October 5

Sweet Sixteen: An NYWF Retrospective

This is the transcript of a speech I gave at ‘Alumni Ultimatum – Ne Oblivarus’ (30 September 2017), a National Young Writers’ Festival reading that celebrated the festival’s 20th year. It also marked my 16th year of attending.

I pass you on the street and I want to say ‘hello’, but you don’t actually know me. You see, you’re sort of famous. You were on that panel, the one with the funny guy who ran late. You spell well. You wrote a zine I thought was the best thing I read in 2004. You have a byline in a magazine that people have actually heard of. You’ve been published in Voiceworks.

I wrote this on my blog after the 2012 festival, which is only a short time ago in the long history of my attendance. To give context to my story, I want to take you back to 2001, which is the first year I started coming.

The global fallout from the September 11 terrorist attacks was yet to come. John Howard was Australia’s Prime Minister. And the Newcastle Knights were in the NRL Grand Final. (Time travel spoiler alert: they win 30-24 against the Parramatta Eels and the city becomes a carpet of red and blue streamers for days following.)

I was in my final year of an arts degree at Macquarie University and I’d heard about the festival from a friend, Lee Tran Lam, who was on a couple of panels. It was too late to book accommodation so I commuted every day from Sydney on the shitkansen (hat tip Marcus Westbury for that term). Don’t knock it, it’s a great way to catch up on reading.

The National Young Writers’ Festival was part of a cohort of festivals that would later become This is Not Art. At the time it included events focused on student media, sustainability and music, held in the formal rooms of the Newcastle City Hall.

I came away from my very first festival with three impressions:

  • Wow, these people know so much about writing and the media and speak so well about issues.
  • Newcastle is a phoenix that needs to die to rise again.
  • Linda Jaivin has a cool zipper necklace and I want one.

Since then I’ve attended every National Young Writers’ Festival bar 2005, when I was travelling overseas. I made my own zipper necklace. I saw the city’s renaissance through Renew Newcastle (once again, hat tip Marcus Westbury). And I have watched as festival artists established rewarding careers.

While Anna Krien never bested Phillip Gwynne at Shantaram shotput (apologies Gregory David Roberts), she has become a fine essayist and author.

And although Lisa Dempster did not have the cooking talent of Benjamin Law and Rosie Pham to win Wriron Chef—yes, a writers’ version of Iron Chef—she became the director of the Emerging Writers’ Festival, and then the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, a stint she recently completed on a high. I still have her Scrabble zine and a first edition of her travel memoir Neon Pilgrim.

Benjamin Law, you probably know, went from Frankie magazine columnist to Quarterly Essay-ist in that time, with ‘side gigs’ as a journalist, scriptwriter and The Australian‘s minority target du jour, ousting Yassmin Abdel-Magied for at least two weeks.

And me? I worked my way up from being an editorial assistant at a publishing house to being headhunted as a content writer, which is where I was when I wrote that blog post in 2012.

That year’s festival made me realise that although I was at home with my relative anonymity, I lacked pride in my writerly achievements, solid though they were.

That did a lot to dent my confidence in the festival space. I was not being the best writertype I could be, which is one way in which the National Young Writers’ Festival checks you. In short, I had done a lot, but I hadn’t shared any of it.

In subsequent festivals, I sought to remedy that. I gave paid work to freelancers I met at freelancing-themed events. I applied to be, and was accepted as, an artist to talk about freelancing, getting paid as a writer and being prank-called by Senator Bill Heffernan, though I should note that being prank-called by an MP is not a pre-requisite to becoming a ‘real journalist’. I also volunteered for the first Younger Young Writers’ Program, for writers aged 13 to 17, (hat tip Geoff Orton), which I directed last year and last week.

I am now a full-time freelance writer who earns enough money to pay her mortgage on a Sydney property and support a dependent. Admittedly the dependent is a mouse called Gustav, but he will never clean his room, so it’s like mothering a tiny teenager for the entire span of his little life.

I’m telling you this because I want you to know that the National Young Writers’ Festival has always been a community of sharing: highs and lows, ideas and experiences.

So… Hello, my name is Adeline Teoh and I used to suffer from the most imposter-y of imposter syndromes: the imposter syndrome you suffer in a festival replete with people suffering from imposter syndrome.

