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The Word On The Street Blog

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#DiverseCanLit: Community and Inspiration at the FOLD

May 18, 2016

In lead up to our festival on September 25, 2016 at the Harbourfront Centre, we have so many things to do that for most of the summer we can’t go to all the amazing festivals and events that we want to. But don’t worry! To make sure we stay on top of everything, we’ve enlisted a stellar roster of guest bloggers for the summer to help keep you informed about a ton of activity happening in the GTA.

Our first blogger, Erin Della Mattia, Managing Editor for Sewer Lid, took an in depth look at The Festival of Literary Diversity, which held it’s first event just a few weeks ago from May 6 – 8.

 


 

Having grown up in Brampton I can say with some authority that while this city has always offered a lot of events and activities for children, as you get older you find yourself having to make the trek to downtown Toronto to participate in most cultural events. So I was extremely excited when I first learned that Brampton would be hosting a brand new literary event dedicated to promoting diversity in Canadian literature: the Festival of Literary Diversity (aka the FOLD).

 

Held primarily in the Peel Art Gallery and Museum Archives in downtown Brampton over the weekend of May 6th, 2016, the FOLD offered three days packed with author and publisher panel discussions, writing workshops, library-based activities for families, and special events such as the Spoken Word Showcase and The Last Lecture with Lawrence Hill. One of the main missions of FOLD is to create spaces for and facilitate discussions about diversity in Canadian literature, a goal which was certainly achieved.

 

Perhaps because the FOLD was marketed heavily towards writers, readers, publishers, and educators, the festival had an amazing atmosphere of community in which all of us had a stake in the discussions and their outcomes. It felt like a very unique experience to look around and see so many members of the audience taking notes throughout the events, and also to see authors sitting in on one another’s panel discussions. Audiences were on the smaller side, however, as the price of tickets may have deterred some people from attending.

 

Heather O'Neill reading at the Powerful Protagonists Panel

Heather O’Neill reading at the Powerful Protagonists Panel

 

Covering a variety of topics such as race, gender, sexuality, disability, and ageism, FOLD’s panel discussions and workshops allowed speakers and audiences to reflect on the ways in which diversity manifests in writing and publishing. In the Powerful Protagonists panel for instance, authors Brian Francis, Sabrina Ramnanan, Waubgeshig Rice, and Heather O’Neill spoke about the creative process and character creation.

 

They discussed how writing characters that are “close” to oneself or reflect one’s personal experiences is a way of validating those experiences, of proving that they are important and interesting, especially for marginalized voices. Heather O’Neill explained how powerful protagonists are often united in their rebellion against their narratives and the historical legacies of discrimination: “we are not our context; we strive against our context.” It is in this daring-to-be-different that they show their strength, but as Aga Maksimowska noted, it is also in their willingness “to be vulnerable on the page.”

 

Spoken Word artist Chris Tse and the crowd at Garden Sqaue

Spoken Word artist Chris Tse and the crowd at Garden Square

 

This interplay between vulnerability and strength was similarly palpable during the Spoken Word Showcase, a free event held Saturday night in downtown Brampton’s Garden Square. Spoken Word artists such as Dwayne Morgan, Britta B, Truth Is, Paulina O’Kieffe, and Chris Tse warmed up the chilly night with their energy and power, covering a diverse range of styles and topics, from Paulina O’Kieffe’s poems about motherhood and complicating the notion of “the other woman,” to Chris Tse’s reflections on race and culture in a Canadian context, to performances about gender, love, and being an artist by Truth Is, in which she advised fellow writers and artists, “don’t ever forget what your voice looks like.”

 

One of the most popular events of the weekend, the Publishing (More) Diverse Stories panel discussion, was a call to action: urging readers, writers, educators, book sellers, and publishers to make active steps towards being more inclusive and challenging assumptions about what qualifies as Can Lit.

 

The Publishing (More) Diverse Stories Panel

The Publishing (More) Diverse Stories Panel

 

McClelland & Stewart editor Anita Chong pointed out, “inclusivity and quality are not mutually exclusive,” and widening the talent pool at all levels of the publishing industry only increases the number of good. There is a lot of complacency and hesitancy around diversity in the industry – some people believe that diverse stories won’t sell; while others, who are often part of a marginalized group themselves are left feeling like they always need to speak up for diverse stories, because if they don’t, maybe nobody else will.

 

What the panelists want – and what the industry needs – is for all of us to step up. For readers, this means buying diverse books and asking stores and libraries to have them in stock, as well as supporting those publications that have specific diversity mandates. Publishers must make direct commitments to diversity, to be reflected not only in the stories they publish but also in the staff they recruit.

 

Paulina O'Kieffe performing at the Spoken Word Showcase

Paulina O’Kieffe performing at the Spoken Word Showcase

 

Media outlets need to cover and market underrepresented voices and stories. Committees who create arts and culture policies, and who determine the writers/publishers/projects that get government funding, need to be more varied. Writers too can incorporate greater diversity in their work by writing characters that are more specifically identifiable as members of marginalized groups, as opposed to merely changing the skin colour of a character in an otherwise white-washed story. In short, is what we need to make the Can Lit industry stronger.

 

We are still only at the beginning of the journey of increasing diversity and access in the industry, but it’ll be exciting to see how the FOLD and its influence grow as the years progress.

 

Continue the conversation online using #DiverseCanLit

 


 

Erin Della Mattia is a writer and researcher based in Brampton, Ontario. Currently a MA student in Ryerson University’s Literatures of Modernity program, she also serves as the Managing Editor of the online journal of urban art and literature, Sewer Lid.

 


 

For more information on this year’s The Word On The Street Festival, please visit: