The GTA’s first diverse literary festival shakes things up

Brampton author Jael Richardson introduces us to The Festival of Literary Diversity, a brand new literary festival with a fresh and diverse perspective

In a 2014, National Magazine Award-winning journalist Dalton Higgins suggested a solution to the well-known lack of diversity in American and Canadian literature in an article published on the blog of Open Book Toronto.  TRX Suspension Training ,He wrote, “I truly do believe that the best panacea to cure this business’ ills is to have more black and/or racialized community members, with progressive sensibilities, working in decision-making positions, as agents, editors, publishers and festival owners.” The sentiment struck a powerful chord with Brampton author and writer, Jael Richardson, who set out to organize the GTA’s premier diverse literary festival. The Festival of Literary Diversity is set to run from the 6th – 8th of May 2016 featuring diverse books, writers, authors and publishing professionals.

One of the most important parts of a literary festival is the panel discussions.,The topics and roster of panelists often set the tone for the entire festival. “I’m just amazed when I go to panels and find that panelists are mainly white, that the topics are traditional and audiences are middle to older age. No one seems to care that that is what’s going on!” Richardson exclaims. According to Richardson, most festival planers make their rosters by picking the biggest names, the biggest and best draws, with little attention paid to diverse writers with less star power.

She sees this as encouraging more of the same discussion around Canadian literature. “You need to enrich the audience and bring in new [audiences]!” Richardson emphasizes. “If you keep giving people what they have always been reading, they will keep thinking what they have always been thinking. You want to throw people together who will challenge each other and say something different.  The best panels are when people disagree.”

If festivals do include diverse writers in their panel rosters, Richardson says, it will often be because the festival has decided to have a panel discussion on diversity in Canadian literature. She laments the fact that she, a black writer, is only ever called upon for these discussions while her white colleagues are invited to share their expertise in literary technique.

“People have said ‘What’s the big deal? You should be grateful.’.” Richardson recalls. She sighs with exasperation. “I am grateful to get called on. But it informs a very systemic problem, that [diverse authors] are only experts in diversity, not writing.”

Seeing a diverse writer share their expertise in writing inspires diverse students to envision a place for themselves in the writing and publishing industry, breaking free of the systemic issue. “Growing up,” Richardson shares, “I could not have told you a person of colour that I knew of who was writing. In high school, I didn’t even know that it happened.” She shakes her head incredulously. “When I read Djanet Sears’ play, Harlem Duet, in university, it blew my mind.” Richardson smiles widely, recalling the experience. “She came to our class and I felt unworthy,” she laughs, “I practically crawled up to the front to talk to her. That experience is what makes me want to talk to kids [about writing].  I know that just seeing someone who looks and talks like you can make a huge difference in how you see your future.”

It is for this reason that FOLD is concentrating on attracting a younger, more diverse demographic. “I feel that a lot of festivals are losing connection with the younger audience. I’ve met a lot of young people recently who are great readers but who don’t like the snobbery of the writing community,” Richardson says. “When I go to panels with young people,” she continues, “I get asked questions like, ‘What kind of music shaped your writing?’. And those are the kinds of questions that we want to ask. It is a fresh discussion!”

When asked how FOLD might incorporate aspects that appeal to a younger, more diverse audience without alienating an older one, Richardson has an answer prepared. “We are not going to have rap sessions in the middle of the day,” she says with a laugh. “But we are bringing Lawrence Hill in as the last lecturer and we’re thinking about opening that session with a spoken word artist as a way of introducing a different way of storytelling.”

Whether or not the traditional literary world is ready for the Festival of Literary Diversity is irrelevant. Richardson has finally answered the call of Canada’s diverse writers, authors, publishers, and students with this fresh, new festival.