a FOLD festival panel
A panel of speakers at a previous FOLD festival

For Jael Richardson, the FOLD couldn’t just fold. The director of the Festival of Literary Diversity held in Brampton, Ont., faced three choices as the coronavirus pandemic mounted this month: postpone the event, cancel it entirely or run the festival online.  

“For me, to postpone was not an option,” said Richardson, a 2010 graduate of U of G’s MFA creative writing program. “My family life runs around the festival.” 

She said cancelling would have meant pulling income and publicity opportunities from writers and returning funding to sponsors and granting agencies. 

After taking a day to think it over, she decided to go virtual. 

The fifth annual event featuring marginalized and underrepresented writers – mostly from across Canada as well as a few international participants – will happen online this spring. Authors will take part in panel discussions and workshops as planned, but those activities will be streamed to audiences at home or wherever they log in.  

The event will run online from April 30 to May 3 and will be offered free this year.   

Part of the festival budget originally intended for venue and event costs will be used instead for marketing on social media and for paying authors, said Richardson.    

Almost 30 writers will take part, including Gwen Benaway, winner of the 2019 Governor General’s Award for her poetry collection Holy World, and Jesse Thistle, whose memoir From the Ashes is a 2020 CBC Canada Reads finalist 

Jael Richardson (Photo credit: Arden Wray)

Richardson said only one author bowed out after the decision to go online. Event sponsors and granting agencies are continuing to support the festival.  

Referring to widespread cancellations this spring of writers’ festivals and other literary events, she said, “Writers have lost income from cancelled events. Authors are struggling financially now. We’re really glad to be able to put the festival on if for the sake of putting money into authors’ pockets.” 

Normally the festival draws about 1,000 people over the weekend. This year, she’s not sure what to expect.  

With free events being streamed to home, she said, “maybe we’ll have larger attendance. There’s no cost and you don’t have to come to Brampton. You can be anywhere. I’d like to think numbers will be higher than usual.” 

She has some experience with online offerings, as FOLD has previously offered webinars, including a recent children’s book event. She said the online format might even provide an advantage for marginalized communities, including writers and readers who may have trouble connecting with one another and with readers 

“Online allows us to close that distance. For FOLD, the online community is an essential part of the experience.”