Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2016

I was lucky enough to spend the last week of October in Bali, for the fourteenth annual Ubud Writers & Readers Festival.

Bali truly is a little slice of paradise, and the festival staff dazzled us with its beauty with opening drinks at the amazing Amandari resort, which is, apparently, where Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall tied the knot. Not that this is a gossip blog, but still…

I worked the room (it wasn’t actually a room, walls aren’t that much of a thing in Bali) searching for the writers on the panels I was scheduled to chair, based on the tiny photos I had seen on the internet. My facial recognition algorithm is not very good so I was largely unsuccessful, but I did meet a lot of amazingly interesting people which piqued my interest for a bunch of festival sessions. Plus I drank a number of pink cocktails which made the time pass most pleasantly.


I chaired four sessions at the festival and was lucky to host a very diverse and interesting range of writers. In a book club session I chatted with the UK’s Jill Dawson, Australia’s Charlotte Wood, Indian writer Mayank Austen Soofi, and Sonia Piscayanti from Indonesia about their beloved authors, the classics and status anxiety about reading.

Anita Heiss, Ken Spillman, Indonesia’s Bonni Rambatan & Portuguese writer Maria Ines Almeida shared their reasons for and approach to writing for children. I also chatted with Deasy Tirasoh, Mayank Austen Soofi and the go-getting Bri Lee about the pros and cons of the echo chamber effect that can sometimes occur in internet communities., in which Bri Lee argued persuasively that for marginalised groups, a safe space on the internet, such as her Hot Chicks with Big Brains community, is definitely a positive.

Following Lionel Shriver’s controversial (i.e. offensive) keynote address at the Brisbane Writers Festival, in which she dismissed the idea of cultural appropriation, it was a pleasure to have a much more nuanced conversation about the complexities of writing identities other than our own with the utterly gorgeous and amazingly talented young Indonesian writer Azri Zakkiyah, Singaporean Amanda Lee Koe, UK writer Louise Doughty and Australia’s Arnold Zable.

In between my own sessions, I caught as many other sessions as I could. Two of the highlights were journalist Suki Kim on posing as a fundamentalist Christian teacher to go undercover in Korea’s elite school for boys, and Radio National’s Kirsti Melville interviewing Hanya Yanigahara about her astonishing and heartbreaking novel A Little Life. Here I am, fangirling pretty hard.


Part of what I love about festivals is not just the ideas you hear, but the people you meet. The wheels of the Ubud Writers Festival are greased by a veritable army of volunteers, who are unfailingly polite, helpful and energetic, despite the heat. I was incredibly lucky to be hosted for the festival at the beautiful Kano Sari resort, along with Kirsti Melville, Australia’s Hannah Kent and Singaporean-American writer Cheryl Tan. We became firm friends talking books and life over breakfast each day, and by the hotel pool. I also got to catch up with the delightful Anita Heiss who was on my Stella prize quiz team at my very first Perth Writers Festival.

The Ubud Writers and Readers Festival was a truly magical few days, and a festival I hope to return to again and again.


8 thoughts on “Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2016

  1. Is that water in the wine glasses? If so, I love it.

    Also, your comment about your face recognition abilities reminded me of my old job at the NFSA where we would have photos of unidentified personalities, and we’d find other pictures of people we thought they were and walk about the room asking “do you think this person is this one”? Hopeless. So, I felt your pain.

    Mostly though, I enjoyed your write up of the festival, and particularly of the sessions you chaired, but also of lovely times spent meeting interesting people. I’m intrigued by “status anxiety in reading”. I’d love to hear more about what was discussed there.

    1. Oh, gosh, I would have been TERRIBLE at your job! Jill Dawson used the term status anxiety to describe the pressure readers feel to have read certain books, especially the classics, and the need we feel to apologise for not having read certain things. It was a really interesting idea – I’m thinking about exploring it in an essay.

      1. Please do, Annabel. I can’t help feeling guilty at not having read so many classics – over sixty before I read ‘Emma’. Excuse: there’s so much excellent new stuff that it eats up my time… pleasurably.

  2. Oh Annabel, this has really whet my appetite to attend next year’s festival, if my family give the nod and there’s money in my bank! Sounds like you had some great conversations – I do love a nuanced talk!

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