Celebrating Diversity by Dismantling CanLit

By Amanda Leduc

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It’s early in March as I write this, and life at the headquarters for Canada’s Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) is slowly gathering steam, after the schedule for the 2018 festival was released a few days ago. As the Communications and Development Coordinator for Canada’s first festival for diverse authors and stories, much of my role focuses around author liaising and arrangements for the festival, so I’m in the midst of pulling together travel plans and details for this year’s twenty-five-plus authors, storytellers, and publishing professional guests. I’m starting to book radio interviews and other media plans, and life is getting busy and exciting—the way that it always does this time of year.

It’s hard to believe, but 2018 marks our third year. Three years of celebrating diverse authors—both at the festival itself and at various FOLD events throughout the year. By “diverse,” we mean diverse in every wayvariations in geography, ethnicity, race, culture, gender, ability, sexual orientation, and religion, as well as variations to be found in different methods of storytelling.

Three years of hard work and bright love. Three years that have seen some necessary, important change in the world of Canadian literature.

They are also, as I’ve come to realize, three years that have shown us how far we still have to go in Canada when it comes to sharing, listening, and celebrating diverse authors and stories.

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Growing up, I remember reading three books that featured disabled characters: The Secret Garden, What Katy Did, and One of The Gang, a novel in the Sweet Valley Twins series. There might have been more—I read a lot of books—but these are the ones that stick. In each of these books disability is only ever a temporary phenomenon. Mary and Colin, the sickly protagonists of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s classic, are both “cured” by gardens and good air; in What Katy Did Katy Carr falls out of a swing at twelve years of age and spends a few years as a paralyzed invalid before magically learning to walk again; and in the third example, Jessica Wakefield suffers a sprained ankle that causes her to bring some accessible options into her school’s annual Olympics extravaganza. Each book has a happy ending that revolves, to some degree, around the re-acquisition of an able-bodied life.

My own disability, by contrast, was unavoidably permanent. Mild spastic cerebral palsy with scoliosis of the spine meant a series of operations in elementary school and the various mobility devices associated with these operations: a cast, crutches, a wheelchair, a cane. With physiotherapy and time, I was able to walk unassisted again, but the limp that persisted, along with the fatigue, chronic pain, and schoolyard bullying, marked much of the rest of my young adult life. There was nothing about this disability of mine that was ever going to go away, no matter how much clean air I tried to breathe.

Context, of course, is always important. What Katy Did and The Secret Garden, though written some time apart, both subscribed to the Victorian idea that disability was a manifestation of the soul—that good works and good deeds could turn one’s soul, and thus one’s physical self, to a brighter, higher purpose. They are also both very much novels of their time, in the sense that art was supposed to point to a higher, moral way of life—art that inspired, art that wasn’t a mirror so much as it was the perfect oil painting.

But the fact that these two and the Sweet Valley book were the only novels I knew of in the early 90s that featured disabled kids—that, too, was very much of its time. In the early 90s as well as decades before this, ableness, like whiteness, like being cisgender, like being heterosexual, was the default—both in books and in the writing community at large. If you were disabled, you read stories of able-bodied children and tried to find yourself in that in whatever way you could. There was no other option.

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The Festival of Literary Diversity began in the early days of 2015, after Brampton author Jael Richardson noticed the disproportionate representation of white authors in the traditional Canadian literary festival line-up. During the tour for her first book, The Stone Thrower, Richardson visited several literary festivals and noticed that she was often the only Black Canadian writer in the room. Richardson connected with Léonicka Valcius, a Toronto publishing professional and creator of the #DiverseCanLit hashtag and Twitter conversation, and plans for the first FOLD were hatched over coffee in Brampton. I joined the team a little over a year later.

The first festival took place in May 2016, and featured over thirty diverse Canadian authors, storytellers, and publishing professionals. The team worked sixteen-hour days in the week leading up to the festival. We were tired and ecstatic as the festival unFOLDed around us—it felt special, I remember thinking, in ways that only a few things in my life had felt up to that point. So many wonderful writers together in one space. So many people who said that they finally felt seen—not just for who the world knew them to be, but for their whole selves, the selves that they were only recently feeling safe enough to uncover. It felt like some mystical power of the universe had come down around us and shimmered through us all—festivalgoers, authors, performers and festival team alike—for the duration of those first three festival days. Or perhaps the source of that power wasn’t mystical so much as astounding in its simplicity: to be surrounded by so many writers who all felt acknowledged and encouraged when the literary establishment had glossed over them for so long.

