Set in an imagined world where the most vulnerable are forced to buy their freedom by working off their debt to society, Jael Richardson’s debut novel, Gutter Child, uncovers a nation divided.
“I came across so many questions. What does it feel like growing up in a world designed for your own failure? This was a big question and it haunted me when writing Gutter Child,” Richardson shared in a recent podcast.
“And is it possible to build something better for everyone or can only some be saved?”
The dystopian novel was released in January and has received rave reviews across the country.
In recognition of Black History Month, the University of Guelph recently hosted a podcast featuring Richardson.
A proud University of Guelph alumna and Gryphon student athlete, Richardson played on the women’s soccer team from 1999-2002. She received her undergraduate degree in theatre studies.
It’s there that Richardson discovered a love for writing.
“When I took a playwriting course with Judith Thompson, she said she knew in that moment, that I needed to write,” Richardson says.
U of G professor Thompson is an award-winning Canadian playwright, director, screenwriter, actor, and artistic director/producer.
Richardson went on to complete a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing with classes held at the University of Guelph-Humber.
“I saw Judith again in the hallway at Guelph-Humber and she asked me why I wasn’t writing. Being in the program and seeing her there, I thought that maybe this is what I need to be doing.,” Richardson said.
It was also her father’s personal story that initially inspired Richardson to write.
In 2012, she wrote The Stone Thrower: A Daughter’s Lesson, a Father’s Life, a memoir about her father, Chuck Ealey and his coming of age in small-town Ohio during the U.S. civil rights era. The memoir relives Ealey’s career as a quarterback in the Canadian Football League.
Ealey became the first black quarterback to win the Grey Cup in 1972 with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Richardson’s memoir received critical acclaim and was later adapted into a children’s picture book.
For Richardson, Gutter Child, continues themes from one book to the next.
Perplexed by all that was happening in the world around her, writing the novel led Richardson to learn more about politics and to continue questioning the disadvantages and injustices in a system, already predetermined.
“I was travelling with my dad for a documentary with TSN. We visited the projects where he grew up. A man, my age, was sitting on the steps. He had been living there his whole life. He recognized my dad and said that his mom knew my dad. I thought of my life and the opportunities I had. I thought of his mom,” Richardson said.
“What happens to women in these oppressive systems? This is what shaped Gutter Child.”
Ealey grew up in a racially segregated community in Portsmouth, Ohio, divided from the rest of town by train tracks. His mother predicted her son would not stay in Portsmouth.
With an education and a football scholarship, Ealey did not stay.
“On the trip with my dad for the documentary, we retraced his steps. This was the most time we had ever spent together. I remember being on a train, and we were talking. It was just our time. We both realized the importance and the significance of his story,” Richardson said.
“My dad knew that I was in the arts and with his business background, growing up with not having a lot, he just wanted me to have the best. When his story came out, he was so proud.”
In Gutter Child, the main character, is Elimina Dubois.
Elimina is one of only 100 babies taken from the gutter and raised in the ‘land of opportunity’ as part of a social experiment led by the Mainland government.
When her Mainland mother dies, Elimina finds herself alone with other gutter children at an academy with new rules and expectations.
Elimina is a modern heroine who finds strength within herself to create her own future and defy a system that tries to shape her destiny.
Richardson is also the founder and executive director of F.O.L.D. (the festival of literary diversity) in her hometown of Brampton.
The festival celebrates underrepresented authors. Richardson promotes writers from marginalized communities, while advocating for greater inclusion within the publishing industry.
“This is so special to me and sometimes I feel selfish because I get to read and meet all of these great writers and share their stories. This has changed me and made me a better person,” Richardson said.
Richardson encourages women and young girls who want to write.
“They should never think that their own stories are not important,” she says.
“They are even more so.”