Food for Thought: Hungry for #Diversecanlit

By Jael Richardson

There was a homeless man standing on the side of the road the other day with a sign that read “Lost my job. Spare a bit of change.” I didn’t have change – I rarely do – but I had a banana, so I stuck my arm out the window and gave it to him. In my rear view mirror, I watched as he peeled that banana and consumed it in three deep, massive bites.

When the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign came about in the United States in 2014, people posted signs that remind me of that man by the road. They made signs about their longing and their need – except in this case, their need and hunger was for books that would supply what they were lacking -- books that would feed souls that were hungry for diverse literature.

In interviews about my work as the founder and Artistic Director for the Festival of Literary Diversity, I am repeatedly asked the question “How did this idea come about?” The final version of the stories always reads that I started the festival because when my first book came out, I was turned down by other festivals. “So she started her own,” they say. I can see how the writers came to that conclusion. I think, admittedly, that’s how I framed my answer. But the real reason I started the festival was because I was hungry.

I did ask to be included in festivals in Vancouver, Halifax, Toronto, and lots of small towns in between. I emailed and emailed. But I wanted to be included in those festivals for the same reason I wrote my first book. I was hungry for debate and discussion, for festivals that went deeper than plot lines, that delved into the range and heart of human experience that leads so many of us to write our stories. And somewhere deep inside I knew other people – people who were not on the planning committees of these festivals - ordinary people who read books in the corners of libraries, homes, and bookstores – were hungry too.

But what is it we’re hungry for? What exactly do we want? What will make CanLit truly Canadian going forward?

Separated by geography and the complex array of lived experience our collective cry for diversity should be documented and recorded -- without fear of being silenced or being left unheard. Because there are many voices that have not been heard. There are many stories that need telling, many people who still are and/or feel silenced in the industry. I know, because even with a lineup touting a range of diverse authors, we have still missed some voices.

The Canadian hashtag #DiverseCanLit is a place for an on-going conversation about the need for more diversity in Canadian publishing. Attaching that hashtag to any comment on social media allows for the collection of stories by Canadians who have diverse lived experiences and Canadians who are proud to be allies in pursuit of marginalized voices – Canadians who share a longing for diverse representation in Canada’s literary landscape.

So as we head towards Canada’s first festival for diverse books, consider your need for diverse literature and post it under #DiverseCanLit. If you have a young child who isn’t represented, or a student who can’t identify with the CanLit they’re reading, or if you stopped reading Canadian stories, tell us why. Tell us what’s missing.

Why is #DiverseCanLit is important to you? Post on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Make a small sign, or just type out your story. If you’re a teacher, have your class write what kinds of Canadian stories they would like to be reading.

As part of an organization committed to improving our understanding and representation of diverse stories each year, I can tell you, we are listening. After the FOLD on May 6-8, we will Storify all the responses gathered over the month and at the festival and post them. We will also use them to program for 2017. And we will certainly pass your comments and feedback along to our publishing partners.

The FOLD is not just a weekend festival for those living in a particular part of Ontario. We are doing year-round work alongside forward-thinking publishing professionals not just to change the variety of tomorrow’s CanLit, but to change the face and the future of Canadian Literature. We want Canada to be a place where a wide array of national stories become internationally reputable books.

The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Jael Richardson is the author of The Stone Thrower: A Daughter's Lessons, a Father's Life, a memoir based on her relationship with her father, CFL quarterback Chuck Ealey. The book received a CBC Bookie Award and earned Richardson an Acclaim Award and a My People Award as an Emerging Artist. A children's book called The Stone Thrower came out with Groundwood Books in 2016. Her essay "Conception" is part of Room's first Women of Colour edition, and excerpts from her first play, my upside down black face, are published in the anthology T-Dot Griots: An Anthology of Toronto's Black Storytellers. Richardson has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph, and she lives in Brampton, Ontario where she serves as the Artistic Director for the Festival of Literary Diversity (The FOLD).