From the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, Bali

Robin Hemley

(This from Robin Hemley, who's on the road, um, ocean.)

"I won't be able to attend the meeting. I'll be out of town unfortunately."

"Are you going anywhere interesting?" Yes, I nodded curtly, hoping to leave it at that. Normally, I'm anything but curt. A raised eyebrow. Clearly, my answer did not satisfy. I sighed. "Bali."

"Oh my god," my interrogator said with not-so-secret hatred in their eyes. But a kind of hatred that dies quickly at least, unlike many. And this is where I am now, in Bali at an insanely beautiful compound, which, though one of the nicest places I've ever stayed at, is Motel 6 compared to the digs of some of the big time writers here, such as Thomas Keneally and Nam Le. That's not to disparage the place. My bath has two guardian Balinese statues, four feet tall, overlooking the sunken tub. The gardens have pools and Balinese settees at every turn in the path, and fountains full of petals.

But two nights ago, at a pre-festival cocktail party at The Four Seasons, I stepped out onto a kind of giant deck suspended over a jungle-festooned valley (though deck doesn't approach its magnificence) shaped sort of like the Starship Enterprise and bisected by two tranquil pools. Of water, I might add unnecessarily, but they might have been filled with champagne if not for the fact that they didn't bubble. By the edge of these man-made jungle pools, I chatted up in Jetlag-ese (a language in which I am unfortunately fluent) an Indonesian publisher, an Australian poet, and a Russian translator named Galina and drank some kind of blue drink with Vodka simply because it was offered to me, and I rarely turn down blue drinks when offered. Or any drinks, really.

With the Russian translator, I alternately spoke intelligently and stupidly -- it's called "code switching," between English and Jetlag-ese. At one point, I asked the obviously brilliant woman if she was familiar with Borges. This was jetlag speaking. At least, I didn't ask her if she was familiar with Tolstoy. But we chatted amiably about some Russian writers we both love, especially Bulgakov (The Master and Margarita, my favorite novel ever, or just about, but I was reminded of course that I had read it in translation, and so my experience paled). And we talked about problems of translation. This was the part where I sounded, if not smart, at least somewhat informed. Russian translations of English works are so good, she said, because so many of the great Russian writers were translators. She seemed surprised that no one in America really adores Longfellow's "The Song of Hiawatha" anymore, for a multitude of reasons (but largely in my mind because of its "Gitchy-Goominess").

But that's the thing about translation. A translation constantly renews a work while in the original, it stays static. It can't climb out of its bark canoe and walk past the shores of Gitchy-Goomy. Still, I'm reading The Brothers Karamazov in an older translation now partly because maybe it comes closer to the original feeling of the book than the latest trendy translation.

"I'm not really a fan of Dostoevsky," she told me.

The next day, I took the shuttle bus from my glorious hotel (the problem with glorious hotels is that you don't want to leave them) to the center of Ubud, beside the Ubud Palace where opening ceremonies for the 7th annual Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, would be held. In my company was an acclaimed Bosnian poet, Senadin Musabegovic, of whom Alexander Hemon writes, "His poetic voice is one of earned wisdom -- in the war he acquired terrible knowledge." Senadin and I had a lot of time on our hands before the opening ceremony, so we went for a massage at one of the many spas in downtown Ubud, followed by a Super Energy Boost smoothie.

The waiter who brought us our traditional Balinese Super Energy Smoothies asked us where we were from. "I'm from Bosnia and he's from America," Senadin said. Bosnia is a far more interesting place to be from than America, I think, but that's because I'm from America. But our waiter was only interested in me, no doubt in part because Ubud boasts two American consulates on its motorcycle-cluttered main street: Circle K Convenience store. And KFC. Or are they temples?

"Where in America?" he asked.

"Near Chicago," I say, because long ago I learned that telling anyone outside of America that you come from Iowa is more or less the same as telling an American you come from Iowa. Blank stares or one word spoken gloatingly: "Flat?" But my smoothie bearing waiter did not register Chicago either.

"Is that near Miami?"

"Not really."

"I'm going to be working on a cruise ship in Miami," he told me.