But fast forward to the present and here I am at the Newcastle City Hall again. This time, instead of staring goggle-eyed at the person at the microphone, I’m the one with the platform and I’m wondering whether you’re having a good time. Imposter syndrome. The struggle is real, people. But what the National Young Writers’ Festival has taught me is that we can transcend it because we have seen our peers rise. Like Newcastle. Like a phoenix.

Thank you.

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October 6

I heart TINA


The TINA Festival Club came furnished with pew-like seating and these delightful cardboard finishes. This year the club was located in the old rail holdings on the water side of Civic Station. It looks less dodgy than the PAN Building but it does seem to take the action away from the rest of the block, consisting of Civic Park, Watt Space Gallery, Octapod and Newcastle City Hall where a lot of the panels are.

Staple Manor where good zines go to be born.

Nobbys Head by night. The tripod was a good investment for night scenery like this. I have no idea why the sky turned out so red. The light was actually kind of yellow/orange.

Near Civic Station. I giggled for a while after I saw this. I just didn’t realise you could get sheets of orange dot stickers the size of a tablecloths, nor did I realise those stickers could become a form of street art.

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October 1

Is Not Art, Is Good

The National Young Writers’ Festival turns 10! Now embraced by big mama, the This Is Not Art (TINA) festival enjoys five days of debate, inspiration, writing, drawing and pretty much anything else you can do with a writing implement (except that).

9:05am: I’m waiting for Kid H, my partner on this adventure, at Central Station. I’m on the inside of the barriers because I’ve just changed trains, having bought a one-way ticket to Newcastle from my home station.

The guards at the gates keep looking at me, half-expecting that I will leave one of my many packages unattended, ready to presume I am a terrorist. I don’t usually travel this heavily but it’s my first time selling merchandise at the Sunday Fair and I have a box of Palimpsest books to flog while I’m north. Kid H arrives and we walk right up the platform armed with my knowledge that the exit at Newcastle is at the front of the train.

12:29pm: After three hours of chatting and poring over the TINA program, Kid H and I arrive in Newcastle and check into the YHA, my home away from home. I give her a short tour of the hostel and we head off in search of something to eat and a panel to catch.

After a feed at Juicy Beans we find ourselves sitting crosslegged like kindergarteners at the front of a packed house in the Festival Club for the ‘You are all going to die’ panel, which is more or less about generation-ism. The gist is that the whole generation thing is a bit of a crock cooked up by marketers and that there are more likely to be other things that people have to identify with others – race, gender, religion etc – than age.

2:36pm: A brief respite from the Festival Club sees us hanging around outside in everyone’s way. Kid H recognises a couple of familiar faces despite never having been to a TINA festival before, some friends from Adelaide. I’m introduced and they chat briefly. Kid H and I head back in for the next panel, ‘Untold Stories’, which is okay, if a little wayward. A lot of the speakers didn’t really address the notion of the ethics behind writing (or illustrating in the case of Shaun Tan) the unspeakable.

After the session we head out to Civic Park where three wedding parties are having their respective photos taken. I play with a ladybug, trying to get a photograph while Kid H haunts the fountain looking for a good photo op beyond the white satin and taffeta. It gets cold so we head back to the Festival Club and grab a meal from the Hare Krishna stall out front. The back area is free so we hike up to the stage and plonk down on the cushions, oddly scattered with straw, and chow down.

6:11pm: The ‘Mega Mega Launch’ begins. It is presented as an awards night where each highly specific award (e.g. Category: “Most graphic version of a novel by F Scott Fitzgerald” Winner: The Great Gatsby: a Graphic Adaptation by Nicki Greenberg) gives writers and artists a chance to say a little about their publication.

The best part is that there is a lucky door raffle and I win a packet of books and zines (including The Great Gatsby and an interesting publication called ‘Nerds Gone Wild’ which includes the cover line “Complete Guide to LAN Parties: Dos and Don’ts”).

7:00pm: Regretfully we leave the ‘Mega Mega Launch’ and scoot across the road to the TPI building where Marcus Westbury debuts his doco ‘Not Quite Art’. He’s a bit nervous and makes a lot of self-deprecating remarks to the point where the audience interrupts his introduction by yelling “just play it!”

The doco is an engaging look at places where art has come from the ashes of a downbeat town. Westbury looks at Glasgow (UK) and ponders whether the same could happen in Newcastle (Aus) given a good run of bureacratic licence. He also heads to Melbourne where the laneways, full of cafes, wine bars and/or graffiti are better known for their artistic and cultural value than the $500 million Federation Square. He also touches on arts funding, which he tackles in the (as yet unseen) third episode of the three part series.

