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Author-activist Jael Richardson finally finds the part she was meant to play

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Jael Richardson FOLD March

Jael Richardson (photo: Arden Wray)

Jael Richardson remembers being in Grade 10 drama class, searching for the perfect monologue to show off her blossoming acting skills, but only able to find historical stories about pilgrims and settlers. “They weren’t about black women,” she says. “I know I’m an actor, but there was still this sense that I am not meant to play this part.”

When 15-year-old Richardson eventually did find a monologue that spoke to her, the character was a jailed prostitute.

“At the time I thought this was fun and interesting and dynamic, but that’s not good,” she says. Later, playwright Djanet Sears – the first author of colour whom Richardson would meet – suggested she start writing her own parts. But Richardson wasn’t ready to think of herself as a writer – not yet. In fact, it was years after graduating with a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Guelph before she felt comfortable declaring herself an author.

Richardson openly discusses the role she believes race played in delaying her career decision. For a long time she thought writing and publishing was for other people. Ultimately, it would take a teacher –playwright Judith Thompson – to convince Richardson she had a gift. “I wonder what would have happened if she hadn’t taken such an interest in me,” Richardson says.

Richardson holds these early career memories close when she visits schools to talk about her writing and her first book, The Stone Thrower: A Daughter’s Lesson, a Father’s Life. The memoir, first released by the now-defunct Thomas Allen Publishers in 2012, details Richardson’s relationship with her dad, former Canadian Football League star Chuck Ealey, a distant and enigmatic presence in her life. “It’s been so powerful to go into schools and engage with students, in particular, young women of colour,” she says. “I can see it in their eyes. They think, ‘Yes, yes I can do it.’ When I see it in a Grade 7 girl or a girl in high school, it’s transformational for me.”

Though The Stone Thrower was written for adult readers, Richardson fully embraced spending time with younger audiences as part of her yearlong position as a writer-in-residence for the Toronto District School Board in 2013. Even so, she initially dismissed a teacher friend’s suggestion that she adapt her story into a book for children. Testing the waters, Richardson contacted Janice Zawerbny, her former editor at Thomas Allen, who had moved on to House of Anansi Press. Zawerbny passed the idea to Sheila Barry, publisher of Groundwood Books, Anansi’s kids’ imprint.

While enthusiastic, Barry initially wasn’t sure the concept would work for kids under the age of 10, but says, “It didn’t take that long to come together because Jael is such a hard worker and so smart.”

Colourfully illustrated with paintings by Matt James, the children’s version of The Stone Thrower, which comes out in May, wraps the story around the visual metaphor of Richardson’s father, as a young boy, throwing stones at a train, day after day, perfecting his arm. Barry is hopeful the book will reach an audience beyond the institutional market – where she expects it will also be popular – especially given the lack of Canadian sports stories aimed at young readers.

“There really aren’t enough inspirational Canadian black figures who are contemporary, who are still alive,” says Barry. “We have Viola Desmond, but that was a long time ago. For children today, I think they want to be able to look at someone who can present to them in the classroom and answer questions.”

Jael Richardson FOLD March 2If you believe that the Canadian publishing industry is colour blind, think again. While Richardson was promoting The Stone Thrower, she visited an independent bookstore (which she graciously won’t name), and noticed they weren’t carrying her book. When she offered to come back for a reading around the Grey Cup or Black History Month, the bookseller declined, explaining to Richardson, “this town is very white.”

“I don’t get what that means. There’s no need for people in this town to read that story? That was the thing that was the most hurtful,” she says. “There are so many gatekeepers – publicists and sales reps, and bookstore owners, and all these people have to buy into the story in order for you to have any chance.”

The issue came up during Richardson’s first meeting with her agent, Carly Watters of P.S. Literary Agency, in early 2014. “I had to ask her some hard questions,” says Richardson. “What are you going to do? I’m black and sometimes my stories are about black people, and sometimes they’re not.”

“Jael was really, really interested in what I thought she could bring into the industry, as a diverse voice,” says Watters. “Her immediate question was what I thought the industry looked like. I wasn’t going to sugarcoat it. It is an issue I’m aware of, and one I care about deeply. When pitching a book, it’s always something that we’re up against.”

