Juliane Okot Bitek: In her father’s footsteps

Saturday February 10 2018

Juliane Okot Bitek is a writer, poet, scholar and university instructor. PHOTO | NMG
Juliane Okot Bitek is a writer, poet, scholar and university instructor. PHOTO | NMG
Juliane Okot Bitek is a writer, poet, scholar and university instructor. PHOTO | NMG
Juliane Okot Bitek is a writer, poet, scholar and university instructor. PHOTO | NMG
By BAMUTURAKI MUSINGUZI
More by this Author

Leading up to the 2014 #Kwibuka20 commemorative events (Rwanda’s annual memorial of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi), Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu’s widely seen visual reply to the 100 days of killings, prompted Canadian-Ugandan writer Juliane Okot Bitek to respond with a collection of poems titled 100 Days.

For 100 days, Okot Bitek recorded the lingering nightmare of the Rwandan genocide in a poem a day — each poem recalling the senseless loss of life and of innocence.

She drew on her own family’s experience of displacement under the regime of Idi Amin, pulling in fragments of the poetic traditions she encountered along the way: the Ugandan Acholi oral tradition of her late father Okot p’Bitek, a renowned literary giant famous for his epic poems Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol; Anglican hymns; the rhythms and sounds of the African-American spirituals tradition and the beat of spoken word and hip-hop music.

She posted the poems on her website and on social media — Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The collection was later exhibited at the Lobby Gallery for the Liu Institute for Global Issues in 2015 as Resisting Voice: A Selection of Poems from #kwibuka20#100days and featured in Zocalo Poets as they emerged during the summer of 2014.

For her effort, last December, Okot Bitek was named the winner of the African Poetry Book Fund’s 2017 Glenna Luschei Prize for African Poetry for 100 Days. The poems had earlier in 2016 been published by the University of Alberta Press.

As this year’s Kwibuka approaches, I interviewed Okot Bitek through e-mail, to get her sentiments on what it means to win the 2017 Glenna Luschei Prize for African Poetry; to be an African writer in Canada, her exceptional work in 100 Days and what inspires her.

My first question was: Why 100 poems?

“Inspired by the quiet homage to the 1994 Rwanda Genocide that Wangechi Mutu started posting on social media on April 6 in 2014, I decided to respond. I offered these poetic pieces as a way to think about the way in which we navigate through knowing about and understanding the genocide and other wars that endure,” Okot Bitek said.

In 100 Days, Okot Bitek explores the power of narrative, focusing her passionate essays, poetry and non-fiction work on political and social issues around her.

Award-winning writer and scholar John Keene, who judged the 2017 Glenna Luschei Prize, won said of her writing: “In 100 Days, poet Juliane Okot Bitek set out to memorialise the tragedy of the Rwandan genocide, but the witnessing force of these brief, incantatory poems ripples outward to figuratively encompass multiple histories of violence and brutality, including the terror her own family and countless others faced under Idi Amin’s regime in Uganda.

“The lyric beauty, intertextual depth, and metonymic power of Okot Bitek’s poetry underscores the capacities of art and language to cast light into the darkest corners of our human experience, and bridge the gulfs that lie between us.”

The director of the African Poetry Book Fund, Kwame Dawes, said: “It is very exciting to celebrate the brilliant poetry of Juliane Okot Bitek, whose name reminds us of the rich legacy of African letters that she is extending in this beautiful collection.”

Poetry ambassador

The African Poetry Book Fund’s Glenna Luschei Prize awards $1,000 to the winning book of poetry by an African writer published the previous year.

The sleeve of Juliane Okot Bitek's 100 Days. PHOTO | NMG

The sleeve of Juliane Okot Bitek's 100 Days. PHOTO | NMG

Like many other emerging creative writers around the world, Okot Bitek is not a full time author and explained it thus: “Creative work in Canada, as elsewhere, is challenging because, unless one has reached the higher echelons, it is not possible to live off this kind of work.”

“I do other work to supplement my art so this means that I cannot work at it full time, but benefits of being creative by far outweigh the challenges and I’d rather talk about that,” she told The EastAfrican

She is a poetry ambassador for the City of Vancouver, working under the auspices of Vancouver Poet Laureate Rachel Rose. “Along with writing and scholarship, I am a university instructor,” shed added.

Okot Bitek holds a Master’s degree in English and a Bachelors of Fine Art in Creative Writing, and is currently a PhD student in the Interdisciplinary Students Graduate Programme at the University of British Columbia’s Liu Institute for Global Issues in Vancouver.

Her PhD research titled History, Memory, Alienation: The 1979 Sinking of a Naval Ship on Lake Victoria focuses on the impact of social forgetting on citizenship through the exploration of the quiet story of a 1979 naval accident where several Ugandan exiles lost their lives.

Her work has been published widely online, in print and in literary magazines such as Arc, Whetstone, Fugue, and Room of One’s Own and anthologised in Great Black North; Contemporary African Canadian Poetry and Revolving City: 51 Poems and the Stories Behind Them, among others.

As to what influenced her to take up creative writing, the poet, writer and scholar, said: “If you mean influences, rather than influenced, then the work done by artistes before me are always inspiring. From Toni Morrison, the American novelist, to Phoebe Boswell the Kenyan artist, work that reveals the world to look different influence how I do my work.”

But she is quick to say that she would not describe creative writing as exciting, because it only excites “sometimes. I think exciting is not the word. Generative, yes.”

In 2004, Okot Bitek’s short story Going Home won a special mention in the 2004 Commonwealth Short Story Contest, and was featured on the British Broadcasting Corporation and Canadian Broadcasting Corporation; War No More, won first prize in a StopWar post-secondary essay competition in 2005. Another essay on Iris Chang’s Rape of Nanking also won a special mention in 2006 and is included in an anthology of winning essays from that year. In 2007, she received a Canada Council grant which has allowed her to spend time writing non-fiction. 

Father’s fame

Okot Bitek was born in Kenya and migrated to Canada 28 years ago. Considering her famous surname, I asked her what it was like growing up in her father’s shadow.

“I didn’t appreciate or know about my father’s fame as a child. So while he was alive, he was just our father,” she said matter of factly. Okot p’Bitek died in 1982. He had seven children, one is deceased.

Also following in the footsteps of their famous father is Jane Okot p’Bitek Langoya, who has published a collection of poems titled Song of Farewell and A Poetic Duet with Sophie Nuwagira Bamwoyeraki.

Okot Bitek opted to drop the “p” from her surname while her sister Jane retained it. This makes no difference according to Acholi naming customs, since the “p” simply denotes “of the family of.” One can choose to either have it or not.

As to how much influence her father had on her creative writing, Okot Bitek, recalled: “Quite some. Both our parents encouraged reading. Not only was our house full of books, they also bought us story books.”

And what was it like living in exile in Kenya? “As a child, I thought that Kenya was our home. The concept of exile was introduced when I was older, so I can only think about this in retrospect.”

Black writer?

Talking about her illustrious writing but which she cannot depend on full time for a living, I asked her if she has been accepted as a black writer in Canada. She did not take the question kindly and argued: “I have lived in Canada since 1990, and you ask ‘have you been accepted as a black writer in Canada?’ What is a black writer? What does acceptance look like? This question is vague.

“I have had the opportunity to travel and present my poetry beyond the Black community. I don’t understand what you mean.”

Okot Bitek continues to write and speak about issues of home, homeland, exile, citizenship and diaspora in her writing. As to when her readers should expect her next work, she promised: “I always have work in the pipeline. I have a chapbook coming out this year.” A chapbook is a small p