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FOLD director Jael Richardson says she didn't want to have to postpone the festival.

Arden Wray/Handout

The COVID-19 pandemic has felled Canada’s normally vibrant spring literary season, but for the Festival of Literary Diversity (the FOLD), adversity has become opportunity, and a much needed good-news story to prop up an otherwise devastating week.

While festivals and literary awards across the country announce their postponement or cancellation, the show will go on at the FOLD. The Brampton, Ont., festival’s fifth anniversary will be celebrated as planned from April 30 to May 3, but with two significant changes: Events are moving online and attendance is now free. As a result, the FOLD is able to offer its most accessible event to date.

“I was not a fan of postponing,” festival director Jael Richardson told the Globe. “I think there’s no certainty about when postponing will happen. I didn’t want to end up in the fall season, and I didn’t want to cancel.”

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Both the spring and fall seasons are traditionally jam-packed with literary awards and festivals.

Moving online gives the FOLD two new advantages in its mission to present diverse authors to a wide audience. “Geographically, it means we can reach almost anyone anywhere,” Richardson says. “It also means that folks for whom finances are a key barrier or hindrance can access the festival in a new way.”

Richardson estimates that $60,000 originally allocated to pay venue costs will now go in part toward national advertising to capture an audience beyond those who would be physically able to attend an event staged in Brampton. The money also means that, despite the loss of any box-office revenue, the FOLD will still pay all its participating authors their original rate.

This, too, is a much-needed small ray of sunshine, with many authors watching their anticipated festival earnings dry up overnight. FOLD participant Gwen Benaway, who won the 2019 Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry, told the Globe that the shutdown has been “catastrophic” for many freelance creative workers.

“I’ve lost all my income for the next four months,” Benaway says. “For me that was about $5,000, which is how I was going to pay rent this summer.” Benaway – who had been scheduled to appear at other festivals including Growing Room in Vancouver, GritLit in Hamilton and Blue Met in Montreal, all of which have been cancelled – says most of her writing income comes from festivals and events. Her fourth collection of poetry, day/break, is forthcoming from Book*hug on April 2.

The FOLD lineup remains as advertised, and the programmed events will go ahead largely as planned with a few modifications. “People aren’t going to want to sit at a desk all day,” Richardson says, “so we’re going to spread things out.” They are also planning some games and giveaways to try to “replicate what we do at our live events as much as possible.”

Online purchases from festival bookseller Another Story Bookshop in Toronto will be encouraged. Like independent booksellers across the country, Another Story has been forced to close its doors during the pandemic, but along with fellow indies, it is offering free local delivery.

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With the FOLD’s Brampton venues now dark, its small staff is busily making the best of a challenging situation. “I try to turn challenges into opportunities to try new things,” says Richardson. In times of crisis, the underrepresented, underprivileged and undervalued are the most vulnerable. We hope that the festival reaches those audiences.”

Registration for the retooled festival opens April 5.

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