The Word On The Street’s annual festival in downtown Toronto has endured for more than 30 years. But with the onset of a global pandemic in 2020, the festival’s future was far from assured…
Hosted by Rebecca Diem
Produced by Quinton Bradshaw
Music by James Ellercamp
Special thanks to Carolyn Taylor, Ceta Ramkhalawansingh, Cory Doctorow, Jael Richardson, Anjula Gogia, and Nick Mount.
For more information about the Festival of Literary Diversity, visit thefoldcanada.org.
- Gutter Child – Jael Richardson https://anotherstory.ca/item/ihViYpG-txVfmlOpdFzLoQ
- The Stone Thrower – Jael Richardson https://anotherstory.ca/item/NBxRcFBM7GK8hLgSGKf6Jw
- Attack Surface – Cory Doctorow https://anotherstory.ca/item/mvAe9UD8MdptTr36_vR0iw
- Brother – David Chariandy https://anotherstory.ca/item/ssARrWrToAZ3n3wsRBuqlQ
[gentle piano and sounds of people on a bustling, happy street]
Rebecca Diem: Imagine walking down your street and finding a bustling celebration on your doorstep. Not for a holiday, or a sporting event, just… books. A party for the written word. From leather-scented literary tomes to brightly-illustrated children’s books, from major publishers to teeny indie presses, offering every genre of story in every medium your heart could desire, and bringing together a community of readers, authors, booksellers and publishers alike.
This was how The Word On The Street was imagined into being. A place where books by Canadian and Indigenous authors are championed in a free, public festival right at the heart of our city, accessible to all. And for 30 years, that’s exactly what happened. The Word On The Street – affectionately known as WOTS – endured, rain or shine. But what you might not know is in April 2020, we weren’t sure if there would be another WOTS festival. Ever.
[music and streetscape sounds fade out]
My name is Rebecca Diem. I’m the Digital Strategy & Communications Manager for The Word On The Street, and I’m a speculative fiction author living here, in Toronto – or Tkaronto, Treaty 13 territory. I’ve worked at WOTS since 2019, the year we held our 30th Anniversary celebration. And this is Read the North, a series exploring CanLit, brought to you by your friendly neighbourhood book festival.
[theme music – ambient indie/electronic by composer James Ellercamp]
Rebecca Diem: When the pandemic struck, our team had some really difficult decisions to make, and a big part of those decisions was asking why this work matters? Is WOTS essential? Who is it for? What’s the point of a book festival in this day and age of technological disruption and fractured attention spans?
Well, as we were exploring these questions, we decided to reach out to the community of folks who ARE essential to the festival each year: the publishers, the arts organizations, the bookstores, the authors, and most importantly, the readers.
We asked what was important to them and what dreams they held for the future. And what we got in return, was stories. Stories we tell about ourselves, the places we call home, and the people we call our neighbours. And ultimately, the story of WOTS: a story that grows and evolves as each new voice adds their part. It’s the story of us, and not just who we are or who we were, but who we aspire to be.
So, we’re going to share that story with you. Over the course of this mini-series, we’re going to dig into the why of WOTS, and how a 33-year-old literary institution can make it in the 21st century.
But before we look to the future, first, we gotta look back.
The inaugural Word On The Street took place on Queen Street West in 1990, and there’d never been anything like it before. A free book festival, taking over multiple city blocks? That was a totally novel idea. And it was also – as firsts often are – a lot of work. So clearly a lot of people really believed that Toronto needed a book festival, and were willing to work hard to make it happen. But, like, why? Why did they think it mattered then?
The nice thing is, even though 33 years can feel like a lifetime, (I’ll be 35 this June), 1990 isn’t actually that long ago. So, we didn’t have to speculate. We just called up Carolyn Taylor, the festival’s very first executive director:
Rebecca Diem: Can you tell me about when your involvement began? Were you part of the planning process? Or were you brought on to kind of lead the show with the first iteration of the festival?
