Otoniya J. Okot Bitek, There's Something About This Place, 2021, video, 18:08min. Courtesy the artist.
Otoniya J. Okot Bitek: There's Something About This Place
November 2 – 12, 2021
Student Union Building, Ballroom, SFU Burnaby
There’s Something About This Place is a 20-minute projection of a poem written by Otoniya J. Okot Bitek on the occasion of her residency as a Jack and Doris Shadbolt Fellow in the Humanities, hosted by SFU's Department of English. For two weeks her poem will be projected in the ballroom of the Student Union Building, while it is temporarily transformed into a silent study area. Okot Bitek offers these poems in response to a physical altercation between an RCMP officer and a Black alumnus, Babakayode (Kayode) Fatoba, who was pepper sprayed and Tasered before being arrested in the dining hall at the SFU Burnaby campus on December 11, 2020. The incident was met with public scrutiny and accusations of racial profiling. There’s Something About This Place observes the impacts of this event on personal, social and political levels.
In December 2020, an SFU alumni was arrested at SFU Burnaby campus and charged with assaulting a police officer. At the time, I was the Ellen and Warren Tallman writer-in-residence in the English Department and one of the 2020-21 Jack and Doris Shadbolt Fellows in the Humanities. The event was powerfully disorientating for me, as like Kayode Fatoba, I am Black and African and associated with the university. With what words could I respond to the moment? It took me quite a long time to gather my words and to recognize that I had already been doing the required work. In this suite of three poems, I attempt to articulate how people of colour resist the disorientation of colonial and contemporary systems of power that seek to keep us down. I hope to illustrate Veena Das' definition of the political as how we respond to the claims that the world makes of us. Two of the poems are titled Something About — they come from a small collection of poems, all with the same title. The first one was previously published in The Capilano Review and the last one was published in Room Magazine. A cautionary warning for racism, suicide and violence.
I'm grateful to the support of the English Department, the Ellen and Warren Writer-in- Residence Program and the Jack and Doris Shadbolt Fellowship for the Humanities. This work would not have been possible without the collaboration, patience and generosity of artist Kristin Man, and designer Emily Huynh.
Text by Otoniya J. Okot Bitek
Otoniya J. Okot Bitek is a poet and scholar. Her collection of poetry, 100 Days (University of Alberta 2016) was nominated for several writing prizes including the 2017 BC Book Prize, the Pat Lowther Award, the 2017 Alberta Book Awards and the 2017 Canadian Authors Award for Poetry. It won the 2017 IndieFab Book of the Year Award for poetry and the 2017 Glenna Lushei Prize for African Poetry. From the fall of 2020 to the spring of 2021, Otoniya had the privileged position of being the Ellen and Warren Tallman Writer-in-Residence, and one of the SFU Jack and Doris Shadbolt Fellows. She has recently moved to Kingston, Ontario, to live on the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe people. Otoniya is an assistant professor at Queen's University, in Kingston, Ontario.
Video by Samwick Productions
Sound editing by Jean Brazeau