Who is Karen Richardson?

03 Jan 2006

"The book exists to introduce a variety of missing voices to the canon of Canadian literature. So much of what is in the school curriculum, particularly English and Social Sciences just re-expresses the same heritage. It's all from the same perspective. But it''s clear to the common observer that the canon is more diverse. There has to be more than just Farley Mowat and Margaret Atwood.” -- Karen Richardson

It is no secret that Toronto is bursting at the seams with artistic talents. This city has been breeding a whole new generation of black writers, poets, dancers, actors, playwrights, visual artists, musicians and people from other genres of the art world. Some of the names range from K’naan, K-os, Jully Black, Kardinal Offishal and D’bi Young to Trey Anthony, Jemeni, Dwayne Morgan and Motion. However there are so many more who are not as well known, but are equally talented. This is especially disappointing since there are so few venues where they can be heard.

It was under these circumstances that Karen Richardson and Steven Green decided to create a medium that would highlight the efforts of young black Torontonians.

They realized the importance of filling a void and having an accurate representation of Black Toronto's contribution to Canadian culture; something that has been limited to a handful of the baby boomer generation including George Elliot Clarke, Lillian Allen, Austin Clarke, Dionne Brand and Afua Cooper.

Toronto artist Karen Richardson

These artists had been a great source of inspiration and reference, but Generation X-ers (many of them born in Canada) had their own experiences and stories to tell and these differed from what they had already been exposed to.

Karen Richardson and Steven Green are the authors of a brilliant book called T-Dot Griot’s, an Anthology of Toronto’s Black Storyteller. The book highlights some of Canada ’s best African-Canadian visual artists, authors, playwrights, journalists, lyricists and poets. The topics discussed are diverse. They include frustration over racial profiling, the struggle for acceptance, the beauty of black love, the beauty of black people, self love and the lessons of African history. They are expressed through poetry, Hip Hop lyrics, theatrical excerpts, short fiction, visual art and journalistic essays.

Karen Richardson and Steven Green are not the first to publish an anthology of Canada’s black writers. In the 70’s, South African writer Harold Head, (related to the famous Bessie Head-one of Africa’s most prominent writers), complied and edited an anthology called Canada In Us Now (1976). It was the first anthology of Black poetry and prose in Canada. George Elliott Clarke also edited the anthologies- Eyeing the North Star: Directions in African-Canadian Literature as well as Fire on the Water: An Anthology of Black Nova Scotian Writers (1991-1992). All of them highlighted the polyphonous voices of black Canadians, combining the immigrant experiences from the Caribbean, Africa, Europe, the America ’s with Canadian born talent. The main difference with T-Dot Griots is mostly generational; many of the writers are of a new generation, many of them are children of immigrants born in Canada and some of them are recent immigrants.

I have known Karen for three years now and was excited at the prospect of interviewing her.

What made you think of a book as far as a form of expression? It could have been a CD for example…

Steven and I wanted to create a book to legitimize traditions in our communities which are traditionally oral. A book enables the stories of our communities to travel to places where people who don't share our culture can access it. T-Dot Griots was inspired by the La Parole™ series which I used to produce and host at Flava. Not everyone will make it out to hear live entertainment, but a book goes where people are; schools, libraries, workplaces, shops and subways.

T-Dot Griots consists of stories of all kinds, however we placed some emphasis on poetry, particularly "spoken word", since the art form is really flourishing in Toronto. A book is timeless. When something is in print it can cross borders and generations until it sinks into the collective consciousness and begins to affect culture. We did not choose to do a book rather than a CD. We chose to do a book followed by a CD. Even within the black community there is a tendency to belittle our forms of expression and traditions. We chose to publish a book to show the beauty of our words in an internationally accepted literary format which will last through the ages.

For those who may not have bought the book yet, what is T-Dot Griots about and why should they buy it?

T-Dot Griots is a collection of African-Canadian stories. The forty contributors are from all different parts of the GTA and the book gives readers a glimpse of how diverse the black community is here.  You can find plays, short stories, articles, photography and many other kinds of storytelling. A Griot is a person who passes the stories of a community down orally from one generation to the next.  Steven Green and I borrowed this idea from French West Africa, where the Griot tradition is a unique and important cultural element that has existed, especially in rural areas for more than 1000 years. Here in Toronto we are also attempting to leave our mark on history as a community of artists. In Canada there is no lineage of storytellers or system of apprenticeship to ensure that our contemporary experiences will be preserved for future generations. T-Dot Griots makes it simple. The book is in print, if you want to pass on the stories of your day to your children. Give them the book.

Were you thinking of any market in particular when you published that book?

The majority of the contributors to T-Dot Griots are in their twenties and thirties.  So, clearly the pieces we printed will be relevant to people in those age groups. However, we specifically chose to feature pieces that are indicative of both modern-day Toronto and the variety of themes discussed in the city''s entertainment venues.  Secretly though, we always hoped that the middle schools and high schools would recognize T-Dot Griots as a phenomenal teaching tool. Canadian literature is more than Farley Mowat and Margaret Atwood. The best stories are the ones which appeal to all ages.  So we made sure that the language used in T-Dot Griots wouldn't prevent us access from the people who need something like this the most-our youth. To aid in getting the message to the youth, a T-Dot Griots CD and a teacher''s manual are now in the works for 2006.

Part II of this interview with Karen Richardson will be available next week. For more information, please visit: www.mustardseeds.net

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