TRANSCRIPT: DIVERSE BODIES: ON DISABILITY AND EXCLUSION
Panelists: Dorothy Ellen Palmer, Jael Richardson.
Moderator: Amanda Leduc
Amanda: Hello and welcome, my name is Amanda Leduc and I am the Communications and Development Coordinator for the Festival of Literary Diversity, based in Brampton, Ontario. With me today is author Dorothy Ellen Palmer and the Artistic Director of the FOLD, Jael Richardson. Today we are going to be re-recording a discussion session that was originally held at the inaugural Festival of Literary Diversity on Saturday May 7, 2016. Before I start, however, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the Ontario Trillium Foundation for their financial support, which made this recording possible.
I’d like to start by asking Dorothy: could you tell us a little bit about your history, both as a writer and as an advocate for accessibility? How have you found your work and personal experience with accessibility to have influenced your writing?
Dorothy: I would say there are several answers to that. The first answer is that disability has always affected my life and my writing, but the second answer is that I didn’t always tell the truth about it. I lived most of my life in three closets: the first was an adoption closet, where my parents wouldn’t let me discuss that in any way, shape or form. The other was the bastardy closet, which was the reason they wouldn’t let me talk about my adoption – my mother was a young unmarried rape victim. And the third one was the disability closet. And of course when you’re a little kid and you’re not allowed to talk about any of those things, they get intermingled. And as I slowly got older and I realized that I was also the victim of infant child abuse in one of my seven foster homes, I intermingled all of that as well. So that led to an awful lot of self-silencing because I could “pass” in the walking world for most of my life. I limped, I got tired, but I passed. And so it was incredibly important to me to pass as someone who looked like they didn’t have a disability, and only my closest friends or friends who’d known me from childhood operations knew that there was something going on.
This was the norm until I hit about fifty, when I started using a crutch, and then a couple of years later I started using a walker. And at that point, when my book came out in 2010, it became important for me to authenticate that I’d been hiding. It was important to say this is who I am in the largest sense, these are all of the things that went into my writing, and it’s time to finally come out of all those closets, and do my best to be an advocate for it.
Amanda: Your novel, WHEN FENELON FALLS, was published by Coach House Books, and I know when we at the FOLD were pulling the festival together, one of the things that we did do initially was reach out to the deaf community to see if they could be involved in the festival in some way. We ran into a couple of snags pulling all of that together. You got in touch with the festival to look at what our accessibility concerns were and how we had set the festival up, and you also raised an important question at the time about including disabled voices as another part of the diversity spectrum. It was a really good experience for both myself and Jael, the Artistic Director, and we really are appreciative of all that you’ve brought to the festival. And I wondered, Jael, if you could talk a little bit about what that experience was like for you as the Artistic Director of the festival, and for the festival as a whole, about trying to keep in mind and be aware of the various faces of diversity, and the different considerations that people bring to the table. How do you pull a festival together when you have to keep in mind all of these different voices?
Jael: When we started the festival the question was what did we mean by diversity, and so people wanted to know who would be included in that. We’ve said from the beginning the thing that makes the FOLD unique is that we mean EVERYTHING. We want to look at people and genres and communities that have been historically neglected at literary festivals. And so we knew going out—I didn’t know as much as I do now, thanks to Dorothy—about the statistics around disability, but we knew from the sample of the deaf community that they wouldn’t be able to go to a single literary festival in Canada. There were none available that really integrated the deaf community. That was one of the places we started out. But we experienced challenges, and while I came in as an Artistic Director very critical of the literary festival scene, I do think that planning this has made me more sympathetic on some level to the challenges that programmers face. It’s not as easy as just saying “we’d like to have more disabled voices or more people from the deaf community”—there are a ton of steps to do that responsibly. That was something I’ve learned this year. I also learned that it’s very easy to ignore marginalized communities, on the sole basis that it’s very difficult—it makes your work that much harder when you try to make sure that you’re being inclusive. It’s much easier to develop a program that works for whatever your particular system is. Whether you’re white, or whatever system of power that you come from—it’s very easy to accommodate yourself because you know what that looks like, you know what you like, and what’s harder is incorporating diverse voices. And that’s not just on a “this is what I prefer” social level, it’s also true on an economic level.
