This is Part 2 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. The long form version of the questions and answers are included. Brampton Focus welcomes attendees of the Festival of Literary Diversity and will continue coverage with author features during the event.
You alluded to publishing and bookselling gatekeepers in this interview as having a lot of power. If you could speak directly to them, what would you say?
When I talk to people and give keynote addresses I give them the lesson to work (in this case, publish and sell) diversely, read diversely and live diversely. Those are really important strategies. The one that I find really important for booksellers and publishers is to live diversely. I think that often they’ll say they read diversely and they probably do, but I also think it’s really important to live diversely, especially if you’re cisgender and white.
It’s really important for you to find yourself in places where you are not a majority. Go to a mosque or to go to a Caribbean event or a queer event. Go to something you’d never go to and be in that space and really consider that experience — consider what it feels like to be the only. It’s such a radical experience for some people and yet for me I am often the only. Almost always at writing events, I’m looking around the room and seeing one or two others and we notice. We notice each other.
There’s a whole different experience and when you do those things and you live and read diversely and even watch the news diversely and put that lens on it, not allowing yourself to let it go, I think it will change how you do your work. I think right now a lot of people who are cisgender and white feel good about themselves and the work they’re doing without really challenging what they’re totally unaware of.
When it came to accessibility and disability there was so much I didn’t know, for example. I had no clue on so many levels and I still don’t. It’s a work in progress and probably will be for the rest of my life. I feel that as a Black woman I was able to acknowledge my shortcomings quicker and move into a position of being an ally faster than some people who never think about privilege.
When it comes to celebrating diverse voices, my position is that we’ve spent a lifetime favoring a particular kind of author and a particular kind of story. We’ve literally spent decades and decades producing a narrow version of good writing. It’s not just about slightly mixing it up right now. We have to radically change the way we do things and make those voices really visible all the time, not just sometimes and not just some months. All the time. To booksellers and libraries, I regularly say, “Think about the stories that are visible when readers come in the door. Think about how you can position more stories to be more visible that are different or come from different places.”
It’s so true. I found after those relationships, my friend groups got smaller. You hear things when dating and you have to end some friendships. You realize that it’s beyond the point of, “Well maybe I can teach them,” because there are some offenses that you just can’t come back from. People forget and I’m very appreciative that you’re saying these things because it’s important to put them into print. It’s not something that you read about a lot- in Brampton media at least.
There’s a real richness though, to have access to so many different kinds of people in Brampton. There’s confusion about what to do and how to handle the things that make you afraid of someone who is different from you. Why do they do things like that? How can they think what they think or believe in something I don’t believe in? These are important questions to ask and they are not questions that are out of bounds or off limits, but when you turn them into negatives or fears as opposed to just concerns or questions, when you let your questions lead to silence (or worse yet, judgment) that’s when you get into difficulty. What I love about books is that they give us a chance to get inside a group, inside a culture, inside a person, inside an individual and learn about them. And when we do that, we begin to understand each other more and more. There have been books where I’ve suddenly realized something about someone’s identity or thought process, things I didn’t think about. It’s makes it so that when I meet someone from that community or group, I ask much more thoughtful questions. I’m less ignorant. That’s really what books do.
Taking up space and preserving that for future generations is incredibly important. How do you hope that this festival acts as a space maker?
What I desperately long for is for writers who are thinking about writing to consider the possibility that they could be major or even minor forces in the world when they find their voice. I want great writers to be able to write, create and build a career. And I want developing writers to see that potential ahead of them. The FOLD isn’t just an event that happens each year – I want it to have a career-building effect. I hope there are writers who are emerging writers who get into the FOLD where other things build as a result. I can think of a few authors that were positively impacted by their involvement in the FOLD last year. If the festival’s profile gets high enough then people will look to the festival for a variety of things: to fill festival programming in the fall, to invite authors into their schools. Those actions allow a writer to have a longer, richer writing career.
Another part of it is something I’m always thinking about: the book economy. I want to see the top selling books to be from a variety of writers and we’re starting to see a little bit of that now. I’d like it to be more full. There are great Indigenous authors whose stories are performing well, and for good reason. That’s great. We still have a real shortage of Black female authors in Canada. We still see a shortage of disabled authors across the board, and these groups are underrepresented at festivals and on sales lists. It’s not because they’re not talented. It’s because the system has failed them in the past and continues to overlook them. It’s a systemic problem that won’t get fixed overnight, unfortunately. And it won’t get fixed at all if people in positions of power don’t acknowledge it.
My hope is that we can build a system that starts to feed the literary economy in a way that makes diverse books not just cool or on trend, but an essential part of a revitalized book economy. That’s when booksellers and publishers are really going to respond — when they can see the metrics. It’s where I think the FOLD can help.
Which is vital. It’s vital to have editors scratch their heads for a second and say, “Hold on, I didn’t realize that there’s nothing here that represents these authors but the authors are there.” It’s a really big breakthrough.
I grew up near South Common Mall in Mississauga and reading about how close to home your experiences in the book were, helps contextualize the fact that there is still racism here and that Canada’s racist, too. What were people’s reactions when you were writing your experiences? Did they dismiss it like many people do to claims of racism here now?
No, I’ve had really positive responses. That whole book for me is the real impetus behind the FOLD. I’m really proud of that book in a way that’s not, “I’m so great,” but moreso because it really reflects everything that I wanted to achieve. It’s creative and unique and I think it’s written well. I felt like I accomplished all the goals that I wanted to and as a result I got positive reactions from a lot of different people. I had young kids in grade eight, nine and ten read it and say, “Oh my gosh! It was so interesting, it was so good!” And to know that they could navigate the story was really touching for me and to see that there were also older people and older white men in particular, many of whom were CFL fans was huge. They read the book and they were touched as fathers and football fans.
