Former PRISM poetry editor (2014-15) Rob Taylor sat down with Kenyan-born, Ugandan-raised Vancouverite Juliane Okot Bitek about her debut poetry collection 100 Days, which was published in January 2016 by University of Alberta Press. Okot Bitek is currently a PhD student in UBC’s Interdisciplinary Studies Graduate Program.
Day 91 – Juliane Okot Bitek
We couldn’t have known
nine days in
that it would ever be over
it was a time warp that had us
in flashes & then in woozy moments
that took forever
machete hangs in a museum in Ottawa
a machete hangs perpetually
in a museum
a machete hangs like a mockery of time
like a semblance of that reality
in which another machete
& other machetes hanged
for what seemed like a long time
but eventually they come down
again & again & again & again & again
even time measured in machete strokes
can never be accurate
(University of Alberta Press, 2016).
Reprinted with permission.
The poems in 100 Days were written in response to photos by Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu, who lives and works in Brooklyn. Mutu posted a photo a day, in remembrance of the roughly 100 days of the Rwandan Genocide, and your poems expanded her project, in a sense. How did the photos, which were often abstract and not obviously connected to the genocide, shape or influence the poems you wrote?
I was inspired to begin writing the poems after I saw the first couple of photos that Wangechi posted on social media. So we agreed to have a very loose collaboration – both of us would post something every day for the next hundred days. Wangechi lives on the East Coast and I on the West. Every day we posted independently, we never discussed what we were going to work on, just that I would post a poem and she would post a photo. I didn’t wait to see her photos before I posted a poem but I’d say they’re obviously connected to genocide, they speak to it as a concept that is difficult to grasp and yet whose evidence is there for any who would look. The influence of the photos I’d say were most marked in themselves as evidence of solidarity. The mark of loneliness that I often feel inside a project wasn’t there and even when times were hard and I got really tired, I imagined Wangechi doing her work and saw evidence of it everyday and that bolstered me.
“The mark of loneliness I often feel inside a project” – what a great observation, and testament to the power of collaboration, especially when taking on a marathon: 100 poems in 100 days!
Did you really write them as it appears – one poem per day, in this sequence? Or did you play with the sequence and/or timeline to make it work? Did part of you feel beholden to the structure, leaving the poems as they came to you day-by-day, warts and all?
It was a marathon. For a long time I wrote a poem everyday and before I was halfway done I was already pretty exhausted. Then the poems started to come in fits, often more than one or two a day, so I decided to keep posting one a day but wrote them down as they came, sometimes more than two at a time but rarely more than three. They’re pretty much in the same form as they appeared. I only made a single change in sequence, so yes, those are the poems as they came. But I had an excellent editor at University of Alberta Press to work with. Peter Midgely helped me take care of the warts. So they’re now published with no warts.
Ha! You should have a sticker on the cover, certifying it as such. You wrote 100 Days in Vancouver, correct? How do you think the book would have been different if you’d written it in Uganda, or in Rwanda itself?
I don’t know if 100 Days would have been different or not depending on where I wrote it. I can say that the poems that emerged were part of a social media collaboration which by itself is a digital landscape that is not much concerned with the landscape from which the post originates. 100 Days also attempts to include the experiences of people beyond those specific days and beyond the borders of Rwanda, an attempt at solidarity. I can’t say how different it would have been but there is an undeniable Canadian-ness to it that might not have been present if I lived in Rwanda or Uganda.
Could you speak a bit to your personal experience of the genocide? Where were you? How did the news of the genocide reach you? To what extent did you feel apart from what was happening, and to what extent did you feel bound to it?
I was a young mother when the genocide broke out in Rwanda in 1994. My son wasn’t even a year old at the time. We lived in Vancouver. I can’t honestly tell you that I knew about the genocide from the dominant news channels here because it did not play out until much later. But I can’t even remember how we knew that something horrible was taking place. At the same time, there was the war in Bosnia and the guerilla war between the government of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army had been going on since 1987 and that hadn’t even made a mark on the world conscience, let alone headlines. To what extent is anyone bound to the knowledge of a terrible war?
100 Days is filled with voices – sometimes it seems the speaker is you, the author, and other times it is one of a variety of voices – often victims of the genocide speaking directly. Can you speak a bit about how it felt to shift between voices? To inhabit the voices of the dead?
To inhabit the voices of the dead or have them inhabit you? 100 Days is about listening and so perhaps the focus should not be on the experience of the writer but perhaps on the voices that have emerged during the process of writing. I didn’t think about my feelings when I wrote them so anything about feelings, especially mine wouldn’t be right in here. I know that I was exhausted by the whole thing and that it took me quite some time to get over it.
“To have them inhabit you.” Yes, that gets at the idea far better. Two other phrases you treat with great attention and precision in 100 Days are: “Never again” and “The 100 Days”. What do these two phrases mean to you – how do they compliment one another, and in what ways are they opposed?
“Never again” was that dramatic utterance after WWII at the Nuremberg trials and Bill Clinton echoed it when he visited Rwanda during the 90s. What do the two phrases mean to me? It means that for some people those one hundred days will continue to define the rest of their lives; they already live outside the “never again” because it will never not be “never again” for them. I’m thinking about people like us who have never been inside such traumatic events, who feel like we can make pronouncements like that without considering the extent to which such events maybe outside the choice of those who remain inside it. In effect, “never again” only makes sense to those who were never in it to start with and doesn’t take into account the unending nature of days like 100 days. “Never again” has also shown itself to be a promise that is true for some and not others.
Many of these poems seem to burn around a single profound statement or question, such as “innocence is power without experience” (“Day 89”) or “how to the dead declare / the part of their identity they were killed for?” (“Day 52”). Lines like these got me wondering about your generative process – did you start with these questions and statements – were they already, in some way, milling about in your head? Or did the questions and statements rise out of the process of writing? Are there any lines in this book that came at you unexpectedly, and stick with you still?