One of our issues this year was staging—how do we make sure that our authors are visible to all in the room? And then not only how are they visible, but how do you make the stage accessible—how do you make sure your authors get up there? We realized that if you’re going to make the stage accessible—via the use of ramps or steps, for example—you reduce the number of seats that you can have in a room, which reduces the number of tickets you can sell. So there’s an economic system involved in making your space and festival diverse. It isn’t just about making your authors diverse—you have to go beyond that. But the reality is that this is also the justification for why festivals have not tried to be diverse in the past. It’s too much money, there’s too much effort involved. And the reality of that is that we can’t allow that to be an excuse. One of the things Dorothy really challenged us on is that when we experienced some of these challenges, we thought we would tackle them next year—it was too big for us to do this year, especially with it being the first year of the festival. And Dorothy wrote and said if we don’t pay attention to these voices, no one will. If a festival centered around diversity doesn’t pay attention to marginalized voices, no one will. And we realized we had to make changes. We had to put a session in that wasn’t originally there in order for us to have this discussion. We had to think about the layout of the festival and do our very best to ensure people were accommodated fully or were informed about the lack of accommodation so that they were prepared. So there were all sorts of things like that that got involved. As we think about next year it’s about going into spaces and saying—you need to talk about your authors and see if people are comfortable coming out like this. For us, it’s about finding authors who are deaf or authors who live with mental health—and finding people who are willing to talk about it is an important step as well, because the more authors who come out and say that they’ve experienced this, the more people who will come out and listen as well.
Amanda: Yes. And I’m glad that you mentioned this, Jael, because both for myself on a personal level and then on a wider festival level as well, I find that aspect of self-identifying has been such a crucial issue, for the FOLD’s work both with the Inaugural festival and then with looking at what the festival will do in the future through its programming.
For example, one of the writers we reached out to initially had not identified herself as a disabled writer, either to the festival or to her publisher. And it wasn’t until later that we discovered she was part of that space. And the question is: what happens when writers don’t want to necessarily identify themselves as being disabled? For myself, from my own experience—I have cerebral palsy, but it’s very mild, it’s not something that’s readily apparent. And for a long time, I didn’t identify as a disabled writer, first because I felt that since it wasn’t physically apparent I didn’t think people would believe me, and I also felt that it was maybe disingenuous of me in some way because it wasn’t keeping me back from anything I wanted to do. But there was also a second element where I thought—I don’t want to be known as a disabled writer because I don’t want the disability part of my life to be the first thing that people see. And one of the things that was so transformative when we did this panel originally was that realization that I was, however unknowingly, playing into a kind of culture that says: disability doesn’t exist on a spectrum. Disability is people who are completely incapacitated. Which is not the case. And, you know, it was a real sort of thing that I had to think about coming away from our initial panel, to come to terms with the fact that I had played into that idea that you weren’t disabled unless you were completely disabled, and how that doesn’t advance the cause. And so, how do we go about creating space, then, both as a literary festival and as a wider literary culture—how do we create a safe space for those kinds of voices, who maybe are unsure or a bit afraid or just a bit nervous about coming out and identifying? How do we make it clear that this is not something people should shy away from? That it is an integral part of your identity in many ways, and that’s an okay thing to acknowledge and to own?
Dorothy: I really agree with that. I’ll make an analogy. In my years as a teacher I loved analogies! I was a teacher of improve. For the first two weeks in improve class, the boys leapt on the stage, hogged the airtime, and saw nothing wrong with that.
Amanda: Why does that not surprise me. [laughter]
Dorothy: You know, it’s a whole number of things. It’s identification of males as comics, it’s girls hanging back, fearing that they can’t be funny, there’s all kinds of things involved. And I had to sit down with them and say: this is a symbiotic relationship. One, the girls have to step forward. Take courage in hand and step forward and self-identify. Yes, I’m a girl, yes, I’m funny. But the boys also have to cede the air time. They have to step back and let their natural aggressiveness not steal the show. It was that relationship between feeling invited and encouraged AND the hoggers in the room stepping back, that ultimately invited people to the table, which is the expression we use in the literary world. And I’ve never felt invited to the table until FOLD. I commend you guys so incredibly—you responded like such a class act in ways that I can’t even properly express my thanks for. So that enabled me to be as clear as I could be about what I think disabled people need in the future and moving forward. So it’s both those things. It’s admitting privilege, and ceding privilege, because as Jael was saying, of course it’s easier for able-bodied people to run an able-bodied festival. Of course. But that’s one of the things that they have to face about their privilege. It will take more work and more money. And once that happens, people will start feeling welcome and showing up and self-identifying more. Both of those things have to happen at the same time.
Jael: One of the other writers at one of other events at the festival said that this involves some awkward conversations. This is one of the things that I think you have to get over as a programmer. We have to say, this is important, we’re going to start here. Instead of saying, “Let’s organize our festival and then think about these disabled voices over here in the corner,” we have to say, “Okay, let’s start with the question of how do we make sure we’re more accommodating this year than we were the year before? How do we set aside funds to make sure we do that, how do we structure our budget with that in mind?” So when you’re going through your plan, you can say that a certain idea for the festival won’t work because these things that you’ve decided on are already important. So it means doing that. And it means if you’re an able-bodied programming team and there’s no one who’s being a voice for the disabled, you need to invite somebody to the table to be that voice. You need to go out and seek somebody out–even if it’s somebody like Dorothy who might, say, live in British Columbia—you need to call her and say, “Look we’re trying to do this right, what are things you’d recommend in this 1st year?” So it’s about making sure you start there instead of trying to slot people in as an afterthought.
It’s the same conversation with diverse voices too, and people are getting more open and that conversation is happening a bit quicker than the disability conversation because it’s something they’re more familiar with, even if they’re not familiar with it themselves. Racial diversity is something that they’re a little bit more comfortable navigating. And you always, as a programmer, tend to lean to your most comfortable range, because uncomfortable conversations and awkward conversations are not things that people enjoy, generally speaking. But I think they’re necessary. And it’s just — you have to stop making excuses, and that’s a big thing that I can recommend to any programmer. You have to stop making excuses. And we started with excuses, to be honest. I mean, Dorothy speaks very highly of the FOLD, but I don’t think we started out so hot. [Laughter}. And I think we did make some of those excuses. I think I can justify them–I don’t think there was any problem with it, I just think our first reaction was, “It’s too much work for this year. We’ll do it next year.” And I think we have to stop making those kinds of excuses. We have to start saying, “I can’t accommodate all of these requests this year, you’re right, we’ve made a mistake, but I CAN do this.” Something any programmer can do is put their accessibility information on their website. And Dorothy asked us to do that, and we did it, and she said, “Um, you’re missing a lot of information.’ And so we said, “Shoot, we are.” And so we took a little bit longer, like about a week, to put the rest of the content up there. And it was stuff that I’d never thought about. You know—how close is the parking lot from the entrance? How far apart are the buildings? Where’s the bathroom in relation to the events, and are they wheelchair accessible? Are they walker accessible? There’s a whole different range of questions you need to ask and answer as a programmer, and I think sometimes it means going to your venue and walking through with someone who is disabled, or in a wheelchair. But do it yourself. See what it’s like, because I think you’ll start to see a lot of problems with a lot of spaces. That’s going to take a long time to fix, but if you can at least let somebody know before they leave the house what they can expect, you’re in a better place. And that’s something.
