May 6th to 8th was the inaugural Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD). It was held in Brampton, Ontario, across several venues in the city’s downtown core and featured writing and educational workshops, spoken word performances, author interviews, and publishing industry panels to showcase excellent literature and authors often underrepresented in the Canadian literary landscape.
There were signs from the beginning that the FOLD was going to be great, and it was all in the way their team built anticipation and excitement. They partnered with local businesses in Brampton and created fundraisers that would get people meeting each other and fostering community. As Art Director and FOLD founder Jael Richardson has explained in interviews, it was important to center Brampton as another literary locus in the Greater Toronto Area. They held fitness classes and a 5k marathon in the city, they sold bookish t-shirts, and they had fantastic book giveaways in the weeks leading up to the festival. They created workshops and sessions just for educators and school children to discuss the craft of writing and importance of sharing one’s voice. And when an author wrote them about the lack of authors with disabilities and accessibility information, they updated their venue information online and created a new panel on diverse bodies and disability. The programming has been fun and inclusive, about folding everyone into a wider sense of literary community.
Some friends and I attended the festival early Saturday morning, held at the Peel Art Gallery Museum + Archives (PAMA). While I’m sure I’ve travelled through it in the past, I haven’t really ever made a trip to Brampton before. The drive there was easy and I quickly found myself in the cute downtown and blessed with free weekend parking. I liked PAMA as a venue; it’s a striking building that melds an old brick-and-mortar courthouse with a modern glass extension (think the Royal Ontario Museum, but on a smaller scale).
Festival signage and friendly volunteers steered us inside. I attended 5 sessions, starting with the Faith in Fiction and Powerful Protagonists panels in the morning, and Defying Boundaries, Publishing (More) Diverse Canadian Stories and The Writer’s Court after lunch.
During the writing panels, we listened as authors read from their work and discussed a wide range of topics: writing as ritual and legacy; how to make protagonists more dynamic and which are most challenging to write; how the written word relates to other media and considerations when collaborating with other artists; and how to negotiate memoir narratives and the real people in them. Publishing (More) Diverse Canadian Stories served as an important forum between publishing industry professionals, writers and readers to voice their respective struggles and strategies for creating more space for a wider diversity of stories, while The Writer’s Court went into the nitty-gritty details of what worked and what needed improvement in stories pitched by four talented writers (kudos to each of them for getting in front of us and reading).
For a detailed breakdown of what was covered in each of the sessions I attended, I recommend checking out author & blogger Kerry Clare’s recap post on PickleMeThis.com. Kerry must have been doing some mad scribbling that day, but I’m grateful that she’s created a place where I can go back and review what was said. The FOLD was also recording their sessions, so keep an eye out on their Facebook and Twitter accounts in the next month or so.
I had planned to live tweet my experience of the sessions, but to be honest I was too transfixed by the discussions themselves to do more than jot notes to myself. I feel the session leaders really facilitated nuanced questions and respectful spaces for discussion; speakers felt comfortable occasionally passing on a question if they felt they could not publicly address it. Eufemia Fantetti and Zoe Whittall did an especially great job at building these spaces in the Faith in Fiction and Defying Boundaries panels. It seemed to me that this type of space allowed speakers and audience members room to have more candid and more difficult conversations. As we heard from Rachel Thompson about the significant changes made to ROOM magazine’s editorial board, changing the publishing industry and book market is a challenge and can mean real conflict, but I would rather not miss out on excellent stories and diverse perspectives. It makes me happy to see a festival that tries harder to reflect the reality of Canadian writers and I was blown away by the talent (both on stage and off) housed under one roof.
As for physical takeaways (read: purchases) from the FOLD, I came home with Laughing All the Way to the Mosque by Zarqa Nawaz and Red Rooms by Cherie Dimaline. The book room at the festival was full of amazing titles and it was difficult keeping myself on budget. I chose Nawaz’s book because when she read from the introduction during the Faith in Fiction session, it was so funny and sharp that I knew I had to have it. Cherie’s book, about a hotel cleaner who elaborately imagines the lives of her guests, called to me because I love character studies and narratives focused on capturing a significant moment in a character’s life.
While I was too exhausted to attend the rest of the evening’s programming, I came away from the first FOLD delighted. These are the types of discussions that so many people (including myself) have been hoping to have. Thank you to the FOLD’s founders, Jael Richardson and Léonicka Valcius, and their programming team for all their hard work. News of the festival’s success has come in via QuillandQuire.com, and I’m elated to hear the second year of the festival will be held May 4–7, 2017!