The very first Festival of Literary Diversity turned out be everything that we were hoping it would be. It was galvanizing, thought-provoking and inspiring, starting conversations that we hope will continue on and on. And so to that end, we are pleased to publish this essay by Amanda Leduc, who is The FOLD's Communications, Development, and Accessibility Coordinator about what it meant to be part of this extraordinary event and how it brought about a change in her own point of view.
In February of 2016, I started working for the FOLD. The job promised something that was, at long last, in my field—a job that wasn’t pulling espresso shots or taking minutes or picking strawberries or faxing things or opening a locked door for psychiatric patients, as valuable and full of stories as all those jobs had been. A few days after I accepted the job offer I was driving to Brampton, having suddenly become one of Those People who make a semi-regular commute over the 400-series highways.
It was a lovely drive, actually. My training session was lovelier still—we took a walk through PAMA, the museum that would be hosting the festival, we went over the FOLD’s social media accounts, we started to look at what the next few months would look like as we pulled the festival together. In a week’s time I was drafting newsletters for the organization and wrangling the Twitter, and a few weeks after that we were filling out grant applications and starting to deal with the little fires that inevitably spring up when you’re putting on a festival—scheduling conflicts, permit considerations, how do you feed people, and all of those things.
Somewhere in there, I began to realize that the work we were doing was really special. It had always been exciting—a new literary festival, a young literary festival, one that celebrated the diversity of Canada’s literature in every aspect of its being. And as the days crept closer to the FOLD, my feelings went right from excitement through to awe. It’s rare to be involved in the ground operations of something like this, and every day that passed found me more and more grateful for the opportunity to help shape something truly extraordinary.
But it wasn’t until I was sitting in front of an audience, moderating a panel on disability and exclusion with Jael Richardson and Dorothy Ellen Palmer, that the power of the FOLD really made its way all through my soul.
Here’s a confession: I don’t often talk about my own disability. I have a very mild case of cerebral palsy, and I don’t talk about it partly because I felt, for a long time, that to call myself disabled was disingenuous. I limp a little, more so when I’m tired, and I’ll never be a dancer, much to my six-year-old self’s eternal disappointment. But that’s about it. Could I really, I reasoned, call myself disabled if it wasn’t interfering with my life in any significant way? Was that fair?
The other part of me, the often-louder part, refused to think of myself as disabled, or as a disabled writer, because I didn’t want that to be the first thing that people saw when they looked at me. I wanted them to see the writing. I’m not a disabled writer, I thought to myself. I’m a writer, period.
But there’s something that happens when you downplay what makes you different, and I realized it in full last Saturday, sitting on that panel. I’m at a festival for diverse voices, I thought, even as I asked Dorothy all of the questions that I’d so carefully prepared, and yet here I am, hesitant to acknowledge the ways in which my own voice is diverse.
Because I didn’t want to be seen as different. Because I didn’t want that difference to affect whether or not I could publish, whether or not someone would be interested in my stories.
And that, in a nutshell, is what the work of the FOLD is all about.
As was often repeated over the course of the weekend, diversity is the buzzword of the moment. But it is so much more than a buzzword. Beneath the sincerity of the term and the honest desire for change is a lot of dismantling that needs to happen, and as I flew around the festival for the rest of that weekend (we were all flying, and it was fast and crazy and wonderful and oh, how wonderful it was to SLEEP at the end of it!) I thought about this a great deal. The dismantling needs to happen on an organizational level, of course—we need to create spaces for diverse writers to read and talk and be experts in craft (as in every one of the FOLD panels that happened over the course of the weekend), and we need to encourage publishers to reach out to diverse voices and consider different narratives (as happened at the Diverse Can Lit Writers’ Hub, which took place on the last day of the festival). This is ongoing work, and the annual FOLD is only a part of it. Hopefully, as the years go on and the festival grows, we will be able to offer even more opportunities to celebrate the diversity inherent in our literature. It’s tremendously exciting, and I’m so thrilled to be a part of it.
But as I discovered last Saturday, owning our differences is also a crucial part of diversity work. Owning them, and celebrating them, and not being hesitant or afraid to say that these narratives deserve just as much space as what’s in the mainstream. Not shying away from our stories.
This was evident in every single moment of last weekend. From the Faith and Fiction panel (where Eufemia Fantetti spoke with Ayelet Tsabari, Vivek Shraya, Cherie Dimaline, and Zarqa Nawaz about the different ways that faith plays a role in what we write) through to the Publishing (More) Diverse Stories panel (where Leonicka Valcius, Barbara Howson, Susan Travis, Rachel Thompson, Bianca Spence, and Anita Chong talked about the ways that Canadian publishers can diversify both their author and their employee line-ups), through to the workshops put on by such wonderful writers as Angela Misri, Brian Francis, and Sheila Sampath, it was abundantly clear: diverse writers are writers, period. They are experts on everything, not just diversity, and the differences that might pigeonhole people in the mainstream publishing world only serve to keep our literary culture from the richness that could be.
"Diverse writers are writers, period. They are experts on everything, not just diversity, and the differences that might pigeonhole people in the mainstream publishing world only serve to keep our literary culture from the richness that could be.""
My weekend at the FOLD—and all of the months of work leading up to it, and the months of work that will come after—reminded me that it is difficult to own your stories when you’re made to feel as though those stories aren’t important, even if no one is saying this outright. If you feel that people will view your writing as less if you try to celebrate what makes it different, then nothing is going to change.
We need to own our diverse stories—as writers, as readers, as publishing professionals. We need to move beyond diversity as a buzzword and make it into action—in the books that we publish, in the magazine issues that we curate, in the reading series and the festivals that make up Canada’s literary year. And those of us who have been lucky enough to be privileged in certain ways when it comes to writing and publishing need to step back and make space. Consciously or not, my tendency to pass over my disability and treat it as not that important is indicative of a larger world that sees difference as something that detracts from who we are. I was complicit in this without meaning to be, and I feel humbled and grateful for the events of this past weekend, and how the discussions that transpired at the FOLD helped to illuminate some things that I refused to see.
It truly was magical, and I hope that we can continue to make that magic at the FOLD for as long as there are stories to tell.
Amanda Leduc's essays and stories have appeared across Canada, the US, the UK, and Australia. Her novel, The Miracles of Ordinary Men, was published in 2013 by Toronto's ECW Press. When she isn't writing, she's the Communications, Development, and Accessibility Coordinator over at the FOLD. She lives in Hamilton, Ontario, and is at work on a new novel and a collection of weird short stories.