Gift Guide Week: Jael Richardson

We’re pretty stoked to have Jael Richardson, artistic director of the Festival of Literary Diversity and award-winning author, share a selection of books she’d gift this year. Her list has a recommendation for all types of literary readers, and we’re way into it.


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We could recommend books until the cows come home here at All Lit Up, but for gifts you’ll love to give this holiday season, we deferred to the experts. From November 28th-December 2nd, tune in for recommendations from a book designer/poet, a festival director, a novelist, a bookseller, and an editor.I have to admit that I’m a terribly slow reader—and a distracted one at that. I start more books than I finish, and maybe because I’m picky. Or maybe it’s because I use Twitter too much. Or because I watch too much TV. Or maybe I’m normal. Either way, when I find a book that I love—that I either finish really quickly or that I relish slowly in pieces—I’m committed, really committed. For life.  So when I got asked to recommend books this season, part of me felt skipping-down-the-sidewalk excited, ready to share some of the amazing Canadian books that I’ve read this past year. But part of me also felt incredibly overwhelmed by the prospect of selecting just a few—concerned that my preferences and choices would inevitably leave important stories and voices out. I felt torn, like a teacher being asked to pick her all-time top students, unsure of where to start.  So for this list, I’m recommending titles that I’ve read or that I’m relishing. I’m recommending a book of poetry, a nonfiction title, a novel, and a short story collection from four different Canadian small presses because one of the best gifts we can give to ourselves and to others is a great Canadian story.  
POETRY| To Greet Yourself Arriving by Michael Fraser (Tightrope Books)To Greet Yourself Arriving by Michael Fraser has everything for the veteran poetry reader or the novice. The poems highlight particular people and moments in history, and they punch, dance, whisper, and infect with a perfect balance of harmony, pace, and rhythm. Fraser referred to his collection as an “homage to black diasporic figures” but to me, his collection is more than an homage. To Greet Yourself Arriving is a reawakening—a contemporary account of black history that tells stories that transcend time, boundaries, and borders, that retell and rewrite black heroes. It’s no surprise that Fraser is a teacher because this book is gift-wrapped for educators. Featuring poems based on history makers like Frederick Douglas, PK Subban and Celia Cruz, it’s the perfect way to tackle a poetry unit or to introduce young people to black history. And while you should never judge a book by its cover, you can judge this book on that basis too. With cover artwork by Kalkidan Assefa it’s got that aesthetic beauty that makes it the perfect book to unravel and unwrap. 
NONFICTION | Subdivided: City-Building in an Age of Hyper-Diversity edited by Jay Pitter and John Lorinc (Coach House Books) I had the pleasure of hearing some of the contributors from the anthology Subdivided: City-Building in an Age of Hyperdiversity speak earlier this year. They spoke about how marginalized people are ignored at the decision-making level of governance and how that oversight impacts decisions surrounding transit, mental health, arts funding, and affordable housing (just to name a few). The essays these contributors penned—many of them city-builders and placemakers themselves—are honest and complex. They are rich, personal, and thought-provoking. They resonate long after they are read and the ideas will infect every corner of your life, challenging every relationship at home and at work regardless of whether you live in the city, or the surburbs, or rural communities. They are truths about humanity, after all.    
FICTION |The Conjoined by Jen Sookfong Lee (ECW Press)There is a strange theology in Canadian publishing that elevates “literary fiction” over genre writing like crime fiction and romance. As a reader who enjoys a range of storytellers and types, I find this bothersome. I like literary fiction, but I like crime fiction and romance as well; and I, for one, would much rather read genre fiction set in Canada and written by Canadians. Perhaps this is why I enjoyed The Conjoined by Jen Sookfong Lee. Sookfong Lee has proven her capacity for writing literary fiction and her most recent title, The Conjoined, does everything a book should do from the very first page. What do you do when you find two bodies in your mother’s deep freezer after she dies? (You read as fast as you can to find out, that’s what.) Mixing stories of Vancouver’s Chinatown with the story of a social worker grieving the loss of her mother and managing the mess she’s left behind, The Conjoined is the perfect can’t-put-it-down book to read this season.    
SHORT STORY | A Gentle Habit by Cherie Dimaline (Kegedonce Press)Prominent author Lee Maracle told audience members at a recent event that women are the heart of a culture—that if you want to understand a group of people, you need to read the women. I felt challenged by Maracle’s words and troubled by my reading history shortfall, which included Indigenous male writers but far fewer Indigenous women. Reading female writers from Indigenous communities across this great land is transforming not only my awareness but my appreciation for the first peoples of this land, and this year I am recommending Cherie Dimaline’s latest collection, A Gentle Habit, a title inspired by American Poet Charles Bukowski: “In between the punctuating agonies, life is such a gentle habit.” A Gentle Habit is a collection of six short stories that give account to a diverse group of characters struggling through addictions, “attempting normalcy in an unnatural world.” The writing is witty, delightful, and incredibly powerful—a talented and contemporary voice shedding light on the beating and broken heart of this land.   ***Jael Richardson is the author of The Stone Thrower: A Daughter’s Lesson, a Father’s Life, a memoir based on her relationship with her father, CFL quarterback Chuck Ealey. The book received a CBC Bookie Award and earned Richardson an Acclaim Award and a My People Award as an Emerging Artist. A children’s book called The Stone Thrower was published by Groundwood Books in 2016. Her essay “Conception” is part of Room’s  first Women of Colour edition, and excerpts from her first play, my upside down black face, are published in the anthology T-Dot Griots: An Anthology of Toronto’s Black Storytellers. Richardson has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph, and she lives in Brampton, Ontario where she serves as Artistic Director of the Festival of Literary Diversity (The FOLD). Follow Jael Richardson on Twitter at @JaelRichardson.***Thanks so much to Jael for these great picks. For more gift picks from authors, booksellers, and editors, stay tuned for the rest of this week! And for a gift to a lit-lover that they can open early, give them the Short Story Advent Calendar– 24 short stories from your favourite Canadian authors in one gorgeous package.