A diverse trio of young women excitedly shared the news of an upcoming festival that would celebrate diverse voices and bring a cosmopolitan literary scene to Brampton.
One of these literary stars was Jael Richardson, an enthusiastic visionary. Fast forward to spring 2023, and the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) is now entering its eighth season. In addition to adult programming, the FOLD includes sessions and workshops throughout the year, a program for schools, and an annual festival called FOLD Kids which premiered in the fall of 2019. During the early years, I had the pleasure of being on the FOLD Kids planning team, hosting a few sessions and presenting my own work.
Recently, I sat down with Jael, the founder and FOLD executive director, who is also a CBC broadcaster and author in her own right.
Please tell me about your journey to becoming a writer.
I enrolled in an MFA in Creative Writing because I wanted to write a book and teach at college, and coming out of that program, my professor, Kaz Connelly, helped me secure my first publishing deal.
When I finished writing The Stone Thrower, the idea for Gutter Child came to me, and I realized I had more stories to tell and that was something I would do for the rest of my life.
Can you tell us about your writing practice?
I don’t write every day, but I think about my writing every day, so I guess I am working on it daily. I tend to work in bursts based on where the writing is and how confident I am in the next steps or the direction of the work.
Books by Jael Richardson:
The Hockey Jersey with Eva Perron, illustrated by Chelsea Charles (2023)
Because You Are, illustrated by Nneka Myers (2022)
Gutter Child (2021)
The Stone Thrower, illustrated by Matt James (2016)
The Stone Thrower: A Daughter’s Lessons, A Father’s Life (2012)
On family legacy
Your father is Chuck Ealey, a former CFL player. He became the first Black quarterback to win the Grey Cup. He and your mother migrated to Canada from the U.S. Your first two books, The Stone Thrower (biography and picture book), were about your father. How do your father and this legacy inspire you with the work you do today?
What I learned from writing about my dad in my memoir and then in my first children’s book is the importance of working hard. I learned about the value of working at something through repetition, even when it’s difficult or the end result isn’t clear.
I also learned to pursue my passions relentlessly. So while I don’t think my dad is inspiring my writing, per se, I think his work ethic is. But I should also say that while my mother doesn’t have all the awards and while she hasn’t been written about as much as my father, I learned from her to stay steady in my faith, which has sustained me through the last few years, when things were so isolating and hard.
On the FOLD
Was there a single moment when you got inspired to start the FOLD?
The events in 2014, in terms of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement sparked the creation of FOLD. After reading an article by Dalton Higgins, I realized that Canada had the same problem.
Our festivals lacked comprehensive, intersectional diversity, and I wanted to create something new that took a different approach. So within months of the two-week viral hashtag, the FOLD Foundation became a registered business and the first Festival of Literary Diversity launched in May 2016.
What did you hope to accomplish in starting the FOLD?
I started the Festival of Literary Diversity to celebrate underrepresented authors and storytellers. I wanted to create a space where marginalized authors could be celebrated for their identities and insight into the craft.
In addition, I wanted a festival where audiences were more diverse in every way. We still need to grow in this area to better support underrepresented presenters and audience members. This is what keeps me going every day. I know I can always do more and I’m excited about the possibilities.
Tell me about the FOLD’s literary successes.
Success at festivals and with organizations is often measured by how big was your audience, how many tickets did you sell, and how did you grow from one year to the next?
And while I could provide great numbers in some of those areas for some years of the festival, I’m more interested now in thinking about intangibles. I’m proud of our ability to include a comprehensive virtual space where we’ve created a whole new way of engaging with audiences. I’m proud of the culture we’ve created, for our authors, our staff and our volunteers.
What challenge(s) have you faced in running the FOLD?
The biggest challenge is always funding because it impacts access so heavily. Most festivals charge a lot to go to their festivals because it costs a lot to run them. But that creates barriers. Most festivals have very limited staffing because increasing staffing and operations costs is very difficult.
We’ve had to rely on sponsors a lot more than other festivals because we don’t want to put pressure on ticket sales and we don’t always know where our granting dollars will come from.
It’s expensive to provide accessible services like live captioning, but it’s a critical service. So, we’re always chasing more funding opportunities so we can keep ticket prices low while ensuring that content value and accessibility remain the highest priority.
On Canada’s publishing industry
How has working so closely with the Canadian publishing industry and FOLD changed or enhanced your writing and career?
At one point, I had to choose between being a professor and becoming the executive director at the FOLD. I couldn’t do both. Ultimately, I felt like being involved with FOLD was more closely aligned with my passion for writing.
Because of FOLD, I’ve been able to travel the country, attend other festivals and learn from the country’s best festival directors. I’ve done it as an author and in my capacity at FOLD, and that dual-lens is valuable.
Before the Canadian publishing industry had called for the submission of diverse books, the FOLD was already doing the work. Do you believe this was divine timing?
What I’ve learned from my research and writing is that systems don’t change on their own. Most established organizations that are doing well don't voluntarily disrupt their process. They have to be pushed. They have to be made uncomfortable. One of the things that marginalized authors have learned, especially from platforms like Twitter, is that we’re not alone.
We know that our peers are getting paid more. We know that the lineups for a given year lack diversity, and we’re not afraid to call it out. This is the disruption that led to a change in publishing. And FOLD was a part of that. But there were also folks like Dionne Brand, Lillian Allen, and Larissa Lai, who’ve been doing this work much longer. Their words and advice have shaped the work of the FOLD, and they continue to play a significant role in the work that still needs to be done.
On the 2023 line-up
Your lineup this year looks exciting. Can you share more about it?
I think every author at FOLD brings their own story, not just the one they’ve published but the life they lived. So I guess for Black authors, much like other communities, I hope to show the range of our voices and the many intersections that inform who we are and what we choose to write about.
The FOLD is Canada’s first festival for diverse authors and storytellers, held online and in historic downtown Brampton. FOLD 2023 features include panels, discussions, workshops, and interactive events that allow guests from across Canada and worldwide to participate. This year’s festival is presented in a multi-modal format, beginning with a virtual festival and transitioning into in-person and hybrid events.
Dedicated virtual events, with a range of panels, workshops, and networking events, will take place from April 30 – May 3, 2023. Many live-streamed, recorded, and in-person events for virtual pass holders, will take place in Brampton, Ontario at the city’s Rose Theatre from May 4 – 7, 2023.
Featured guest authors include Suzette Mayr, Britta Badour, Tanya Turton, Shahaddah Jack, Kevin heronJones, Shelly Grace, Gia de Cadenet, Liselle Sambury, Sheila Murray, Robyn Maynard, and Lindsay Ruck.
In Person at The Rose Brampton, 1 Theatre Lane, Brampton, ON L6V 0A3
See the full FOLD schedule at thefoldcanada.org.
Register for the FOLD: https://fold2023.vfairs.com/
Twitter: @TheFold_ #FOLD2023
Recent Black Canadian releases
Song & Dread by Otoniya J. Okot Bitek
(Talonbooks, March 15)
Shades of Black by Carlos Anthony
(James Lorimer & Company, April 1)
Blinded by the Brass Ring by Patricia Scarlett
(Baraka Books, April 1)
Ordinary Notes by Christina Sharpe
(Knopf Canada, April 4)
Gills by Ayòmide Bayowa
(Wolsak and Wynn, April 4)
The Song of Wrath by Sarah Raughley
(Simon & Schuster, April 18)
Sandy Toes: A Summer Adventure by Shauntay Grant, illustrated by Candice Bradley
(Abrams, April 25)
The Negroes are Congregating by Natasha Adiyana Morris
(Playwrights Canada Press, April 25)