Making room for different stories at Brampton's Festival of Literary Diversity
At this new and needed festival, looking at diversity through fresh lenses
Canada's first ever festival for diverse books has arrived at an opportune moment. The Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) was held this past weekend in Brampton, Ontario, as debates around the buzzword of the day are raging in Hollywood, British television, the Toronto music scene, Canadian theatre and of course, the literary world.
who could i be if i wasn't thinking about this?- Vivek Shraya, 'a dog named lavender'
At FOLD, writers and industry professionals came together to showcase diverse Canadian talent, and to address the lack of consistent and meaningful space for bodies, voices and stories that are typically excluded, tokenized and/or marginalized in these mediums.
Often in these debates, people making the case for diversity emphasize the need to be fair and reflective of our society. This is definitely true, but over the weekend I read a slightly different, moving take on why creating space for diverse stories is a strategy that everyone should be excited about.
In an article written by Israeli-Canadian author Ayelet Tsabari, originally published on her personal blog and republished in the program for FOLD, she shares what is possible when you create space for diverse literature. After a year spent reading only work written by writers of colour, Tsabari reflects on what she learned:
"There is power in numbers, and there is power in immersion. In reading only books by writers of colour, books largely depicting characters of colour, I engaged on a daily basis with diverse voices and perspectives outside the dominant culture's frame of reference, lived with their stories of marginalization, displacement and immigration, contemplated their profound explorations of race, identity, belonging and language.
"And as time passed and the books piled up, my absorption — my 'sustained attention' — deepened. I was not just a weekend visitor; I was moving in."
Making room for diverse stories isn't as easy as just adding particular bodies into spaces, a point made several times during the festival. During the panel "Defying Boundaries," trans filmmaker, author (of You Only Live Twice: Sex, Death and Transition, with co-author Mike Hoolboom) and social activist Chase Joynt discussed the recent proliferation of trans narratives in the mainstream media. That attention has had the unfortunate consequence of drawing attention only to a certain type of story, one that follows a particular formula and pattern, as a result undermining the range and nuances of trans peoples' experiences.
Trans celebrities such as Caityln Jenner and fictional characters like Maura Pfefferman from the TV show Transparent increase awareness but also help to reinforce a particular and increasingly dominant story of what it means to transition. Joynt also noted that when stories and narratives are deemed radical and alternative, there is a particular kind of freedom for creativity and specificity that emerges. Now, in the midst of being pulled into the mainstream, these stories have unfortunately become distilled and simplified.
On a panel entitled "Publishing (More) Diverse Stories" the conversation turned from content creators to the people who shape the industry — agents, book-buyers, bookstore owners, grant officers, reviewers, editors and publishers.
Bianca Spence, a publishing professional currently working for the Ontario Media Development Corporation, revealed that during her entire career in the publishing world, apart from one exception, she has always been the only person of colour on staff. The role of "the only one" comes with a weighted sense of responsibility to ask the questions that provoke awkward moments of silence or defensive. Often, Spence said, colleagues will encourage her to speak up and keep them in check. "It's not my job to teach my bosses about the diversity issue," she added.
Award-winning author and multidisciplinary artist Vivek Shraya shared an experience of sitting with a group of older authors who were complaining about the new pressure being put on them by their agents and publishers to become active on social media and develop a following. Shraya noted the inherent divide between them. As a brown artist who began their career by self-funding, self-publishing and self-promoting her work, social media had never been a choice. Out of necessity, she had to be her own manager/agent/publicist and was able to do much of it through social media.
Platforms such as Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, SoundCloud and Instagram have increasingly become sites utilized by diverse artists to push and promote their work, enabling them to bypass institutions such as galleries, publishing houses, television networks and record labels that, in the past, held the reins of power in their respective industries. For those artists who are able to develop a large following and build an organic audience, a reversal of roles occurs. They are no longer the ones applying to the institutions — the institutions are the ones seeking them out, as these former gatekeepers attempt to remain relevant in a rapidly changing world. Yet, it is important to note that these artists are often forced to put in a considerable amount of unpaid labour – above and beyond their craft - before this recognition occurs.
On the panel "Defying Boundaries," Shraya read from her debut poetry collection, even this page is white. The poem "a dog named lavender" simultaneously explores the opportunities, as well as the traps, that come with fixating on the topics of race and identity. I've been preoccupied with these thoughts numerous times, and the questions at the end of the poem have reverberated in my mind long after the festival was over:
"what would i think of if i wasn't thinking
a dog named lavender
a home in idaho
a book about landscapes
what would i make if i wasn't thinking about this
who could i be if i wasn't thinking about this?"
The challenge of being a non-white content creator is that your creative impulse can often be shackled with a similar sense of responsibility expressed by Spence and others — you become responsible for crafting the stories that represent communities that have been silenced, regardless of whether you want to focus on something else. Often, as has been the case for me, this can become your obsession. In the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, the horrific suicide rates in Attawapiskat and the rise in violent crime committed against trans people, these preoccupations are not idle fancies. They're tied to physical and spiritual survival.
Jon Chan Simpson is similarly preoccupied in his article "Publishing My First (Diverse) Book: 39 Things I'm Pretty Sure Definitely Happened," originally published in All Lit Up and republished in the FOLD conference program. The last two items in his list of 39 things echo a residual fear that I, and many other writers of colour, hold:
"38. If I get to write another book, I wonder if it'll be about race stuff.
39. If I get to write another book, I wonder if I'll have a choice."