What do we mean by diversity and why is it important?

Photo of Jael Richardson

Jael Richardson is the author of The Stone Thrower: A Daughter’s Lesson, a Father’s Life, a memoir based on her relationship with her father, CFL quarterback Chuck Ealey. The Stone Thrower was adapted into a children’s book in 2016 and was shortlisted for a Canadian picture book award. Richardson is a book columnist and guest host on CBC’s q. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph and lives in Brampton, Ontario where she founded and serves as the Artistic Director for the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD). Her debut novel, Gutter Child, is coming Fall 2020 with HarperCollins Canada. Jael Richardson will be at Tech Forum as a guest on the live recording of an episode of the Minorities in Publishing podcast.

A few years ago, the We Need Diverse Books movement inspired me to start a festival “celebrating diverse authors and storytellers” — a phrase that became the official slogan of the Festival of Literary Diversity. But looking at the phrase now, the wording seems wrong. Diverse authors and storytellers? Who are they?

“Diversity” and “diverse” are words that, as of late, seem particularly overused and occasionally — as in this case — misused or misplaced. After all, what makes someone “diverse” and someone else not? Is this why cis white men regularly joke that they’re not the kind of authors we select for the festival?

The word “diversity” literally means variety (which is why we regularly say everyone is welcome). You can have a diverse lineup at a festival (one that has a range of speakers) and you can represent or publish a diverse group of authors (a group that is not homogenous by a multitude of standards), but a person, an author, cannot be diverse — nor can a book. (Note: A book can have a diverse set of characters, but that’s a whole different thing.) A collection of books and a collection of authors should reflect a diverse range of stories and voices.

For publishers, agents, editors, educators, and booksellers who serve as gatekeepers in this industry, diversity should be an essential part of every group of storytellers within your reach or control. This needs to be done with careful thought and meaningful intention.

Now some of you are reading this and are thinking, “Yes. Say it again. Shout it louder.” You get what I’m saying because maybe, like me, you spent much of your childhood reading certain kinds of stories. Maybe, like me, no one told you that white writers were inherently better-suited to being authors, but after reading To Kill a MockingbirdLord of the FliesThe Stone Angel, and a boat load of Shakespeare, or after hearing about the greats like Hemingway and Austen, you just came to that conclusion somehow. Maybe, like me, you got so used to not reading stories by people who look like you or sound like you, or who were just not white, you assumed your voice or the voices of people of colour weren’t important or that those types of stories were better served through someone else’s gaze.

Or maybe, you never noticed what you were missing. Maybe, like me, you didn’t read Indigenous stories or stories by trans authors when you were young, and when you found them — when you read Katherena Vermette or Thomas King or Tanya Talaga or Casey Plett or Vivek Shraya or Ivan Coyote — you saw a world you had overlooked, a world that made you realize the plight of others in a way that changed everything.

You are the people who already get it. You are the people who, like me, want more. You see a diverse range of literature as one of the most exciting and accessible ways to transform your capacity for love and compassion by expanding your view of the world. And I couldn’t agree more.

But I think it’s important to admit that there’s another side to this. There are some people who are reading this and asking, “Why?” Some of you would rather read Sophie Kinsella or Stephen King or whatever is on the bookshelf or in the airport gift shop, the names you’ve come to love. Some of you don’t care or don’t want to think about diversity. Why does it matter if a book about the plight of people in Afghanistan or Muslims in Canada was written by a white Canadian named Tom Smith or Ben Clark or Sally Richardson? Does it matter if there’s a similar title written by someone who has actually lived that journey who has a last name that’s unfamiliar or harder to pronounce? Some of you don’t want to think about reading diversely. It’s too much work. “Why can’t I just read whatever I want?”

Truth is, you can. There are no diversity police who will come to your door and force you to read stories by certain authors. Outside of academia, no one can force you to read anything. But if someone came to you and said, “I only want to eat grapes for the rest of my life,” wouldn’t you suggest they try pizza or a samosa or sushi? If someone said “I never want to leave this town,” wouldn’t you invite them to take a short little ride, just to start?

Reading more diversely takes more work. But I promise you, it’s so worth it. 

So do the work, gatekeepers, even if you’re reluctant or unsure of where to start. Creating diverse collections and diversifying author representation is an ongoing process. It’s an ever-evolving move that’s not about quotas or checking off boxes or finally nailing it. It’s about creating spaces where diverse representation shapes a culture that is truly inclusive — spaces that acknowledge the multitude of voices that, together, make Canadian literature and the literature of the North great.

If you’d like to hear more from Jael Richardson about formulating equity within the literary community, register for Tech Forum on March 20, 2019 in Toronto. You can find more details about the conference here, or sign up for the mailing list to get all of the conference updates.