Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Special Feature! Interview with FOLD Festival Director Jael Richardson

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Jael Richardson

Many readers are eager to experience a diversity of voices in their books, magazines, and newspapers. And yet that diversity is often lacking, with systemic, sometimes invisible barriers existing at multiple levels of the writing and publishing process. In order to celebrate and bring attention to diverse voices in Canadian literature, author and professor Jael Richardson founded FOLD: The Festival of Literary Diversity in Brampton, Ontario.

The first FOLD starts in two weeks, on May 6, 2016, with a powerhouse line up of authors, journalists and activists offering everything from readings and panels to writing workshops and children's programming. The festival runs until May 8 and boasts dozens of events. The line up features talented writers, including those with disabilities, from under-represented geographic areas and religions, and from a variety of literary genres, ethnic backgrounds, gender identities, sexual orientations and ages. A truly inclusive festival, FOLD brings some of the best writers in the country together, including familiar favourites like Lawrence Hill, Brian Francis, Heather O'Neill and Little Mosque on the Prairie creator Zarqa Nawaz, as well as countless new voices.

Two of Open Book's own columnists, Dalton Higgins and Vivek Shraya, are also included the festival's exciting line up.

We're thrilled to partner with the FOLD to help connect book lovers with great stories. Today we welcome FOLD Director and Founder Jael Richardson to the site to talk about how the FOLD came to be, why diversity is about much more than "checking off boxes" and why Brampton is the perfect city to host the FOLD. Stay tuned to Open Book in the coming days, when we will be talking with several FOLD guest authors as well!

Open Book:

Tell us about how the FOLD came to be and what inspired you to start the festival.

Jael Richardson:

I love literary festivals. But at literary festivals across Canada, I found that diverse voices were consistently underrepresented or tokenized, which is just a different part of the same problem. Diverse writers were either not present at all or they were resigned to conversations about diversity. I wanted to create a festival where diverse authors could be seen and valued as experts in craft. If Canada is a multi-cultural country, then the literature and the literary festivals should reflect that. If it’s a country that embraces diversity, the literature and festivals should too. After all, it’s 2016.


How do you view the current climate around diversity in Canadian literature? What's working, and what needs to evolve?


In the first year, we thought it might be hard to find diverse stories. But the problem wasn’t finding diverse authors and stories. Diverse books are being published in Canada. There are great small and medium-sized presses that are committed to doing it exclusively; there are other presses, including large multi-national ones, that are producing diverse books too. The most significant problem we discovered this year when it comes to diverse Canadian titles is that the people who need and/or want them most, don’t even know they exist. Why is that? Why does a Canadian librarian who wants to diversify their shelves have no idea where to find Canadian stories? I can hear the fingers pointing, but the fact of the matter is, it’s a problem that diverse Canadian authors can’t afford to ignore. How does an author get their story to the people who need it most? Festivals are a great way to do that. They provide a captive audience. They provide opportunities for the names of authors to be swirled around at a faster rate.

But there’s also a blockbuster mentality in the industry that poses challenges for readers and festival organizers. Books are often given six month’s worth of marketing dollars. Most festivals focus on features and recent titles for that reason — there’s money set aside for them. The organizers are less likely to have to pay for travel, which can eat up major chunks of tight budgeting dollars. But this negatively impacts readers and writers. We had two authors from the same city who we were interested in for 2016. One publisher offered to pay for the author’s travel (even though it wasn’t new), one said they’re budget wouldn’t allow for it, even though it was more recent. As a first year, not-for-profit organization, we went with the author whose publisher was willing to pay their author’s way. It was a smart business decision, but it was difficult to see how the writers were impacted by a publisher’s business model.

We’re taking a dangerously short-sighted approach if we simply address publishing diverse stories. I think that as the discussion around diversifying the publishing industry grows, the marketing aspect and the reach of authors and their titles needs to become a critical topic for discussion as well. How does a writer in a remote indigenous neighbourhood or a writer from a decentralized town get the word out? In the Canadian literary scene, we have to collectively take a critical look at marketing a great, diverse range of Canadian stories at home and abroad.


How did you approach the programming aspect of FOLD? What combination and balance were you looking to achieve?


