(Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 of a 2 part in-depth interview with Jael Richardson, a Brampton author and the founder of the Festival of Literary Diversity which runs May 4th to 7th, 2017 in venues across Brampton.)
Brampton is a city of stories. It is at first glance, a place that’s grown exponentially and in ways few probably conceived. At its heart is our collective and individual identities. There are tales of who planted the seeds of this place, who were stewards of its growth to the present and most importantly, why they chose Brampton. Whether we are talking about how anything “north of Bovaird” was once farm land or reminiscing about childhood Winters spent barrelling down Chinguacousy’s ski hill on toboggans, we are residents shaped by our stories.
Stories bare all, in their simple truths and nuanced complexities. They are, even in fiction, unwaveringly honest and attending events like this year’s Festival of Literary Diversity can be revolutionary. The fluidity of stories also peels away the political, leaving behind, the simple joy of reading. If we’re being honest, there are also few pleasures for book lovers quite like the smell of new books.
Stories were among my best friends growing up. As an awkward queer kid desperate to fit in, it never occurred to me that they might be enough on their own. Books give us superpowers, reflecting the world we want to see and the world we don’t realize we need to see. These are just a few of the reasons why this year’s Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) is one of Brampton’s must-attend events.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Jael Richardson, FOLD’s founder and the author of “The Stone Thrower” to talk about the festival. What came to life was a conversation about so much more. This is part one and I welcome you to find or lose yourself in it and revel in just a hint of the magic that’s set to take place between May 4th and 7th at the FOLD this year.
What was the first festival like for you as an organizer?
It was really emotional and pretty magical. I remember being in the very first session, watching it unfold and thinking, “Oh my gosh it’s really here! It’s really happening.” And then I remember getting to the end of the weekend and thinking that the festival did everything I had hoped it would do and more.
Spaces are theoretically accessible, but not always so in practice. How do you hope to open more doors with this year’s festival?
Accessibility is a really tricky one because, on one front, I don’t think we’ll ever be truly accessible. To be truly accessible your event has to be free and all of the people who attend have to be able to participate in everything without having to ask for special accommodations, support or resources. Most festivals and events either ignore accessibility or become quite proud of themselves for being not very accessible at all. They say, “We’re in an accessible building so we’ve covered all our bases.” They think that because they say they’re accessible, they are.
When it comes to accessibility at the FOLD, there are a few factors to consider: We try and have as much diversity and accessibility as possible (diversity in our author lineup and accessibility for both authors and attendees), but we also have a very realistic understanding about who we’re not accessible to and who we may never be accessible to without developing a different strategy in that regard.
We wanted to have more disabled authors both in overt ways in sessions where open conversation about disability could occur, but also wanted to include authors on panels and events that involved different kinds of authors where they might simply want to talk about writing. At the FOLD, it’s important to me that people aren’t forced to talk about things they don’t want to talk about or are tired of talking about.
We still face a major challenge in regards to becoming more accessible. There are lots of factors that we are weighing and considering to be better allies.
How do you get feedback or decide how to make spaces more accessible? How does that process work for the FOLD?
It’s tricky. Our goal is to create an Accessibility Advisory Committee. We really want to have ongoing discussions about how to be more inclusive, and my ultimate goal is to facilitate an advisory committee that allows the people on the committee to become consultants for other events as well. The real aim is to make sure that all literary events are accessible for presenters and attendees.
Right now we have one volunteer who acts as a consultant. She offers advice regularly and looks at our language and programming to help us identify gaps or oversights. This provides a very singular lens, which is not ideal for anyone, which is why we’re looking at developing a committee of voices.
Writing and reading is a political act but many see it as leisure because of the way language allows it to wear many hats. How has the festival helped attendees better understand their place in our increasingly polarized and politicized world?
There are a lot of festivals that are just about books and literature and discussion. There are also increasingly more politicized festivals (for lack of a better word) — festivals that are based around a particular group, community or social justice mission. The FOLD operates in between those two spaces in that it’s both for people who just read books and talk about books, people who perhaps aren’t thinking politically. It also provides a space for people who belong to marginalized communities who are writing and reading with political mindsets or motivations.
Our goal is to attract a reading and writing audience that are political OR become political because they hear from people who they normally wouldn’t normally hear from or encounter in their particular communities or circles.
Last year, during a question and answer period on one of the panels, a woman stood up and said, “Why have I never heard of these authors before?! They are so amazing and I’ve been to lots of literary events and I’ve never heard of them.” It led to a really interesting discussion.