And then the festival ended, and later that year the #UBCAccountable letter went up. After the 2017 FOLD came the Appropriation Prize fiasco, and then #CanLitAccountable. More recently, there’s been an outcry around a panel at gritLit—the literary festival held in my hometown of Hamilton, Ontario—where an initially all-white panel was invited to discuss the spectre of Canadian literature today.

These examples are only a few of the controversies that have dogged the world of Canadian literature over the past few years. There have been many. And I am reminded of that as we prepare for yet another year of celebration at the FOLD; the celebrations continue, but so do the hurts and systemic injustices.

It might have felt like it, during that first weekend festival, but the FOLD is not magic. There are no magical fixes for the state of the literary world that we’re in. The FOLD, instead, is ordinary, necessary work, and the work continues.

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I didn’t think about disability representation—or representation of any kind, really—that much when I read books as a child. I didn’t think about this, to be honest, until a year or so ago, after I’d been working at the FOLD for almost a year and had come to see the lack of disabled representation in everything.

Why did it take me so long to note this lack? Privilege has a lot to do with it. I have a limp, and although it’s a visible limp I can access all regular physical spaces. So, for much of my life, I’ve had the privilege of seeming able-bodied and, therefore, the ability to identify with able-bodied characters. As a result of this, I’ve also had the privilege of being able to navigate a publishing system that has not, traditionally, done much to make itself accessible to disabled writers, or, in many cases, other writers who identify as diverse at all. And with all of that privilege, I’ve had at times the inability to see this privilege in the first place.

There was also shame. I was ashamed of limping, of a body that couldn’t dance the way I wanted it to. For the longest time, it didn’t occur to me that there were other ways of moving through the world, and so I tried to pretend that I moved and wrote just like everyone else. What a relief it would have been to read a story that featured a girl who occupied a different space. How life-changing to have known, when I was younger, that people in books could limp and have adventures too.

And to have known, when I was younger, that disabled people could not only write but be celebrated for it on the same mainstream stage as their able-bodied counterparts?

So many things about my life might have been different.

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The debacles mentioned earlier are only a few instances in a series of grave injustices that permeate—and have done so for years—the Canadian literary sphere. These are elements that ask, in ways both unconscious and outright, one question: why the FOLD? Why all this fuss about diversity and representation when “what matters” is the art? It’s a question that purports to see literature as something that exists apart from politics, apart from identity, apart from the ugliness of sexual power and misuse thereof.

Why do we need to have a festival about diversity? Why not just read books that you enjoy? Why get caught up in identity politics? These are some of the questions we get asked as festival organizers. Our answers haven’t changed: we have a festival that celebrates diversity because Canada is diverse. Diverse books by diverse authors can also be books that you enjoy. And identity politics will be around until people realize that there are so many different ways to move throughout and occupy the world. There is more than one Canadian narrative, and they all deserve to be celebrated.  

So, the more accurate question is: why not the FOLD? Why has it taken so long for literary festivals and literary culture to reflect the Canada that shimmers around them? Why, despite the work of organizations like the FOLD, and CWILA, and Room Magazine, and the tireless work of so many BIPOC, LGBTQ2SA+, disabled, and other activists, do these conversations need to keep happening again and again? We sometimes see progress, but all too often we only see lip service. A conference has a writer of colour as their keynote speaker but few diverse writers anywhere else. A prestigious university program nurtures its students and then ignores their pleas for help. A literary festival slots a few writers of colour into their line-up but has a Board of Directors made up solely of white writers, or a majority of male writers, or, or, or.

If I’ve learned anything in my time at the FOLD, it’s that the celebrations and the systems work go hand in hand. Raise up with one hand, dismantle with the other. It’s entirely possible to celebrate Canadian literature—both its history and its present—while also acknowledging that much of the culture around this literature needs to change. Part of that dismantling involves asking these questions and poking people in uncomfortable ways. It involves being firm but also ready to believe that people can change. When the 2018 gritLit schedule featured a panel, “Is CanLit a Raging Dumpster Fire?” with two white writers, Nick Mount and Elaine Dewar, discussing Haudenosaunee writer Alicia Elliott’s Open Book column of the same title, the backlash was swift. But so, too, was the response: the withdrawal of the panel, a considered, thoughtful apology from gritLit’s Artistic Director, and the installation of a new panel featuring Alicia Elliott herself in conversation with Jael Richardson and Carrianne Leung. Likewise, the Appropriation Prize debacle at The Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC) led to some serious soul-searching and the appointment of a new Editor-in-Chief for WRITE Magazine, Doyali Islam.

The hard part here is that these things should already be self-evident. Because they aren’t, these CanLit growing pains are serious. Diversity in literature is not just about a front list—it’s about who works on your festival staff, how your panels are constructed, how your publishing process is governed, how many voices get a chance to speak.

