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national young writers’ festival 2016: a recap


‘I Feel Like a Woman’ at NYWF 2016. Image: Cin Peeler

This past weekend, the National Young Writers’ Festival was held alongside This is Not Art (TiNA) in the little city of Newcastle. The festival gets bigger and better every year and I had the privilege of seeing some amazing up-and-coming writers and artists discuss their craft, and the issues that pertain to that.

Festival highlights included the Writing While Female closed forum, (Re)Writing Gender, Go West: Finding Voice, and I Feel like a Woman, which featured Lip’s 2014 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction winner Miranda Debeljakovic. These sessions were some of the more serious ones, as they delved into what it means to be a writer and considered a minority. Do you need to escape being a “woman writer” or a “queer writer” or a “Muslim writer”, or is it something you can embrace and use?

These serious, and seriously amazing, panels were counter-balanced by the levity of events such as Bodily Functions, the nightly late night readings, any event where the speaker was blatantly drunk (so anything scheduled after 6PM at the Royal Exchange), and, of course, the ball. Shaylee Leach was in both I Feel Like a Woman and Bodily Functions, and she brought the pride she has in her womanhood to both panels. To be able to hear her share personal stories at these events with such different creative goals was a real treat and I have to share an idea she expressed at the Bodily Functions panel:

‘I think it’s empowering as a woman to talk about our bodies in a time when people are releasing our nude photos on 4Chan.’

Shaylee and the panel’s moderator, Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen, took obvious pride in discussing their bodies and the things that those bodies do. And of course I am always impressed by writing events where the panellists conclude with three word shit stories. However, on the I Feel Like a Woman panel, Miranda Debeljakovic started a discussion about masturbation with an extract from her honours thesis. We had a chat after the event, and she said to me we really could have talked more about the usually taboo topic of female masturbation. It just wasn’t a focus. It was a little bit of a disappointment, especially with writers like Miranda at the festival who focus so much on female sexuality in their writing, but there is always room for improvement.

There were a few times that the printed programme didn’t match the website or the app. You’d think a festival for young people could expect their patrons to rely on the app rather than the printed programme, but it wasn’t so. These scheduling issues were mostly not a problem, such as in the Writing While Female closed forum, which was only half an hour off, but in the Writing for Performance panel, it was a little bit disastrous. It was, it turned out, actually scheduled for 10am on Sunday, which would have been a hard sell anyway what with the collective post-ball hangover felt along Hunter Street that morning. But the printed programme stated 7:30pm so only four of us showed up for the event – and even one of the panellists missed it. Thanks to the inherent creativity of the organisers of the festival, with a particular shout out to Festival Co-director Annie for this outcome, it became a very interesting round table discussion.

The Writing While Female forum became a feel-good therapy session for the women present as we discussed how we deal with sexism in the industry, what pisses us off and what lifts us up. It was expertly led by Somayra Ismailjee and Eloisa Grills, who were not perturbed by the slight programming mishap.

It was a wonderful experience to have a space made for us to have this discussion. During the forum, we talked about one of Somayra’s other panels, the Future of… Journalism, and what had stuck with her and some of the audience members there. I have to preface this by saying I was not at this panel and can only try and paraphrase the conversation as Somayra and some of the other women told it to me. A man on the panel had answered an audience question by saying, essentially, that minorities should allow for other people to voice their opinions in their spaces in order to foster discussion. I sadly can’t tell you exactly how Somayra told him he was wrong, but I can tell you what she told us:

‘Feminists don’t need to make space for men; men need to make their space feminist.’

This really stuck with me, and I want to take a moment to thank NYWF and TiNA for providing closed forums, not just for women, but people with disabilities and queer people, and making the festival a generally inclusive space. Most people can only hope to find places like this on the internet, but NYWF inspires people to come from all over the country to share their experiences and the way they express these through their art.

If you think a cool festival like this should happen again next year, please donate to NYWF at their patreon page or find out how else you can support this amazing festival here.

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