Firelight Interview Series: Jael Richardson

Photo by Trayc Dudgeon

Photo by Trayc Dudgeon

I met Jael Richardson on the first day of school – grad school, that is. During our first semester, we took the drama workshop together with inimitable playwright David Young, who opened his fabulous home, in Toronto’s Annex, with its backyard Japanese garden and kitchen-corner narwhal tusk, to our discussions of beats, props, scenes and what-have-you. We wrote theatre together. Since then, she’s published The Stone Thrower: A Daughter’s Lesson, a Father’s Life, a memoir based on her relationship with her father, CFL quarterback Chuck Ealey, and is now the Artistic Director of the Festival of Literary Diversity (the FOLD).

Who are you?

What defines me most is my faith. I believe in God – a sovereign creator with a bigger plan – and that affects so much of who I am. My faith informs what I do and how I do it. It defines how I treat people and how I live. It’s my core. I’m grateful every day for that. I’m grateful to God for every thing I have and every thing I am – a writer, a mother, a wife, a friend, a daughter, a sister, a woman.

What were the biggest highlights of your first publishing experience?

After the book came out, I served as a Toronto District School Board Writer-In-Residence for a year, which was one of the highlights of my first publishing experience. I visited a number of schools in Toronto, which has led to public speaking opportunities throughout the GTA. It’s my favourite part of the job. It’s exciting for me to meet with young people – particularly diverse young people – to talk with them about the realities of writing. I sat down once with a book club for boys, and my father and I visited one high school together. On both of these visits, I got to share my father’s story with young men who were facing circumstances that were similar to my father’s. It was so encouraging to see how reading helped them ask important questions about their own lives.

Writing is just part of what I do – engaging with readers is where I came to understand why all the hardships of writing were necessary.

What were the biggest disappointments?

There are challenges to writing as a woman of colour – particularly when your story is about being a woman of colour. I had a hard time finding a mentor who could help me navigate those challenges while I was doing my MFA; even though I had great mentors and a fantastic editor, throughout the publishing experience I came up against questions where that kind of insight would have been helpful, given the subject matter.

stonethrowercoverSoon after the book came out, the publisher I was with sold the book to another publisher, which complicated things as well. I was so inexperienced, and I just sat back while all this happened instead of pushing hard on my own. That was a mistake.

But the biggest disappointment comes when I encounter bookstore owners and publishing people who discount my work or pigeon-hole it as a “black book.” That’s the hardest. I really believe it’s more than that. I believe the book has something for everyone, but how do you change how other people decide to see you?

What’s your next project and what, if anything, will you do differently?

There’s a picture book for The Stone Thrower coming out in March with Groundwood Books, but my next writing project is a YA novel about five young people who are facing a world of impossible odds. It’s going to take a little bit more time to finish, but I’m ready for the process this time. I’m trying to be more patient with myself. I tried a few different approaches to writing the first time around, so in this project I’m using a process that involves more careful discipline. Once I’m done a draft, I work through one issue. I focus on that issue until the end of the draft, and then I start over and look at something new in the next round. If there are other things that I notice that need attention, I make a note on them, but I try to leave it alone. It’s proving to be a more effective way to navigate the material. It’s not quick, but it’s careful and methodical, and that’s what I need for this project.

How has writing changed you or your relationships?

I don’t think writing has changed me, but I do think it’s helped define me. It’s helped me understand my purpose and my place in the world as a storyteller. Writing is my way of engaging in politics and the important work of advocacy. It’s my way of giving back to my family, to the world. It’s my offering. I think finding your calling gives your feet a firm place in a world that often feels shaky and unstable, so I’m grateful to have found myself in that regard.

Jael's #DiverseCanLit pile reading pile

Jael’s #DiverseCanLit reading pile

How has writing affected your reading?

Writing a story with a diverse theme and seeing how that book lives in the publishing industry made me appreciate other writers who are working outside the margins. I’m certainly more interested in the books that aren’t on the mainstream book tables. I’m interested in stories that are told in unique ways, and I’m willing to look harder to find them. I no longer feel pressured to read what’s “popular.” I don’t feel pressured to like what someone else likes. We all read differently – which is why reading, and certainly being aware of a diverse range of books is so important.

What has recently turned your crank as an artist (sentence, phrase, novel, short story, play, painting, philosophical question, deep understanding about art-making), and why do you find it so exciting?

I recently started planning for the Festival of Literary Diversity – a festival that celebrates diverse authors and stories in one of Canada’s most culturally diverse cities. The idea was inspired by events in the States and by experiences in my own writing career – but it was an article written by an author in Toronto about the lack of diversity in the literary industry that really set the idea for the FOLD in motion.

In preparation for the festival, I’ve had the privilege of meeting with publishers and publicists in Canada about their fall and spring lists. I’m excited about the diversity that’s out there. It’s a good start. We’ve got new authors like Jon Chan Simpson, Sabrina Ramnanan, Tracey Lindberg, and Patti Laboucane-Benson, which is great, but it’s award season and lit fest season, and let’s be honest, the stats and odds are not in their favour in that regard. Regardless of what happens there, and I’m very hopeful for some good news, I’m excited to be working on a project where these new, emerging authors, and established authors from underrepresented communities, are celebrated year-round – through social media, through events, and of course, on May 6-8, 2016.

It’s exciting because it’s so important. Women are still underrepresented in publishing, not to mention Aboriginal authors, authors of different races, cultures, and faiths, and authors of varying abilities and identities. Just because a novel or a book doesn’t win an award, doesn’t mean it’s not good, but this factor weighs heavy in publisher’s minds when they’re doling out marketing dollars. It influences the set up of bookstores. And what we know for certain is that publicity and exposure play a huge role in the success of any book.

According to stats, the average Canadian book buyer is a middle-class, middle-aged white woman. I think a lot of what’s promoted feeds that community. I think that if we promote more diverse stories, we will see diverse readers respond in kind. I’m looking forward to exposing and exploring some of these questions at the FOLD. I’m excited about building a community of diverse readers, writers, and educators who are as passionate about diverse stories as I am.

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One Response to Firelight Interview Series: Jael Richardson

  1. sarah September 15, 2015 at 8:23 pm #

    Diversity – great theme and a fine interview. In my past life as high school librarian I’d have snapped up The Stone thrower, and daily saw the truth of Jael’s words: “promote more diverse stories, [and} we will see diverse readers respond in kind.”

I would love to hear what you think!

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