Amanda: Absolutely. All of these questions and discussion points are touching the idea that in the wider sphere, you know, the city level and the municipal and federal levels, people need to start doing the work of thinking about what it might be like to approach something as someone who has accessibility issues. And one of the ways that we tie into that as a literary festival—in the dissemination of literature—is looking at the presence of disabled characters in the books that we read. And with the rise of awareness about ability issues in the wider sphere as well as in literature, there’s also come a trend of what’s known as “incidental disability”, where over the last couple of years there’s been a lot of praise put on books that have main characters who have a disability but the disability isn’t necessarily the main driving focus of the book. Some people have praised this development, and then others have pointed out that identity stories can be quite useful in helping people process their own relationship to ability. We just talked a couple of minutes ago about how hard it can be to self-identify. And Dorothy I was wondering, for yourself, how do you feel about this? Because it seems to be that people are falling into one of two camps. They’re either really in favour of incidental disability—they sort of want to almost erase the aspect of disability as being a problem for people, and have it just be, you know, this is just a part of this character’s life, and that’s how it works. And then there are people who say, no, this is really something that’s important in terms of a disabled person’s personal history. And then, for the wider world—their relationship to someone with a disability, you need to be aware of those kinds of things. What it means to grow up being disabled, what it means having to navigate the world in that kind of way. And Dorothy, I was wondering—how do you feel about that? How do you put that into your own writing?
Dorothy: I think that what we’ve sort of created in trying to come to grips with this, is a bit of a false binary. Just as in the way we talk about gender fluidity, we should be talking about disability fluidity. Just the way you mentioned, earlier, disability is a spectrum. It isn’t you either are or you aren’t, you know—there are degrees of disability that can happen. Certainly, as we age—as I head into my senior years especially—it’s very clear to me that the older people get, the more likely they are to have a disability. By the time you hit 75, virtually every senior person at 75 has some kind of identifiable disability. So it’s something that’s fluid in our identity, and therefore should be fluid, I would argue, in the literature that disabled writers write. It would be perfectly acceptable for me to write a young adult story in which the emphasis was on the main character solving mysteries. She’s a young Sherlock Holmes who also happens to walk with a crutch. But it would also be perfectly acceptable for me, as a disabled writer, to write a book in which my walker is now the central aspect of my identity. Because it is. So to suggest that the best or the highest goal of disability writing is incidental disability is partially insulting to me. Because it’s like saying, “Oh, you’re a black writer, well make sure your blackness is incidental. You’re a gay writer? Make sure your gayness is incidental.” That’s so insulting. The obvious goal, I think, is to have disabled writers be able to speak to any degree that they wish to speak about how disability affects their work in any given piece of work they do.
Jael: I see that too as a woman of colour—I think that I like to take stories that are perfectly “normal”, quote unquote, and if people were to read them and not know the race, they would think that everybody in the story is white. Which is the default. [laughter]. But I love taking those stories, and when I plan my stories, try to make a character black or another race, because it changes everything. As soon as you have a crime and it’s two white people, that’s one thing, and there’s all sorts of things that can come up from that. But as soon as you make one of them gay or one of them black or one of them anything else other than your “default”, it changes the dynamic of the conversation. It changes those assumptions. It just does. And you wouldn’t think that it might, but it does.
So I think that those things can’t be incidental in some ways. They are part of the framework of a world that marginalizes certain people and voices and in so doing creates assumptions and things about people in the way that they’re written and in the way that their stories are told. And I think that the—I guess it’s a question for you Dorothy too—I know for me, I get concerned when people who are not black write stories where black voices are prominent. Because I wonder why. Why are they doing that? What’s the motivation? I have a problem with people benefitting—you know, making a ton of money off of a book that’s about black voices when they’re not black. So I feel like it’s residual of slavery in a sense to make financial gains off of other bodies and voices. And I think that’s the one concern I have when people write stories and throw in a disabled character. Not that they benefit, but my question is: how do they position those characters? I mean, the movie that’s coming out, that’s under some discussion—Me Before You, based on the JoJo Moyes book—when you write this story about disabled bodies, in particular when you make the disability a negative thing, and you aren’t disabled yourself, I feel like you’re sending messages that you don’t live with. And that creates some problems for me. As an outsider. And it’s not something I think you can’t do, I just have some real questions about it.
