Finding Sincerity – Makassar International Writers Festival 2014
Words and photos by Marc Nair
I was in Makassar, South Sulawesi, for the Makassar International Writers Festival from 4-8 June. The festival was held at Fort Rotterdam, one of the few remaining sites that serve as a reminder of Dutch occupation. It is also a veritable oasis amidst the bustling city. In my four short days there, I saw an enthusiastic but somewhat pointless protest against the World Cup, a performing monkey and a mobile record store!
Protest outside Fort Rotterdam
Mobile record store
Sulawesi (formerly known as Celebes) is the fourth largest island in Indonesia, and Makassar is its capital. The city is constantly heaving, with over two million people. SUVs, on tariff-controlled petrol, jam the streets and the smell of sewage from the many open drains around assails the nose. The use of plastic is frequent, even excessive, and painful to see. But these problems, one could say, are the growing pains of an up-jumped economy.
In contrast, the Makassar International Writers Festival (MIWF) doesn’t seem to be suffering from such issues. It has been going on strong for four years now, and is organised by the lovely folks from Rumata, Makassar’s first independent art space. The former childhood home of movie director and artist Riri Riza, Rumata houses art exhibitions, pop-up performances, and there are plans even to build a full-blown Blackbox on the premises. Everything is done ground up, without government support.
Interior of Rumata, a rolling art space
And MIWF is the same. Billed as a community festival, the programme line-up caters to a growing community of Indonesian writers. A healthy mix of talks, workshops and performances encompasses issues both local and international. There were not too many foreign writers invited, and I was privileged to be amongst the few. I was part of three panels: ‘Travelling with Poetry,’ ‘ASEAN Literature: What do we expect from the region?’ and ‘Collaboration Collaboration!’ I also had a chance to perform spoken word during the evening performances held at the open area of the Fort. Up to 500 people came for the evening shows, and the panel discussions were also well attended, with the Q & A segments often proving lively and enlightening. The grand dame of the festival, Ibu Lily Yulianti, together with her amazing team of young volunteers, did a great job of making sure the festival ran smoothly, albeit at a relaxed and gentle pace. It was a welcome sea change from the frenetic pace at which Singapore hurtles all the time.
Dramatic monologue by Luna Vidya
It was very heartening indeed to note that the majority of the crowd consisted of young people, surely a rarity at writers’ festivals worldwide. I spent half an hour speaking in halting Malay to a young girl who wanted to know the ins and outs of poetry writing: how I get inspired, what is my writing process, how do I translate popular culture into poetry etc.. It was exhausting, yet rewarding!
Some other highlights of the festival included a charged dramatic reading of ‘I, Diponegoro,’ by poet Landung Simatupang. Diponegoro was a Javanese prince who became a revolutionary against the Dutch and has now been canonised in Indonesian literature as a national hero. Exiled to Makassar for the last twenty years of his life, he died in the very fort where the performance was held, not twenty metres from the stage. You could say that we had more than just an earthly audience that night.
Performance of ‘I, Diponegoro’
The conference was not all work and words. Foreign writers were taken on a tour of the city. Makassar has a lovely port and fish market. Paotere is off the beaten track for tourists, but is well worth waking up early for. The small boats come in, laden with fish of all shapes and sizes, and are quickly snapped up by waiting buyers.
Paotere the fish market – fresh off the boat!
The organisers also brought visiting writers to Batara Gowa, a centre dedicated to the preservation of the traditional arts in South Sulawesi. There, students from BSBI, an international exchange programme, performed dances such as the Toraja dance, the Pajoge and the Pakarena. Some Makassarese believe that the Pakarena may have its origin in the legend of the boting langi (inhabitants of heaven) who taught people on earth how to survive by farming and hunting. These lessons are expressed through the movement of hands, feet and body in the choreography of the Pakarena. The dance consists of 12 parts that have their own distinct meanings. A full rendition of the dance can take up to two hours!
Exchange students showing off their dance moves
The writers festival truly lived up to its theme of finding sincerity. The hosts were warm and giving. The writers read with great earnestness their meaningful stories of country and city living. It rained on the last day, in the evening, but the crowd was faithful and many came back to sit on the damp chairs, soaking in the words, while poets and singers serenaded the old walls of the fort with ballads of young love and songs of the way we all look up at the sky, in longing, and starlight.
Closing night at MIWF
Marc Nair is a poet and photographer from Singapore. He has published three volumes of poetry. His new book, Animal City, an illustrated collection of children’s poetry, will be launched in August 2014.