Jaclyn Qua Hiansen on The Festival of Literary Diversity that was overdue
1. CanLit is diverse
WHEN I FIRST arrived in Canada, I learned from a professor that CanLit was characterized by humanity’s battle against the elements. I read Susannah Moodie’s Roughing it in the Bush and Sinclair Ross’ As for Me and My House and for a while, took this assertion at face value. I eventually discovered that many more authors and a much wider range of topics and voices make up CanLit. The FOLD is the first festival whose mandate focuses on highlighting diverse voices.
The extensive list of names featured in The FOLD’s first year shows that CanLit goes far beyond the literary canon promoted by university classes. In fact, it goes far beyond the handful of powerhouse, A-list CanLit writers of colour who are consistently featured on literary awards and bestseller lists.
Having a festival dedicated to highlighting diversity opens the conversation to include many kinds of diversity, both visible and invisible. Celebrating diversity in literature sparks conversations about the many potential ways the things we read and write can represent multiple communities.
2. Tokenism is dead
Vivek Shraya said it best: “It’s exciting how much more nuanced the conversation is when there are many diverse voices.” On Twitter after the festival, Shraya noted how often she is “the token” on a panel, and how “liberating” it is to be “treated as artists as opposed to just spokespersons of our identities.”
It’s fantastic to see panel discussions about topics like powerful protagonists, or the influence of current events on fiction—discussions that wouldn’t be out of place at any other literary festival—and hearing perspectives not often featured in these discussions. In Shonda Rhimes’ Year of Yes, she notes that her TV shows are not so much “diverse” as realistic. When writers and artists commit themselves to portraying the world as it really is, a diversity of voices is par for the course.
The FOLD is not reinventing CanLit: it’s portraying a community of readers and writers as they really are. A diversity of voices should be par for the course.
3. Readers should be heard
After The FOLD finalized its schedule, they received an email from author Dorothy Ellen Palmer asking: “Where are the disabled writers?” Artistic Director Jael Richardson initially provided the same response they gave other writers who wanted to get involved after the schedule had filled up: great idea for next year’s festival. Richardson then relates Palmer’s response, that “being excluded from a diversity festival for marginalized voices was particularly hurtful.” That response galvanized Richardson, and the FOLD added a new session called Diverse Bodies: Ability and Exclusion.
I love this story because this is exactly what a festival celebrating diversity should be: responsive to the needs and concerns of diverse voices, even if it means changing the festival schedule barely two weeks before the event. I can only imagine the logistical hoops involved in that change, and major kudos to Jael Richardson and her team for making this happen.
Even better? At the Q&A portion of the Diverse Bodies panel, an audience member expressed her frustration about an accessibility issue in her community. Richardson responded with the need for allies, and the need to speak out even if it meant eschewing all-Canadian politeness. More significantly, Richardson then said: “If you need an ally to go with you when you talk to someone about this, let me know. I’ll go with you.” That moment gave me chills. It made me realize that the FOLD went far beyond giving diverse voices a space to speak and be heard; it was building a community, and cultivating a network of allies, right then and there amongst conversations around CanLit.
4. Canada is not just Toronto
When I used to live in Mississauga, I bemoaned having to travel to Toronto every time I wanted to attend a literary event. Ironically, now that I live in Toronto, I found myself wishing I lived closer to Brampton so I could attend the entirety of The FOLD without having to deal with the commute.
I should point out not all GTA CanLit events happen in Toronto: Hamilton’s gritLIT Festival has long been a CanLit highlight, and the Mississauga Library has had some really good writers in their book festival. Still, many more events (Word on the Street, Appel Salon talks, International Festival of Authors, among others) all take place in downtown Toronto.
That The FOLD was held in Brampton is just one more way the festival embraced diversity . It’s something Brampton booklovers can be proud of. Hosting the first ever festival of diverse CanLit indelibly marks Brampton as a leader and a hub for conversations around contemporary literature. I’m pretty excited to see what happens next in Brampton’s literary scene.
JACLYN QUA-HIANSEN is a Filipino-Canadian book blogger passionate about advocating for greater diversity in art and literature. Her work has been published in The Puritan's Town Crier, Canada Arts Connect Magazine, Spirit of the City Mississauga Life Magazine, Drain Magazine and Blog TO. Find her on Twitter @jacqua83 and her book blog Literary Treats.