Five Questions with Writer Jael Richardson

Jael Richardson (photo credit: Arden Wray)

Jael chats with #Invisibooks about CanLit, why the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) feels like fun and not work, her call to writing, tips on how to be an ally and her forthcoming new book Gutter Child (woohoo!).

Tamara Jong: Jael, It’s just past year three of FOLD. You saw a lack of representation when it came to literary festivals, and you didn’t wait for change to come or someone else to do this important work. As a former volunteer, I loved being a part of FOLD. I was so impressed with the attention to training and how organized and how all the groups gelled together. I felt at home. Attending your festival is one of the highlights of the year for me. You’ve created such a community at FOLD!  For me, it’s a MUST go event. You have panels and workshops by marginalized writers and offer stories that have long been on the outside of CanLit. Do you see a shift happening in CanLit? This work cannot be easy. I love following your posts on Twitter. How you advocate, make us think about who we are supporting and call us to action. You are shaking up the status quo.  How do you maintain your enthusiasm and motivation? How do you organize such a large event with such great content?

Jael Richardson: I do see a shift happening in CanLit communities. But like any shift, it will take a long time to get it right and I think the community is struggling to work through these growing pains. Some are struggling to make adequate and appropriate room for everyone and some are exhausted by the effort of working through the obstacles. The good news, from my perspective, is that in most publishing houses and CanLit organizations, there are marginalized folks and allies who really get it and are pushing to see a better and more thoughtful and inclusive community emerge. It’s exciting times, but it’s really just the beginning. And it’s likely to be long, hard, complicated work for those of us who are motivated by a real urge for change.

It’s not hard to maintain general enthusiasm about the work of the FOLD. It’s a work that’s about supporting great voices and talent. That’s exciting. Where it can get discouraging is when it comes down to dollars and cents and people-power. It can be frustrating to have so many ideas and so much need and not have the resources to execute it. It can be frustrating to have to spend time on infrastructure and by-laws. But we have to work and grow smart not fast. We try things out and then we build them into the plan. We’re learning not to get overwhelmed by other people’s wants for us or ideas for us. Slow and steady.

Putting together the program is, without question, the best part of the job. And our planning team is phenomenal. We have great content, without question, because we have a great team. When your mission is to include those who have been historically underrepresented and you have a team that loves doing that, it’s fun work. It’s hardly work at all.

TJ: I read your interview in Quill and Quire, and you discussed how your calling as a writer came much later and you didn’t see yourself as a writer. You wondered what would have happened if your teacher Judith Thompson hadn’t convinced you of your gift and took an interest in you. Mentors are important. You’re making a difference. You’re an inspiration to diverse writers and a new generation of diverse writers. That their voice is not only important but essential. What advice would you like to offer to new writers and their place in the world? What would you have said to a younger you?

JR: I think that there is a natural inclination for many of us from marginalized communities to feel that our voices aren’t necessary or important or that we’re not doing this writing thing “right” somehow. It’s perhaps normal for all writers, but maybe more so for those of us who have in other areas of our life felt outside the “mainstream”.

For me, writing is therapeutic – which is perhaps one of the reasons I’m so annoyed I didn’t start sooner. It keeps me well. It’s a calling, and I think there’s something important about that call, something I have to respond to. Writing is something I do to answer the questions that I wrestle with in “real life” and when I wrestle with them on the page there’s time to reevaluate and get it right, to push boundaries in ways I can’t or don’t in my everyday life.

I would have said to my younger me to write sooner and to read more widely. As a black girl, I was reading diversely from the start – given what we were studying in school and what I found in the bookstores my mother took me to. But I would have read more voices from places I had never been – I would have made my world bigger and deeper sooner.

