When Jael Richardson finished her 2012 memoir “The Stone Thrower: A Daughter’s Lessons, A Father’s Life” about life with her dad, CFL quarterback Chuck Ealey, she says knew she didn’t want to go near anything that required any research again.
For that memoir, she researched into her father’s past, his life growing up in the U.S. during the Civil Rights era, in the projects of Portsmouth, Ohio, as a football player who came to Canada — and why. And she compared it to her own life growing up in Canada. She says she was done with non-fiction and research after that. In fact, she hadn’t started off thinking she was going to be a writer at all. “I had studied theatre, so I’d always thought of myself as like a presenter and a performer, but not a writer and a creator of things.”
Which is interesting because her life since then has pretty much been defined by books — not just writing them, but championing them and talking about them. She founded the Festival of Literary Diversity in 2016, held every year in Brampton, to “celebrate under-represented authors and storytellers.” The festival has grown to include hundreds of events and a children’s book festival in the fall.
Nevertheless, that initial research came in handy creating the world of “Gutter Child,” particular in creating its historical context.
“Gutter Child” is the story of Elimina Dubois, a young Black girl who is 14 when we meet her as she enters the Livingstone Academy, a residential school where she is sent after her white mother dies in Capedown, on the Mainland. She enters into the Gutter System, where, because she’s Black, she has to work to pay down her “debt” to society. When she does, she will attain “Redemption Freedom.”
Richardson has created a world that’s very recognizable, not so much geographically (although Capedown is meant to be resonant of South Africa’s Capetown), but in terms of the history and experiences it encompasses.
“What I wanted to do was to capture as many different kinds of Black experiences as possible, and try and put them on the page together and unpack how they have been, why they happen, and how that affects our relationships with one another as a Black community,” Richardson says.
Fundamentally, she says, the core question was: “What happens when you grow up in a world that’s designed for your failure?”
So she created a world that did just that, beginning with a colonizer story. The Sossi people, the original people on the land, were living happily enough until white people “discovered” their land and took it from them, a story that echoes both Indigenous and Black history.
And that, says Richardson, is exactly what colonizers do. “(They) come into a land and say, you know, we’re going to take it, or we’re going to turn this into more money. There’s sort of a real theft that happens: There’s a theft of land, there’s a theft of property. And I wanted that to be clear.”
Make no mistake, the intention is to point out injustices and a faulty system. Black people are branded with an “x” on the back of their hands. Elimina, we discover, was part of a project where Black children were taken from their parents in the Gutter and placed with white parents, ostensibly to give them advantages most white children took for granted.
And, as Elimina discovers, actually achieving “Redemption Freedom” happens only rarely — a few of the lucky ones are held up as examples to show that it can be done, that the “debt” can be paid off, which usually happens just about when they retire, leaving them little for themselves.
“I think it’s ironic that Black people have built America in a lot of ways, have done a lot of the labour and heavy lifting … people of colour, Mexicans who are brought in … There’s a lot of people who do the heavy lifting, who do most of the grittiest darkest, most difficult work, who get paid the least.”
And so the book becomes about distinctions of class, too, creating a nuance and complexity to the world Richardson has built, layering ideas of social mobility and subservience, working class and privileged class. A universal story in some ways.
“One of the one of the biggest and trickiest decisions I had to make was whether to make it specifically about the Black community in particular or … a larger commentary on class.
“For me, I’m particularly interested in the complexities of Black communities, and how class affects Black people in relation to one another, and also around the world, how we’ve been sort of dispersed and displaced.”
Most of the characters in the book, for example, didn’t know their ancestry, where they came from; they couldn’t trace their families, which made for complex and sometimes interesting family dynamics.
“I had to come to terms with the fact that even as I was writing, I don’t have a back story to pull from,” Richardson explains. “Most people would say ‘I’m Canadian,’ or ‘I’m Nigerian.’ But for me, my family story really has ended for the large part in the US with slavery; it sort of began and ended there. And so I had to remember that my ancestors are Indigenous to Africa.”
And so in “Gutter Child,” she wanted to show what was taken. She wanted, she says, an origin story, where “we owned land, we lived in a place and we belonged to that place. And it was interrupted, disrupted. And as a result, we’ve all been spread all over the world and treated poorly all over the world.” Many of whom, like her, have no way to trace back their ancestors.
Although this book isn’t labelled as young adult fiction, it reads that way: it’s accessible and easy to grasp. That idea of who the book is for, and how it should be told, was something, Richardson says, she wrestled with for a while. She says she grew up thinking there was good literature and not-so-good literature, and the good stuff sounds a certain way.
But, over the eight years it took Richardson to write this book, she says that she realized “I was writing to a teen reader in high school, who was reading above their age level … but was not thinking about the world in the way that they should be.”
But this book is fundamentally about Elimina choosing her own destiny, and making hard choices.
Richardson wanted young adults to not be overwhelmed by life, but by the ideas. ““My goal was to make sure people could read it and finish it, and that the complex thing was the idea and not the language.”
There is little in terms of books or technology in “Gutter Child.” But there is one particularly important book, a book that brings comfort to Elimina and other kids at the Livingstone Academy: “The Blue Book of Poetry.” In the acknowledgments, Richardson says that she was drawn to the poetry of Langston Hughes, and these poems are drawn from his work.
“He has a particular accessibility in his poetry and the language that he uses,” Richardson says. “It’s not hidden or buried under metaphors, it’s really there for you.”
But it was an idea she says she read or heard somewhere that poetry could change the world that launched an idea in her: “what would happen to young people who came across poems at an early age that spoke to them, especially who had been kept from reading or books.”
Towards the end of our talk I ask her about something at the beginning of the book: a note from the author where she cautions her readers: “Take care with your heart and your mind as you read. Pause and rest as required. These are difficult times.”
She added the note, she says, after she’d finished the book, when she realized that the characters lived in a difficult world and had to make difficult choices. While Richardson says she herself is “particularly drawn to sad books,” she realizes sad books might, particularly now, “can make things heavy on their hearts.”
“There might be a point where they put it down and they need to read it at a later point.” She wanted to give them permission to do that.
Still, while this story is about the Black experience, that doesn’t mean it can’t be read by a broad audience. “I grew up reading all white readers, all white classics, and I was able to pull relevant things about, you know, being an outsider. You could pull that stuff from those things,” she says.
And if “Gutter Child” it makes some readers uncomfortable, so be it.
“I believe in a diversity of reading. I think you have to read a range. I think there are a lot of people who decide to just read safe all the time.
“It’s my hope that by talking specifically about Black lives, we can talk about other things as well … and that people won’t dive away or dip around it just because it’s hard.”
It’s what she’s been doing at the FOLD and, now, what she’s trying to do in fiction.