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Industry Chat: Interview with Jael Richardson

September 4, 2018

The Word On The Street Festival is a great opportunity to get to know Canadian authors and our literary landscape. But the festival is also a fantastic way to get to know the professionals who keep the publishing world turning! We sat down with Jael Richardson to talk about literary festivals, creating space in Canadian literature, and what advice she has for budding publishing folks in Toronto.

 

WOTS: Welcome to WOTS Talks, Jael! First off, can you tell us a bit about the day to day at The FOLD? What’s the day in the life of a Festival Director like, and how does it change throughout the year? For anyone who might not be familiar with it, could you share in your words what The FOLD is?

Jael Richardson: The Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) celebrates diverse authors and storytellers each May in downtown Brampton. The first festival took place in 2016, so we’ve been planning the annual event, plus a few year-round activities, for three and a half years with three festivals under our belt so far.

I work on the festival part-time, so most days start with a lot of emails and organizing with my colleague, Amanda Leduc. Once a week, Amanda and I meet up in person, and once a month our planning team gets together to think about events and promotional opportunities. Throughout the fall, I do events across the country—delivering workshops on diversity in the arts while sending out invites and planning the framework for the festival. In the winter, it’s all festival pretty much all the time. We finalize our authors and our schedule and then I supervise all the marketing, volunteer, and sponsorship work.

No two days are the same, which is fun. And I get to work in my pajamas or sweatpants. Also fun.

 

WOTS: To run a literary festival, you have to love to read! What are some of your favourite stories and who are some of your favourite authors, and what makes their work shine for you?

JR: I love books. I love reading them and writing them, so asking for a favourite is like asking a teacher to name their favourite student or a parent to name their favourite child. I feel like any book I finish is kind of special in its own way (because I generally won’t finish them if they’re not).

That being said, I’ve been really touched by a few books this past year for very different reasons—When We Were Alone by David Robertson is one of the most magical children’s books I’ve ever read. It makes me cry not because it’s depressing but because it’s so beautiful and so touching.

I’m really excited to see what Tanaz Bhathena’s (A Girl Like That) and Casey Plett (Little Fish) will do next. I loved their debuts and I’m looking forward to hearing more from them. Carrianne Leung, Jay Pitter, Amanda Leduc, and Cherie Dimaline are three of my favourite authors—on and off the page. Admittedly, there’s bias in that. We share the experience of being community organizers and writers, so for me, they are not just writers I admire but people I wish I could spend more time with—people who keep me going when the work (writing or organizing) gets hard.

 

WOTS: Talk to us about programming. The FOLD has thoughtful, timely programming that engages fantastic publishing professionals—what does putting that schedule together look like for you?

JR: Programming is hard work. And it’s getting harder every year. When we first started, we thought there wouldn’t be many options—that diverse writers weren’t being published. But we had plenty of choice, even in that first year. It was easier to pick authors and narrow it down when we were unknown. Now, we get a lot more pitches from publishers across the country and since there’s a lot more awareness about the importance of diverse titles, and proven sales successes, there are more options to pick from every year. Which is great. But it means we have to leave out so many authors every year.

We have to make choices that are really really hard. To be a gatekeeper in this way weighs on me, and the more successful we get, the harder it is. I have regularly appeared at events where authors I wanted to have at the festival are there and I can barely look at them sometimes. I feel terrible.

It’s important to understand in all this that “diversity” isn’t just about checking off boxes. I don’t think that’s what makes the FOLD’s programming work—just a sprinkle of this and a dab of that. Our programming is about building important conversations and highlighting critical voices that better reflect the range of stories and storytellers across this land. So we build author by author, panel by panel, until we’ve got the right mix. Multiple times in the process, we ask ourselves: who’s missing? It’s the most important question to ask and it’s important to ask it all the time.

Every year, we ask ourselves this question, who’s missing, after the festival ends, and there’s always a panel that we “have to have” based on what didn’t happen at the festival the year before.

We have a saying at FOLD: Diversity, and more specifically true inclusion, always takes more work but it always reaps better results. Ultimately, inclusion is what we want. Not just a Skittles bowl of different kinds of authors, but a space where authors and guests feel valued, heard, and wherever possible, truly understood.

 

WOTS: You launched The FOLD a few years ago, and it’s now a crucial literary event in Ontario—and Canada. How long did the idea stick with you before you decided to hit GO on it? When did you decide that it was time for The FOLD to happen?

 

JR: The idea for the festival came in 2014 like the cliché of a lightbulb in your head. It came as the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag/movement emerged in the United States, and I felt right away that it was what I was meant to do. I had been an event planner before, and I wanted to create a festival where diverse/marginalized voices weren’t an after thought, but the starting point. The idea for the name came soon after, and I registered the FOLD as a business and assembled a board before the end of that year. In May 2015, we announced on Twitter that we would be putting on the first Festival of Literary Diversity one year later, in 2016.

I have to say, my agent’s response is still my favourite. When I told her I was stating a literary festival, she said, “That’s ambitious.” And it was. But the timing was right, and that’s why I think it’s done so well. It was an event and a space and an organization that was needed in CanLit.

 

WOTS: We saw on Twitter how many steps you walked the first day of The FOLD this year—YOWZA, it was a lot! As you’re walking those steps, what are the highlights of the festival? Any favourite stories?

JR: It’s hard for me at the festival. I can’t sit still. It’s hard for me to sit down and enjoy a full session, which is why the partnership with Audible was such a great one. Now I get to hear the stories I missed. I have to say that our two evening events were really meaningful to me personally. From Boys to Men with Rachel Giese and Jamil Jivani was lovely because they were both so thoughtful in their responses and so humble about their efforts and their work, which is interesting and important. I loved the questions that came from the audience in the Q and A at the end. They were things I hadn’t thought about that pushed the conversation further.

The Stories We Tell with Tanya Talaga and Robyn Maynard was also deep and rich. Hearing a black woman and an Indigenous woman talk about the history of this land and how racism and prejudice continue to jeopardize lives is a conversation every person needs to hear. I think that hit me too as they were speaking, how important their words were: How do we get more people to hear what they so desperately need to know more about? How do we replace ignorance and inaction with empathy and activism?

 

WOTS: For those thinking about getting into Festival and Arts Management—or just anyone who wants to bring important events to their communities—what are some of the challenges they’ll face? How do you recommend aspiring Arts professionals prepare themselves for this challenging and rewarding space?

JR: The issue of funding is always the biggest hurdle—where you get funding, how reliable it is, how well it allows you to do what you actually need it for. But I’m really passionate about making sure that arts organizers understand the importance of inclusion as well. Not just surface level inclusion but radical inclusion—the kind of inclusion that doesn’t settle on what everyone else has done or is doing, but which pushes the boundaries and asks how the space can provide more support—especially for those who are traditionally overlooked.

I think you have to be prepared to fight in that regard—to fight your board, to fight your bias, to fight the status quo. I see a lot of gatekeepers and influencers touting the word diversity and then missing the mark, with no care or concern for the impact it’s having and no willingness to reconsider how their ignorance contributes to systemic oppression. I’d like to see more and more organizers, book sellers, librarians, and teachers from privileged backgrounds or experiences really take this idea to heart and fight for better practices for those who have not traditionally been given or allotted space for their stories/voice.

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