Adventures in Bali ~ Ubud Writers & Readers Festival

November 12th, 2015 3 comments

Ubud Writers Festival - Signage
The 12th annual Ubud Writers & Readers Festival—what a marvelous excuse to travel to Bali. We were five women, all members of the same Dubai-based book club, ready for our next international literary adventure.

Ubud Writers Fest - Entrance
Southeast Asia’s largest and most renowned literary and cultural event, the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival (UWRF) celebrates both Indonesian and international writers, including well known writers, such as Pulitzer Prize-winning Michael Chabon. This year’s theme was “17,000 Islands of Imagination.”


An important event indeed, and yet the festival had a cozy, intimate vibe to it. I wonder how many other literary festivals begin with a free yoga session each morning? Attended by expats, visitors, students, retirees, and locals, the festival was held in a cluster of outdoor venues, all within walking distance of each other.

Compared to the Emirates Festival of Literature in Dubai, I found UWRF more flexible and flowing; participants buy day passes and drift from session to session—often in flip-flops and tank tops. While UWRF was more costly than the Jaipur Lit Fest (which is free), the Ubud event was more contained, without the sheer numbers at Jaipur. This made it easier to move around and find a seat.

I found the topics of the panel sessions smart and focused, delving into all aspects of writing, including how writers juggle their creative work, how they get their ideas and inspiration, and even how they stay happily married to a fellow writer.

In short, every day of the event was worthwhile, and I felt lucky to be there.

About Bali & Ubud

Ubud bali-map
Bali, known as “Island of the Gods,” is one of thousands of islands that make up Indonesia. With a population of more than four million, Bali is home to Indonesia’s Hindu community and is renowned for its art, music, dance, and natural beauty. Located in the center of the island, the city of Ubud, nestled in the forests and rice paddies, (population 30,000) has positioned itself as the cultural and artistic heart of Bali.

Open rooms & Open Minds

In Bali’s warm tropical climate, this festival takes place in open rooms and large gazebos, with breezes wafting though. Located just below the equator, Ubud hovers around 85°F/30°C year round, with varying humidity.

Ubud Writers Festival - Venue
Coming from Dubai, it was a bit of a shock to be outside without any air conditioning and in the heat and humidity all day. (We only had A/C only in our hotel room.) I had to wipe sweat from my brow and dig my fan out of the bottom of my bag.

UWRF panel discussion

By the third day, I gradually adjusted to the climate and the environment. I learned to pace myself, dress lightly, drink cold beverages, and fan myself. In the end, it was a revelation to spend my days free of air conditioning, feeling a warm breeze on my skin. In fact, even hotel lobbies and restaurants are all open spaces or covered terraces. This also goes for yoga studios and even restrooms. So, after Ubud, I’ve vowed to spend more time outdoors and to fling my windows open.

Ubud Tropical Outdoors

Controversy at the Festival

Before the festival, I read on the UWRF newsfeed that some of their sessions had been cancelled. “Nothing we can do” was the gist. Later, I discovered the cancellations were due to censorship of a sensitive issue in Indonesian history—the violent events of 50 years ago, the anti-communist purges of 1965 (as dramatized in the film The Year of Living Dangerously).

Of course, the thing about censorship is that it makes people discuss the topic even more. I would have never thought about this tragic event in Indonesian history if not for the censorship. During various panel sessions, references to the censorship and to this piece of Indonesian history popped up again and again. To know more, read this article in the Guardian.

The Festival

For me, a literary festival is all about the writers— seeing writers whose work I have read and discovering new books and authors. Here are highlights from my week spent this year’s event, which wrapped up earlier this month:

Chigozie Obioma


UWRF Chigozie Obioma (2)

A Nigerian writer, Chigozie Obioma teaches literature and writing at the University of Nebraska. His debut novel The Fisherman was shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize.

As part of the writers’ festival, I had the pleasure of taking a writing workshop from this young professor entitled “Create Audacious Prose,” inspired by his piece “The Audacity of Prose,” (its title a takeoff on Barak Obama’s The Audacity of Hope.)

