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Poetry, Performing & a Pandemic Book Launch: A Q&A with Tawhida Tanya Evanson

Published on February 4, 2021

Tawhida Tanya Evanson headshot

Over the course of one tumultuous year, the process of performing in literary festivals and launching new books has changed significantly. The Toronto International Festival of Authors connected with one of Canada’s rising literary stars, Tawhida Tanya Evanson, to learn about her experience as a poet, author and artist during this usual time in publishing. Here, Tawhida shares what it’s been like promoting her debut novel, Book of Wings, and opens up about the ways she challenges herself as an artist, as well as the role of art in dismantling racism. Tawhida will join fellow poets Jillian Christmas, Desiree McKenzie and Motion for the virtual event Soundtracks & Stanzas: Changing Canada’s Black Future, curated by Britta B., on February 12.

As a poet, author and artist, your work has been shared in poetry collections, videopoems and studio albums, and you have travelled to over a dozen countries to perform at literary and arts festivals. With so many different ways to connect with people, do you take into consideration the different platforms when creating new work? Does your approach to creating it change depending on whether the work will be performed versus published?

I try not to get in the way of the work regardless of its ultimate outcome. I let text, sound and image take on its own shape, mythology and platform. It’s an honour to be able to experiment in this way.

Your debut book of fiction, Book of Wings, is being published by Véhicule Press this month. Congratulations! What was the process for writing this novel? Was it a pandemic project or a story that you have been working on for a while? Typically, book launches are celebrated with parties, press circuits and special events. What is it like to launch a book during a time of lockdown? Have you found new ways to connect with readers?

I began writing the novel in 2002 and worked on it very sporadically every few years or so—in total, it took about five years to write. Véhicule Press approached me in January 2020 and I had a solid draft for them in April just as the pandemic was taking form and all my spoken word and dance events had dried up. Because my schedule had suddenly cleared, I was able to work on the book diligently throughout 2020.

I accept that COVID-19 has usurped many of the usual forms of promoting new work and I am fine with that. Folks in the arts are adapting—some slow, some quick— and the literary industry is no exception. I may not be attending an international literary festival in person this year but I can still participate online and anyone anywhere in the world with an internet connection can also be witness and engage. That is a new boundary opened. Physical books may not sell as before but the global reach for ideas has shifted.

Can you tell us about the novel? What inspired the story?

It’s a Sufi love story across three continents inspired by heartbreak and a diasporic return to Africa.

It sounds like travel is an important part of your novel as the main character travels through Vancouver, the United States, the Caribbean, Paris and Morocco. Did your own travel experiences have an impact on the places you chose for the book? Did the pandemic affect the way you wrote those cities or did you have a clear picture of what she would experience in each place while writing them?

The book is based on travels I made in 2002 when the bones were initially written down. By taking away my live gigs in 2020, COVID-19 gave me space and time to dig deep into this project—to broaden my abilities in fiction, develop previously hidden themes, work with an editor, tighten everything up and actually complete it! It was a lifeline because it gave me a daily discipline, a daily hope.

You will be taking part in our upcoming event Soundtracks & Stanzas: Changing Canada’s Black Future on February 12 with Jillian Christmas, Desiree McKenzie, Motion and Britta B as the emcee. The event celebrates pushing the possibilities and playing with the rules of poetry. Are there ways that you challenge yourself as a poet, performer and/or writer? What role do you think poetry can play in the dismantling of anti-Black racism in Canada?

I love this work and am privileged to do it. I’d consider myself a multimedia artist working in the continuum of the griot—a French word describing West African keepers of oral history who hold about fifty job titles from poet and mediator, to musician and ceremony participant. Working across arts disciplines is probably the main challenge I give myself as a writer, but I also struggle with the production of both physical artwork and large-scale projects in the face of climate change.

Regarding poetry and anti-Black racism, now more than ever, the arts affect our perception of reality, emotions, values, conversations, consumption patterns—culture itself. If we want to see and understand human beings then we must listen to all sides of the story. Because BLM re-opened a door in the collective consciousness, there is now a mainstream surge in support of Indigenous, Black and People of Colour in poetry, across the arts and across industries worldwide. If we want to move forward as a species with some modicum of morality, empathy, social responsibility, cross-cultural understanding and environmental care then these are the voices that must be heard.

With COVID-19 bringing a new element to performing, is there a difference for you performing in-person versus performing digitally (whether that is pre-recorded or live)? Do you find there is a different kind of connection that is established between you and the audience in a virtual setting?

Professional spoken word artists often perform live on stages in theatres with the support of sound and lighting technicians, musicians, audience interactions, set times and no take two. Performing from home is nothing like this. Like a lot of folks, I got creative with the tools at hand and did some location scouting in my apartment, negotiated lighting, amplification, etc. I also just went ahead and made videopoems without live performance, which allowed me some experimentation with video. And I am not the only one doing this. There are quite a few communities worldwide with fantastic online initiatives to hold place for spoken word in all the new iterations that its rich multimedia heritage affords. Nothing can stop the arts from reflecting society—nothing.

Don’t miss Tawhida’s performance as part of Soundtracks & Stanzas: Changing Canada’s Black Future on February 12, by registering for free here. Keep up with Tawhida Tanya Evanson at mothertonguemedia.com. Her debut novel, Book of Wings, will be available for sale in March.

Tawhida Tanya Evanson headshotTawhida Tanya Evanson is an Antiguan-Québecoise poet, author and artist from Tiohtià:ke/Montréal. She has published six artist bookstwo poetry collectionsBothism (Ekstasis 2017) and Nouveau Griot (Frontenac 2018), and her first novel Book of Wings is forthcoming from Véhicule Press in 2021With a 20-year practice in spoken word, she has performed at literary and arts festivals in over a dozen countries, released four studio albums and six videopoems. In 2013, she was Poet of Honour at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word and received the Golden Beret Award for her contribution to the genre. She is the program director for Banff Centre Spoken Word and sits on the Board of Directors for The Quebec Writers’ Federation (QWF). 


Poetry, Performing & a Pandemic Book Launch: A Q&A with Tawhida Tanya Evanson

Published on February 4, 2021

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