News and Interviews

The FOLD 2017: Talking with Guest Author Kamal Al-Solaylee


Author Jael Richardson, in observing the unbalanced lineups at many literary festivals, founded the The Festival of Literary Diversity (The FOLD) to celebrate diverse voices and stories in Canadian literature. Now in its second year, the FOLD takes place in Brampton, one of Canada's most diverse cities, and this year will run from May 4 to May 7, with a packed calendar of readings, panel discussions, writing workshops, and more. 

Kamal 3 for PR

Today speak with festival guest author Kamal Al-Solaylee, known for his moving, wise, and timely non-fiction. An absolute avalanche of acclaim has greeted his newest book, Brown: What Being Brown Means in the World Today (To Everyone) (HarperCollins Canada) -- nominated for the prestigious Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing and the Governor General's Literary Award, and also chosen as a best book by countless outlets (CBC, the National Post, and The Walrus, to name a few), the book is insightful, powerful, personal, and political. 

Kamal tells us today about the importance of getting outside of Toronto, about choosing not to read from his book at the festival, and his experiences as a writer of colour in CanLit.

You can catch Kamal at the FOLD on Saturday, May 6 at 3:00pm as part of The Role of Writers in Times of Trouble event (PAMA Council Chambers, 9 Wellington St. East, Brampton, ON). He will also be teaching a non-fiction writing workshop on the same day (May 6) at 11:00am in PAMA Studio 2. 

Also be sure to catch our interview with fabulous festival guest author Scaachi Koul.

Open Book:

This will be the FOLD's second year of programming. How do you view the festival's identity and how do you feel about being a part of it?

Kamal Al-Solaylee:

I love the fact that this festival takes place in Brampton and not downtown Toronto and I think that’s an essential part of its identity. For one thing, it eschews the Toronto-centric nature of many cultural events. Demographic changes in cities like Brampton – and I talk about this in my book Brown – are making some so-called old-stock Canadians there nervous. Festivals like the FOLD and the conversations they generate tend to bridge gaps in misunderstanding among communities. I’m very excited about being part of a panel about writing in a difficult time – although I think “difficult” is an understatement. Sadly, these are catastrophic times for race issues.


Tell us a little bit about the book you'll be reading from at the FOLD. 


I will not be reading and that’s by choice. I’m doing a workshop to encourage diverse writers to explore nonfiction in general and magazine writing in particular and I’m taking part in a panel with some incredible writers, including Hayden King and Scaachi Koul. I’m sure both will touch on and incorporate the ideas in my last book, Brown, which looks at the personal, political and economic meanings of brown skin. It’s a global look, set in ten different countries, and takes in such issues as migrant labour, anti-Muslim sentiments and the pursuit of whiteness as an ideal. 


Part of the FOLD's purpose is to celebrate diverse stories. What has your experience in Canadian writing and publishing been, as a writer of colour? Are there positives or negatives that spring to mind? And do you think diverse stories are being celebrated in CanLit?


I’ve had great opportunities and some success as a journalist and book author in Canada, but I think my experience is not representative. Writers of diverse backgrounds still occupy a relatively marginalized and precarious space on the literary map of this country. I still feel that way most of the time. In terms of numbers, writers of colour certainly don’t reflect the population shifts in Canada. Just take a ride on the subway and then attend a literary event and compare the two. When it comes to editorial positions in publishing houses or media in general, I think the gap is much wider. It’s not enough to have diverse writers; we need diverse editors and publishers. The makeup of the gatekeeper – and that role still exists – also needs to change.                        


Is there another writer or panelist at the FOLD who you're looking forward to meeting or spending time with?


Oh no, I’m not answering this one. How can I choose one writer with such a great lineup? I think of the weekend as an intellectual getaway. I want to catch as many sessions in 48 hours as my old body will allow.


What will you be working on next? 


I’m working on a proposal for a third book of nonfiction, but that can take any time from a few months to two years. As I’m a full-time university professor, I tend to work on book projects during school breaks so my writing and thinking process is slow by definition. I prefer it that way. Ideas marinate in my head for much longer, and I get to read, sometimes aimlessly, for months and months without committing myself to any one approach. 


Kamal Al-Solaylee, an associate professor at the School of Journalism at Ryerson University, was previously a distinguished writer at Canada’s national newspaper The Globe and Mail. Al-Solaylee also worked at Report on Business magazine and has written features and reviews for the Toronto StarNational PostThe WalrusToronto LifeChatelaineeye weekly, the Literary Review of Canada and Elle Canada. Al Solaylee’s bestselling memoir Intolerable was a finalist for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Nonfiction Prize, the Lambda Literary Award, and Canada Reads, and won the Toronto Book Award. Brown is a finalist for the Governor General's Award for Literary Non-fiction. Al-Solaylee holds a PhD from the University of Nottingham and has taught at the University of Waterloo and York University. Al-Solaylee lives in Toronto.

The Festival of Literary Diversity (The FOLD) celebrates diversity in literature by promoting diverse authors and stories in Brampton, Ontario – one of Canada’s most culturally diverse cities. The FOLD 2017 runs from May 4 to May 7. 

Buy the Book

Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (to Everyone)

Brown is not white. Brown is not black. Brown is an experience, a state of mind. Historically speaking, issues of race and skin colour have been interpreted along black and white lines, leaving out millions of people whose stories of migration and racial experiences have shaped our modern world. In this new book by Kamal Al-Solaylee¸ whose bestselling Intolerable was a finalist for Canada Reads and for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Nonfiction Prize and won the Toronto Book Award, fills in the narrative gap by taking a global look at the many social, political, economic and personal implications of being a brown-skinned person in the world now. Brown people have emerged as the source of global cheap labour (Hispanics or South Asians) while also coming under scrutiny and suspicion for their culture and faith (Arabs and Muslims). To be brown is to be on the cusp of whiteness and on the edge of blackness.

Brown is packed with storytelling and on-the-street reporting conducted over two years in 10 countries from four continents that reveals a multitude of lives and stories from destinations as far apart as the United Arab Emirates, Philippines, Britain, Trinidad, France, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, Qatar, the United States, and Canada. It contains striking research about immigration, workers’ lives and conditions, and the pursuit of a lighter shade of brown as a global status symbol. It is also a personal book, as the author studies the significance of brown skin for those whose countries of origin include North Africa and the Middle East, Mexico and Central America, and South and East Asia, he also reflects on his own identity and experiences as a brown-skinned person (in his case from Yemen) who has grown up with images of whiteness as the only indicators of beauty and desire.