Tawhida Tanya Evanson on her debut novel Book of Wings and the importance of telling Black stories

Longlisted for Canada Reads 2022, the novel explores one woman's journey to finding herself after heartbreak.

The author and poet shares how Black History Month helps spotlight Black artists and their perspectives

Tawhida Tanya Evanson is a poet, author and multidisciplinary artist. (Temmuz Arsiray)

Tawhida Tanya Evanson is an Antiguan Québécois poet, multidisciplinary author and arts educator based in Montreal. Her debut novel, Book of Wings, made the 2022 Canada Reads longlist and was one of Quill & Quire's 2021 Books of the Year.

The novel follows an artist on a global journey from Canada to the Caribbean, Paris and Morocco as her relationship disintegrates and she finds herself on a path toward personal discovery and spiritual fulfillment that leads her deep into the North African landscape.

Evanson also has published two collections of poetry, Bothism (2017) and Nouveau Griot (2018), and has performed internationally during her 25 years as a spoken-word artist. She is the current vice-president of the Quebec Writers' Federation and was also the program director of the Banff Centre's Spoken Word residency.

Evanson spoke with host Gill Deacon on CBC Radio's Here and Now in Toronto about Book of Wings and the importance of highlighting Black stories during Black History Month.

Congratulations on being named to CBC Books' Black Canadian writers to watch list — what does it mean to be told you're one to watch?

It's a wonderful feeling — it's a thrill. And it's always an honour when the media promotes your work as an artist. But it's interesting because I've been working in a subculture of literary arts for almost 25 years now — spoken word — as an oral poet and storyteller. So it's interesting to be highlighted now because I put out a book of fiction. It's strange, but also delightful.

And also, to be honoured alongside these wonderful Black writers, who also show great diversity within the genres that they work in as well, is great. It reinforces that we're here and we're working hard in various genres. And it's wonderful to receive this attention.

The book has also received lots of attention for being on the longlist for Canada Reads 2022. For those who have not yet read your novel, tell us a bit about Book of Wings.

Well, it's a Sufi love story across three continents. It tells the story of Maya, who's a young, mixed-race Black woman who is backpacking, setting out on travel adventures with her partner Shams, and they travel to the U.S. Mexico, France. When they're in Paris, he leaves her. She experiences such a profound heartbreak that she doesn't really know what to do — she doesn't want to return home with her tail between her legs.

So she keeps going — she keeps travelling, and she goes to Morocco. What she doesn't fully realize is that this is the journey of return. For Black people in diaspora, it's quite a major event to return to the motherland. And that's what this character experiences. When she's in Africa, her heartbreak is transformed by all the exchanges that she has there. It's transformed into what becomes a Sufi spiritual practice. So that's what the story is about.

The CBC Books list is tied to Black History Month. From your point of view, why is it important that we celebrate Black stories and storytellers this month and also the rest of the year?

I think we do it this month so that there's a focus and the light is really shining on Black artists and Black people in history. And that's really important, because so much of it has been erased — Black history in Canada is not taught in schools. African history, in all of its vastness — its 54 countries and hundreds of tribal groups — is not something that's taught in schools or integrated into mainstream public discourse. So we need that kind of massive cultural shift, and Black History Month is part of helping to create that shift.

For me, though, February is really about the future. So for me, it's not Black History Month — it's Black Futures Month.

For me, though, February is really about the future. So for me, it's not Black History Month — it's Black Futures Month. I think that for myself, and also for a lot of other Black artists, we are always unpacking the past, always doing that research, always digging to find out who we are — because so much of it has been erased or removed or stolen. What are artists who have unpacked and done all that work doing with all that knowledge? And, where are they going from there? Because that's a really beautiful way forward. If your work is informed by the past, then you can really build — so for me, it's about Black futures.

Tawhida Tanya Evanson's comments have been edited for length and clarity. This interview was written up by Tabassum Siddiqui.