Process. I wish I had it figured out. Most of the poems came out whole but you’re right, some of them came from a phrase. For example, “It was the earth that betrayed us first” (which I think is the first line of Day 100) came out like that and hung about for a bit until the rest of it came out. It’s the line that I remember most, probably the only one I can quote without looking at the text.
In “Day 46” you write:
the impossibility of knowing everything that happened
we know that true witness cannot speak
& that those who have words
cannot articulate the inarticulable
It’s an incredible stanza, and hits right at a core limitation of all acts of remembrance, and all acts of poetry. Have you tried to write about the Rwandan Genocide, or other past traumas, in other genres? If so, in what ways did you find it to be more or less successful than 100 Days? More generally, what do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of using poetry to witness and remember?
I’ve been studying and thinking about genocide for sometime now. Primo Levi’s Survival at Auschwitz and Eli Weisel’s Night are foundational in my thinking about genocide. I’ve also been writing about the lives of formerly abducted women of the Lord’s Resistance Army and thinking about the war in northern Uganda that took place from 1986 through to 2007. I write creatively as a poet but I’ve also written creative non-fiction and have some pieces on that online. Strengths and weakness? Depends on who wants to forget and who wants to remember. I write creatively because it’s the best way I know how to think through and write about things that we must never forget. It is also more accessible than academic writing that remains within the enclaves of academia.
In 100 Days you often make movements to draw the rest of the world into the conversation – suddenly a machete is hanging in an Ottawa museum or we are driving down the Sea to Sky Highway, considering the violence and death involved in the dangerous work of building roads.
I get a sense in the book that you were looking to widen the circle: to have the Rwandan Genocide mean more to more people (many of whom might have felt it to be an event greatly removed from their own lives), and to understand that its lessons are applicable everywhere. I see this audience-widening desire, too, in your open, accessible writing style, and in your medium of initial publication: all 100 poems free, online, and available to anyone who might be interested. Could you speak to this idea a bit?
Absolutely the Rwanda Genocide was a crime against all of us. We’re also implicated in the terrible histories of the countries we live in. The reference to the machete that hangs in a museum in Ottawa is based on fact. There is a machete from the Rwanda Genocide which hangs in the War Museum in Ottawa along with Hitler’s car, letters of WW2 soldiers on the front to their mothers, the covers of TIME magazine during the Rwanda Genocide and many other war related artifacts. The project was originally free and open to everyone who has access to the internet, so yes, it was one way to engage with how to remember something so awful with as many people as possible. How, and what about a genocide, we need to remember and to forget.
You clearly have put some thought into who might be reading your book, and for what reasons. Is audience something you thought about while writing 100 Days? And did your imagined audience shift in any way while you were in the middle of the process of writing the book?
I know that we’re taught to write for an audience. Sometimes it’s impossible to write when you think about an audience. Writing 100 Days was an opportunity to engage with an idea, not to write for a defined audience. I didn’t define an audience before or during the writing. I just wrote.
In “Day 59” you write “you want me to tell / what was never mine to tell”. Later, in your Author’s Note at the end of the book, when considering that neither you nor Wangechi Mutu is Rwandan, you ask the question “How could it be that we could have nothing to say [as Ugandans and Kenyans]? How could it be that the only Africans to think about the genocide would be from Rwanda?”
These are important questions, and popular ones on North American campuses, where identity politics and questions of authority/permission often take up a great deal of the cultural conversation. How much did you dwell on these questions when imagining your project, and while the project was underway? How much do you think about them now? Do you find a difference between how these questions of “permission” are discussed in North America and in Africa?
I think that the context of those questions had to do with the inability to express difficult questions and how language sometimes fails us – through ownership of language (or lack thereof), through trauma and through objectivity that sometimes we relegate to folks, for instance, by labeling them as victims and therefore incapable of whatever. I was thinking about agency and solidarity, rather than appropriation, and the responsibility we have to stand with those in pain. I don’t spend very much headspace in thinking about the differences between permissions in Africa and the West because I already know that if we don’t tell our own stories, there are many, many folks who engage in telling our stories and therefore define us on their terms. It’s my work to be engaged in writing as an African person. Not for Africans but as an African person.
Connected to the last question, do you have any hesitations around how the book will be received because you are Ugandan and not Rwandan? Have you had any responses along those lines thus far?
I’ve done the work. I had responses from folks from all over the world, not just Ugandans or Rwandans. I think that 100 Days speaks to folks beyond their citizenships and should be read on it’s own merit rather than on the strength of the passport of the reader. That said, I suggest (in the Author’s Note) that it is our responsibilities as artists to speak to and about the world around us. As a Canadian, Ugandan and Kenyan-born person, I cannot honestly draw political borders around where my responsibilities lie. Others can write about what they will but I must write about issues that affect all my ways of being, all of them.
“I cannot honestly draw political borders around where my responsibilities lie.” That’s fantastic, and gets right to the heart of the matter.
Now that the book has been published, looking back at it what do you think you learned (about the genocide, or grief, or yourself) from writing 100 Days? What feels as unresolved as ever?
The question remains: what have we ever learned about genocide? What is there to learn about it? Genocide is a political term that works for some and not others, that is applicable to some and not others. I don’t know that I’ve achieved any wisdom from writing 100 Days but I’m certainly impressed by how the book is doing its own work. I dare not speak for it.
Why not help 100 Days do its work? You can do so by picking up a copy at your local bookstore, or from the comfort of your home via the University of Alberta Press website. Or, if you must, from Amazon.
You can read more of Rob Taylor’s interviews here.