Carolyn Taylor: Sure. There was definitely a group of deeply committed people to the idea of making writing and reading – reading in particular – accessible to Canadians and certainly within Toronto, deeply committed to that idea, and making it real, before I was ever on the scene, for sure. And the job description that I responded to, said that there was a deep desire amongst this group and a commitment to realize a publicly-accessible celebration of books, writing, and reading. So that was, that was the extent of the vision that we had when I started. And one of our early board members, Blanche van Ginkel, who was an architect, and, you know, one of her contributions to the whole vision was this idea of Torontonians waking up one morning to the sight of a street that was very familiar to them, having been completely transformed. And there was just something about that idea that was very captivating, to me and I think to all of us. And so I think, you know, that’s, that’s part of what we really strove for.
Rebecca Diem: The General Assembly of the United Nations had declared that 1990 would be International Literacy Year, and the city of Toronto was looking for ways to mark the occasion. A brand new book festival seemed like a perfect way to do that.
Ceta Ramkhalawansingh: It’s one of the reasons why literacy is an important component to The Word On The Street activities, such as providing free space to literacy organizations. And because you can’t have the right to read without also having a high degree of literacy in your community.
Rebecca Diem: This is Ceta Ramkhalawansingh, who was helping to lead the city’s plans for International Literacy Year. She also joined the WOTS advisory board in 1990, and later became the chair of the national board.
Ceta Ramkhalawansingh: And when I talk about literacy, I’m talking about low reading levels. I’m not talking about literary stuff. So that the notion of literacy is about adult illiteracy, and difficulty with reading and with numeracy as well, which are important skills to have in terms of employment, in terms of life skills, in terms of the relationship between children and their parents, and the ability to be full participants in the society.
Rebecca Diem: So, the goal of promoting literacy just naturally became a central part of the festival’s premise. And going hand in hand with that was this idea of bringing books and ideas into a public space that felt welcoming to all kinds of people. When I talked to Carolyn, she used the word “accessibility” no less than nine times.
Carolyn Taylor: For sure, accessibility, I know, I’ve mentioned that a lot. But but, you know, from the very beginning, that was really key. And I think back to– it was such, really, honestly an eye-opening experience for me, because we were, as I mentioned, working with a number of literacy organizations at the time, too. And they, you know, they were really point blank about it and said, Carolyn, you know, we’re living in a city where there are people who are intimidated to go into a bookstore. And that just really landed with me, because my eyes were opened in that moment, to something that hadn’t really occurred to me.
Rebecca Diem: So, the timing was right, and the goals were admirable. Even so, it was anything but smooth sailing. Basically, putting on a book festival is hard, especially when you’re trying to do something that’s never been done before. Here’s Ceta again:
Ceta Ramkhalawansingh: They recruited a number of people who would give credibility to the idea of closing down a major street in the city, which had never happened before. And which would also have involved rerouting the Queen Street streetcars. And I don’t know to what extent that had ever happened before, if it had ever happened. So it was a very important kind of initiative in the city’s history. It also helped that this entire project is led by Bill Killbourn, who had been a former city councillor, historian, you know, city activist, going back forever.
[jaunty, upbeat music]
Carolyn Taylor: I can say that Bill Kilbourn was wonderful, he was absolutely a visionary. He was a real character. And what I found so interesting about Bill was that certainly he was a great leader, he wasn’t afraid to think outside of the box, he wasn’t afraid of the messiness of first time projects, he really understood that, which was a real gift to those of us on the staff, I must say. And probably most interestingly, he was not afraid to challenge the system.
Rebecca Diem: And was he a – he was the city councillor at the time?
Carolyn Taylor: He was a city councillor at the time. Yeah. And I’ll share a story. I’m not sure I should share this or not, but I will.
Rebecca Diem: You absolutely should.
Carolyn Taylor: So we were down to the wire, and we did not have our street occupation permit yet for the first Word On The Street festival, but we had everything else lined up. We had all of the booths rented, we had all of the artists programmed to come and speak, we had all of the literacy organisations signed up to be there, magazines, publishers, and so on. And we still didn’t have our street occupation permit. So Bill said, well, we’ll just take ‘no news’ as ‘good news’. And we’ll go ahead with our media release. And until we hear differently, this is happening, basically, is what it came down to. And about three and a half minutes before our media release and event – our media launch – was to happen, the councillor arrived with the street occupation permit in hand, and we announced the first ever Word On The Street festival.
