Deryn Mansell hopes facts of Balinese life will emerge from fiction


Bernard Lane

Bernard Lane


Deryn Mansell
Melbourne writer Deryn Mansell is hoping for a cultural connection with workshops to encourage young writers in Bali. Picture: Aaron Francis. Source: News Limited

HER first novel has its big international launch at the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival this week but Melbourne author Deryn Mansell has not forgotten the power of small things.

After Thursday’s launch of Tiger Stone, a historical mystery played out in the shadow of a Java­nese volcano, Mansell will stage a workshop for 20-plus young ­Balinese writers to craft 500-word “micro-fictions” of life.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity for teenage Indonesians to write some short fiction so kids here in Australia can read it and learn ­Indonesian from reading the world view of people their own age,” she says.

As a former teacher of the ­Indonesian language, Mansell is well aware that it languishes in our education system but she ­believes in the recuperative power of “imaginative connections” between­ the two cultures — whether it’s a novel in English or a short text in Bahasa Indonesia.

“I think that idea of story is ­really important, to get people in, to make it a personal thing, rather than, ‘You’ve got to learn this language because it’s economically important to our nation’. I don’t think that washes with teenagers very well,” she says.

The strategic argument has its place, Mansell admits, but it’s not enough to keep language learners going — and it’s probably not the opening chapter of a fascination with our big northern neighbour.

“It was that imaginative connection with Indonesia and arts and culture that got me in the first place,” she says.

As a schoolgirl in the 1980s, she became intrigued by shadow-play performances and modern history.

It helped that her teacher, Lien Lee, had brought riveting personal stories with her when she left behind the political turmoil of 1960s Jakarta for Melbourne.

Now in its 11th year, the Ubud writers festival is another imaginative link between cultures, founded by the expatriate Austral­ian author and restaurateur Janet DeNeefe after the first Bali bombings.

The news this year has been the non-appearance of a big name — Nobel laureate VS Naipaul, who reportedly made a last-minute demand for a fee the festival could not afford to pay.

Less well-known is the festival’s youth program, offered without charge, and it is here that Mansell will host her Cerpen mini, or micro-fiction, workshop — an experiment for her, and an opportunity that has been broadcast to schools across the island.

“I’m interested to see what young Indonesians write about when they’re writing in their own language for an audience of young Australians,” Mansell says.

“It would be fantastic to ­expand it to other places (beyond Bali) and get a bit of a dialogue going between senior high-school and university students here and those young writers in Indonesia.”

The writer Christopher Koch pointed out that, for his generation, there was no Indonesian parallel to Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim, which fired up an imagin­ative passion for India in his remote Tasmanian boyhood.

Step by step, that may change.

This article appeared in The Australian on September 29, 2014.