We see this play out among writers as well, which impacts our programming. When we talk about marginalized or diverse writers, on a very basic level, there are tend to be two kinds of writers — or, at the very least, a spectrum with two opposite approaches at either end. There are people who are writing as an act of politics and protest, people who write as a way to speak up/out, as a way to challenge dominant narratives. There are also those who just want to write stories and happen to be Black or Asian. They struggle with the fact that they have limited opportunities. It’s really important to have a festival where readers and writers motivated by politics or enjoyment (or some mixture of the two) can gather.
How does it feel to know that you helped to create a space where diverse authors are no longer talking about diversity as though justifying taking up space on panels or in interviews and can just be diverse authors talking about their stories? It’s a subtle difference but how does it feel to know you helped to create that?
It feels pretty surreal. I’m a person of faith so for me it’s been really strange to look back at my life and to look back at all the training I’ve done informally and formally, intentionally and unintentionally and see it all come together in something like the FOLD. I always wanted to do something big with my life. I always wanted to help people. I’ve always been very interested in fairness and justice and I’ve also grown up very privileged financially so to be able to see how all those things are used together while also helping my community at the same time has been humbling.
I got an award recently and when you do this kind of work you don’t think about awards. You can’t. You just think: I hope it works, and I hope it survives. I hope I survive. So when you get awards and when it works and when people are positively affected, it’s a lot to take in. I get choked up about it.
My colleague and I are different on so many levels, but when we were done the festival last year, she said, “I felt like a little bit of heaven came down.” We were both in tears.
I have learned more about something bigger than me from being a part of this and seeing how people who are different come together, caring about each other and each other’s stories.
The financial aspect is really important to talk about as well. The festival pays all of our authors. We put them in hotels for the whole weekend and we feed them, and this is a really important part because we want the festival to feed the authors spiritually and financially. We want them to go away having more money than they did when they left which is important because some festivals don’t pay at all or don’t pay enough by the time you feed yourself and travel, you’re not actually making any money. It feeds the author in spiritually and financially but it also increases the profile of the festival. We wanted the festival to be on par with the biggest and the best festivals in the country because we didn’t want diverse authors to see it as the festival for marginalized or lesser writers. We want it to be one of the big ones across the country — something writers aspire to be a part of and feel excited about taking part in.
Having been a queer bookseller, my QTBIPOC friends and I would often look for books or places on shelves that we could call our own. What would you say to readers and booksellers looking at the literary world and seeing very little of themselves looking back at them?
I’m with you. I mean, one of the stories I tell a lot that really got this going in a whole new level is when I went to a bookstore in a small-ish town and I offered to come for Black History Month because my book was about my Dad and the civil rights movement and the bookseller said, “You don’t need to come here. This town is very white,” like it wouldn’t really work there. It was really troubling for me to realize that a bookseller had decided that my book was only for Black people that only black people would be interested in a story like mine.
Readers should know that there are books out there that are reflecting a lot of our stories and a lot of different kinds of stories. The real challenge is that we don’t know they’re there or we don’t know where to find them or get to them. There’s a whole machine for me that’s broken in my mind. There’s a bunch of things I’m looking to change and fix because i want those stories to get to people but I want them to reach people with the kind of quality that makes them proud. I don’t think it’s just about having more of them to be quite honest. I think it’s about getting the ones we have in the right places and with the right packaging so that people know they’re there AND buy them or sign them out of the library. As a bookseller, it’s not just about just having it in your store but selling it, too. That’s where the whole not just making sure they get published but that the right publisher is picking them up and that they’re being treated well within that publishing house so that the bookseller knows they’re there, can get them and also sell them. I think that whole cycle needs to be carefully considered, especially the marketing machine. One of the sessions at the FOLD is “Get The Word Out” because I’m very interested in the ethics behind acquiring stories and sharing them with the world.
Right now there’s a real interest in getting diverse stories. Publishers are saying, “Oh this is cool, this is trendy! This is needed!” I’m not attracted to that buzz at all. I’m much more interested in what’s being done to sell those books, to get them out and make sure people read them.
What are your thoughts on Libraries in relationship to this topic?
There was a magazine that was having trouble attracting diverse voices. In their submission, they decided to change the language to say we’re looking for diverse writers. When they did that, they got more diverse writers, but it didn’t decrease their non-diverse writers at all. It made me realize in a lot of ways that whether it’s writers or in programming at libraries if you put diverse people at the front, everybody wins. People who haven’t seen themselves before see themselves and people who don’t notice that because they’ve always seen themselves also benefit.
Stay tuned for part two where Jael discusses what she has to say directly to publishers, book sellers and libraries; We’ll be talking about Brampton’s complex relationship to its diverse residents, clearing the way for future generations of marginalized groups.