In May 2014, a few months after Richardson and Watters’s initial meeting, the American publishing industry got a swift kick when the BookCon fair in New York City announced its inaugural lineup: 30 all-white authors. There was an outcry on social media, and the We Need Diverse Books campaign went viral, with tens of thousands of tweets posted in just a few days. Richardson watched the protest unfold, “weirdly surprised” that so many people of different races were looking for titles by diverse writers. She began surveying Canadian events, observing that things weren’t any more equal north of the border. White authors dominate festival lineups here, too, with the exception of token panels dedicated to diversity. “There’s a thing that happens systemically when that’s in play,” Richardson says. “People start to see white authors as experts in literary craft and writing, and diverse authors as experts in diversity and only relevant to a diverse community.”

Richardson, who spent seven years organizing events as a recruitment officer for the University of Guelph–Humber, began to envision a festival that reflected wider shades of skin tones. She contacted Léonicka Valcius, who had recently begun DiverseCanLit, an online initiative that hosts Twitter chats. Richardson was unaware that Valcius had already drawn up her own plans for a festival, believing it could provide a sense of community that no number of viral hashtags could ever replicate. “On social media we try to connect and share resources,” Valcius says. “But an in-person live event can give you the scale and scope of how many people are out there. I think it would help people see each other and say, ‘I’m not in this alone.’”

Richardson and Valcius combined their plans and the inaugural Festival of Literary Diversity came together within a few months. Valcius, who serves as chair of its board of directors, admits she needed some convincing when Richardson suggested to the four-person planning committee that the event be held in Brampton, Ontario, where they both resided at the time (Valcius now lives in Toronto). “I think it’s a great place for it, and I think that the festival is good for Brampton,” says Richardson. “The best festivals reflect something about the city they occur in. The place that they’re hosted. Eden Mills is a unique experience that wouldn’t work anywhere else but Eden Mills. I wanted to create that unique experience here.”

For many Torontonians, Brampton is nothing more than a stop on a crowded commuter train. But the former bedroom community has grown into the country’s ninth-largest city, supporting a growing population of more than 500,000, over 50 per cent of whom are immigrants, representing more than 200 cultures and 80 languages. “I think it’s important to decentre Toronto a little,” says Valcius. “To show that it’s not the only place where culture happens.”

Brampton’s downtown, where FOLD events will be held from May 6–8, still has a small-town air. The charmingly unfashionable family-owned clothing stores haven’t been completely pushed out by fast-food chains, though more coffee houses are popping up. The only thing lacking is an indie bookstore, but BookLore in the nearby city of Orangeville has agreed to sell books for the event.

FOLD will not look like a typical literary festival, taking place at various historic venues, such as the Peel Art Gallery, Museum and Archives. It also won’t focus solely on authors promoting new releases. “We’re also looking at books that maybe came out two years ago but didn’t get the attention they deserved, and that have really important things to say,” says Richardson. “I don’t think the local reader is really going to know that a book came out in 2014. I’m not sure they care.”

There will be no sessions focused specifically on diversity, other than an industry workshop. “People don’t need to go to a festival to hear that we need more diversity, they want to hear about books,” Richardson says. “We want to have interesting, complex conversation about books.”

The opening night will feature a VIP dinner, followed by a talk from contributors to the forthcoming essay collection Subdivided (Coach House Books), which examines how ideal city planning takes into consideration ethnicity and class. Other confirmed authors include Heather O’Neill, Vivek Shraya, Helen Humphreys, Farzana Doctor, Dalton Higgins, Chase Joynt, Lawrence Hill, and Sharon Johnston.

FOLD organizers have already faced criticism about including “fair-skinned” authors, but Richardson says the decision was deliberate, and one she is proud of. “It’s not always going to be five people of colour sitting across a panel. We have no intentions of making people feel excluded,” she says. “I’m excited about that lack of tokenism, but I worry that people are expecting us to show a visible diversity, and they’ll not understand the complexities that we want to bring to the table.”

There have been other challenges. A change in Brampton’s municipal government meant delays in much-needed financing, and a greater reliance on fundraising. Richardson, well aware of publishers’ skepticism following the demise of the Inspire book festival in Toronto after only one year, prudently reduced FOLD’s scope by scrapping plans for a book fair and kids’ section. “That’s been one of the reasons I’ve always made decisions based on fiscal reasons,” she says. “We pulled back the hours of our staff member, and we’re being extra careful. Gotta keep it smart and conservative.”

Of course, the biggest worry is whether readers will embrace FOLD’s message of inclusiveness, and whether it will have any impact for authors. Regardless, it’s turned Richardson into a powerful activist within the Canadian books industry. “I spent a lot of my younger life being inactive and being unaware and ignorant,” Richardson says. “But I feel like it’s a duty now to be a really active voice for young people who don’t even know that they need someone clearing the way so it’s there when they get there.”