Toronto, Canada

Diaspora Dialogues: Writing the New City

Diaspora Dialogues

November 30, 2009

Developing audience, voice and a meaningful reflection of the city through its culturally diverse writers.

Recognizing ourselves in the narrative is at the heart of the best storytelling, regardless of the sound of your voice or where your narrative originated. Diaspora Dialogues is a Toronto-based literary project that supports the creation and presentation of new fiction, poetry and drama –specifically works that reflect the complexity of the city back to Torontonians through the eyes of its richly diverse communities.

The success of established writers such as Shyam Selvadurai (above), a Sri Lankan Canadian author whose 1994 novel Funny Boy won the Books in Canada First Award, helps animate the work of Diaspora Dialogues which brings established and emerging writers, poets and playwrights together at events such as Toronto’s annual “Word on the Street” Festival.

“Diaspora Dialogues began in 2005 as an answer to the question: if there was a program to stimulate the creative voices of Toronto’s immigrant writers what would it look like,” says Helen Walsh, President and founder. “Diaspora Dialogues provides an outlet for writers and artists who are new to Canada, who are under-represented and who may not have found their audience and market. It’s a two way relationship, since they provide longer term residents of the city with an up-to-date and ever changing picture of Toronto as it exists now, today.”

New Voices, New Perspectives

Diaspora Dialogues uses a multifaceted approach to cultivate both the diverse creative voice of the city and a broad audience for their work. To identify new and emerging voices of Toronto, Diaspora Dialogues holds an annual open call for submissions of fiction, creative non-fiction, poetry and drama. Selected participants are then brought together with established writers like best-selling author Lawrence Hill (The Book of Negroes) and others, such as Priscilla Uppal, Michael Redhill and Yvette Nolan, for a rich learning experience.

Through an adjudicated process, a shortlist of approximately 15 emerging writers is chosen. Each of these writers is then matched to an established writer for a programme of mentoring activities designed to help them develop their writing skills as well as learn more about their profession, namely how to get their work published or performed.

The mentoring program is free and designed to foster professional and artistic relationships. All program participants have the opportunity to read their work in Diaspora Dialogues’ popular multi-disciplinary reading and performance series that takes place at venues around the city. Emerging writers are actively promoted at these monthly events and event programming strategically mixes established writers with newcomers to ensure maximum profile and audience.

A selection of finished pieces by mentee writers are also published in the annual Diaspora Dialogues anthology, TOK: Writing the New City . The newest volume in the TOK series marks an expansion into Canadian urban spaces beyond Toronto. Drawing from culturally diverse voices in Toronto, Vancouver, Halifax, and Montreal, TOK: Writing the New City, Book 4 investigates what it means to live in the contemporary Canadian city through fiction, poetry and drama.

Diaspora Dialogues also hosts professional development seminars for the writers and artists (alumni) who have come through its programme, including sessions on practical issues such as tax planning for artists and how to find and work with an agent.

Supporting younger voices

Diaspora Dialogues has also successfully taken this mentoring program into the city’s high schools to support the growth of young creative voices in the city. Working collaboratively with local high school teachers, Diaspora Dialogues offers after-school creative writing workshops for students in Grades 11 and 12. These in-school workshops are led by professional writers and consist of three 60-minute sessions over a three week period. Each session focuses on a specific genre, such as fiction writing, play-writing and spoken word/poetry writing.

The Diaspora Dialogues secondary school programme helps students develop creative voice as well as personal confidence – and occasionally introduces them to future audiences. Some of these young writers go on to showcase their work alongside their professional mentors at local venues. Past mentors have included Griffin Prize nominee and York University creative writing professor Priscila Uppal, actor and playwright Marcia Johnson and Commonwealth Prize winner Olive Senior.


Since its launch in 2005, Diaspora Dialogues has worked with over 350 emerging and established artists from a wide culturally diverse urban landscape through literature, spoken word, poetry and even theatre. Today, with large-scale partners such as the Toronto Public Library and international arts festivals such as Toronto’s Luminato and Nuit Blanche, Diaspora Dialogues is reaching new audiences, creating more opportunity and widening the lens on how Torontonians see themselves in the city.

Local success has also brought Diaspora Dialogues international recognition, including invitations to participate in cultural festivals like the London Literature Festival, the LIFT Festival of Theatre (upcoming in July 2010 in London) and Scotland’s Edinburgh Festivals (Book, Fringe, International) in August 2011.

Making it Work for You:

  • Encourage others to see diversity as the norm, not the niche. Resist "ghetto-izing" your programming.
  • Build your audience by mixing up the speakers, disciplines or communities you feature in your programme. Reach out beyond the usual channels to encourage new audiences for the writers' work.
  • Use a well-known speaker to draw a broad, diverse audience to the event and create opportunities for less well-known featured speakers to gain public exposure.
  • Partnering with other organizations allows you to access their audiences, resources, and publicity channels and helps develop a stronger and more connected cultural community, in general.
  • Identify opportunities for using your project to support local community development. Community partnerships can help identify new funders and audiences for your work, as well as sharpening your voice and message.