In his workshop, Chigozie Obioma challenged the minimalist approach to writing fiction, a trend in the US right now, and he encouraged us to write audacious prose, lyrical and dynamic, but not overwritten or filled with an excess of adverbs and adjectives.

Michael Chabon

Ubud Writers Festival - Michael ChabonUWRF Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

American writer Michael Chabon promoted his latest book Telegraph Avenue and described how he immerses himself into the world in which he is writing, and in this case, the worlds of midwifery and vinyl records. He explained how in Telegraph Avenue he wrote from the point of view of an African-American midwife. He argued that a writer can write fiction from any point, regardless of age, gender, race, or culture. At another session, he and his wife, fellow novelist Ayelet Waldman, discussed sharing the writing life within a marriage.

At the book signing, I asked him where our book club should begin if we’re reading his work for the first time. He recommended The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, his Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel.

Mohsin Hamid

Ubud Writers Festival - Mohsin HamidUWRF How to Get Filthy rich in Rising Asia
Mohsin Hamid is a Pakistani writer most known for his novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist (also made into a film). I saw him on a panel entitled “On Who We Are” exploring the topics of migration and deportation. A funny and thought-provoking speaker, Hamid argued that all individuals should have the right to travel and live wherever they want, regardless of borders or nationalities.

Later, at a session devoted to him, “Mohsin on Mohsin,” he told the story behind The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a novel which took seven years to take shape after he tried different plots and points of view. The book eventually got the attention of publishers after 9/11. He also spoke about his imagination, his children and his life in Lahore, where he currently resides. Finally, he explained how his latest book How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is a novel in the guise of self-help book.

Teju Cole

Ubud Writers Festival - Teju ColeUWRF Every Day is for the Thief - Teju Cole


The first author I saw speak at the festival, Teju Cole is an experimental writer and photographer from Nigeria, now living in New York. His was one of the opening sessions of the festival and he began by saying it didn’t get much better than this—being in a tropical paradise and talking about literature. He discussed his experiences as a walker, writer, and photographer, someone who likes to roam around exploring and discovering.

When asked where our book club should begin, he told me the best place to start was with Every Day is For the Thief, his novella about a Nigerian writer who returns to his homeland.


UWRF Xinran (2)

UWRF Buy Me the Sky by Xinran

A London-based Chinese writer, Xinran is best known for her book The Good Women of China, which I read when it first came out. I enjoyed seeing her on a panel about women and self-sabotage where she expressed that Chinese women have a particularly difficult task overcoming ingrained cultural values. In China, she explained, boys are considered “roof beams” while girls are referred to as “chopsticks.” Hence, the title of her latest novel, Miss Chopsticks, a book I’ll to try to convince my book club to read. (Apparently it’s more upbeat and less harrowing than The Good Women of China.)

In another session, Xinran discussed her recent book Buy Me the Sky, which tells the stories of Chinese men and women born and raised under China’s One Child Policy, a policy which, she argues, turned the entire Chinese family structure upside down. She explained how parents with only one child are downright phobic over their child’s safely. Furthermore, these only children often live as “little emperors,” narcissistic but also facing isolation and confusion. Interestingly, the abolishment of China’s One Child Policy was announced on the same day that the festival began.

Eka Kurniawan

Ubud Writers Fest - Eka Kurniawan

UWRF Beauty is a Wound Eka Kurniawan

Declared a “writer to watch” by Publisher’s Weekly, Eka Kurniawan is a rising Indonesian writer. During my flight to Bali, I read his piece “A Slacker of Jakarta,” which was published that week in the New York Times Magazine. I enjoyed his personal yet universal story about familial religious expectations, and I was excited to know the name of at least one Indonesian writer as I headed to UWRF.

Eka Kurniawan discussed his novel Beauty is a Wound, translated into English, which critics describe as uniquely Indonesian, an epic and stunning story told through magical realism.

