This week I had the enormous pleasure and privilege to attend the biannual Reading Matters conference organised by the Centre forYouth Literature. It was the first time I’d attended, never before being able to afford it and this year having a very generous employer who sent me along. (Thanks, Deb, working at The Younger Sun is nothing short of glorious.)
I wear many hats in my life. I am a bookseller, a reader, a writer, an advocate if you count my work with #LoveOzYA and my own #AusQueerYAtumblr. The Reading Matters conference simultaneously catered to all my hats. I felt energised and challenged, inspired and hopeful. It moved me profoundly and I know I will make sure I can attend in the future.
Looking back over the two days I feel a theme emerged throughout the program: minorities of all kinds are constantly oppressed by unchecked privilege and our hope for the future relies on addressing these imbalances directly through our writing, our reading, our collection building and our conversations. Basically, addressing the problems we see, in every way that is available to us.
I spent the whole time furiously taking notes, wanting to lap up each and every morsel. Although, some sessions were so engrossing I barely got a word down. For example, during Will Kostakis’ speech which closed the first day, all I wrote down was ‘Sonnet 20’. It was a revelation to teenage Will, when it was studied in English because he was amazed that someone as widely known and respected as Shakespeare could write something that was so easily interpreted as gay. The rest of the time he was speaking, I was pretty much just crying. As was the rest of the room.
There were many things said over the two days that struck a chord with me. But none forced me to be so self-reflective as Will’s speech. He spoke of his road to publication, making us laugh as he usually does with self-deprecating anecdotes and colourful descriptions of his Yia Yia. But he also spoke of the heartbreak he feels that the book he wrote as a tribute to his best friend who died when they were in high school, his book about grief, was commandeered by the public discourse and became ‘the gay book’, changing the way he was able to talk about it publicly. He spoke about the horrifying displays of personal and institutional homophobia inflicted upon him by those who are apparently there to nurture and educate our youth. You can read accounts of some of these on his blog. He confessed a time when ablest assumptions passed through his head and how calling himself out on that led to one of his most meaningful friendships. And the more he spoke, the more I found myself questioning myself.
I recognised that institutional homophobia. I have personally felt the effects of that individual homophobia and assumptions that so many people make. Everything from having ‘Faggots’ shouted at my partner and I as we walk down the street (when in one of the wealthiest suburbs of Melbourne) to close and well-meaning friends asking, ‘When are you two going to get married?’ A simple question, perhaps. But, I don’t know. When are we going to be allowed to get married?
But then what hurt more was when I recognised the internalised homophobia I had thought myself to be so above. The fact that Will was up on stage and I was thinking, ‘Here he is, talking about his sexuality again.’ I caught myself, in much the same way he had done when he was at uni. I realised that not only is he allowed to talk about anything he wants – that was the actual point – and that he is welcome to continue to do so for as long as he wants into the future. It’s more that we aren’t allowing him to talk about anything else – which was the real actual point. His book about grief had become the gay book simply because one of the 3 (equally weighted) protagonists was gay. We, as a society, reduced him to his sexuality and ignored his humanity, and I was guilty of the same. I may have been approaching it from another angle, thrilled that a local queer author was experiencing some success in sales and getting mainstream media to pay attention. Thrilled that queerness was seeping into the national discourse more. Not realising that I, too, was putting Will in a box.
And further than that, I had caught myself judging Will for waiting so long to come out. I’d come out as a teen and never looked back, or so I thought. I won’t say things were a breeze for me, especially when I was younger, but everyone’s experience is different. What did I know of Will’s life and his choices? And was I so free in my ‘outness’ as I thought? Suddenly I had flashbacks of all the times I referred to ‘my partner’ with ‘they/them’ pronouns so as to not definitively label myself in the mind of who I was talking to. It’s true, I have never lied about my sexuality when asked directly, and I may not have twisted my words to avoid detection in recent years, and every day we’re getting better at not letting go of each other’s hand when strangers are walking towards us in the street. But who am I to judge anyone and their personal response to the overbearing and viciously ingrained homophobia in our society.
So, I want to take this opportunity to apologise to Will, and any other Queers out there for assuming that we are all the same, and that our sexuality is our sole defining characteristic. I’m constantly trying to check my privilege, my assumptions, just as I’m asking other people to do all the time. All I can say is I’m flawed, and I will try to do better.
I feel like I could write another 10,000 words (at least) on this topic. But I’m here to reflect on the power of Reading Matters. Aside from the tectonic shift that happened in me you’ve just read about, there were many other things that were said that blew my mind and challenged me in my personal and professional life. To summarise, I’ll list some of the quotes that I hastily scrawled as a snapshot of the highlights. Please forgive any paraphrasing that has taken place.
Teens: I’ll borrow books, but buy the ones I know I’ll reread often.
Jennifer Niven: Write what you can’t imagine not writing even if it terrifies you.
A.S. King: Adults have a habit of blowing everything off as a phase
Jay Kristoff: Science Fiction is the exploration of the possible. (It has the power to show us what could be, and maybe save us from it)
Emma White: It’s not about you, you’re not selling yourself (when recommending books to readers). Sell the story.
Lili Wilkinson: Taking things seriously is the key to understanding teens
Jane Harrison: We talk about ‘closing the gaps’, young people are able to leap over the gaps
A.S King: Books about rape are not recommended to boys. (and this idea can be applied to many other topics and themes)
Randa Abdel-Fattah: It is a disservice to the reading public to limit them with cover design.
Mariko Tamaki: You make art for yourself, for you and your community. No one else.
Mariko Tamaki: Diverse is a weird way to describe something that comes from your very centre.
Shivaun Plozza: There are more modes for telling stories which doesn’t mean [teens] can’t engage with long form fiction.
Lili Wilkinson: Teens today live through text. Engaging with writing is more natural now than ever.
Nevo Zisin: Kids don’t know they’re different until they’re told they are.
Nevo Zisin: Everyone in the world is oppressed by gender roles.
Randa Abdel-Fattah: There’s nothing new about the racialising of people. White people are just starting to realise that the shit has hit the fan.
Jane Harrison: (on Aboriginal characters in fiction) On one hand, to not write us is to write us out of the story. On the other, we haven’t had long to write our own stories.
Randa Abdel-Fattah: There is a danger of a single story, that it will be seen as a ‘typical experience’.
A.S. King: When you give a teenager a book, it’s part of the cure to loneliness. A larger part is writing your own.
Randa Abdel-Fattah: (On racism) Instead of asking why are we a problem, we should be asking why do you have a problem with us?
There are many more quotes I could add that I have written. There are so many more that I didn’t get to write down because I was trying to absorb them. In any event, Reading Matters was powerful, it was throwing gauntlets left, right and centre. It wants us to be better, do better, and be the advocates for social justice that the world needs now. Too quickly, we’ll be passing this world onto the next generations. What kind of world do we want to hand over? I for one would like it to be a little freer of hate and oppression.
And I for one can recognise the privilege I had in attending Reading Matters, where such powerful and important ideas are discussed.