Amanda: Right. Which leads right into that whole question of cultural appropriation, and how do we as writers draw the line. Where do you draw the line between, as a writer, feeling like you should be able to on some level—or should want to, on some level—try and dive into the experience of anybody, to really immerse yourself in that world, and to try and expand your writing voice, but then also be aware of and sensitive to the fact that, you know, this experience is also not your own at the same time. And is it right for someone who, for example—is it right for a white writer to write from the perspective of a black person? Is it right for someone who is able to write from the perspective of a disabled person?
I think people will fall once again into one of two camps on those things. You’ve got—and I know writers of colour, for example, who will say this—you’ve got those who say people can write whatever they want, and they have absolute license to do that. And then I know other people who will say, with complete valid reason—no, you can’t. Because that is a huge part of my identity and it comes with a huge amount of history and depth that you can’t access as a person who is not from that culture. So insofar as the aspect of disability and ability awareness is a kind of culture, in the sense that people have that shared experience of having physical limitations in some way, shape, or form, how do you, Dorothy, feel about this? Specifically when it comes to abled writers? You spoke in your previous answer about the responsibility that disabled writers have when they write disabled characters. Do you think that able writers can write disabled characters? Or is it something that should not be touched? Ever? Will we get to a point where we can do that, or no?
Dorothy: I’ll start with another analogy. Back when I was a teacher, a student was brought in to me—a lovely young white woman who for her OAC final drawing had painted a First Nations person on a horse in full headdress. And she had no connection to that world. We had to try to get across to this seventeen year old kid that regardless of how beautifully intricate the painting was, or how skillfully done, what she had done was appropriate it. Eventually what she did—which was the coolest thing for a seventeen-year-old—she built around the drawing a TV screen with a white hand reaching out to the button. And the painting was in the middle. And I thought: good for you. Good for you.
Because what she finally came to grips with was the knowledge that she was looking at her relationship to that material, and recognizing her white privilege to turn it on and turn it off. Good for her. And if seventeen-year-olds can do that, so can adult writers. And I sort of think, too, that if you have a novel in which there is an incidental disabled character, I see nothing wrong with that if you are an able-bodied author, just the same way as a heterosexual writer might have a character who is gay. I see nothing wrong with an author who says, “I am not trying to speak for them or through them, or profit from their voice. But I want to include that in my book.” I have no problem with that.
The problem I have in 2016, when there are virtually no disabled writers writing about disability in fiction—there are some writing in memoir, but virtually none in fiction—I have a huge problem with books like ALL THE LIGHT I CANNOT SEE, which steals the blind experience and has made mega millions, and mega fame, for an able-bodied writer. And nobody—or virtually nobody—complained about that. Now, more recently, we get JoJo Moyes writing her book, Me Before You, and she claims that when it was a book nobody complained about the appropriation of the disabled voice. I think that’s really interesting. I don’t know if it’s true, but she claims it was. She claims now that since it’s a movie, maybe we’re more aware of these things in movies. And since it’s come out as a movie there’s been a much stronger campaign to say, first of all, you’ve got an able-bodied actor doing a disabled role, which is as offensive to most of the disabled community as if they had a white character doing a role in blackface. It’s colonialism, plain and simple. And secondly, you’ve got an able-bodied writer deciding, in the absence of all these other voices, deciding that this young man who is physically disabled doesn’t feel his life is worth living and decides to kill himself. Right? How DARE an able-bodied writer decide that, in the absence of all of these other disabled writer voices, and make millions of dollars and then get on the radio and on the PR, and say, “Well this isn’t a novel about disability, it’s just about romance”.
Amanda: One of the things she talked about was, when people pointed it out that she was making disability look like a thing people can’t live with, her response was, “But everybody else in the book wants him to live!” But he’s the central character in the book! And you’re basically saying that the decisions and feelings of everybody else in the book should carry more weight than what he’s deciding to do, when what he’s deciding to do is this ultimate action.
Jael: The struggle too, I think, is the lack of lived experience. I think if someone wrote that exact same story and they had lived it, and could explain the place that they came from, and the power that comes from telling that story—it would be very different.