Ashok Ferrey

UWRF Ashok FerreyUWRF Ashok Ferrey (2)

Ashok Ferrey is Sri Lanka’s biggest selling author in English. I saw him on a panel of short story writers, and I was struck by the beauty and horror of the story he read aloud about the tsunami of 2004. Because he is the host of a television show in Sri Lanka, he has a terrific reading voice. I have never read any books from Sri Lanka and I think Love in the Tsunami is a good place to start.

Antoine Cassar

uwrf antoine CassarUWRF Passaporto Antoine Cassar
During the panel session “On Who We Are,” a poet from Malta, Antoine Cassar read aloud an excerpt from a long poem entitled “Passaporto.” Published in 11 languages, the poem is printed in a little book resembling an actual passport. His poem, full of angst and political fervor, was riveting and relevant, as it addresses the rights of migrants and refugees.

So, the next day looking for a place to eat my lunch, I ended up sitting next to him. Fortunately, I remembered his poem vividly and was able to ask him more. He told me his plans to leave the UK and return to Malta. When I said that I’m from Washington State, he explained because he’s from an island, he’s obsessed with islands in general and a few in particular—including Orcas Island off the coast of Washington State. He told me he hopes to visit it one day.

Imagine my delight—I have been on Orcas multiple times, including spending a week on that very island this past August. I told him more about the island, showed him some photos on my phone, and he educated me on a few things, too. So, there I was, sitting in Bali, talking to a poet from Malta, who was teaching me things about an island in my own home state.

In my next post, I’ll share more about other interesting characters I encountered in Ubud.

Intentions for a Healthy Ramadan

June 15th, 2015 5 comments


Ramadan is coming up fast. I’ve observed this month of fasting for the past two decades. As always, I anticipate the month with equal measures of joy and dread.

Yes, joy. I look forward to our nightly iftars, leisurely family meals where everyone is in a good mood, the food tastes twice as good, and my teenage kids linger at the table for more than five minutes. I also appreciate special gatherings with friends, as well as the time set aside for self-discipline and devotion.

Meanwhile, it’s not the fasting that I dread, but the decline in physical activity, the over-eating, the excess of desserts, the loss in fitness level, and the inevitable weight gain.

I admit, my eating habits generally sink to lower and lower levels as the weeks progress—the wrong foods and too much of them. Even worse, I typically stop exercising while fasting and become a Ramadan couch potato.

Yes, I realize this defeats the point of point of the holy month. What’s more, I used to be able to bounce back from this way of observing Ramadan, but no more. Besides, it just feels wrong. Ramadan is meant to be spiritual and self-reflective—not lazy and over-indulgent.

So, in light of all this, for the past several years I’ve been striving for a healthier Ramadan. Here are my intentions for this year:

Change up Habits

Since the whole schedule is turned upside down, Ramadan is a good time to discard bad habits. For example, many people try to give up smoking. As for me, I’m intending to make more vegetarian meals and eat as a pescetarian—opting for seafood over meat and poultry. As I plan iftars, I remind myself every evening need not be a feast. We can enjoy simple meals like mujaddara.

Quality over Quantity

Like many in this region, we start each iftar with lentil soup, which is a great way to break a day’s fast. However, it’s easy to slide downhill after that into a glut of fried foods and carbs galore. Instead, I intend to serve more vegetables, including in a big salad and my secret weapon: the raw veggie platter. When I have that Ramadan-urge to just graze, I’ll reach for raw veggies—snap peas, bell peppers strips, cucumbers, carrot sticks—the crunchier the better.

Count my Dates

Dates are the special food of Ramadan. Everyone I know breaks their fast with dates. At our house, we keep snacking on them into the evening. If that’s not enough, we eat desserts made from dates and more dates at suhour.

Despite the revered role of dates during Ramadan, they are sugar-loaded and calorie-dense. Therefore, this year I’m avoiding the date free-for-all. Two or three dates at iftar are enough.

