Navigating the Canadian literary scene as a BIPOC artist: A conversation with Tawhida Tanya Evanson

photos: Temmuz Arsiray

Interview by Avleen K Mokha

For the third piece in the carte blanche blog series featuring BIPOC artists, we interviewed Tawhida Tanya Evanson, an Antiguan-Québecoise artist based in Montreal. Tawhida has published two poetry collections. Her first work of fiction, Book of Wings, is out this year from Véhicule Press. The following questions center around the topics of resilience and resistance. 

Avleen: You have a long practice of performing in spoken word. What does this medium offer to you as a BIPOC artist?  

Tawhida: Spoken word allows me to exist in the continuum of African griots—a French word that refers to the traditional West African keepers of oral history. A griot’s job is storyteller, poet, genealogist, historian, adviser, mediator, translator, musician, composer, teacher, entertainer, warrior, witness, praise-singer, and ceremony participant! 

A single label doesn’t work here, the way a single label doesn’t apply to my arts practice either.

In my view, the griot is the OG African multimedia artist, and so when I combine word with sound, music, movement, and even ceremony, I feel grounded in my African ancestry and, by extension, humanity.

Avleen: In the past few years, you have published two poetry collections. Your first fictional work, Book of Wings, is set to come in 2021 by Véhicule Press. Tell me about what it was like moving between forms. 

Tawhida: I began the novel in 2002 and worked on it sporadically. I never chose to write prose but tried to get out of the way to allow the text its own form and mythology. There are characters and a narrative but there is also concentrated language in each word/sound, sentence/arc, and paragraph/wave. Dimitri Nasrallah, my editor at Véhicule Press, helped me bridge the genres even more coherently by guiding some aspects of my prose that were not fully developed—he posed the right questions.

I would align myself with what British-Nigerian writer Bernadine Evaristo calls “fusion fiction,” which uses techniques from poetry and fiction to tell a story. I love to experiment with different art forms but, in the end, there is always a poet at the table. 

Avleen: When you were an emerging artist, were there BIPOC artists who inspired you to keep working on your craft? Who were they, and why were they important to you?

Tawhida: I came of age in late 1990s Montreal listening to 60s/70s hard rock and avant-garde jazz, as well as local indie metal, Seattle grunge, and reggae. I was music director and DJ at CRSG Concordia University radio at the time and had access to a limitless bank of music, so early sonic influences were John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Marley.

Amiri Baraka and Gil Scott Heron also informed my initial explorations of poetry with/as music. I spent time with Beat Poet Ted Joans when he was living his final years in Vancouver in the early 2000s, too. Around that same time, I also discovered Rumi and the Sufi poets and have never really recovered.

I would note, though, that Saul Williams remains my greatest living influence in the griot tradition. A poet, author, actor, rapper, screenwriter, and musician after my own heart, his 2001 Amethyst Rock Star album sparked me. We’ve crossed paths over the years and, in 2019, I invited him to be faculty in my Banff Centre Spoken Word Program which, for me, was a real coup.

Avleen: How have your experiences as an international performer informed your perspectives on social issues? 

Tawhida: After years performing at literary and arts festivals across Canada, I branched out across the UK and Australia. Then in 2017, I made the conscious decision to tour on the African continent—mainly to prove (to myself) that my work could have value to an African audience.

I was welcomed home in South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya, and those experiences expanded my understanding of diaspora, disparity, arts education, literacy, consumption/waste, indigeneity/colonization, gender/post-gender issues and the various ways those can play out across Westernized and non-Westernized nations. 

The madness of your own excess slaps you hard across the face when you see a young woman sitting on a plastic chair in the middle of a fast-moving highway in Lagos begging for money with her child at her breast—there is work to do.

In the Muslim and Hindu mystic traditions there is a concept called “fakir,” loosely describing someone who takes a vow of poverty. By Western standards, I might be considered poor, but by global standards I am wealthy—I have much more than I need. I let that guide how I serve my communities, what I consume, how I make art, and why I create spaces in the arts to amplify marginalized voices and foster unity in diversity.