The Q&A at the end is quite interesting, turning into a discussion about why such a large proportion of funding goes to ‘high’ arts like opera and theatre and orchestras while the rest of us (writers, artists and musicians) have to scrabble for the rest. Westbury says he doesn’t know what to do about it but hopes that the doco reaches the kind of people who can bring that question to prominence so something can be done about it.

8:48pm: We head back to the YHA. Kid H tucks in for the night while I head down to the lounge room to eat gummi creatures and read the paper. Instead I end up watching Rush Hour 2 on TV with a bunch of other hostellers, skimming the paper in the ad breaks.

I basically spend the whole day in Civic Park manning my stall. I’ve never had a stall before – in previous year’s I’d blow a day’s wages on other people’s wares. This year I have Palimpsest books to sell (just $10 incl postage if anyone wants a copy).

There’s a zombie protest (“zombies are people too”, “save a cow, eat a brain” etc) and a DJ mixing it up on stage and a lot of people to talk to. For some reason I’ve been put in the market section, which means my neighbours are a tshirt seller (Tim from Toilet World) and a jewellery stall (Enak). They attract the people. I tend to repel them.

(Later I find out that zine stalls are FREE and market stalls cost $25 and that no one told me about this so I paid $25 and didn’t get a good spot. Boo. I hope it was invested into next year’s festival.)

Kid H comes by to mind the stall so I get a toilet break and a drinks break and have a wander around the vicinity. Thanks to winning a bunch of zines the night before, I feel compelled to blow $7.80 on a slim book of poetry (the girl wanted $8 but I only had $7.80 in change from buying a bottle of water for Kid H). My buying spree is thus short-lived so I return to my post at my stall.

I contribute to the Bad Writing Pinata of Cathartic Shame and watch the smashing from a distance, sell a total of five books and meet The Quote Generator aka Danielle Freakley in the flesh. Talking to her is a strange experience, especially after reading about her project. It’s almost like talking to a media essay but in a real time context. But she buys a book so she must be cool.

Kid H and I eat dinner in the park (Hare Krishna again!) but the Electrofringe act – bleeps and strange electronic noises – is not our type of sound so we head to the YHA to dump some of our stuff and return to the Festival Club for The Night Air, broadcast on Radio National (I only listen to the cricket on Radio National so a TINA show is quite a step away from their general demographic). The show is really good and quite varied, bringing together different aspects of the festival.

I particularly liked Black Lung, who gatecrashed Bravo Child’s alloted set (one of them may have been Bravo Child I don’t know – he’s a poet and I’ve never actually seen him) and found Toy Death disturbing and amusing. Toy Death used distorted sounds from various toys to make music, including a Darth Vader mask and a talking Barbie. Unfortunately a bunch of people started talking over Vanessa Berry’s spoken word so that was a bit disrespectful.

We left before the closing party because we were both tired and probably too old to play with the young ‘uns even though I’m only 26 and Kid H is 31.

Kid H leaves early in the morning as she has things to do at home. I check out of the YHA and leave my stuff in day storage and spend the morning wandering up to Nobbys Head soaking in the sunlight and watching dozens of dogs and their owners play on the beach. I realise I miss my dogs at the same time that I acknowledge that neither of them would have had that much fun on the beach, what with the sand and the water…

I rock up to see Ianto Ware present ‘Zinevolution’ at the Festival Lounge but a note on the door informs the waiting crowd that he is absent due to a hangover. Most of us dissipate downstairs to catch ‘More than just a Label’, a Sound Summit panel, which was better than I thought it would be, but I leave it halfway to take front row for PEN’s ‘Shooting the Messenger’ about censorship.

Three of the panellists – an Australian artist, an Iranian writer and an Afghani poet – have experienced censorship directly while Sarah Maddison from the Australia Institute has many insightful things to say about how Australia sits on a freedom level (the prognosis is not good…). It runs half an hour over its 2pm finish (which is good because it solved the mystery of whether or not I should leg it to try and catch the 2:35pm train or dawdle and catch the 3:20pm train). I leave feeling both discouraged and pensive about Australia’s future in this regard.

I tackle the SMH’s Giant Crossword on the way home and fail miserably.

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