And I also think that one of the problems with that is the problem we have with publishing and film in general, is that it’s—it becomes much easier for a white, able-bodied writer to put stories like that out. Easier than it is for the people who have actually lived those experiences. You know—it’s not actually as true as I thought, in my community, in the black community, that there aren’t stories about black characters. I actually found a LOT when I was beginning the book that I’m working on. What was interesting to me was very few of them—actually none of them—were written by people who were black themselves. So that’s what’s really problematic in all of these stories—you have this actor who is making a ton of money, and you have disabled people who can act, who are capable, who are not able or are not being allowed to take on that role because it’s assumed that they’re not capable. You have writers who are producing great stories with lived experiences and powerful places and dark places, and bright places too, and they’re not getting that same opportunity because they don’t live in that same nepotistic circle, where they know all the right people and are getting all of the access. So that’s the deeper problem to all of the things we see.
I remember somebody saying to me, “Should a library have a specific section for black writing or LGBT voices?” And the reality is, people wouldn’t ask for those kinds of sections if they knew that those voices were intermixed throughout the library. So the reason people get so frustrated and angry is not just because these stories have problems in them, but because they’re produced by people who don’t have lived experience. And because the people who don’t have lived experience are the ones making the money, people who do have the lived experience are often struggling financially.
Amanda: Right. And that perpetuates that marginalization and that cycle.
Dorothy: Yes. And what allies and other writers in the publishing world need to do is sit down and say: if it would be offensive to me for a white writer to do a “Black Like Me” book in 2016, it should be equally as offensive and inappropriate and unacceptable to have an able-bodied writer impersonate, colonize, and seize and make money from disabled experience. It should be equally wrong in our minds. It isn’t yet. And that’s something that I think everybody on every job in the literary world needs to come to grips with. Other writers who see themselves as allies, and other diverse writers who are involved in their own marginalized struggles, need to see that seniors and the disabled are desperate to be part of joining that struggle. And just the way eventually I’m hoping that authentic voices will be so overwhelming that it won’t matter if somebody else also writes about us, right now it matters desperately because we don’t have those voices yet.
I think too, just in that vein, when we’re looking at moving forward, one of the things that I have felt before is that when people do these things that are wrong or problematic, the automatic reaction generally is PR—to defend the action, to say “It isn’t a big deal, it wasn’t a problem before,” etc. Now I’m not the type of person who would say, “Stop the movie, don’t make any money.” I’m saying, ‘What are you going to do now that you know this is wrong? Now that you’ve made this money, how will you use that money to right the wrong that you’ve created? How will you invest in disabled actors and voices?” It’s the same with publishers. How will you take the money that’s built the multi-national organizations that you have, and now repair some of the damage that you’ve done? How will you start to invest in making sure that your next steps are investing in diver
se voices and in marginalized voices? Because it’s one thing to say, “Whoopsy daisy!” when you make these kind of mistakes. But it’s a whole other thing to say that we need to change our whole mindset as a system. That’s how you correct what you’ve done. I don’t think anybody is saying “Burn the books! Destroy the movie!” Some people are boycotting it, and that’s a choice you can make. But the real question going forward is what are you going to do now?
Dorothy: And I think the first step in that is to really wrap our brains around the numbers, and understand the numbers. Because until we understand those numbers, it doesn’t seem like we’ve really done anything all that bad. But when you look at the fact that the disabled population, depending on who you count, is somewhere between 14 and 16% of the population—this means that somewhere in the neighbourhood of one out of every four or five or six or seven writers, on any panel, jury, in any award ceremony or situation, should be disabled. And when you look at—depending if you count seniors as 65 or over or 60 or over—at 60 or over, this percentage is in the neighbourhood of 23%–that’s 23& of the population that has a disability. When—if ever—are seniors or the disabled anywhere near the representative amount that we want them to be if we want a fair society? With a literary culture that represents the larger culture of the nation, it is quite simply the biggest error that we need to correct.
