Jael Richardson on the FOLD: Festival of Literary Diversity

Interview by 
Chelene Knight

The first Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) includes more than twenty-five unique sessions over three days with over thirty of Canada’s most exciting authors in historic downtown Brampton May 6-8 2016. Room spoke with the FOLD’s Artistic Director, Jael Richardson about the festival, and diversity in Canadian Literature. 

Jael Richardson’s first book, The Stone Thrower: A Daughter’s Lesson, a Father’s Life, came out in 2012 and is the subject of a TSN documentary based on her father’s life. The book received a CBC Bookie Award and earned Richardson an Arts Acclaim Award and a My People Award as an Emerging Artist. A children’s book, based closely on the memoir, is due out in March 2016 with Groundwood Books; excerpts from her first play, my upside down black face, are also published in the anthology T-Dot Griots: An Anthology of Toronto’s Black Storytellers. In 2013, Richardson was one of the Toronto District School Board’s Writers-In-Residence. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph, and she lives in Brampton, Ontario where she currently serves as the Artistic Director for the Festival of Literary Diversity (The FOLD).

ROOM: How did the vision for the FOLD festival come about?

JR: In 2014, the We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) campaign prominently emerged in the United States in response to the lineup of a prominent literary festival that lacked diverse representation. Across social media, people posted pictures with signs that indicated why diverse books were important to them. Reading a diverse range of stories has always been important to me, particularly when I began to explore my own identity in a meaningful way. But the WNDB movement was the first time I realized that diverse authors – and authors of colour in particular – were not the only ones who were looking for more diverse stories. Toronto author Dalton Higgins wrote a piece in response to the WNDB campaign that spoke to the challenges diverse Canadian writers experience in the publishing industry in general. He wrote that diverse representation was needed at all levels of the publishing industry – including festival planners. I had been an event planner at a university for years, and while I had never considered working in the publishing industry, I thought, “I can do that.” I wanted the FOLD to have an impact on multiple levels. Brampton has produced writers like Rohinton Mistry, Ian Williams, and Zarqa Nawaz. Yet despite its proximity to Toronto and its history of prominent writers, Brampton has few literary events and many people in the GTA have never been here. I wanted the FOLD to help diverse authors and I also wanted to give the City of Brampton something it could be proud of that would show off its most significant features.

ROOM: That’s so awesome. What does real diversity in literature look like to you? What is your definition?

JR: As an organization, we have developed a very clear concept of diversity. When we say diversity, we literally mean all kinds of diversity: authors, genres, mediums, etc. Right now, we’re curious about marginalized voices and voices that are underrepresented in Canadian literature. But we’re also interested in challenging elitism in Canadian literature – what kinds of stories count as “literary.” We’re interested in stories that sit outside the mainstream, and we’re interested in exploring why that’s happening so we can start to re-shape the Canadian literary canon. 

ROOM: I love the phrase “sit outside the mainstream” and how great that you are exploring the “why.” Festivals like the FOLD have been a long time coming, what are your main goals for this first year?

JR: This first year, our goals are big. We want our authors to have a great time, and we want to sell a lot of books. That’s an important part of our mandate. In order to do that, we would love to see strong attendance numbers. But we don’t just want a lot of people. We want to see the diversity we have in our lineup reflected in our audience members. We want to provide opportunities for marginalized authors at events like the Writers’ Court and the Writers’ Hub that lead to publishing opportunities. We want people to have an experience when they attend – in the sessions and outside the sessions. We want visitors to love downtown Brampton. We want to have important forward-thinking discussions about how to help marginalized authors. And we want our sponsors to see all of this and say, how much do you want next year? 

ROOM: You mention (on your website) that Lawrence Hill’s book, Black Berry, Sweet Juice had a huge impact on your writing. Can you elaborate more on what it meant for you when you were just starting out? In what ways do you see the FOLD increasing this diversity in literature?