Carolyn Taylor: So I have to say now, I think I would be pulling my hair out, but you know, that was Bill.
[jaunty music ends]
Rebecca Diem: Anecdotally, when we were waiting for location approval from the city for this year, I might have taken some inspiration from the Bill Kilbourn playbook… sorry, Sandro! And thank you! But I digress… back in 1990, that wasn’t the only hiccup they ran into. The festival’s dream of making the literary world accessible to the masses was also being met with a bit of scepticism from some surprising places.
Carolyn Taylor: It took many, many conversations to bring some of the publishing community onside and to get them to trust in the value of this event.
Rebecca Diem: Why do you think that was? Like, what was the concern?
Carolyn Taylor: Gosh, I guess I’ll just say it. I think there was kind of a highbrow conviction in where the literary art form sat in Toronto. And this idea of turning it into some sort of street frolic was not appealing to some members of the publishing community. But then, you know, I, again, here, I have to give credit where credit is due, Avie Bennett at McClelland & Stewart got onside, and it was Avie Bennett, who was really able to kind of turn a corner. And, you know, he was very clear about some of the results and impact that he wanted to see. But, you know, as we continue to talk and continue to collaborate, he really, really got behind it and was really instrumental, I think, in convincing others in the publishing community to get behind it. There’s no question that through the board of directors that we had, there were some strong, strong connections there into the publishing community as well. But, but it was a sell, for sure.
Rebecca Diem: The days before the festival were anxious ones. The team had worked hard, but ultimately, who knew how it would go? I mean, we all do now given that you’re listening to this WOTS-produced show in 2022, thirty-three years later – you can guess that it was successful. But even then, no one could have predicted just HOW successful.
Carolyn Taylor: Yeah. You know, in the very first year, I have to say it was surprise, I think. It was joy. It was, for those of us on the team and the board, well, there definitely was shock and surprise, because we had worked so hard on this, and you put it out there, but it’s not like a ticketed event where you have a pretty good sense of who’s going to show up. And it was packed! So we, you know, we quickly realised that we were, we were onto something that Toronto was hungry for. And then I think also, for the, the authors, the booksellers, the publishers, the micropress, and so on, I think there was relief, you know, they had trusted in us, we had shared this with them, we needed them, and they had invested, you know, through their exhibit space. And, you know, it paid off for them. And I don’t mean just paid off in financial terms, but I mean in terms of their ability to really connect with a wider public. So I think, you know, that we were able to really live up to the aspirations that we had promised.
Rebecca Diem: Science fiction novelist Cory Doctorow was at that first Word On The Street, working the tent of his then-employer, Bakka Books.
Cory Doctorow: It was just very crowded. I mean, clearly, I think the organisers were very surprised because it was, it was like a cattle car on Queen Street. Like there was – you couldn’t turn around. And I, you know, to this day, I don’t know why. But it just was this thing that just – I guess it tapped into something that was latent in the Canadian psyche, or the Toronto psyche. You know, we wanted a book fair.
Rebecca Diem: Thirty-odd years later, Ceta reflects on the impact of bringing the festival to Toronto.
Ceta Ramkhalawansingh: Well, I think what it did do, is that it introduced the public at large to authors in a way in which they probably would not have gone – I mean, it’s a very kind of elite activity, to go to an author’s reading. Many people would probably not find themselves comfortable there, if they did not view themselves as being part of the literary community. But when you have this great big free public festival, you’re also saying that, you know, you too can be part of this, and it broadens the audience for those authors.
Rebecca Diem: In many ways, the Word On The Street has achieved a lot of the goals it set out with. It’s made reading more accessible to the general public. It broadened the conversation, and created a more inclusive community. But also, a lot has changed since 1990. On a really WOTS-specific level, by 2004, the festival had grown so big it just no longer fit on Queen Street West. It’s changed locations a few times, taking place at Queen’s Park, Harbourfront Centre, and even, in the last couple years, online. Then, on a much broader level, the world has changed a lot, too. And I think that’s actually too broad, so here’s Cory Doctorow with some specifics.
[sound of radio tuning in, 90s alt-rock vibes]
Cory Doctorow: Um, well, you know, back in 1990, we had to walk uphill in the snow in both directions to bring in our returns.
