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Reflections on the Makassar International Writers’ Festival

"The festival’s theme this year was 'People', leading to much discussion of personal experience, questions of identity, ways of being and how these are presented and represented in literature."

July 16, 2019

Out of a north-east facing hotel window, the city of Makassar sprawls towards the feet of distant mountains, almost obscured by ubiquitous tropical haze. Out of another window, facing west, the brilliant blue of the Java Sea stretches out to meet the horizon at some unseen and indeterminate juncture, punctuated by the dozens of ships arriving and departing from the port city. Makassar has been a focal point for international trade throughout its history, and for hundreds of years a diverse group of people and cultures have exchanged goods and ideas here. Reflective of this, the people of South Sulawesi are proud to be renowned not just for their mastery of seafaring and seacraft construction, but also for their rich literary traditions. The epic creation story of the Bugis people, La Galigo, is one of the world’s largest literary works – the most complete rendering numbers 6,000 pages in length. Makassar International Writers’ Festival is an annual celebration and continuation of these roots and traditions, held over four days at historic Fort Rotterdam on the city’s waterfront.

Rather than being an international writers festival which happens to be held in Indonesia, MIWF is much more a local, grassroots affair focusing on Indonesian, and particularly Eastern Indonesian, authors, works and literary issues. The 130-odd young volunteers who make it happen (all events are free) and the university students who make up the majority of its attendees give the festival a fresh, vibrant flavour, despite the city’s sapping daytime heat. Indeed, festival events before 2pm are for the most part seconded to the city’s various university campuses, before the Fort stirs to life in the afternoons with the arrival of a pleasant sea breeze and crowds of festival goers. Various buildings, rooms, verandahs and gardens scattered throughout the Fort act as venues for readings, panels and discussions until evening, when special programming featuring poetry, music and performance commences. The feeling of the festival is relaxed and informal, and people seem to spend as much time lazing on the grass of the Fort’s gardens, smoking, chatting, snacking and drinking coffee, half-watching open mic poetry readings and perusing book stalls, as they do attending events.

A long shot of a crowd sitting on grass listening to someone share a story

Photo: Makassar International Writers Festival

The festival’s theme this year was ‘People’, leading to much discussion of personal experience, questions of identity, ways of being and how these are presented and represented in literature. These ranged from the experiences of Indonesian writers living abroad and how this informs their work, to discussions about Asian identity, values and experiences with Malay, Singaporean and Indonesian authors. One literary critic and author offered some insights on the work of newer generations of Indonesian literary voices, identifying trends amongst modern poets to revisit the concerns of their forebears, and offer contemporary twists on classic conventions and traditions in Indonesian poetry such as pantun. Meanwhile, there are others who draw influence from more contemporary or international works and forms. In terms of fiction, some observers have suggested that Indonesian literature can be seen as largely introspective, and a part of a greater nation-building exercise. However, the scope and focus of contemporary Indonesian fiction seems to have expanded beyond just these concerns, with an increasing number of modern, global-oriented and urban works devoid of so-called “exotic” elements. Issues surrounding Indonesian literature in translation were also touched upon as writers and members of the publishing industry assessed existing initiatives to promote Indonesian voices globally and future opportunities for Indonesian writers. I had the chance to sit on a panel discussing these issues, and advocated (as well as my Indonesian would allow) for meaningful and sustained literary collaboration and exchanges between Australia and Indonesia as a means of bringing the two countries closer together.

One particular highlight was not actually part of the official festival programming, but rather a sister event held the day after the festival: the opening of the Makassar-Yirrkala Artists Exchange exhibition at Rumata Artspace. The purpose of the exchange, which saw three Yolngu artists from East Arnhem Land collaborate with three Makassar artists, was to celebrate and continue a remarkable historical connection between the two locations. From the 16th century up until around 1900, Makassan sailors would visit East Arnhem Land around Yirrkala to trade for trepang, establishing and then maintaining cordial relationships with Yolngu people which continued up until the introduction of colonial government border protection policies in the early 20th century.  But the memories and imprints left by this contact endured, and can be seen in the 300-plus items of shared vocabulary between Yolngu-Matha and Makassan, the stories about Makassan visitors preserved in Yolngu songlines, and in the shards of Makassan ceramics which show up every rainy season on Bawaka Beach in East Arnhem Land. The work exhibited by the six artists celebrated and renewed these relations, which by all accounts were peaceful, friendly and respectful. Not only does this history contrast with the majority of engagement between white European settlers and Indigenous Australians, but also offers a blueprint of how Australians and Indonesians can foster positive, mutually beneficial relationships based on respect, collaboration and appreciation.

‘Reflections on the Makassar International Writers’ Festival’ written by Iven Manning. Keep up to date with the Makassar International Writers’ Festival here. Thumbnail image borrowed from the MIWF webpage.

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