Magic in Magelang as wordsmiths perform

(The Jakarta Post, September 9, 2007)

by Jerome Kugan, Contributor, Magelang, Central Java

Writers are at best intellectuals who try to make a difference through their work.

Some of us even believe, naively, that we can shift the world views of our readers, hoping our words could nudge them toward a new paradigm.

While it's easy to see how the efforts of journalists, scientists and interpreters of holy books cast a wider net of influence especially in our accelerated globalized world, creative writing continues to be an important stabilizer against the will of the mad.

Perhaps it's because creative writing has always operated near the edge of language (thus the edge of reality), where reason fights to keep the chaos of imagination from polluting and warping its clean-cut logic.

Creative writing poses possibilities, of which the best offer no easy solution, though no less compelling for daring to invoke the magic of suggestion; and hence, of connection.

It's precisely this contention that spun like slow-flowing magma at the core of this year's Utan Kayu Literary Biennale; featuring the participation of more than 40 writers and poets from Indonesia and beyond, each one asked to meditate, respond and present works that dealt with the theme Force Majeure (truly a succinct way of referring to forces that do not stand to reason, forces that humble us and make us realize how insignificant we are).

Nowhere was this theme more poignant than at Magelang, where the second half of the Biennale took place, in the shadow of Mount Merapi, whose volcanic exertions have served as a reminder that reality as we know it is truly as simple (and as complex) as life and death.

The last two nights were truly magical, held on a purpose-built stage against a lit-up Borobodur under a full moon in August.

American Terence Ward's offerings were intercontinental stories of friendship that transcended cultural and religious barriers.

Ditto for Italian Idanna Pucci's celebration of the lives of history's minor heroes and Lebanese Hassan Daoud's meditative query about Lorca's legacy in Beirut.

The symbolic heart was ensnared in an inextricable labyrinth of desire in Bolivia's Edmundo Paz Soldan's Borgesian story about a man who creates a world with a crossword puzzle to please an elusive lover.

This thread of loss and yearning was expanded in the works of Indian writers Sharanya Manivannan and Mamang Dai, and Singaporean poet Cyril Wong, the Biennale's biggest surprise with his haunting countertenor voice, whose works described no less powerful encounters with personal and domestic forces.

For a glimpse at the aftermath, Pakistani Feryal Ali-Gauhar framed an earthquake survivor's horrific experience while Korean Shing Joong Seun's characters struggled to make sense of what it means to be jobless in a material world.

Elsewhere, Australian poet Sean Whelan shed tears for Elvis and Elliott Smith, finding fallen heroes in the unlikeliest of places, while American poet Kimberly Blaeser crystallized her heartbreaking Native American legacy into shimmering poems.

No less prescient than their foreign counterparts, the Indonesians, too, recounted personal earthquakes. Ayu Utami donned a fuzzy pointed hat to deliver a cool and moving elegy to a most "extraordinary" childhood acquaintance, while Avi Basuki found herself inexplicably drawn to the forbidden contours of her female dancing partner.

Hamsad Rangkuti delighted with his absurdist romantic fable of emotional rescue, which played out like a Pedro Almodovar script, while Joko Pinurbo confirmed his status as Indonesia's most affecting poet with his bare odes that trace the secret trajectory of pain along half-spoken mourning and lovers heading in opposite directions.

And I felt it too, leaving Magelang the morning after Joko's melancholic finale, the force of words upon my soul, pulling me back to fond memories of the Biennale, and the writers whose words reconfirm what a major force the act of writing can be.

Those three nights in Magelang didn't just happen on paper, they were real and they were magic.

Jerome Kugan is a writer, poet and musician based in Kuala Lumpur.