she and the American Forrest Gander had translated. It was recently published in the book of the same name in the US. Read in a measured voice, in the largely empty bookshop at the University of Western Australia, the shop having all the charm of an abandoned McDonalds, she mesmerised us with its scatological metaphors and Artaud-like incantation, all the more amazing as in person Kiwao couldn’t be a more gentlemanly figure.
And then there are the books.
After accompanying Mabel on a visit her friend’s gallery near Bondi Beach, she gave me a brown paper package of a number of translated Asian books, all published by her Wild Peony press; the Filipino poets Joanna Lynn Cruz and Isabela Banzon slipped their slim volumes into my hand as if they were secret messages; the Sri Lankan Sunil Govinnage, whom I hadn’t met before our meal at the Raffles Hotel but who professed to know me, gave me his book at the table, then revealed he actually owned signed copies of my books because a mutual friend had given them to him before becoming a Buddhist monk in the hills south of Perth; the fiction writer Xu Xi and I immediately swapped books after hearing one another read, spending the rest of the conference wondering when we had had met before, until we sort of agreed that it must have been in Stockholm.
It is only afterwards that it is possible to start reading the work of the people met, and it’s then that other conversations come to mind composed of all the questions that could have been asked.
Then there are also the books that one forgot to buy or to exchange one’s own book for: Qaisra Shahraz, if you are reading this, I owe you a book…
I did keep a diaristic account of those four literary events and my Sydney book launch. But maybe it’s more interesting to reflect on my memory of them. There is the possibility of recalling only the more impressive encounters; like discovering that, after the China-Australia forum, the New York essayist and translator Eliot Weinberger was in the crowd attending the presentation of my book Southern Barbarians. It was as if he was there – I wonder if my publisher, Ivor Indyk, would have agreed? – in lieu of the God of Attention. Mabel and Julia and the novelists Gail Jones, Nick Jose, and the poet-critic Martin Harrison, were there, as well as the younger Australian writers Suneeta Peres da Costa, Michelle Cahill, Fiona Wright, and Kate Middleton, who made me hopeful that I may be read in the future.
It was a pity the novelist Brian Castro, a friend of Mabel and author of the introduction to my book, wasn’t in Sydney as he was the one who’d led to my initial trip to Macau.
The last time I had encountered Eliot was in a backstreet in Macau, after I had spent some months in mainland China and was on my way back to Australia. I was just there to consult the ghosts of the Portuguese poets of exile, Camilio Pessanha and Luis de Camoes. Eliot was in the company of two other familiar faces: Bei Dao and Gary Snyder. I remember us four and Gary’s son and Bei Dao’s wife conversing over a wonderful Macanese lunch.
In the midst of this all this literary socializing of the past months, I found myself thinking on how this might be made sense of in relation to what we used to call Literature. Sometime I remind myself of that statement in Neruda’s memoir where he fears, having just raced from one reading to another, that one day in the future writers might have to fly from place to place, crossing deserts, solely to find a single reader.
In the midst of today’s noise and fury we must wonder how it is that writers and poets in the future will make meaning for their public, and how this can occur in public. Instead of literary events being either an avenue for so-called soft-power, for academic exchange or for the promotion of globalized writing – with the hotel industry as backdrop – to my mind there must still be instances, in addition to the lonely activity of reading itself, that can allow us to believe in the Literary.
Were being in the midst of all these activities a crime in eyes of the God of Attention, the pieces of evidence, drawn from those events in this distant, southern part of the world, that I would produce in my defence would start with these:
1) The five minutes I spent crouched on a balcony with the Balinese historian Sigi Linus and the poet Ketut Yuliarsa discussing the Real Bali, how much more humane the Dutch were than the Balinese rulers, and the life of the late mystic poet and master-carver Sidemen, while they finished their clove cigarettes.
2) The moment at the China-Australia forum, when, over a coffee, a translator of Chinese stepped out of earshot of the others to say that the novelist JM Coetzee – my compatriot twice-over, and the patron of the Sydney PEN Centre – had sent autographed copies of his books to be given to all the visiting Chinese writers.
We can assume that Coetzee, “the Nobel Prize-winner”, under the all-seeing gaze of the God of Attention, was sending the Chinese writers – and us – an encoded, literary, message.
Ubud Writers and Readers Festival “Cultivate the Land Within”, Ubud, Bali 5-9 October
China-Australia Literary Forum, Sydney 30 August-2 September
Asia-Pacific Writing Partnership “Writing Out of Asia”, Perth 2-5 December
“Literature and Culture in the Era of the Digital Revolution”, Perth 4-7 December