Dodging Dessert

I used to promise my three fasting children a homemade dessert every night of Ramadan as a “reward” for their efforts. What a terrible habit! It’s bad for many reasons, including the fact that sugar is addictive, and, according to some sources, added sugar causes as much damage as alcohol and fat.

And yet….

It’s not Ramadan without traditional treats like qatief. It’s impossible to avoid desserts during Ramadan, and some treats I wouldn’t want to miss. However, I plan to indulge selectively. At home, I intend to prepare some fruit-based options, such as apple pie, blueberry crisp and fruit smoothies.

Keep Moving

This is going to be tough. There’s a big benefit to having a day job during Ramadan. When I was teaching English, my work ensured that I had a regular routine and moved around during Ramadan.

For the past two years, I’ve had my pedometer and set a daily Ramadan intention of 8,000 steps. It’s worked well, so I’m aiming for that again. However, I won’t be walking outdoors while fasting, as the temperature in Dubai will be soaring. Instead, I’ll stroll in the mall and do some gentle yoga. Some Muslims say their yoga practice is actually better when they’re fasting.

Evenings are a different story. Even though it’ll be hot and humid, the dog still needs to be walked. And I’m planning on midnight walks on the beach with my family, as the cool mist provides a small reprieve.

The malls in Dubai are a great place to walk in the evenings. Open until 1:00am during Ramadan, the malls are filled with Ramadan decorations and window displays, as well as a bustle of people. Of course, I intend to walk right past the pastry shops…

Drink Six Tall Ones

People ask how I stay hydrated when I can only eat and drink after the sun goes down. Actually, at our house we consume more water during Ramadan than other months. I commit myself to drinking six glasses of water after the sun goes down.

This is how I do it: I break my fast with a glass of water, and I drink another during iftar. I drink two more glasses during the evening. I drink a fifth glass before I go to bed. I drink another glass when I get up at 3:30am for suhour. It takes effort, but I feel so much better this way.

Rise and Shine with Suhoor

I don’t understand how people can skip suhour, the pre-dawn meal. It’s an important tradition at our house. I used to stuff myself at suhour out of fear of starving, and I would even have dessert. Those days are over.

Now I opt for a fiber-rich meal that will stay with me. My suhour of choice is steel-cut oats (cooked in advance) with some dried fruit and walnuts.

When my husband is charge, we’ll have hummus, foul or fatayer from the Lebanese bakery down the street (which has a queue at 3:00am).

Avoid Buffets like the Plague

I say this every year. Then I read the local magazines featuring “Best Ramadan Iftars.” Then we get an invite to some over-the-top buffet in a hotel. Next thing you know, there we are, heaping our plates. And then—the inevitable regret.

These buffets are wrought with problems: they are wasteful; they are against the spirit of Ramadan; they encourage over-eating, and we completely forget the concept of remembering those less fortunate.

And yet, if I do find myself at a buffet, I intend to follow the “dieter’s rule” of filling half my plate with vegetables, such as those delicious Arab mezza salads.

Ah, Sleep

In case you didn’t know, sleep is the secret key to wellness. Scientists are still discovering all the hidden benefits of sleep. Without enough, we are grumpy, less focused, forgetful, unmotivated, and more apt to get sick. What’s more, lack of sleep combined with fasting is a double-whammy to our well-being.

My intention this year is not to stay awake all night until suhour. So slovenly! It creates a jetlag-like stupor. Instead, I’m planning to keep regular hours—at least until the final week.

Easing Back

Regarding weight gain, I discovered last year that the real danger zone is actually the week after Ramadan. You know that holiday week of decadent breakfasts, non-stop ma’amoul, and big Eid lunches? Well, this is the time to be careful. After a month of fasting, our bodies have adjusted by slowing down and conserving energy. The week after Ramadan is a time to eat light and ease back into our regular meals.

