Jael Richardson is an author, a playwright, an activist, and a teacher. She’s also the founder and Artistic Director of Brampton’s Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD). Yet she originally intended to be an actor, not a writer.
From actor to playwright
In her second year of university, Richardson attended a presentation by Canadian playwright, actor, and director Djanet Sears. Sears asked for audience questions and Richardson raised her hand. When Richardson asked how she could find more monologues written for black women to perform for auditions, Sears suggested she write her own.
Soon after, Richardson enrolled in a playwriting class and wrote my upside down black face, which would become her first published work. Her play caught the attention of editors of an anthology featuring Toronto writers of African descent. In 2004, two of the play’s monologues were published in T-Dot Griots: An Anthology of Toronto’s Black Storytellers.
The anthology appeared on the New York Times Bestseller list and brought widespread attention to Richardson’s work. It also helped her get accepted into the University of Guelph’s fine arts program, where she earned a Master of Fine Arts degree for creative writing.
Success in the form of a memoir
In graduate school, Richardson wrote her first book. The Stone Thrower: A Daughter’s Lesson, A Father’s Life is her memoir about her relationship with her father, CFL quarterback Chuck Ealey. Published in 2012, it tells the tale of a young boy who grows up in a poor, gritty neighborhood in an Ohio Rust Belt town.
“When we hear of people coming from these circumstances, we have the assumption that it’s hopeless, that it’s not going to get any better.” Richardson said in an interview on TVO. “But Dad for me was a testament that it can get better, that if you have your focus on the right things, it can change the trajectory of your life.”
The Stone Thrower earned Richardson a CBC Bookie Award, an Acclaim Award, and a My People Award for Emerging Artist.
A teacher librarian friend told Richardson about the difficulties of finding children’s stories featuring black Canadians. This inspired Richardson to adapt the book for a younger audience, and she eventually adapted it into a children’s book in 2016.
Looking for diversity in Canadian literature
Richardson also faced what she called the “gatekeepers” of the publishing industry when she was promoting The Stone Thrower. She offered to provide a reading from the book to an independent bookstore that wasn’t carrying it. The bookseller declined and told her, “this town is very white.”
Calling this response “hurtful,” Richardson began to think about how to create a literary festival that was more diverse. She contacted Léonicka Valcius, the writer who started the #DiverseCanLit movement. Then the two women began to make their dreams of a diverse literary festival a reality.
“I don’t want to be an editor or a publisher,” said Richardson in an interview with Room Magazine. “But event planning has always been my thing. And once I figured out how that could work, the rest came more quickly alongside a team of advisers and supporters who shared my vision or understood its value.”
Getting excited about CanLit
The FOLD Festival, now in its third year, seeks to engage readers, inspire writers, and empower educators. Richardson says, “diversity and inclusion are the necessary next steps in a forward-thinking culture. They involve recognizing that the way we identify ‘good writing’ has always been flawed on a systemic level and that correcting those inherent biases through the involvement of authors with lived experience is critical to creating a new generation that’s excited about Canadian literature.”
The FOLD Festival will take place in Brampton from May 3 – 6.
Feature Image – JaelRichardson.com