interview with Abu Fofana, Accents at Artscape Wychwood Barns

Accents  Accents Michele l. of entrance

Accents Bookstore or simply “Accents” as it’s now known in Artscape Wychwood Barns is a somewhat unusual enterprise. How would you describe it?

At Accents we deal with culture in all its forms–language, debate, history, politics, philosophy, etc. We create a space for writers, artists and educators to bring a multitude of viewpoints and knowledge to the public. We contribute to multiculturalism from the bottom up. For example, we connect a director of African theatre with a Brazilian and they sit down in the bookstore and explore the African influence on popular theatre in Brazil in the 1960s and 70s.

And the common thread is African heritage?

Yes, and how it is communicated.

The bookstore, for its first five years, was located near Eglinton and Dufferin where there’s a large Caribbean population, primarily from Jamaica. We wanted to serve not only the traditional bookstore customers but also community members who don’t buy books yet are great narrators and listeners.

Accents on Eglinton

And the Latin American connection?

To the West was the Italian and Portuguese community that settled in the area in the forties, fifties and sixties. Latin Americans followed in more recent decades because there was affordable housing.

In the middle, just in front of the Toronto Community Housing apartment building across from Accents Bookstore, everything came together.

Accents on Eglinton looking east

Behind the strip malls and other businesses that line St. Clair are different kinds of neighbourhoods. Castlefield, to the north was a place of affluent professionals where there were many individuals doing academic and cultural work.

Along St. Clair there are many small shop keepers whose trade has been badly affected by the LRT construction. Many have closed.

It’s a very mixed community. I see Eglinton as the northern limit of the city core and its east-west axis connects with African Canadian history. At the intersection of Eglinton and Dufferin is a 19th century Methodist church with a large, very active congregation of African descent. A little further north on Dufferin is an evangelical church with a large Portuguese and Latin American congregation. The members of these two church communities became our customers. Through them, my team and I at the bookstore learned their history, their oral and written traditions. We were sensitized to the level of education and literacy that prevailed.  And, we adapted the traditional model of a bookstore accordingly.

Eglinton and Bathurst methodist churchDufferin Centro de Ayuda espiritual

Jamaicans belong to a culture that is fundamentally about oral expression. Historically, there were few bookstores on the island; the emphasis on spoken language goes back to the African tradition of orality.  Similarly, in some places in Latin American indigenous people have few opportunities to go to school. Nevertheless they have a rich worldview and knowledge that’s carried through an oral culture. We were interested in working with everyone because culture is not something that is only picked up at school, culture is family traditions, popular traditions… all of this we felt could be part of the bookstore.

Accents 2 women entrance & girl

So we set out to combine both oral and written cultural traditions of these communities that made the bookstore’s neighbourhood so diverse. We gave space for workshops, readings, rehearsals, book launches, art exhibitions, etc. The Maria Schulka branch of the Toronto Public Library across the street from us helped us promote a lot of our artists.

So when you say we—you have a partner?

Two people created the bookstore one from Jamaica and the other (me) from Cuba. Michele Johnston who teaches at York University with me in the Harriet Tubman Institute, and I set out to create an intersection between Latin American and Afro-Caribbean communities. Before opening Accents we did a research trip; we headed south and went through fifteen cities ending up in Miami. We wanted to know, in an era of mass closings of independent bookstores, how we could improvise on the failing model of bookstore to make a dynamic space adapted to its surroundings.

Michele and Abu

An essential feature of Accents is that every week without fail we have a poet and a writer talk about their work. We have frequent book launches, visual art exhibitions, film screenings, etc. The writers and artists that we represent are at all stages of their development, from those that are self-published on the internet to others that are publishing their third or fourth book. Our focus is on African Diaspora, Caribbean and Latin American work but everyone is welcome. We offer Spanish and English classes for adults and for children. “Jamaican Nights” and “Debates on Cuba” are two program series that we developed for exchange, debate and information on our two national cultures. We draw on visiting writers and academics at York University as well as other universities in the city. In our Caribbean understanding, a bookstore is a place of face to face encounter, a cultural centre, a place that lives from the energy of the communities surrounding it.

Accents girl pink dress

Why did you move away from your base in Eglinton?

When the lease expired three months ago and the LRT construction shut-down much of the area we had to decide—do we go totally virtual, do we move to a transitional location or do we do a combination of the two? How do we maintain Accents in a way that is faithful to the spirit of the bookstore on Eglinton?

Charmaine Lurch, an artist, was looking for someone to share her studio here at Artscape Wychwood Barns. You can see some of her work on the walls. My proposal to Artscape was that I use the studio, all but one day of the week, as a writer whose practice extended to community interactions. The books on these shelves can be purchased online but, in the context of the events and conversations I hold here, they serve as reference material.

As a publisher, I’m partnering with Montreal-based Civita and the  American small press EducaVision. Accents continues to operate a bookstore in Montreal, we carry books in English, French and Spanish. I’m also in the process of organizing a book fair to take place in late summer in Toronto.

Writers can sell their work directly from the store, this was the case with Olivia Chow who did a book-signing and sale of her autobiography several weekends ago. I can sell books from a table during the farmers’ market that takes place here on Saturday mornings.

Olivia Chow w. fan kneeling

Chow at Accents 3Abu Fofana, Joe Mihevc, Olivia Chow

But the essence of Accents is a very Caribbean… it’s sitting down, conversing, negotiating, laughing… that’s not the stuff of pure commerce, it’s more akin to a space of exchange, a cultural centre. We were drawn to Artscape for that reason—we envisioned that through our programming we could forge connections between the community on Eglinton and Dufferin and that of St. Clair and Christie. The two communities are close in physical distance but separated by large socio-economic differences. We want to grow our network here and are delighted by the reception so far—this neighbourhood has a high concentration of creative workers and academics who appreciate what we do.

Accents entrance

However there’s a problem. Although I see the Artscape complex as a cultural centre—kids come here for drama, art and music classes, there’s theatre, concerts and story-telling, the studio spaces however are perceived as “private”. This is the case despite the fact that each studio opens onto the Barns 2 street, the public through-way.  I have a sign but even though people approach and peer in they don’t venture across the threshold. It’s as if there’s an invisible wall.

Accents Ed 1Accents Ed 2Accents Ed 3Accents Ed 4

Did you see the recent exhibition at the community gallery featuring designs for writers’ studios?

I looked very carefully at the designs that the Ryerson University architecture students proposed for the “Writer in Residence” studio for Artscape Wychwood Barns. The challenge was how to create a space that on one hand allowed for the privacy and reflection a writer needs but on the other hand lets the writer have some degree of connection with the public life of the site. I don’t think any of the designs were successful but the exercise of visualizing solutions was really important. In the meantime Accents will continue to reach out to draw people into the world of books because that’s what we do.

writers studio

Accents

translated from Spanish and abbreviated by Teresa Casas

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