I’m not saying that the other marginalized struggles aren’t important—of course they are. I’m saying that we need to sit down and say, “We are leaving the 4% Indigenous population out of our stories, and we are leaving the .05% transgender population out of our stories, but we are also leaving out the 22% senior population.” That’s something that, when you look at those numbers, you’re realizing that it isn’t just a sprinkling of diversity and accommodation that we need. It’s a fundamental shift.
Amanda: And that, Jael, goes back to what you were talking about at the beginning of this conversation, when you were speaking about your experience as an Artistic Director. And that realization that you had that it’s a lot of work. This whole shift in your mind—shifting your mindset to look at diverse voices, and within that shift recognizing that diversity goes above and beyond what most people l think about. The standard knee-jerk reaction when you think of diversity is often people of colour. And yet diversity is so much broader than that. And I think a lot of people just have real trouble wrapping their minds around exactly how far it needs to go, and exactly how much work is involved. And so, the question then becomes: how do we, as a literary festival for ourselves here, and then as a wider society in Canada, in terms of looking at literary culture and the programming that happens on a yearly basis across the country—in terms of libraries, different events, etc—how do we move forward from that? What are some of the things that we can think about and do and implement to start shifting those outlooks for people?
Jael: I think this is a great way to finish off. I think, like I said, that it’s really about starting with diversity, and starting with disability as a central question. What can we do this year? A year out of your festival planning, you have to ask yourself: how are you going to do better that year? For us, we have a limited travel budget so it’s very easy to turn and say, “We’re going to use our travel budget on our biggest author names.” And that makes financial sense. And I think you should do that, as a festival But I think you should also consider disabled voices and voices from particularly marginalized communities as an investment as well. As an investment in a better social economy. And so, that’s one area you need to start in with your programming. Start with those most marginalized voices as opposed to starting with the most popular artists. (Although those aren’t two separate things and could be the same!)
And then I think the other thing to think about is your access to your community. Invest in being more accessible to the community and the people who are coming by putting your information up on your website really early. And by including voices that will help you do that in a thoughtful way. And also, by thinking about financial accessibility. Think about ways that you as a festival could be more flexible in your financial approach. How can you make sure that voices who might be marginalized financially as well as in other areas also get there? If you want diverse voices at the table, you have to look at and overcome some of these obstacles, and finances are a big one. Early bird rates are often given to those who actually have the most disposable income and can commit to an event months before it happens. There are legitimate reasons for why people have early bird rates, so you have to really think through it. Even at the FOLD, we haven’t gotten this all right. But every year we want to do something a little bit different so that we’re heading in the right direction.
Amanda: And you, Dorothy?
Dorothy: I really agree with that, and I think the really good news here is that people who really understand diversity understand that it’s an expanding feast. It keeps widening and widening, and you circle of intention slowly grows. And I think that that’s where the FOLD can be absolutely commended, again. You were the first to say, “We need to have a senior disabled voice, and we will go out of our way to ensure that happens.” And I think, you know, you backpedal a little bit on your cred, but I don’t want you to. I think that it’s absolutely important that you recognize the landmark that having that voice, honouring and respecting that voice, and making sure that it came happily to the table, well accommodated at the table—that’s something that is extremely important.
And the fact that you want to continue to move forward from that, I think, is good news for everybody. Because one of the things that’s sometimes forgotten is that when you include seniors and the disabled, you’re including every other marginalized community. Gay people get old, people of colour get old. We all, when we get old, want to continue to have a voice. So what we’re doing now lays the groundwork for young writers who are in their twenties and thirties, to still be heard when they’re in their sixties. So that is the most important message. That in the end, this helps everyone.
Amanda: I think that’s a wonderful note on which to end things. I’d like to take this opportunity again to thank Dorothy for coming to revisit this session with us today. Dorothy Ellen Palmer is the author of WHEN FENELON FALLS, by Coach House Books. Go out and get the book—it’s wonderful.
Dorothy and Jael, thank you both very much for coming, thank you for listening, and once again our deepest thanks to the Ontario Trillium Foundation, whose support and help has allowed us to make this recording and subsequent translations available to others.