Teens Matter, We Matter, #YAmatters | READING MATTERS CONFERENCE, Sum-up and Thoughts

So, I have waded out of the post creative euphoria of the 12th Biennial Reading Matters conference and now, in the sweet, sweet afterglow I wanted to jot some basic thoughts down, general musings, quick ideas on what my first #YAmatters conference was like.

In general, I spent a spectacular two days listening to some of the sharpest, most passionate and powerful minds and hearts in our industry, talking about books, about writing, about sameness and difference and the intersections between. More than that all of us talked and discussed and dissected what it is what we love; telling and reading stories for teens.

It is fitting that our conference kicked off with some pin-drop inducing storytelling from Perry Wandin, a Wurundjeri elder who talked about the great William Barak and the need to remember and share our stories.

Following on from this our first official panel of the day was definitely a highlight, the teens panel (#TeensToTheFront) rightfully a teens panel chaired by Liz Flux (the teen-est adult I know) with panelists Aahana (an Inside a Dog reader), Ewen and Aida (both 2017 Inky judges). These guys were just so unapologetically honest and thoughtful and insightful. There are too many programs in many sectors about and for youth but very few actually champion youth quite like I saw at Reading Matters.

Everyone on the panel had something to say about their own reading habits, their hopes for the future of books within the YA readership, what they felt was lacking or needed improvement (diversity a big stickler here) inciting a lot of thoughtful commentary and quite a few laughs as well at the panels straight shooting manner.

After our teens panel we had our first keynote speaker the wonderful Jennifer Niven (who is so genuinely lovely?). These keynotes were undoubtedly my favorite facet of Reading Matters, and they are something I know I won’t be able to capture the downright awesomeness, passion and wisdom of. From Will Kostakis’ vulnerable grappling with the intended story for his novel THE SIDEKICKS (one of friendship, grief, healing) as opposed to the story thrust upon it (merely ‘gay’ fiction), to Randa Abdel-Fattah’s poignant, forceful and powerful deconstruction of a ‘post-truth’ world. Every instance of thought, of word of action was powerful, rousing the room with laughter, or rendering us to tears.

Because of this, I’ll speed through my overall thoughts quickly then share some nuggets of wisdom from all of my favorite keynotes and panels.

I would be remiss here, not to mention the delicious food! Catering for this event (two days of morning, lunch and afternoon tea) was spectacular. Honestly, one of the best catered events I’ve ever been too, the food was delicious and plentiful and had a great variety. Everything was well set out and with a great variety of drinks on offer (including an open free café for more specialized drinks) I was fulfilled and sustained throughout the conference. Never once going hungry, usually able to go back for seconds.

It was also so great to hang out with likeminded bookish friends as well as meet some twitter-sphere faces in person for the first time! There’s something a little demystifying about putting twitter profiles to real living and walking people. Everyone was amazingly nice and I had some truly fantastic discussions (and crashed several others like the socially awkward marshmallow I am).

Ultimately, I loved all of the Reading Matters events, even the ones which were not my particular forte, or area of interest I gained amazing insights and ideas from. I tried my best throughout the whole conference to live tweet ~the millennials note-taking~. Mostly though I came into this just wanting to absorb and take in what I was privileged enough to be able to afford to.

All I have is my best recounting of an amazing conference that I’m sure everyone felt very blessed to be in the presence of. So, here goes;

Alison Evans, a brilliant debut author with their work IDA participated in a number of panels and flung out a few awesome gems; our understanding/discourse of gender is evolving rapidly. It's so important for trans & non-binary teens to see themselves. About the inclusion of queer character in YA they said: Queer characters help explain the world. And also means queer people don't have to send their lives explaining stuff. Which pretty much is all that needs to be said on that.

More interestingly I though was the little detail Alison put into their novel. Deep cuts with likening their overall IDA narrative thematically with the pop culture artefacts they included in the work. That’s the kind of attention to detail and small world building that readers love to see in the books they read, they may not ‘get it’ right away (lord knows I rarely do) but afterwards on re-reads, damn those little gems (like Alison’s kickarse jacket a real star of Day One) shine bright.

I fell in love with Mariko Tamaki over the weekend, as a massive comic book lover and graphic novel admirer (one day I would love to write one/two/five) I am surprised that it took me this long to find her!

