This Nova Scotia writer gives voice to generations of Black trauma, truths in new book
'If you're not aware of what the problems are, then you can't fix them'
Writer and activist Angela Bowden has given voice to the stories and memories she heard from elders around the kitchen table growing up in New Glasgow.
Bowden's first collection of poetry, titled Unspoken Truth: Unmuted and Unfiltered, explores the intergenerational pain of Black descendents of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
She spoke with Erin MacInnis of CBC's Mainstreet on Tuesday about how the book came about, and her thoughts for the next generation.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
How did the book come about?
Some of the poems in this book are as old as 2018, which is when the actual idea for the book sort of started rolling around in my head.
I did the unveiling of Viola's Way in 2018 in New Glasgow. I emceed that event, and after that event, what happened was the stories of the elders started spilling out. It's kind of like a seal was popped. And it made me realize that these stories do not have a home, and they're just circling around kitchen tables and they needed to find a permanent residence and become part of the historical document. So I decided that I was going to start capturing some of these stories. I didn't know exactly where they were going to be placed, where their home was going to be.
Then in 2019, I ended up getting accepted into the Alistair MacLeod Mentorship Program with the Writers' Federation of Nova Scotia. And so that helped me structure my writing under the mentorship of Sue Goyette. And then I was able to write more poems and they just started spilling out, out of the stories that I've heard for decades and from elders in our community. And so I've compiled them together into a book and the book named itself, Unspoken Truth.
Can you tell me a little bit more about that name? It's unspoken, but the 'un' is crossed out.
When I came up for the title of the book, the poems (themselves) were the unspoken truth, it was the stories of these elders that have been swirling around for decades, this treatment that they were subjected to. They were spoken, but they weren't into the mainstream. They were largely around kitchen tables and living rooms and just among ourselves.
And so, as a young girl, I grew up hearing these stories quite regularly. And it wasn't until I became a woman, and experiencing some of this same resistance in my community, that I really started to think about the stories.
And I realized that before I write a book — because I'm a writer that was just starting to get serious about writing — before I started speaking and had anything to say, I had to pay respect to those that came before me and unmute their voices because they've never had an opportunity for their stories to be told.
So Unspoken Truth became the title of the book. But then, after I wrote the book, the truth is now spoken. So it's kind of like it's unspoken, but crossing over the 'un' now it is spoken, now it exists for historical record and we can't take that back.
Your poems explore Black generational trauma. Can you give some examples of how that trauma has manifested itself in generations that you've witnessed through your life?
I did a TED talk in 2019 and, in that, I talk about being born a Black woman and what that means. And so for me, that meant being strong. I was surrounded by countless women in my community, and they were all so strong, they were all so brave. And they always taught me the value of hard work and all of those messages. But they never taught me how to be vulnerable, and they never taught me how to heal. And they never taught me that it was OK to cry, because all I ever saw was that they kept going.
I had a nervous breakdown in 2016. At that time I realised that Black women have never been taught to feel or to heal. And so it became important to me to start talking about that, and use my gifts as a writer to sort of start that conversation and also for the larger community to understand where all this pain is coming from.
You see the mess we're all in right now. And right now we're in a place where the larger community, the white community is saying, like, 'What's going on? How did we get here?' But then you have our community, which is well aware of how we got here because it's been our every day lived experience.
In the year 2021, we're taking some steps toward reparation, and trying to heal that trauma. But what more do you think needs to be done for real healing to happen?
I think we need to acknowledge that it happened first. And I think that is the first step. It didn't happen in a vacuum, it wasn't like a one-off, it didn't happen for five years. This is an intergenerational problem that has been happening for centuries. And so we have to address that damage. And if we want everybody to be able to participate fairly and equitably in our society, which is our mandate, then we need to start talking about the pain. We need to start talking about healing, and how to actually put systems in place, programs in place, incentives in place to fix some of these generational problems.
What's your outlook for the next generation? How are they doing?
When I think about the next generation, I am completely hopeful. There's a shift that's happening in this generation that we've never seen before. And I think that they are the ones that are going to take up the torch and really start, on the backs of those that came before them, to make some changes.
We see a lot of that work happening out there with the youth in the Black Lives Matter movement straight across this province. We even see our rural areas starting to engage now. I'm hopeful for the future when I see the youth participating, because they are the future. There's this intergenerational weaving that's happening between the elders and the youth, and I think that together we're really going to start to do some moving and shaking in this province.
At the very least, I think that people are beginning to listen, to understand. Because if you're not aware of what the problems are, then you can't fix them. So I think these conversations, and books like Unspoken Truth, and a lot of the initiatives that we see out there right now, I think it really speaks to the conditions that we've either been ignoring and some of us just aren't aware of.
I'm really hopeful for the future when I look at this next generation, they're so promising. We just need to rally behind them and elevate them while they go and do the job that they were sent here to do.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.
With files from Mainstreet and Erin MacInnis