The FOLD (The Festival of Literary Diversity) is an annual event, in Brampton (Ontario, Canada) dedicated to telling more stories, to having audiences connect with a wider variety of storytellers. You can check out their lineup of terrific writers and storytellers who were a part of the debut festival in May this year, here.

Gaines Gathering of Old MenEarlier in 2016, they posted a reading challenge, which I printed and dutifully began to read towards. (I’ve misplaced the link: sorry!)

Here are the categories:

  1. A book you’ve had for more than a year.
  2. A book outside of your ‘favourite genre’.
  3. A book you buy at an indie bookstore.
  4. A book by a person of a faith.
  5. A book by an aboriginal author.
  6. A book by a Canadian LGBTQ author.
  7. A book by a Canadian person of colour.
  8. A book by a FOLD 2016 author.

I’ve divided the challenge into parts, so here is my discussion of the first and last categories:
1. Ernest J. Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men (1983) and 8. Farzana Doctor’s All Inclusive (2015).

My copy of Ernest J. Gaines’ novel landed on my shelf thanks to Aarti. But I do a much better job of collecting books than I do of reading them, once they are comfortably ensconced on the home shelves, so this book sat unread for about four years.

Nonetheless, she’d sold me on the idea of it being told from multiple perspectives and I pulled it off to read this summer.

It’s a deliberately disorienting tale in some ways. There has been a shooting and the authorities have not yet arrived. “The rest of the people said pretty much the same. One claimed he did it, then another one; one, then another one.”

Everyone takes responsibility for the crime, including the man who fired the shot. They are united in their stand, many of them looking back to past experiences of silence and inaction and determined to resist and stand tall in this instance.

This isn’t to say that the community is without divisions, without its own tensions. “Mathu was one of the blue-black Singaleese niggers. Always bragged about not having no white man’s blood in his veins. He looked down on all the rest of us who had some, and the more you had, the more he looked down on you. I was brown-skinned – my grandpa white, my grandma Indian and black, and both my parents black; so he didn’t look down on me quite as much as he did some others, like Jacob, or Cherry, or the Jejeune brothers. With Clabber and Rooster, he just shook his head. Rooster was yellow, with nappy black hair; Clabber was milk white, with nappy white har. Mathu just shook his head when he saw either one of them.”

But as the narrative slips through a number of narrators, it becomes clear that the story is less about the details than it might have seemed at first. As different men offer different accounts of the shooting – different motivations and responses – readers recognize that each of these character’s experiences could have filled a book. Each of them has had experiences which might have brought them to shoot this man. But the fact is, that only one man pulled the trigger.

“’I’m stating facts,’ Tucker said. “Facts. ‘Cause this is the day of reckonding, and I will speak the truth, withut fear, if it mean I have to spend the rest of my life in jail.’
Mapes grunted –a grunt that said you might.”

Mapes is charged with determining the outcome. He is aware, from the start, that the shooting did not play out as described. But he inhabits this territory, recognizes the heritage of injustice which now sways in the balance alongside this single act of violence.

Farzana Doctor All InclusiveHe listens to each account patiently and determinedly.

“You never liked any of us. Looking at us as if we’re a breed below you. But we’re not, Candy. We’re all made of the same bone, the same blood, the same skin. Our folks had a break mine didn’t, that’s all.”

It’s difficult to find common ground, both in the description of this event and in acknowledging the importance of historic injustices and balancing their perpetration against a desire to move forward and mend fences.

A Gathering of Old Men is a riveting tale, easily read in a single sitting but complex enough to support many rereadings.

Farzana Doctor’s novel, too, reads very quickly and easily. The tension revolving around Ameera’s job at an all-inclusive Mexican resort keeps the readers’ interest from the start in All Inclusive.

Ameera is a swinger who has established the habit of hooking up with willing couples on their last booked night, to capitalize on their interest with minimal risk of her employers catching wind of her activities.

Not only is she still discovering things about her sexuality, ordering materials on the internet which help her understand that others share her desires, but she is also uncovering even more basic layers of her identity, working to establish contact with her father, who has not been a part of her life.

All of this becomes pressingly important when rumours of her involvement with resort guests reach her employers (also based in Canada) And, just as she tries to curtail her activities, she meets someone who might be able to assist with her search for her father. While some opportunities are restricted, others flourish.

The narrative is divided between Ameera and Azeez, whom readers meet in Canada, when he falls into bed with a young woman on the day before he plans to return to India.

Initially, Azeez’s portion of the story contains less inherent tension. This is partly because readers have met him in the past, where events have already played out, so there is no tension surrounding the question of what will happen. Instead, a casual exploration of what has happened, which only becomes clear about 75 pages into the novel.

But Azeez’s story is not uncomplicated. In many ways he, too, is left with central questions surrounding his own identity, even though he is older than Ameera when the bulk of the narrative unfolds. He, too, struggles to connect, tries to find ways to relate meaningfully even though he often feels isolated and alone. In time, his struggles eclipse Ameera’s.

One of the most satisfying elements of the novel is the detail offered about Ameera’s work in the resort, which plants her in a space which is neither ‘home’ nor ‘away’. The relationships with her co-workers are fascinating, as well as the complicated relationships between the workers whose famiies live locally, those who have come from abroad to work in the resort, and the resort’s administration.

Who is restricted and who thrives: this aspect of the novel is not heavy-handed but still manages to reveal some core truths about privilege. Or, as Gil says in A Gathering of Old Men, some truths about who got a break and who didn’t.

All Inclusive is a romp of a read, which manages to take some serious issues and pack them into the corners of the narrative-stuffed suitcase.

Ultimately both of these novels are about finding a way to stand up for who you are, to own all the various parts of yourself and insist upon their worth, regardless of the risk attached. Regardless of the outcome.

Which books could you use for these elements of the FOLD’s challenge?