On why teens like superpowers, Mariko said: "Well, I was a mutant when I was at high school - I don't know about you" and if that doesn’t scream relatability, and a down to earth creator then I don’t know how I can help you in life. I fell in love with Mariko’s presentation of her work SKIM and THIS ONE SUMMER the combined of words and visuals to create story was particularly powerful and alluring: comics have the power to show you what people are feeling instead of just telling it.  

Mariko also talked about her experience as a queer artist; Being queer meant I had the chance to become a very different kind of artist and that intersection between her Japanese-Canadian cultural identity, her passion for telling stories and her sexuality.

She ended on a particularly powerful note reminding us all that: You make art for yourself, for you and your community. No one else.

 Shivaun Plozza, as always, had her hand in many basket; a wonderfully thoughtful and considered presence throughout the conference, leading a discussion with A S King on Autonomous Adolescence, peeling back the curtain a little on her ideas of adult presences in material aimed for young adults Adults are important in YA because they're important in young people's lives. It's just reality. Also saying: We also don't care much or know what our parents are going through when we're young in discussion of the adult perspective, or rather the teens perspective of adults in YA.

Her love and appreciated (and respect) for fanfiction shone through as she spoke with Rachael Craw and Lili Wilkinson was very much appreciated not only by me but other emerging and younger writers (and some older fanfiction authors as well.)

Lili Wilkinson was also amazing to meet, having a big impact on my early ‘out’ years as a lesbian teen in high school, not a lot of queer literature made it into our school (seven books) of which Lili’s PINK was one. Lili was a true voice of understanding for teens, reminding us all of our need to respect and not undermine teen opinions and experience. Truly connected, Lili noted that Teens are intensely political, but they're just often apathetic about politicians. But aren't we all? Lili is my people quoted saying: if I had access to fanfiction as a teen, I might not be writing books - I’d still be writing Harry Potter fanfiction. Damn man, you get it (though it has been a while since I’ve written HP fanfic, I still might jump onto the suggestion of the Winchesters from Supernatural rocking up in To Kill a Mocking Bird).

Rachael Craw was another light to the conference, apparently allergic to her own hair Rachael was so genuine in her responses (sometimes perhaps too genuine, you science-bullshitter you), always bringing a laugh and a levity to every panel which was oftentimes much needed from the raw emotionality and massive info dumping.

I was really excited to meet Jane Harrison, author of BECOMING KIRRALI LEWIS and STOLEN (play). To hear her speak about her work and culture in person was deeply humbling and empowering. There is just such power to Jane’s work, her exploration of individuality within systems of power, Aboriginal identity and her passion for thoughtful, diverse, Aboriginal work was amazing. Her about her cultural connection to death (instances and ideology) outside of talking about her own work and the somewhat mixed reception her work has received as both a Muruwari descendant (from her own community) and at large from the industry was captivating.

Poignantly she said: We talk about ‘closing the gaps’, young people are able to leap over the gaps.

Unfortunately, though I brought my copy of Kirrali for her to sign she had to head home early. It would have been great to meet her and thank her but there is always some other time.

A S King, unlike Jane, was an author I literally just fell in love with on the last day- very new for me. Her keynote was something of a powerful spoken word poem, along the same vein as the beat poets crisscrossing America, truly I just sat in awe of her voice and message and right after went and brought two of her books. We had a lovely conversation at the signing in which King talked a bit about her dismissal by the most of her queer friends once she fell in love with a man, despite that having no real baring of her queerness. It is an issue so close to both our hearts and obviously something that really hit home for King. I was a little too flustered to ask for a photo (not the first time for it to happen in the last two days as you will see) but certainly she is a wonderful, powerful, storm of a woman whose work I am desperately looking forward to falling in love with.

She was more than happy to take the time to speak with everyone who met her in the signing line which was incredibly sweet (can we keep her?-signed Australia.)

Also, she had a lot of excellent one liners and quotes to take away and process but two of my favourites throughout the weekend were: People ask if it's a feminist book. I'm a feminist, so all my books are feminist books. And When you give a teenager a book, it’s part of the cure to loneliness. A larger part is writing your own. 

**too nervous to ask for a pic!**

I felt so incredibly lucky to receive Nevo Zisin’s memoir FINDING NEVO in my goodie bag for the conference. It is a work that has been in my radar for a long time, since the first #YAShowcase I attended last year. Hearing them recount the final chapters of their book had me in tears pretty much instantly and listening to them speak was a real treasure (and those earrings? Hot damn).

