Hello there, Honey
Bali has been home to Janet DeNeefe – ‘The Queen of Ubud’ as she is fondly nicknamed – for over 20 years. It’s hard not to fall in love with this one-woman-powerhouse and founder of the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival.
Janet is at once humble, inspiring, refreshingly witty, and has a quiet confidence drawn from her life’s experience that would render lesser mortals supremely arrogant. Author, artist, literary festival director, restaurateur, wife, mother, and practicing Hindu, Janet chats with us about her real-life Eat, Pray, Love story and teaches us that magic really can be achieved through persistence, passion, patience, a sense of humour, and an unwavering faith in the tenacity of the human spirit.
How did a Melbourne girl end up as ‘The Queen of Ubud’?
I’ve been told my life is a fairy-tale, but my story is simple. I first came to Bali in 1974 on a family holiday and I remember seeing all these expats who had seemingly been here for ages – I thought to myself, oh my god, I want to be like that – how amazing! I’m so glad I had the chance to see Bali in those untamed years. It was, and is still, a magical place – but back then it had this really untamed, mystical, magical quality. Now, Bali and Ubud are a kind of sophisticated-magical. I returned here 10 years later and met my now husband on the second day – a classic love story. I genuinely feel though, that despite an obviously genuine love for my husband, I had a love for Bali that would have drawn me back here somehow, regardless.
The thing I find, about living in Bali is that it’s not just a single relationship with a partner you have to contend with, it’s a whole community and culture that you have a relationship with. It’s like taking on a whole extended family, and so a sense of humour is so important for that! If I didn’t have a sense of humour, my life would have been a lot different. I can laugh my way through anything, which works in Bali because there’s a real kind of ribald, slapstick humour here. After meeting my husband, our businesses grew, our families grew, and that was that!
How did the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival come about?
I’ve always said of this time in Bali; “out of tragedy, good things can happen”. It was ironically around the time of the first bombings in Bali that business had been booming at Casa Luna and I remember thinking – How much further can we go? Everything was on such a high; it almost felt surreal. The week before the bombings, I desperately wanted to buy a new, beautiful oven for our bakery at Casa Luna. But, even though we were so busy and successful, something was telling me – No, don’t buy it now. One week later, the bombings hit and suddenly the place was deserted. So I thought – Life’s been really good to me, it’s my turn to give back. To see everyone without work was just heartbreaking, so we kept things afloat for several months. We kept all our staff on and tried to keep their spirits up. Staff is like family; it’s different here, and I really love that.
After 6 months, I became more defiant that it was time for action. I’d seen tourists come and go with varying attitudes after the bombings – it felt like Bali had been cut adrift and we were just floating. At the time I was doing the final edit of Fragrant Rice, my memoir and we had been throwing around the idea of holding literary events at Casa Luna. I was in this literary bubble and I wanted to bring the crowds back to Bali. So ideas collided and the Festival was born – after all, the pen is mightier than the sword!
Writers are brave, they’ll write about terrorism and get thrown in jail! I thought – These are the people I want here. The festival is a thinking person’s event, which Bali loves, and Ubud is the perfect venue for a literary dialogue with a creative community and a charming backdrop. The first year was hilariously bad, but this movement really struck a chord in the hearts of people and suddenly volunteers flooded in – people from everywhere wanted to help. Some people saw me as a threat in the beginning, but there’s not much that stops me and you have to be patient and flexible and above all – pick your battles. So we persisted and here we are today with one of the top literary events in the world.
How has your fairytale romance held up amongst all of this?
Ketut, my husband – he’s around somewhere! We survive by staying out of each other’s hair. 80 percent of stuff we agree to, the other 20 percent we definitely don’t! You’re never going to be completely in tune after all. As you get older, it’s a different sort of love; it’s a deeper, more solid sense of security – where you know that you belong. It’s about having a family and being happy together.
Are you the real Eat, Pray, Love story?
Oh yes, I used to say ‘I’m the real deal!’ But in all honesty, there’s not enough conflict in my life to make for a good book or movie! In a cooking class one time, I joked with a bunch of very earnest Americans that the film crew for Eat, Pray, Love was scouting around Ubud and pulled their leg that they were going to drop Julia Roberts as the lead role for me! One of them even came up to me at the end of the class and said, ‘So when do you start filming?’ My daughters actually ended up being an extra in the film, but that’s as close as we got to a starring role!
What’s next for Janet De Neefe? If we could grant you a 25th hour in the day – what would you do with it?
My time is still focussed 80 percent on the festival when really, I want to be spending more time at my restaurants, revving them up, and building my own food profile. I would work on things I used to have time for like the column I wrote for the Jakarta Post (To Stir with Love) and get involved in food tours, which is an idea I had before the bombings.
The Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2013 takes place 11-15 October 2013, in Ubud, Bali. In its 10th Anniversary, the Festival returns full-circle to its original theme – Through Darkness To Light.