Bali and Me: Lisa Dempster on the Ubud Readers and Writers Festival
Lisa Dempster is the director of the Emerging Writers Festival – and the new director of the Melbourne Writers Festival. She’s currently in Bali, working on the Ubud Readers and Writers Festival, as part of an Asialink Residency. Find out what the residency entails and what it’s like to work on an international writers festival in Bali.
I love literary festivals. I love attending them and I love working in them. So you can imagine I’m pretty happy right now to be doing a cultural exchange with one of the most interesting writer’s festivals around – Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF), in Bali.
I came to Indonesia to do an arts management residency through Asialink, who provide opportunities for artists to tap into professional networks and learning opportunities by doing work exchanges with like-minded organisations in Asia.
Ubud Writers and Readers Festival is right up my alley. It is a self-described ‘celebration of stories and voices’, and one of my favourite parts of watching the program develop has been seeing the team focus on making events that will bring people together and create a party-like atmosphere – think cocktail parties, literary lunches, breakfast book clubs, and late night music jams. Its immersive element excites me; this is not a festival where people come to one or two events, but a five-day literary experience, where authors mingle with audience and everyone has a good time.
As an unashamed literary tourist, I am also fascinated by the way UWRF combines elements of a literary festival with travel experiences. These ‘literary adventures’ include a bike ride with travel writers, a ‘jalan jalan’ (ramble) through rice fields with leading journalists, and cultural workshops exploring Bali’s amazing traditions of puppet theatre, religious offerings, and cuisine. In addition to its exotic tropical setting, fabulous food and balmy weather, these events make the festival itself a holiday destination for many attendees.
My official title here in Ubud is events and launch coordinator. I’m organising the book launch program – 16 launches in 16 venues featuring writers from around the globe – and am also looking after special events such as the massive International Poetry Slam and Bar Luna Offbeat program of free events. Coming from a festival that uses predominantly Australian writers, it is exciting for me to be programming on such an international level, coordinating and scheduling writers from around the world. Ubud is truly global in outlook, while also celebrating the local – a vibrant and exhilarating atmosphere to be working in.
While I have been learning a lot about the Indonesian way of approaching the arts, it has been heartening to discover that ‘festival people’ here in Bali are similar to those at home – energetic, imaginative and hard-hardworking. The 15-strong UWRF team is made up of Indonesian and international staff who each have different expertise and responsibilities. Conversation happens mostly in English, though I’m taking Indonesian lessons to try and redress the balance! Forging these connections with my co-workers here in Ubud is massively important to me; there’s nothing quite as inspiring and illuminating as working alongside talented, capable arts workers.
A typical day for me at the moment includes drinking a Bali coffee in the morning, heading out on scooters to scout venues, emailing authors, writing copy, doing Indonesian language lessons, proofreading the program, and talking about writers and writing with my co-workers. In a week or so, however, this will all change, as we move into the festival production stage.
I’m excited about this shift in focus because I can’t imagine how such a small team is going to manage the logistics of such a huge festival – we’re talking 150 writers, over 250 discrete events, 50 venues, 40 guest houses, 200 volunteers, and a 20,000-strong multilingual audience … in five days. Yes, I’m daunted, as I’ve never worked on an event of this scale before. But I’m also very excited – as I know the UWRF team is more than capable of delivering an amazing festival experience, and I’m sure to learn a lot along the way.
And that’s what an arts management residency is all about – learning, being inspired, and forming new connections. Getting to go behind the scenes at an international writer’s festival is not just a huge honour (and a lot of fun), it’s an illuminating experience that has the ability to make a huge impact. I’m already looking forward to passing on my ideas and knowledge to my own organisation when I return home. But first – I have a Balinese festival to enjoy!