Avleen: In addition to creative writing, you have facilitated workshops since 2005. As a BIPOC artist teaching other BIPOC artists, what do you think are the biggest barriers that BIPOC artists face in the current landscape of Canadian artists? 

Tawhida: What I often come across in Canada are independent BIPOC artists with a history of public presentation and publications who are recognized by their peers. However, because these artists may lack basic resources, time, access or funding for equipment, supplies, studio space, education, or mentorship, they can’t get ahead in their arts practice. Some juggle unemployment and homelessness while others juggle jobs and family duties. There may also be mental health issues around generational trauma and basic lack of self-confidence. These extremes are real.

In the case of the artist who does have some of these tools, they must then learn how to navigate the arts industry without an agent or manager: how to build a website, apply for a grant, get published, record an album, plan a tour, collaborate internationally, and so on. 

The doors right now are wide open in Canada and it is time to strike—to take a risk. 

There are opportunities and funding out there but the barriers for some folks are just too great. Established Canadian arts organizations must diversify and decolonize their board membership and leadership, increase outreach, and offer more programs and resources for BIPOC, LGBTQ2+, and artists with disabilities. The alternative is to build culturally specific organizations owned by and created for culturally specific groups, which are important but can take decades to arrive at the level of established settler organizations—again, there is so much work to do.

Avleen: You have been open about your faith as a dervish, and have conducted interarts events which merge your faith with your passion for storytelling. Tell me about the process of integrating the two. Has faith perhaps provided a sense of resilience?

Tawhida: The details of my practice as a student of Sufism are not something I share outside of the public practice of Sufi whirling. Because whirling has a naturally performative aspect it can be included in arts events and concerts under the moniker of dance. However, it is an active meditation connected to a spiritual practice and that remains essential.

Some projects offer a context and intention for public ceremony and others do not—the line is usually quite clear. But, when things align, ceremony can occur spontaneously anyway—like how we might experience moments of transcendence at live concerts, as if our individual selves disappear into an undefinable whole.

In the words of Rumi, “there are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” Singing is part of my Sufi practice and it helped inspire my poetry to desire music at all times, so Sufism has affected my arts practice very deeply. A spiritual practice is not for everyone, but it can offer useful tools for contemplation, self-accounting, creativity, mental health, and support from a community.

Avleen: As an artist, what opportunities can creative writing and performance provide for resistance against systems of oppression? 

Tawhida: Art has great power to question, reflect, and even predict the future. We are a species with a very short memory, but our own artistry won’t let us forget. A great example of this is writing and performing in one’s ancestral language. This is a potent tool of anti-oppression and decolonization for many BIPOC artists worldwide. 

Enslaved Africans brought to the Americas were stripped of ancestral language, and so many—like me—don’t have access to that side of our heritage outside of Caribbean dialect, patois, Creole, pidgin, or in my case Arabic, which opened ancestral doors inside of me. 

Avleen: Last question. Which two BIPOC artists inspired you the most this year? 
Tawhida: Nawal, an Afro-Sufi musician from the Comoros Islands, and, as always, Rumi.

About Tawhida Tanya Evanson

ZENSHIP solo performance
Banff AB Canada Photo: Don Lee

Tawhida Tanya Evanson is an Antiguan-Québecoise poet, author and artist from Tiohtià:ke/Montréal. She has published six artist books and her two poetry collections are Bothism (Ekstasis 2017) and Nouveau Griot (Frontenac 2018). Her firstnovel Book of Wings (2021) is fresh from Véhicule Press and she has recent work in The Fiddlehead, UPPERCASE and Changing the Face of Canadian Literature (Guernica).

With a 25-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 including the award-winning Almost Forgot my Bones. 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 program director of The Banff Centre Spoken Word Residency, VP of The Quebec Writers’ Federation (QWF) and produces interarts events. She moonlights as a whirling dervish.