Faculty and Staff
Otoniya Juliane Okot Bitek begins 2020 writer-in-residence term
By Rebecca Saloustros
A deep interest in powerful political and social issues infuses all of Acholi poet Otoniya Juliane Okot Bitek’s work. And this semester, she’ll share her inspiration and writing advice as she begins her term as the 2020 Ellen and Warren Tallman writer-in-residence in SFU’s Department of English.
A prolific writer, Okot Bitek’s 2016 book of poetry, 100 Days, reflects on the meaning of memory 20 years after the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Inspired by Kenyan-American artist Wangechi Mutu’s photograph, Okot Bitek wrote one poem a day for 100 days and posted them online, in tandem with Mutu’s images.
“I was always pained by the war in Northern Uganda and the Rwandan genocide,” says Okot Bitek.
“What does it mean to know something and not be able to articulate how you feel about it? In 2014, it was suddenly 20 years since the genocide and I thought, ‘I haven’t even written a single word about this.’ So, when I saw Wangechi’s photograph, I knew she was going to count down. I wrote to her and we agreed to work in tandem. We didn’t talk about what we were going to post. We just posted—she posted photographs and I posted poetry.”
On March 14th, 2020, Okot Bitek again began posting a poem a day online, this time composing 60 poems on how COVID-19 was being reported in the media.
Although Okot Bitek does share a lot of her work online, her most recent poetry collection, Gauntlet, a chapbook, was published last year by Nomados Press.
“In Gauntlet, I wanted to play with the form of the footnote, exploring the various uses beyond what we have been trained to use a footnote for,” she says. “I used it very irreverently. I footnoted just about every word. Most of the creative work is in the footnote, rather than in the poem itself.”
Looking ahead to her writer-in-residence year, Okot Bitek reflects on the writing feedback she values the most.
“I have benefited from folks who listened to my texts and recognized what I was trying to do,” she says. “I also really appreciated the encouragement to keep writing and this is how I hope to shape my own consultations. I will probably not be doing line edits or correcting for grammar and the like, but I will have conversations about what the work is, what the writer would like to do and how to go about getting it done.”
This year, Okot Bitek will be offering virtual one-on-one consultations on Fridays for both the SFU community and the public, which can be booked in advance by email. The Department of English will also host a writer-in-residence launch and reading event online on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020.