Rebecca Diem: Okay, but actually.
Cory Doctorow: So, a signal difference between 1990 and now, everywhere, and especially in bookselling and very visibly on Queen Street, was that economically, we were in a much more diverse place. Income inequality was not what it was, was not what it is today. And retail was still largely separate. There were some large firms but smaller, medium-sized enterprises, independent shops, independent publishers were the order of the day. There were lots of different distributors. There were lots of different book fairs and lots of different stores. Queen Street had four or five great bookstores. It was a destination for readers, you could go and you could walk up and down it. There wasn’t just one giant national chain, there were two or three. And certainly that one national giant chain didn’t own the single national giant distributor as well.
The choice of one book buyer about what to carry on the shelf or one editor about what to buy, or indeed, one major retail conglomerate’s owner’s decision about what stores would be in what parts of the city, made for a much broader and more surprising and often more delightful world. It was a time when workers had more worker power, and writers had more writer power, because you could shop your work to more than one place, publishing workers had more power. If you didn’t get along with your boss, you could go work somewhere else.
Rebecca Diem: These changes have impacted every aspect of CanLit. And we’re going to go way more in depth on that in future episodes. But there are also ways in which the 1990s weren’t a more delightful world. The CanLit community’s understanding of what an accessible, inclusive, and welcoming book festival is has changed drastically over the last 33 years, in ways that are long overdue. If those are still the goals of the festival… well, the goalposts have moved. In really necessary ways.
And to keep this sports metaphor going, if you ask almost anyone in CanLit who is currently moving the goalposts the most, and yet still managing to score consistent touchdowns? They’ll probably point you to Jael Richardson.
Jael Richardson: My name is Jael Richardson and I am the Executive Director for The FOLD Foundation and the Festival of Literary Diversity.
Rebecca Diem: Very nice. And you’re an author too, aren’t you?
Jael Richardson: I’m also an author! I should say that, I don’t know why I forget that part. But yes, I also write books.
Rebecca Diem: Incidentally, Jael’s first book is about her father, who was a football player. She could probably tell me everything wrong with that metaphor. But what I really wanted to ask her about was her experience running one of – if not the most – diverse lit festivals in the country.
Jael Richardson: It’s interesting, because I think, I had gone to literary festivals, and because– as a black woman, I would go to literary festivals, and I would love them and I would have fun. But I would also feel very isolated, feel very alone. I was usually one of the youngest at the time, I was also definitely like, the only person of colour or one of like a very, very small number. And there’s a sense that you’re invading someone else’s space, or you’re not welcome when that happens. And so I knew from personal experience that I wanted to create something that… would show the representation on stage that would make people feel more welcome.
[uplifting music fades in and out]
Rebecca Diem: This desire led to the creation of the Festival of Literary Diversity, or, the FOLD. The very first festival took place in Brampton in 2016.
Jael Richardson: I mean, it sounds, it sounds basic to me, but it also seems profound to other people from communities, like white communities and able-bodied communities that, I guess don’t think about this, that when you have more range on stage, you will have more range in your audience. It’s a mathematical equation that always works out, frankly, you know? And when we started FOLD, we just put different people on stage and different kinds of people showed up to the event. And I think that publishing is so white. And so able-bodied and so straight, that so often I think they’ve been surrounded by themselves for so long that they don’t even realise that people are missing. And then when they realise people are missing, it seems very confusing to them how to solve it. But it’s actually not that challenging! And I think doing it mindfully and thoughtfully, probably the biggest challenge is that when you don’t have that representation in your organisation, it becomes very difficult to understand how to do it, and how to do it right.
Rebecca Diem: From the start, the team that puts on the FOLD has been just as diverse as the authors their festival highlights. When they realise people are missing, they’ve got a team full of people who know how to solve it. And by building something new, they’ve been able to create an event that clearly fills in all the gaps in the CanLit landscape that, to them, were incredibly obvious. While building the FOLD from the ground up certainly hasn’t been easy, Jael noted that it did present a blank slate. They didn’t have to worry about expectations, or tradition, or pleasing long-time attendees – they were able to create exactly the festival they wanted from the start. And other festivals, including ours, have work to do if they want to catch up.