This should not be a conversation that we have to keep having—the make-up of a panel should receive just as much care and attention to difference of voice as a festival’s line-up, and advocating for cultural appropriation in the editorial of an issue dedicated to Indigenous writing is, to quote the public statement issued by TWUC’s Equity Task Force, “highly problematic and re-entrenches the deeply racist assumptions about art, and about what constitutes giving and taking.” What’s the point of having an Equity Committee if it isn’t given the opportunity to oversee things like this?

Likewise, the ongoing examinations of grave wrongdoing and abuses of power that characterize the UBC and CanLit Accountable fiascos are also conversations that we shouldn’t have to have, because they’re examinations that should not, in an ideal world, have to happen at all. But I am cautiously encouraged to see that the conversations arising from these issues, grave though these mistakes might be, are conversations that bring these issues out into the open in ways that the literary community has failed to do for so long.

CanLit has a storied but also sordid history. It is time for this history and fabric to change—to reach for what is possible instead of staying safely in the structures that already exist. And that means being mindful and aware of your place in the game: of your privilege, of your power, of the place of those around you. For those of us who have varying degrees of power, it means stepping aside to make space when and where we can. It means using that power to lift up and champion other voices. In many cases, it means questioning the very fabric of that storied history and examining the traditionally celebrated structures and voices anew. It means doing away with the old gatekeepers and making room for a space with no gates at all.

Dismantling is hard, necessary, and uncomfortable work. But it breeds camaraderie and strength. Some of the strongest, brightest relationships I’ve ever had in the CanLit community have come about over the past few years as a result of these series of, as Alicia Elliott calls them in her essay, “CanLit is a Raging Dumpster Fire.” We live in a literary culture that, thanks to the nature of social media and the Internet, has finally acknowledged more voices that have traditionally been overlooked—disabled writers, writers of colour, LBTQ2SA+ writers, as well as a host of other individuals who show us that diverse does indeed encompass the world.

It’s far from perfect—there’s still so much dismantling to do. In the next few years I hope to see the systemic ableism that permeates CanLit culture shattered completely. No more inaccessible literary events. No more readings that don’t offer ASL or CART technologies. Anthologies, publications, and publishers that put BIPOC, disabled, and LGBTQ2SA+ voices in their systems as well as on their pages. That’s where it all begins.  

My hope is that the celebrations can also continue—that these voices who’ve risen over the last few years and have been struggling to rise for decades can continue to rise and hold others up in their own way. That other literary festivals across the country can cast a wider net for their rosters of talent and look beyond the immediacy of a given year’s publication list. That festivals and literary and arts organizations across the country hold both of these things in their hands as they move forward—the desire to celebrate, and the knowledge and compassion that comes from breaking down and questioning the things that are harmful and toxic in this country’s literary culture. It might be hard, but it isn’t impossible.

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There are exciting things on the horizon for the FOLD—another festival, of course, and some off-season events, and still other surprises we’ve got hidden up our sleeves. But what’s even more exciting than this, for me, as I watch my fellow FOLD staff, volunteers, and authors ready for another event, is watching what the authors in this country have hidden away in their own hands. To see them banding together and supporting one another—to see my fellow colleagues and authors asking these hard questions and fighting for space and being open about how tired and demoralizing all of this can get, while all of them continue to publish and put books out into the world—it’s galvanizing in an incandescent kind of way. A fire that burns a clean path through the wilderness. And I can’t help but hope, even as I grieve for the wrongs and the hurts, that the children who come after us will see an entirely different world when they look at Canadian literature. They’ll have grown up with the FOLD. They’ll have grown up with authors like Zoe Whittall and Billy-Ray Belcourt, Casey Plett and Amber Dawn. Daniel Heath Justice and Chelene Knight and Natalie Wee. They’ll have seen people like Jael Richardson come to them at school and light a fire in their hearts. And one day in the not-so-distant future, a disabled Canadian youth will pick up a book by Dorothy Ellen Palmer or Jane Eaton Hamilton or Adam Pottle or any of the many other disabled voices who’ve been publishing work in this country. You can do this, all of these children will know. You can do this, you can be this, and here’s a story about it to show you.

That’s what the FOLD is about. Dismantle and rise up: the work is hard but also wonderful, and it continues.


Amanda Leduc’s essays and stories have appeared in publications across Canada, the US, the UK, and Australia. She is the author of the novels The Miracles of Ordinary Men (2013) and the forthcoming The Centaur’s Wife (2019). She lives and writes in Hamilton, Ontario, where she serves as the Communications and Development Coordinator for The Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), Canada’s first festival for diverse authors and stories.

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