Hearing from a range of people who were affected by the book was really powerful, but on the other hand there was also this real awareness that the book was unknown. Five years later, I’m travelling all over sharing the book because there’s a kid’s book. But the story is the same. It’s a source of frustration for me because I tried to go back and see if we could do a real marketing push behind the memoir, but the publishers said it was too old. This idea that stories are old and no longer relevant or worth talking about is really painful. It’s also difficult because I don’t think readers see it that way. But what can you do?
The experience with that book is what really helped start the FOLD. It’s the story behind the story. I want to make sure that if a book comes out that’s important, it gets it’s fair shot at a book loving audience. There’s often this sense that diverse stories are only for a certain kind of person and really the goal with the FOLD is so different. Our goal is to get different kinds of people reading different kinds of books.
We try and mix up our panels intentionally to achieve this goal — including authors from smaller presses on panels with authors whose names are more widespread, so that indie readers and readers who follow a more traditional CanLit framework are all introduced to someone new.
There was an author recently who didn’t want to be on a panel about diversity. They made a policy that they wouldn’t do it anymore. Someone asked if that was right or if that was fair and I said I was totally okay with it. For whatever reason I feel very called to talk about these things, and I’m happy to be that person on the panel. I will talk about diversity whenever somebody wants me to because if they want to, it’s the beginning. It’s not usually the best approach (to feed an audience “diversity”), but it’s the beginning. But it’s an authors right to fight and position themselves as experts in craft. They’ve earned that. Some established Candian authors have been on diversity panels for far too long. I’ve had a really privileged life as a result of hard work from my Dad and I feel like it’s my job now to do some really hard for other people.
Do you ever feel like with people read the book and see you as somebody who will explain race forevermore? Speaking from being Queer, when you talk about your experiences, it’s like you become an encyclopedia for explaining your marginalization and it can get so exhausting.
It can. I don’t mind when people ask me though and when I wrote the book I hoped people would ask me. I think people have always been asking me and I wrote the book as a really long answer. But people need clarification. It takes time. If there’s someone I know who genuinely doesn’t understand, I try and figure out where they’re coming from and figure out what the next step is for them. For some people the next step is reading a book by a person of a different race. For some people it’s about putting themselves in spaces where they are a minority and identifying with what that feels like.
I think that for the rest of my life I’ll be talking about race. I don’t see it as a burden. If that’s the hardest thing about my life – to talk about race all the time, I’ll take it. I’ll make myself really well informed, I’ll be a thoughtful advocate for those who maybe need it and who are desperately tired of talking about it. Some people are just tired and don’t want to answer those questions, and that’s fair, but I feel when people ask a question, even if it’s ignorant, they’re at the beginning of making change. If I can get them to take another step, maybe they’ll take another and another. If I shut them down, and they’re genuinely trying, I worry they’ll take steps backwards.
One of the things at the FOLD that we really emphasize with moderators and volunteers is that people have to be free to ask any question and say anything with respect so it has to be a place where somebody can come in and say, “I think that this is racist, what you’ve done,” and “I think that I believe something really different.” They have to be able to ask those things and talk about those things because then we can really talk. If people feel like they can’t ask that or talk about it or feel that they’re not welcome, it’s not a truly inclusive space. Inclusion isn’t about everybody agreeing on the same things coming in or going out of an event. It’s about being willing to hear each other and being willing to be open to the potential for change in your heart and in the hearts of others. It’s about changing the way we see one another. It’s not changing who we are for someone else or because of pressure.
It’s a pet peeve when people take complex issues and narrow them down to one thing so I won’t ask what one thing you hope people take from the festival. What are the ideal things you hope happens at and after this year’s FOLD?
I hope everyone walks away with a positive view of Brampton when they leave. That’s really important and why we wanted it here. I love this city. I know that most people who don’t live in this city and some people who do live here don’t have a positive view of Brampton. Or they hold onto some really negative elements, which are often altogether wrong. My hope is that at the FOLD, everyone walks away with a positive view of this city, what it looks like, be here, eat here, spend time here and know people here.
On an industry level, I want authors to walk away feeling empowered to continue their work. I hope that readers walk away with a new author that they’re dying to read — someone they’re excited to know and follow and commit to. For emerging writers, I hope that they make a connection that will lead to future possibilities, whether it’s just a workshop or course or getting a book deal.
There’s a woman who came last year from Windsor. I was so excited because she came so far. She was Muslim and stood up at one of the sessions, saying that she was a writer and that her son told her she couldn’t be, because she’s Black, she wore a headscarf and she was Muslim. He tried to convince her that no one is going to read her book. At the time she had submitted her work to a number of publishers and hadn’t heard anything and within four months of the festival, she received a contract with Second Story Press who she spoke to in person at the festival. For me, she is the dream story. I’m so excited for her because that’s why we do it.
Lastly, there are people heavily invested in the book industry and who think that the FOLD is not for them because they don’t live in Brampton or because they’re not a person of color. They’re writers and they’re journalists and they’re people who should be at the FOLD in terms of knowing the industry they’re working in and understanding our audience. I would love to see them show up. But I don’t have high hopes. I also feel like booksellers and librarians should attend festivals in general — and, here in the GTA, I think this one is particularly important. But I admit that I’m horribly biased.