"Oh, that's nice," I said. "Congratulations," though I know in fact that it's not nice, from Filipino friends of mine who have worked on cruise ships. But it's not about "nice," I guess.

The theme at this year's festival is Harmony in Diversity. The Festival was started in part by local restaurateur and memoirist, Janet De Neefe as a response to the Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005. From a modest beginning, it's grown into one of the premier literary festivals in the world in a few short years. Among the headliners this year are Booker Prize Winners Anne Enright and Thomas Keneally, William Dalrymple, Nam Le, and Frank Moorhouse, whom I met several years ago at The Hong Kong Literary Festival. Americans at the festival include performance artist Kamau Abayomi, children's book author Ann Martin Bowler, writer and editor Diana Darling, author and journalist Jamie James, hip hop artist Joe Kim, author Steve Blake Mettee, journalist Mike Otterman, novelist and National Book Award finalist, Rachel Kushner, fiction writer Kris Saknussemm, author Janet Steele, novelist Lisa Teasley, writer Renee Melchert Thorpe, and writer Michael Vatikiotis. A lot of the writers have long associations with Asia, and some, such as Renee Thorpe, who lives in Bali, have spent many years in the region. And the Lebanese writer Rabih Alameddine, who splits his time between San Francisco and Beirut, is sponsored by the U.S. Embassy . . .

The Harmony in diversity theme seemed more than a feel-good slogan, but was explained to the audience by the governor of Bali at the opening ceremony as a movement that began in Indonesia a hundred years ago, a movement of tolerance envisioned by one of the country's spiritual teachers. The other writers in my midst also reinforced the diversity of the festival. Besides Senadin, an Indonesian writer who has written for the Washington Post and New York Times, among others, as well as a memoir, *My Friend, the Terrorist*, about exactly that, his youthful friendship with one of the Bali bombers, and their eventual parting of the ways. Sitting beside him was well-known Israeli author Etgar Keret (a former International Writing Program Fellow at Iowa) . As Indonesia and Israel do not have diplomatic relations, he had some difficulty getting a visa -- stuck in Bangkok until yesterday, when he was finally allowed to leave as long as he went nowhere else in Indonesia but Bali (I'm tempted to apply for such a restriction on my movements for the rest of my life).

Amidst the glories of Balinese dances (I can't even begin to comprehend how much training it must take for them to coordinate their eye movements alone), and various speeches by our gracious hosts and the sincere and slightly out-of-their element corporate donors, and poems read in their original by well-known Indonesian poets, Keret stood up and read one of his witty short stories to the crowd. "My first instinct was to read to you something on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict," he told the audience, "but luckily, I usually ignore my first instinct. So I'm going to read to you another burning issue that I think is ignored by the mainstream and should be discussed. My wife."

After the opening ceremonies, we went to a special dinner hosted by Janet Deneefe's restaurant, Casa Luna. It was nearly impossible to find a seat but I managed with another writer, poet Adrian Grima from Malta, to find a four-top we shared with a couple of friendly Aussies from Darwin who are not writers but lovers of literature and rugby and who gloatingly told me how short a flight it is from Darwin to Bali and how often they come. "Well, I live in Iowa," I told them. "It's near Miami."

The man, Paddy (or Patty?), had apparently stolen my wire-rim glasses in eighth grade and had worn them to this day. For some reason, he thought my name was Scott, or perhaps that's what he calls all Americans. After asking me to spell my name, R-o-b-i-n, he proceeded to call me Scott for the entire evening. But this was better than Adrian's fate. Adrian, who told them he was from Malta, was called Walter all evening. Walter from Malta. "Walter, would you like some noodles?" the woman, whose name I've forgotten but will call Darweena in revenge, asked Adrian repeatedly, who ignored her.

"Hard to hear, I reckon," said Paddy. For the rest of the dinner, we all chatted amicably about rugby, of which I know nothing except for having watched and enjoyed Invictus. "It's really not about rugby," Paddy informed Walter and me. "It's about Nelson Mandela."

Yes, I suppose that's so. Harmony in Diversity and all that.

--Robin Hemley