* * *

Ramadan is a challenging month—spiritually, emotionally and physically. I always count down the days until it’s over. Sometimes I secretly wish for a “holy week” of fasting instead of a holy month. And yet, when the month is over, I feel a touch of remorse. I miss those family iftars when we come together in a meaningful way.

This year, I’m intending to have both: the spirit and joy of Ramadan, as well as physical wellness.

Question: How do you stay healthy during Ramadan? 

Jaipur Literature Festival 2015

February 19th, 2015 11 comments

Jaipur Literature  Festival

This was my second visit to Jaipur’s vibrant festival of literature. What brought me back a second time? In short, its colorful outdoor venue and upbeat vibe. It actually feels like a festival! Also, the fest’s big-name authors are another draw for me.

At last year’s event, I was thrilled to see Jumpha Lahiri, as well as Jonathon Frazen, Cheryl Strayed, and Reza Aslan. This year I saw Paul Theroux and William Dalrymple. V.P. Naipul was also there, but sadly, Elizabeth Gilbert cancelled due to health reasons.

Both this year and last, I traveled with my Dubai-based book club for the event. Last year we were six women and this year we were ten! It’s a wonderful thing to travel with a group of friends who share a common interest—in this case, a love of books.

Jaipur Literature  Festival - Book Club

About the Jaipur Lit Fest

Considered the “Pink City” and the gateway to Rajasthan, the flamboyant city of Jaipur hosts the fest. The mostly-outdoor event is set in the Diggi Palace Hotel. With greenery, colorful tents, intricate interiors, and structures draped with bunting, the event has a truly festive feel. With an ambiance like that, people are chatty and it’s a great place to interact with fellow readers.

Jaipur Literature  Festival

Jaipur Literature Festival

The largest free literary festival in the world, the Jaipur Lit Festival features both international and South Asian writers, including Booker and Pulitzer Prize winners and many celebrated Indian authors. The program includes talks, discussions, panels, debates, and music.

With a diverse showcase of writers, this year’s festival was a celebration of freedom of expression, religious tolerance, and diversity of thought—and occurring at a time when India faces various cultural and religious challenges.

I attended a variety of panels including “Writing Resistance: Of Battles and Skirmishes,” presented by UN Women as part of the Women Uninterrupted series (below).

Jaipur Literature Festival

I also attended the panel, “Matters of Faith,” which reflected the religious diversity of India (below).

Jaipur Literature Festival

Wanderlust and the Art of Travel Writing

However, my favorite panel was “Wanderlust and the Art of Travel Writing.” Reading from their travel memoirs, the writers included Charles Glass, Paul Theroux, William Dalrymple, Brigid Keenan, Sam Miller and Samanth Subramanian (below).

Jaipur Literature  Festival - Wanderlust Panel

What a delight to see Paul Theroux! After reading so many of his travel memoirs and novels over the years, I was excited to see him on various panels, including this one where he read from his upcoming memoir about traveling stateside (below).

Jaipur Literature  Festival - Paul Theroux

At the time of the lit fest, our book club was reading White Mughals by the India-based historian William Dalrymple, so it was a lot of fun seeing him, too. Along with Namita Gokhale, Dalrymple is one of the directors and founders of the festival. A prolific writer, Dalrymple was an animated reader as he read from his travel memoir From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East (below).

Jaipur Literature  Festival - William Dalrymple

Of course, there were books to buy. This year the festival book store was sponsored by Amazon India, which meant (sadly) that there were fewer books for sale and more devices. I hope next year they bring back more actual books to the fest—as books are the soul of any literary event.

Jaipur Literature  Festival - reader

Jaipur Literature  Festival - Book Store

The event also had food outlets, stalls for shopping, including those wonderful Jaipur textiles, and my favorite—the tea wallahs selling masala chai in little clay cups.

Jaipur Literature  Festival - tea sellers

To find out more about this event, see the Lit Fest webpage or read my post from last year. I’m looking forward to next year’s festival, and I hope to be there for the full four days and I hope Elizabeth Gilbert makes it next time!

Question: What are your favorite literature festivals around the world?