We wanted to include as many kinds of voices as possible this year, and we wanted to cover as many topics as possible. We knew we weren’t going to be able to cover everything, so our planning team focused on picking topics based on the authors who were interested in being involved (and available) in 2016. We approached some authors because of their work, some because of their engagement on social media; some were pitched by the publishers and publicists who were willing to meet with us.

When we selected a topic — some were diversity-based and some were craft based — we worked really hard to present a range of voices that covered genre based diversity and lived experiences. We had graphic novelists, poets and filmmakers, for example, in addition to authors who are people of colour or who identify as LGBTQ or align with a particular faith. It wasn’t just about checking off boxes though. We wanted to provide discussions that could tackle as many aspects of the discussion as possible. If we have a talk about mental health, for example, I think it’s critical to include a person of colour. The fact that certain groups are hard to locate is an interesting topic in that needs to be pursued and flushed out. Why is it hard to find people of colour who are willing to talk about mental health, for example, and how do we change that? I think this is why other festivals and events fill up with heteronormative voices. It’s easier. And THAT’S a problem. We can no longer do what’s easier when it comes to diversity. We have to do what’s necessary.

And we had to be held accountable to that as well. We were looking to include a panel on disability, but we struggled to find people who were willing to speak up about it. So we gave up. When Dorothy Ellen Palmer came forward and addressed the critical need for representation in this first year, we initially put it off with plans to address it in 2017. But if a festival on diversity won’t prioritize one of the most marginalized sectors of our population, who will? If we don’t say to writers who are disabled, we want you at the table, who will? We can’t always get it right. We won’t. But I hope that we will never tire of engaging in an on-going dialogue on what it looks like and what it means to represent diverse and marginalized authors and stories.


What is your can't-miss event at FOLD this year?


That’s like asking a parent who their favourite child is! I think the answer depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re a new writer, I think the Writer’s Court is a critical event. Hearing feedback and asking questions from agents and editors is so important to the development of your craft. If you’re a reader and you’ve never been to a festival, any of the panels are must-see collaborations. If you love nonfiction and motivational keynotes, I would definitely recommend Spin. But if you’re a seasoned festival goer or organizer or an industry professional, I would recommend the session on Diverse Bodies and the session on publishing. They will shake you up a bit, and we hope they will force all of us to more actively engage in necessary change.


Why is Brampton the right city to host FOLD?


There is no better place for this event. Brampton is the 9th largest city in Canada, and one of the youngest and most diverse cities in the country. Yet it does not have a single major festival. It’s not considered a destination city. But that’s about to change. The City of Brampton has provided significant support for the festival. They are ready and I really think people will agree that the fit is a good one.

There are areas of diversity where Brampton is an excellent model. But there are other areas where the community really needs to more thoughtfully support and advocate for marginalized groups. I think a festival filled with diverse Canadian authors and stories is a great place to start. Books allow readers to meet people on the page that they don’t know or understand personally, so they can engage with them more thoughtfully — and with more empathy — in their everyday lives. Every city needs this. I’m just glad Brampton gets to be a municipal trailblazer in this effort.


What's next for the festival?


Next year will be heavily influenced by the successes and lessons of this year, so I’ll be able to answer this question better in June. We already know that there will be a next year, and that’s important. What that will look like, we don’t know. Will we grow, shrink or stay the same? It’s too early the to say, but there will also be some exciting announcements for the FOLD Foundation for 2016. But you’ll just have to subscribe to the FOLD to hear about that news.

Jael Richardson is the author of The Stone Thrower: A Daughter’s Lesson, a Father’s Life, a memoir based on her relationship with her father, CFL quarterback Chuck Ealey. The book received a CBC Bookie Award and earned Richardson an Acclaim Award and a My People Award. Excerpts from her first play, my upside down black face, are published in the anthology T-Dot Griots. Richardson has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph. She lives in Brampton where she serves as the Artistic Director for the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD).

FOLD: The Festival of Literary Diversity was founded by Jael Richardson and is run by the FOLD Board of Directors as a vibrant community of readers and writers celebrating diverse authors and literature in Brampton, Ontario — one of Canada’s most culturally diverse cities.

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