JR: My brother gave me Lawrence Hill’s Black Berry, Sweet Juice when I was in university. It was about the experiences of mixed-race Canadians, and while I am not mixed-race, I identified with many of the experiences. I read the stories and I realized that stories like mine had a place in the world. People in university often asked me about my experiences, and many of them were thoughtful about it. But in some discussions people openly expressed ideologies that were problematic. I wrote my first book to speak to those curiosities and problems, and I read books about other kinds of experiences to give myself that same kind of opportunity for reflection. At the FOLD, I hope people will encounter authors who help dispel myths. I hope they will meet or hear a writer who helps them understand a community that wasn’t familiar to them before, and I hope they learn something about themselves that transforms how they read and write going forward.

ROOM: Can you tell us a bit about how the festival will be organized in terms of format? In other words, what can we expect come festival day?

JR: We spent a lot of time shaping and re-shaping the programming. It was one of the trickiest parts of this first year. We really wanted to create a sense of community, so what people will see on Saturday and Sunday, in particular, is a space for just that. On Saturday there are two common breaks, where everyone will be able to come out of their sessions and connect with authors or other festival-goers. There will be food vendors from downtown Brampton on-site where people can get great food or buy books or sit outside and (hopefully) enjoy the weather. Our hope is that people come and stay – that they will tarry for a while and register for more sessions or simply enjoy downtown Brampton. 

ROOM: We all know diversity is a good thing, for obvious reasons, but what do you say to those people who think festivals like this are actually non-inclusive? 

JR: I would argue that the FOLD is the definition of inclusive – not in the execution just yet (we haven’t covered all marginalized communities) – but in its overarching philosophy. The FOLD is providing opportunities to fill in the gaps that exist in Canada’s literary economy. It’s providing opportunities that have been difficult for diverse writers to secure. Canadian literature is an important place where the wrongs of history can be helped along and reconciled through the presentation of diverse narratives. How do we make sure the stories we leave behind tell the fullest Canadian story? This is the question we have the pleasure of exploring at the FOLD. And I have trouble seeing how that’s non-inclusive.

 ROOM: Agreed. Who would be your dream FOLD participants in the future, and why?

JR: I think the real question here is who do I think is missing from the FOLD 2016 program. With a mission like ours that list is naturally incredibly long. We came to the realization fairly early on that it would be impossible to cover all diversity in this first year. You’ll see in our programming that that means we don’t have as many voices from B.C. and the East Coast and northern regions as we would like. This is a financial issue. We are hoping publishers will see the FOLD as an investment that will allow them to support backlisted authors and out-of-area authors as well. We are hoping to find ways to support diverse authors from small presses that are outside the GTA. There are also lots of communities that are underrepresented at the FOLD this year – authors who have lived experience with mental health, authors who live with varying kinds of ability. This is not something we accept lightly. We want to encourage authors to share this kind of information with us, so we can include more voices at the FOLD. In marginalized communities like these, we also look for other levels of intersectionality (age, race, faith, etc.). The hope for the FOLD is that we continually find new ways to include voices that are marginalized in a way that doesn’t just “check off all the boxes,” but in a way that leads to meaningful dialogue for authors and attendees alike.   

ROOM: How can people get involved in the FOLD? Are there any specific volunteer opportunities you would like to talk about?

JR: There are three great ways to get involved:

  1. We have a great team of volunteers. Email volunteers@thefoldcanada.org for more information.
  2. Buy a ticket. In order to continue to grow the opportunities and the funding, we have to prove that this is an important and viable event. Buy a ticket for anything or everything. And come.
  3. Donate. Included on the ticket order form is an opportunity to donate whatever amount you wish in the event that you cannot make it. Show your support and make a donation. Invest in the tickets you would have purchased if you could have come. 

ROOM: Any last words/comments/advice?

JR: Follow the FOLD for updates and information on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook for updates and information. Sign up for our bi-weekly newsletter at www.thefoldcanada.org.

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