Jael Richardson: There’s a phrase my mom used to use all the time, and I say it so often I’m getting sick of hearing myself say it, but it’s that “big ships turn slowly.” And I think publishing is a big ship that’s turning slowly. And sometimes I’m not sure it’s turning at all. Sometimes I think like the gas is just off. But for us, building something like FOLD, where there wasn’t a festival that centred, that prioritised that, there were other festivals that had different kinds of authors, for sure. But for us, it was like the number one priority. It’s where we begin. It’s how we function with everything. And I think for us building it from scratch was actually way easier than having a big ship that has to make a big turn.
[thoughtful, reflective music begins]
Rebecca Diem: One of the many things that’s instructive about the FOLD is the way it’s been embraced by the community. I guess there are lots of ways to interpret this, but I think the clearest is: people have been hungry for this kind of event, in the same way that Torontonians in 1990 were hungry for the original Word On The Street. For a literary event that reflects the diversity of the residents who share this space we call home.
[reflective music ends]
WOTS operates on Treaty 13 territory subject to the ‘Dish With One Spoon’ wampum belt covenant, an agreement to share the resources around the Great Lakes in peace. This includes Indigenous nations who have stewarded the land for tens of thousands of years. And it includes new Canadians choosing to make this place their home today. CanLit is just finally figuring out how to make space for everyone’s stories.
Anju Gogia has been a bookseller in Toronto for more than 25 years, and she was recently awarded The Writer’s Union of Canada’s 2022 Freedom to Read Award. Over the decades she’s worked in the industry, she’s seen a big evolution in who and what gets published.
Anjula Gogia: You know, one of the other things, when you think of what it means, right? “Freedom to read.” We’ve had conversations in the last several years in CanLit about diversity, right? And I can recall several conversations I would have with writers when I was at the [Toronto] Women’s Bookstore in the late 90s, and early 2000s – who I can’t name, because these are confidential conversation – who would say to me, you know, I can’t write what I want to write and get it published. Because even though CanLit was starting to publish certain writers, those writers had to write in a certain way, there was still a big push for exotification, right? They wanted writers to talk about the other countries and the traumas that they had been through, they didn’t want to talk about the complexities of life here, about the complexities around race, about life here. And so, even though you could see a handful of writers of colour being published, I knew by talking to them and also by seeing what was being published by the big presses, there still wasn’t the full range and complexity of what was out there. I don’t think you could have seen David Chariandy’s Brother be published 20 years ago, right?
Rebecca Diem: Mmhmm
Anjula Gogia: In terms of how he talks about the interiority of black men and Scarborough. That’s not a book that you could have had published with the editors, and the publishing houses the way they were.
Rebecca Diem: Nick Mount, an English professor at the University of Toronto, was actually at the launch event for Brother when it first came out in September 2017.
Nick Mount: And the feeling in that room was just incredible. Like the, you know, the, first of all was a very large crowd of people. It was a very diverse crowd of people, much more diverse. I– skip the euphemism, it was a Blacker group of people than I’m used to seeing at a standard Toronto literary launch. And the energy level was high, and people were excited, and there were young people in the room, you know, people without white hair, people who still had hair, you know? [laughs] And it was, it was beautiful. It was really quite something to see.
Rebecca Diem: If you look at what’s being published today, you can see so much more of the complexity that Anju’s talking about. The body of work being published is richer, and more diverse. But obviously, there’s still so much progress that has yet to be made. And to Jael’s point, big ships turn slowly. At what point is it too slow? Certainly, as an employee of the Word On The Street festival and as an author and a devoted bookworm, I want our festival to keep evolving for the better. I think we have a part to play in helping push CanLit towards the best version of itself.
And through this series, I talked to so many interesting, thoughtful, and really smart people about how we can navigate these choppy waters to get there. I hope you’ll keep tuning in to hear what they have to say.
But, before we wrap this episode up, I think it’s worth taking a second to acknowledge one other reason that book festivals exist. Why we care about them. Why they matter. Well, they’re just really fun.
