Two weekends ago I had the opportunity to hear Lawrence Hill in conversation with Farzana Doctor as part of FOLD, the Festival of Literary Diversity. I found out about FOLD late so I was only able to drop by on Sunday afternoon, but I was very excited to check out a festival dedicated to diversity right in my backyard of Brampton!
To hear not one, but two, great Canadian authors discuss Hill’s new novel The Illegal was like watching Canada Reads live (which the novel just so happened to win earlier this year). Hill’s latest work is a dystopian fiction set in a fictional land influenced by an amalgamation of real refugee policies. “I was [able to be] more playful on the page if I wasn’t worrying about authenticity,” he said. Doctor and Hill talked about the beauty of fictional settings and the power of made-up places, both finding the ability to draw out empathy and criticism from readers easier when working in fiction. I’ve certainly found it to be effective in J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians and Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, although I can’t speak to other dystopian novels.
Another point which I found really interesting was Hill citing Miriam Toews as an inspiration, particularly her ability to be funny and dark at the same time. “I wanted to write an incredibly painful story,” he said. I find the humour in dark novels is always a delight and closer to reality, so I am excited to read this book eventually. According to Doctor (who actually did her homework), The Illegal moves at a crackling, funny speed spurred on by the protagonist, Keita Ali, a competitive runner who is hiding in a country known as Freedom State which does not want him. I’ve been seeing the book in hands on the train and the subway a lot since then so I’m sure it will be everywhere soon enough. Currently, I’m working my way through The Book of Negroes (at long last!) so that should be a fair warning about how soon I will have a review out…
The rest of the festival (as far as I got to see) was amazing! I saw PAMA presents Leon Rooke, an exhibit featuring the joint work of Tony Calzetta, a visual artist, and Leon Rooke, a novel and member of the Order of Canada. The work is on display at the PAMA Art Gallery for public viewing. Personally, I didn’t enjoy the exhibit. Rooke and Calzetta’s work was reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s style with a more political stance. I found the layout and design of the artwork hastily put together and the prose chaotic. Not exactly my cup of tea, but the relationship between illustration and prose was fun to meditate on. If you are particularly interested in Scottish humour and colloquialisms I recommend it. There were many references I didn’t understand, so that does play a large part of why I did not enjoy it.
I also took a look around The Diverse Can Lit Writers’ Hub, which exhibited publishers who were looking for diverse works to publish. A lot of familiar faces like The Walrus and TNQ were present plus some publications I hadn’t heard of before like Broken Pencil and Little Fiction | Big Truths. The most impressive part of the festival to me is that it was FOLD’s inaugural year. Founded by Brampton’s own Jael Richardson, the line up was wonderfully diverse and I’m sad I missed out on two whole days of events. I’ve pulled together a bunch of links to check out below if you want to try and recreate some of the experience as much as I do. Overall, it is exciting to see a platform for exhibiting diverse voices, especially outside of Toronto, whether I find I can relate to all of those voices or not is moot. To me, diversity is the true definition of Canadian literature and I have high hopes for FOLD in the future. Canada needs more of this.