At Ubud literary festival, a chance to listen to two unique Malaysian voices

The Ubud Writers & Readers Festival celebrates different voices. — Picture by Wirasathya Darmaja
The Ubud Writers & Readers Festival celebrates different voices. — Picture by Wirasathya Darmaja

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 14 — It’s that time of year. Writers and literary buffs around the world are packing their bags, checking their passports and visas are in order, as they get ready to fly to Bali, Indonesia. The Ubud Writers & Readers Festival is here again.

Running from October 24-28, this year’s Ubud Writers & Readers Festival (which, in the past, has included luminaries such as Amitav Ghosh, Jeffrey Eugenides, Vikram Seth and Alexander McCall Smith) will showcase a pair of unique Malaysian voices in its line-up.

No stranger to literary festivals, author Dina Zaman is perhaps best known for her debut book about religion in public life, I Am Muslim. She followed it with two other books, The King of The Sea and Holy Men, Holy Women.

Author Dina Zaman will be featured in two panels — Evolving Islam and The Big Read: Food for Thought. — Picture by Sufian Abas
Author Dina Zaman will be featured in two panels — Evolving Islam and The Big Read: Food for Thought. — Picture by Sufian Abas

In addition to having been a columnist for several Malaysian newspapers and media portals, she has co-founded IMAN, a boutique think tank focusing on research and community engagement.

Malaysian-Australian author, rapper and poet Omar Musa is also featured. With four hip-hop records, three poetry collections and a novel, the prolific 34-year-old is known for investigating challenging themes such as migration and racism in Australia.

His novel, Here Come the Dogs, was long-listed for the International Dublin Literary Award and Miles Franklin Award.

Clearly there will be plenty of ideas to chew on at the festival.

Dina, in particular, is drawn to Malay culture, studies and religion. She says, “Being a Third Culture Kid, I have always been fascinated by my ethnic race. I am very much an outsider, and yet I act and perform very much like a Malay — my beliefs, etc. So I wrote about Malay Muslims, and then Malaysians who professed to a belief.”

Festival participants from around the world. — Picture by Wirasathya Darmaja
Festival participants from around the world. — Picture by Wirasathya Darmaja

Over the years — and after three books and countless columns — her methods of expressing herself have changed. She explains, “I love research, I love the toughness of research and research writing.

“I had a fellowship, came back, quit the media and founded IMAN Research with my friends. I wish I had done this years ago; development work is so fascinating. You are constantly learning, and however little you contribute, you go home feeling so satisfied.”

The work they do in IMAN, says Dina, has cemented their belief that Malaysians, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, are multi faceted. She adds, “The conservative may have ideas that surprise you. The liberals are the same. Also, that Malaysia is a goldmine for research.”

She confesses she has become more cynical in the process, however: “The work we do at IMAN deals with security, so when you see the average Malaysian actually asking you, ‘What, there are poor people in Malaysia?’, you have very little tolerance.”

It hardly helps that, even today, many are surprised to learn that Dina is a practising Muslim. She says, “I don’t look it but my faith is important to me. But this is Malaysia. They love to talk and judge.

“So most times, I smile with my teeth, and walk away. Also, I’m just echoing what people say to me when they meet me: I do not look like the me in photos. Don’t ask me why. Hantu kot.”

Malaysian-Australian author, rapper and poet Omar Musa. — Picture courtesy of Ubud Writers & Readers Festival
Malaysian-Australian author, rapper and poet Omar Musa. — Picture courtesy of Ubud Writers & Readers Festival

Part of life’s journey for Dina is growing, even if it means letting go. She says, “I don’t know if I can write a column ever again. I tried and my head jammed!

“I’m not dissing my past life as a columnist. I had great times being one, writing God knows what, but that life is over. I was never comfortable with fame. I do tinker with ideas for another book, but you know what? Even if I didn’t write again, I’d be happy.”

To catch these captivating voices in action, begin with Omar Musa’s 2018 play, Since Ali Died, on the first day of the festival. The one-man show blends “live” music, poetry reading and stories to confront heartbreak and human connection within the realities of Australian culture.

A captive audience listening. — Picture by Wirasathya Darmaja
A captive audience listening. — Picture by Wirasathya Darmaja

Dina Zaman will be featured on two different panels — Evolving Islam and The Big Read: Food for Thought. The former aims to discuss the faith in its many manifestations while the latter is an assembly of the festival’s most provocative thinkers coming up with bold ideas while the audience enjoy actual bites from the food stalls nearby.

For Dina, participating in the festival is always an experience of to remember. She says, “This time around, it’s like one full circle. Do you know, a year before I Am Muslim was published, I attended the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival. I have been to quite a number of festivals, but the Ubud Festival is dear to me because it’s so magical and cultural. It’s different, to be honest.”

Ubud Writers & Readers Festival
October 25-28, 2018 at Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
www.ubudwritersfestival.com

Since Ali Died by Omar Musa: Oct 25, 2018 (Day 1), 8:45pm at Bar Luna. Jl. Raya Ubud; admission free.

Evolving Islam featuring Dina Zaman: Oct 26, 2018 (Day 2), 3:45pm at Taman Baca. Festival Hub, Jl. Raya Sanggingan; admission with main program pass.

The Big Read: Food for Thought featuring Dina Zaman: Oct 28, 2018 (Day 4), 1pm at Taman Baca. Festival Hub, Jl. Raya Sanggingan; admission with main program pass.

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