Jael Richardson and the Industry-Changing FOLD

Interview by 
Kayi Wong

Photo Credit: Arden Wray

Jael Richardson is the award-winning author of The Stone Thrower: A Daughter's Lessons, a Father's Life, which was subsequently adapted into a picture book by Groundwood Books last year, the essayist of "Conception" (published in Room 39.1 Women of Colour), playwright of my upside down black face, which was excerpted in the anthology T-Dot Griots: An Anthology of Toronto's Black Storytellers, and was the writer-in-residence at the Toronto district school board in 2013. Richardson is also currently a book contributor for CBC's q, and the founder and artistic director of the FOLD, the Festival of Literary Diversity, which commenced for the second time this week in Brampton, Ontario.

The four-day festival will feature over forty authors and publishing professionals in a series of readings, panels, workshops, and spoken word performances. While not every event is going to be about being in the margins, the FOLD is committed to celebrating the storytellers and stories that are underrepresented, and in Richardson’s own words, “stories that sit outside the mainstream”. Since the current publishing industry fails to sufficiently reflect the diversity of marginalized communities in Canada when it comes to ethnicity, race, geography, gender, ability, sexual orientation, religion, literary genre and form, the FOLD will.

Room spoke to the author, advocate, and artistic director about the process behind organizing the leading festival, and her journey toward making a change. For more information about the festival line-up and registration, visit thefoldcanada.org.

ROOM: For every person who wants to be the change but doesn’t know how—how did diversity become a career for you?

JR: That’s a great question because I think there are so many of us who want to “be the change”, and for a long time, I didn’t know how to do that either. Planning and putting on the FOLD became my career over a stretch of time. First, I noticed a problem—a lack of diversity in the publishing industry in general. I saw it at festivals and events over a decade ago, when I didn’t even have the language to articulate. When I started writing myself, I noticed that the problem wasn’t driven by a lack of interest, but more so by a lack of awareness on the part of readers (how do I find diverse books) and a lack of representation and understanding on the part of industry professionals, which makes for a problematic, systemic mix. Once I could identify that specific problem, the question became how do I use my natural gifts and talents to address this problem. I don’t want to be an editor or a publisher. But event planning has always been my thing. And once I figured out how that could work, the rest came more quickly alongside a team of advisors and supporters who shared my vision or understood its value.

In terms of a career, that didn’t happen right away either, and if a career is something that financially sustains you, I’m still not there yet. But if a career is the central action or work of your day, it’s important to note that I see and decide on what I do in seasons. I’ve had to bleed and sweat and sacrifice a lot over the past two years. And it will probably be another two years before I can have a realistic and manageable career from this that includes not only a great idea and a great event but a sustainable paying job and a sustainable core team that helps keep it in balance. But that’s been the goal from the beginning—launch it and give it a solid, long-range foundation.

ROOM: What’s the biggest takeaway from the first year of the FOLD?

JR: There were lots of moments in the two years of planning for the first FOLD when I wondered if it was worth it, when I questioned whether it could work or do anything of note. But last year, the festival’s success taught me that the FOLD was important and needed and industry-changing. And this year, more publishers and industry professionals helped out financially. That was big. Because sometimes your dream is just your dream. But when your dream helps fund other people’s dreams, well, that’s a rewarding kind of effort.

ROOM: Was there something you felt was lacking in the first year, that you’re hoping this year's festival would address?

JR: Disabled authors were underrepresented last year. We had none in the original schedule and then only one by the time the festival took place. There were lots of excuses for that, but excuses are what has kept diverse authors from adequate representations for decades (how do we find them, will they be good, we don’t have room, etc.). I want no part in action-less excuses. So I had to learn from that—and I’m continually learning. This year, we have a range of disabled authors who will no doubt enrich the discussions that take place over the course of the weekend. Because one thing I’ve learned about diversity and true inclusion, is that while it always takes more effort on the part of the organizer, it ALWAYS reaps better results for everyone involved.

ROOM: The FOLD has become a model of diversity and inclusion for festivals across Canada; your support and wisdom were crucial to helping Room translate our intention for diversity into action. What advice do you have for festivals organizers, literary or otherwise, who’re striving for diversity?