Jael Richardson: I mean, I always joke when– so I’m not part of, like, a ‘book family’, like my family reads a lot of books, but like, we’re sports people, right? So when– I am the lone wolf that’s, like, deeply ingrained in the arts. And so when I have to explain to my family or other people what a book festival is, I’m like, it’s a concert for book people. You know? It’s our gathering where we like, cheer and rah and do whatever we have to do. And so I think what makes book festivals so fun for book lovers is, same with what I was talking about for authors, I think reading is a very isolated activity. I think sometimes, you know, great readers are always looking for the next great book, and going to literary festivals is so exciting because you get to find new authors and new books. And when you know something about the background of a book, it’s way more fun to read.
Rebecca Diem: Yeah, definitely. Do you have any fun memories of attending a Word On The Street festival?
Jael Richardson: I cannot wait to be back at Word On The Street. And for me, there are multiple perspectives of enjoyment. I love, like, sneaking past a panel and, like, listening casually to a conversation that’s just so good, you then can’t go anywhere else. And that’s happened a few times at Word On The Street, you can stumble upon conversations that you didn’t know about, that are just so profound. And you can see the crowd gathering because they know it too. And then I love being a vendor too! We’ve had a booth for FOLD the last few times, and we’ve sold T-shirts and it’s been this hot, sticky day. But also like just wildly enjoyable to just see so many people from the industry together. Authors from across the country gathering, it’s just, I mean, it’s an energy. I mean, it’s funny, Word On The Street is the most like an actual concert vibe, you know, in terms of all the festivals. Like an indie concert. That’s what, that’s what Word On The Street feels like. And it’s so fun.
Rebecca Diem: I might be a bit biased, but the original board was really onto something. A party for books… who wouldn’t want to go? One of my favourite parts of producing this series was hearing people’s memories of WOTS, especially the early festivals. And here’s Carolyn Taylor reflecting on what it felt like to attend some of those very first parties– I mean, festivals.
Rebecca Diem: I was also wondering if we could get, um, if you could describe for people who are listening to this who may not have been to the festival before, what you might see or hear or experience, like, if you are just walking into a Word On The Street festival?
[streetscape music again]
Carolyn Taylor: Well, I would say that, you know, certainly in the Queen Street days, what you would walk into is an environment and an experience of celebration. And I think that you would find it very, very easy to wind away the day in just the joy of discovering the written word, books, learning more about the Canadian publishing scene as well, I would say. And leave having had a wonderful experience in an environment in your city, that if you went back the next day would be vastly different. And you would have to wait for a whole other year to have that experience again.
[streetscape music ends]
Rebecca Diem: This year, it’s been almost three whole years since anyone’s had that WOTS experience. On the streets, with the community. But, in case you missed it, the wait is over! The Word On The Street is returning to Queen’s Park this June 11th and 12th, for two glorious days of celebration. We can’t wait. But before we get there, we’ve got some more stories to share.
How The Word on the Street came to be is just one chapter of the larger CanLit story, and over the next few weeks, we hope you’ll join us in discovering more.
[ambient credits theme music begins]
Rebecca Diem: Thanks for tuning in to this very first episode of Read The North. The show is hosted by me, Rebecca Diem, and produced and edited by Quinton Bradshaw. Theme music and scoring are by James Ellercamp.
I’d like to give another shout-out to our friends at the wonderful Festival of Literary Diversity. The 2022 edition just took place this past week, but they run awesome programming all year long, including a kid’s festival in November! Check them out at thefoldcanada.org.
To keep up with The Word On The Street, and all the latest festival news, be sure to give us a follow on Instagram and Twitter at @torontoWOTS and check out the full festival lineup at toronto.thewordonthestreet.ca.
This series is a co-production of The Word On The Street Toronto and CJRU 1280 AM, and was made possible by the Community Radio Fund of Canada. For more CJRU programming, you can tune in and listen live at CJRU.ca.
Thanks for listening! We’ll be back in a week with another episode.
[ambient indie/electronic theme music plays]
1994 Promo Video Voiceover: “Once again, it’s time for Toronto’s biggest book and magazine fair, The Word On The Street! A four-block stage where the printed word comes to life. [crowd noises, snippets of conversations, and very early 90s beats] The Word On The Street, Sunday September 25th! See that weekend’s Toronto Star for the official guide, listen to CHFI, and watch CityTV for details.”