TJ: In the The New Quarterly 145, In Conversation On the Question of Diversity in Publishing: We Offer Some Answers, this was part of a continuing discussion from the panel Writing Your Way Home: On Race, Immigration, and Belonging that took place at Wild Writers in 2015 with writers Tasmeen Jamal and Ayelet Tsabari and yourself.  I remember the Q&A where a European immigrant was wondering about why her experience was not included in the conversation. You had said that there are so many conversations that we felt left out of, the places that we felt excluded from. That it should be up to the people of color leading the discussion to decide who joins them at the table. That you wanted to be in a conversation about writing with people who have an honest interest in one another’s stories and that may include emerging writers or writers who haven’t won awards. What can you say to others that want to be allies and real supporters of #diversecanlit?

JR: Being an ally is important but it’s also hard. It’s particularly tricky now where there’s pressure to speak up and out on issues that are for more complicated than a tweet or even a good thread can carefully capture. There is a lot of fear about “getting it wrong”. There’s lots of people with strong beliefs and harsh words about how to “get it right”. There’s so little compassion. So much hurt and anger on both sides of any issue that it’s really hard to know what to do and how to do it right.

It’s tempting to get into everything, to defend every person on every issue and to speak publicly about the things that outrage you. But it’s exhausting, and it’s an expectation that I don’t think any person can maintain. It’s a life that’s full of disappointment and crushing realities because the world is not a nice place and lots of people don’t care about other people at all. And while messages of love and hope are good, on some topics, there is only pain right now and no sign of change in the foreseeable future. How do you engage in those causes? How do you help?

I think it’s really important to find your calling – to seek out the role and the work you’re meant to be in: writing, publishing, parenting, organizing (or a combination of a few of those). Once you’re in that work, I think it’s really important to figure out what your mission/purpose within that work is. Sometimes your core work might be something that doesn’t make a lot of money, but if it’s your priority, you can find something that works around that core work – say writing – as opposed to the other way around (trying to slide writing around a core job that sucks your energy, for example). Sometimes your core work is outside the industry, and maybe you volunteer with a good cause or sit on a board that’s working for change. The important thing to know is that you don’t have to do everything all the time.

I think, particularly for marginalized folks, we have to put ourselves in work and on a life pace that strengthens us or has built in opportunities for rejuvenation. We have to find people that help us through the rough patches. Because they will come. And because of our experiences, we feel those rough patches intensely. It’s exceptionally painful to be repeatedly hurt by a person or persons or system. It can be defeating. And if we don’t have people to help us through that, it can quite literally kill us. The very work that gives us life can take ours.

So, take care of yourself and take care of others who mean a lot to the work you do. Send them messages of support, share their work, donate to their causes, spend time with them. And if you’re living a comfortable life where these kinds of stresses and stressors are unknown to you, it’s even more important to support causes that matter because it means other people – or social structures – have or are sustaining you so well that your primary job needs to be sharing the load.

TJ: What are you reading right now?

JR: Right now I’m heavily engaged in my own manuscript, which is making it hard to read other works with any kind of efficiency. But I’m “reading” Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez on audiobook and in print, I’m reading Waubgeshig Rice’s new book Moon of the Crusted Snow: A Novel and Iain Reid’s Foe.

TJ: What are you working on right now?

JR: I am deeply engrossed in probably the most significant draft of my 2020 debut novel Gutter Child. It’s a dystopia so there are lots of questions that I really need to answer and finalize. We’re also planning a few big things for FOLD this fall, so I’m just putting that all together with my team. Thanks to a big sponsorship from Audible, we are able to dream a bit bigger as we transition to larger grants, hopefully.

Jael Richardson is the author of The Stone Thrower: A Daughter’s Lesson, a Father’s Life, and her story was adapted into a children’s book. She is a Book Columnist/Guest Host on CBC Radio Q. Her work has appeared in Room Magazine and T-Dot Griots: An Anthology of Toronto’s Black Storytellers. She has an MFA from the University of Guelph and is the Artistic Director for the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD). Her debut novel Gutter Child comes out in Fall 2020 with HarperCollins Canada.




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