JR: I think the why is really important. Lots of people see the value of diversity. Lots of organizers want to uphold diversity, on some level. But many don’t know how. And they certainly don’t want it to cost them anything (convenience, time, effort, funds/finances). And if there’s no real sense of why it's important, and no personal commitment to that why, the how will always suffer as a result. You will do it, but only if it doesn’t cost you anything and only if you can guarantee ticket sales and only if they’re a big enough name. And that is how the system continues to marginalize the marginalized. You have to stand by your why and get creative.

Diversity and inclusion are the necessary next steps in a forward-thinking culture. They involve recognizing that the way we identify “good writing” has always been flawed on a systemic level and that correcting those inherent biases through the involvement of authors with lived experience is critical to creating a new generation that’s excited about Canadian literature. There’s no case for excuses. Every industry professional needs to be actively taking thoughtful and long term steps of action. Or they’re part of the problem.

ROOM: It’s somewhat reassuring to hear that even the organizers of the FOLD felt that it was “impossible to cover all diversity in the first year”. Do you think one can ever be diverse enough?

JR: I think that true inclusion, more so than diversity (which is often just a series of check boxes), is perhaps impossible to achieve at a literary event. I’m not sure you can ever have a literary festival that adequately represents and reflects everybody sufficiently—particularly in a single year. I certainly think it would be hard—if not impossible—to have an event where all guests of all abilities and ages are sufficiently supported. And while that may seem dire, for me, that means that we can always be making improvements. We can always be working towards doing better—demonstrating over time what a counter-cultural, radical kind of inclusion can look like. One of our favourite questions at the FOLD is “Who’s missing?”. We ask it in our programming and after our events happen, and we ask this about our audience as well. And, even at the FOLD, we are always missing someone. And that’s who we work for—those someone’s that are too often afterthoughts and never priorities.

ROOM: Have you experienced resistance or skepticism from any writers to be a part of the festival because they felt that by being a part of a festival about diversity, they would become involuntary advocate for their margin(s)?

JR: There have been authors who have said no to the invitation to the FOLD, for various reasons, but no one has said that they don’t support what we do (to our faces). I will say that there are some diverse, seasoned authors who have spent much of their careers navigating the whiteness of Canada’s literary scene. I can only imagine what kind of questions and narrow-mindedness on panels and events, given what I’ve faced in my few years on the scene.

The conversations authors are involved in are conversations about writing and craft. And when we have diversity-based themes, we make sure to ask our authors in advance if they’re comfortable talking about it. Not all racialized writers want to talk about race—ditto sexual orientation, mental health, etc. If a writer doesn’t want to talk about diversity, I’m okay with that. But the challenges for diverse writers still exist. So someone needs to talk about it. I think it’s critical to have the option.

ROOM: What are some ways out-of-town folks can do to support the FOLD?

JR: Out-of-town folks play a big part in the success of the festival. Anything they can do to share and spread the word on social media is so important. Truth is, the FOLD will need to have a national and international buzz about it to get sponsors and to identify and secure great authors, so the more people from outside of the area who support it by attending and travelling long distances or spreading the word or following along on live tweeted or Facebook live events, really help the festival grow.

ROOM: What was the last book you completed for the Fold 2017 reading challenge?

JR: So, I have been doing a column on CBC’s q, recommending books to readers every other Wednesday. I’ve been trying to recommend great books and keep the reading list in mind. Because it would be hypocritical not to, right? It’s helping me identify my own reading blind spots. And while it’s made for a little more effort at times, it’s brought better results as well. I’ve read more genre fiction than I ever have before by writers of colour I didn’t know (and had to work to find), but it’s been worth it.

The last book I completed was Fugue States by Pasha Malla—a South Asian, Canadian author from Hamilton, Ontario.

Kayi Wong has been an editorial board member of Room Magazine since 2013. She is also the co-editor of 40.1 Food, and the editor of 41.2 (upcoming).

“It's Canadian, feminist, and one of my favourite things ever.”

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