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Comparing Notes at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival: Wrap-Up

From food to film, writing to music, Perth’s leg of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival was a cultural celebration with something for everyone. Presented in partnership with Writing WA, the UWRF was held over the weekend of October 21 – 23 at the Rechabite Hall in Northbridge.

The theme for this year’s festival was ‘Uniting Humanity’, and I felt that the program delivered on this, as each session brought Indonesia and Australia together over insightful, inspiring, and powerful conversations.

I was so excited to be asked to be a part of the program by moderating the YA panel: Comparing Notes. The panel was a discussion between myself, Indonesian writer and musician Reda Gaudiamo, and WA’s own graphic novelist Brenton E. McKenna, about creating stories for young adults that draw on and reflect cultural heritage and identity.

Reda Gaudiamo writes the NA WILLA series, which follows young Indonesian-Chinese girl Willa as she learns to navigate her world. Brenton McKenna is a Yawuru man and the author-illustrator of the UBBY’S UNDERDOGS graphic novel series, which are set in Broome.

Image by Ryan Gibson

What I loved most about chatting with Reda and Brenton was discovering how much they have in common despite a first impression that they might be vastly different. ‘Uniting Humanity’, indeed! Here were some of those things:

Reda and Brenton both write about cultural experiences close to their hearts.

Reda’s titular character Willa has an Indonesian mother and a Chinese father, and lives in Indonesia, all of which Reda does as well. Reda said, “When I was younger, in my young adult years, being brought up in two very different cultures, languages ​​that are not related, were a disadvantage. Felt like being caught up in two poles. But later on, these differences are a huge advantage. They’re my main source of my creative works. I don’t think I could write Na Willa if I didn’t have those experiences.” I loved reading the first Na Willa book and immersing myself not just in Indonesia, but in a specific Indonesian-Chinese experience.

Brenton, too, lives where Ubby’s Underdogs is set – Broome. While Brenton doesn’t live in the 1940s as Ubby does, his graphic novels still capture the vast cultural experiences of the town. It was the first and most striking element of the series for me. I grew up in WA but had no idea of Broome’s history and the multiculturalism it’s built on.

During a discussion before the panel, I asked Brenton why it was important to him to include the cultural diversity of Broome in the novels. His response was: “It’s not important: it’s just impossible to tell a story about Broome without talking about cross cultures. For example, the seeds used to make damper became substituted with flour; all Asian dishes had to use wild Kimberley meat for Chinese New Year; the English started using soy sauce to substitute salt and pepper for flavour. The Broome way of life being so remote almost forced everyone to integrate.”

Most wonderful of all is that the character of Ubby is based on Brenton’s grandmother!

Image by Ryan Gibson

Both authors grew up with comics and graphic novels.

An accidental discovery during this panel was that Reda and Brenton were readers of comics and graphic novels first. For Brenton, graphic novels provided a visual way to consume stories when he was a struggling reader. “I didn’t read any books but I would flick through books just to look at the pictures and imagine what the story was about. Once I got into comic books I read anything put in front of me.”

For Reda, the consumption of comics stemmed from her parents being “not a fan of picture books but casually bought me comic books of Mahabharata, Ramayana and other action comics.”

I couldn’t help but ask their opinion on whether the visual story form lent itself toward cultural stories, and both authors agreed: comics allow young readers who struggle with the written word to enjoy stories as much as those who don’t.

There are challenges to writing with cultural heritage and identity in mind.

While I love to reflect on how wonderful Reda’s and Brenton’s stories are and what they bring to world, I think it’s important to know that despite their successes today, things weren’t always so easy. With Reda, it was about “how to present the diversity issues to the young audience that also resonate to the older ones/parents. One thing that worries me – and a lot of Indonesians – is that in many parts of Indonesia there are groups that nurture the spirit of ‘becoming uniform’. They hardly accept differences, be it in ethnicity, religion, skin colour, or customs. And the sad thing is they instil the idea to young children.”

Image by Ryan Gibson

For Brenton, the process of creation itself proved to be the challenge. “No publisher wanted to publish a graphic novel. We’ve been approached by production companies and gaming developers who asked if I could change Ubby, my main character, to a boy and/or non-Indigenous. I also had to change a lot of the original dialect because I originally wrote Ubby’s Underdogs in Creole but then thought we would be narrowing out the readership. Years later I found most people said they’d prefer to read it in Creole.”

I know I speak for so many readers when I say that I’m glad these writers pushed past the challenges and continued to create works that inspire, educate, and entertain. Our conversation was incredible and informative, and I’m still so grateful to have been given the opportunity.

I hope the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival will return to Perth next year, and if it does, I highly recommend you keep an eye out for the program. You never know what – or who – you’ll discover.


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