What really hit home for me as a queer person was just how as Nevo said; It's amazing to be on a panel of 3 people, where two of us are trans, and the panel's not about gender. On their panel with Alison Evans. And YES that is amazing and needs to happen more across the board for all marginalization’s! Nevo, spoke back to me an experience that was very relatable, not the same of course but empathy and understanding isn’t restricted by sameness, saying: Kids don’t know they’re different until they’re told they are. Everyone in the world is oppressed by gender roles. We use "it's just a phase" to discredit queer people. But what isn't a phase?

Changing the mainstream and dominate trans narrative by storm Nevo has a lot to offer the world and I can’t wait to see what they do next.

*Note: I was also too flustered to ask for a photo when I got my copy of FINDING NEVO signed.

 Will Kostakis is one of my favourite writers, recent? Yes. But his work really speaks to me and to see him in person and say hi was really very lovely and a highlight of my conference experience. Juxtaposing his lively humour was his deeply personal, gut wrenching keynote speech that left pretty much the whole conference in tears. He took us through his journey to publication, his experiences being silenced for the queer content and characters in his books, being silenced by his own self-doubt, struggling with having his sexuality and the sexuality of his characters being the sole defining characteristic of his work that has far more to give, offer and share than what such restricting boxes allow. He spoke of his best friend Ben.

Similarly, American author Jennifer Niven poured her hear to us on stage, again and again and again, answering every question to genuinely, so passionately I felt both like a comforted friend as well as a voyeuristic intruder just listening to her, as though listening in on someone else’s diary. She told us of her mother, of her friend when she was younger that inspired her work ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES. And upheld honestly and integrity as the most important characteristics one has to have when writing for teens and for yourself. Too many people dismiss young people and dismiss us for writing for them. I feel honoured to write for them.

 On librarians and teachers she had to say: You place entire worlds in the hands of readers. That's your superpower. And on writing in general, specifically writing challenging or tough topics she relayed a simple truth: You don't have to be perfect. But you do have to be honest.

She is utterly genuine, utterly meaningful and incredibly sweet. I was very proud to write my name in the signing book she had with her, asking every last person who met her to sign their own name, as she did for them in their books.

Randa Abdel-Fattah has the biggest pin-drop moment of the weekend relaying how she could not remove her own identity from politics, when asked to introduce herself by Will Kostakis to the panel removed from the politics other prescribe to her work Randa said: My name is Randa Abdel-Fattah and Racism hurts.

Fuck.

There are no words for the pain and bravery in that. Randa in her keynote tore into discussions of a post-truth world, reminding us all that though we might like to think it Australia is not all that far off from Trump’s America, in many ways we are worse and need to be doing better, protecting our muslim-Australian brother, sister and non-binary siblings, lifting up their work and their voices and tearing down the walls both home grown terrorists and radicals far away are trying to build between us.

I feel very grateful and humbled that she took the time out of her holy holiday of Ramadan to be with us, fasting as she was and stationed so close to the catering for book signings, it would not have been very comfortable. We are very blessed and privileged to have her as a part of Reading Matters.

War is everywhere: Randa reminded us in her keynote, against science, women, black bodies, same sex marriage, the poor, schools - so many wars. You can't be neutral. If you have the luxury to write ignoring what's going on, it's not neutral.

Randa spoke of her own feminism coming to her through her faith which emboldened and inspired her. She also talked about the dangers of pigeon holing own voices and diverse stories as being representative of a whole identity.

**again, too nervous to ask for a photo!*

Riding the train home Saturday night, dinner plans (blessedly) cancelled and the idea of an early night with a good book settling into my bones I had to take some time to thank all the amazing people who made and continue to make events like this conference possible, wonderful authors and creators from so many different walks of life, and cultures and backgrounds coming together to celebrate and interrogate youth literature.

It really was an amazing experience listening and learning and a little but crying and a lot of laughter. I feel personally energized, challenged, inspired and hopeful that our literary spaces can continue to grow and become more diverse, more inclusive, more accessible and more ingenious.

It was wonderful to catch up with my friends in the LoveOzYA scene, meet new friends and twitter mates.

I am deeply and greatly privileged and more than ever I am motived to use that privilege to fight for more diverse and inclusive ideas, creators, industry, conversations, writing and a more diverse Australia literary canon for our teen readers.