In April of 2014, artist and sculptor Wangechi Mutu started a photography project on Instagram in memory of the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Leading up to the #Kwibuka20 commemorative events, Mutu's widely seen visual reply to the one hundred days of killing prompted writer Juliane Okot Bitek to respond poetically with 100 Days. "Inspired by the quiet homage to the 1994 Rwanda Genocide," she writes on her website, "...I offer these poetic pieces as a way to think about the way in which we navigate through knowing and understanding the genocide and other wars that endure." The remarkable pieces range from the understated to the frenetic, steeped in the questions and contradictions that arise out of mass violence.
Juliane Okot Bitek's first book, Words in Black Cinnamon: A Collection of Poetry, was published in 1998. She is widely published online and in print, in literary magazines such as Arc, Whetstone, Fugue, and Room of One's Own. She recently co-authored a book manuscript, Stories from the Dry Season, a collection of stories dealing with justice and conflict in northern Uganda with activist Grace Acan. Her work focuses on issues of the home, homeland, and diaspora.
I recently chatted with her about 100 Days and other recent projects. Below is our edited conversation.
Jason Huettner: What prompted you to respond poetically to Wangechi Mutu's social media project about the Rwandan genocide?
Juliane Okot Bitek: On April 6, I took special note of Wangechi Mutu's post on Facebook. It was a picture of a forlorn looking woman holding a handwritten sign and it was captioned #100 Days, #Kwibuka 20. I immediately extrapolated that this Kenyan artist was going to be part of a conversation that I wanted to engage with—the Rwanda Genocide of 1994. As a Ugandan woman who now lives in Canada, I have spent much of my adult life thinking about what it means and how to engage artistically with suffering. As an Acholi woman from northern Uganda, I know first hand that devastation on one's own homeland is a different beast and therefore demands a different set of tools for expression. I knew that this presented an opportunity to think about how to engage respectfully along with an artist whose work I've admired immensely for years. So I wrote to her and asked and she said "yes."
JH: Did your writing process during 100 Days differ from the process that accompanied your other poetic works?
JOB: During 100 Days, I thought about the Rwanda Genocide all the time. It was sort of akin to method acting, I suppose, because I didn't take a break from it. I did a bit of reading to see how Kwibuka 20 was being commemorated and I followed some Twitter handles to keep myself steeped in memorializing after genocide in Rwanda. At the same time, I was aware of a voice, or voices, that I wasn't reading enough about, those that were still terribly haunted and hadn't found space in the messages of hope, forgiveness, and reconciliation. After I'd written the last poem, a memory returned from a poetry festival in Medellín, Colombia during which I met a remarkable poet from Rwanda. Yolande Mukagasana told us stories from her experience during the genocide, some of which seeped into the 100 Days. I fully recognize her voice as a constant inspiration that carried me along. In her poem, "Madness," the narrator grapples with the meaning of life after the loss of all her children. What does it mean to be alive, to feel the wind, or even think about a silent God after the hundred days? Mukagasana presents no easy answers, in fact, no answer at all, not even hope.
Since I write in different genres, I don't have a one-size-fits-all writing process. Academic writing cannot afford the irreverent muse who may or may not show up. I think of my writing process like running. Sometimes it's a burst of energy and sometimes is an exercise in pacing. 100 Days was definitely a project that required plenty of stamina. It was a long way and it was exhausting. It was a poetry marathon.
JH: How should a poem behave? Or, more importantly, how should a poem dealing with war and conflict behave?
JOB: A poem must never behave. A poem dealing with war and conflict must not behave if behaving is remaining constrained to a set of rules that must not be seen to offend. I spent time thinking about what it meant to engage with the Rwanda Genocide which I hadn't written about previously, but had also been and continues to be written about by all kinds of people. I had some faith that I was in the company of a great artist and took my cues for respect and humility without feeling the need to co-opt the tragedy or claim it for myself. I was also thinking about my own homeland which has come through over two decades of war and the ensuing fallout from that. The Rwanda Genocide is arguably one of the biggest tragedies of our lifetime, but who am I to say that it felt worse than other people's experiences of devastation? Work that provokes and moves and sparks discussion—I suppose these would be the basic requirements for any art, not good behavior.
JH: Would you say that 100 Days is memorializing? How would you characterize the project?
I wouldn't say 100 Days is memorializing and that's not just to be difficult. I'm against the idea of commemoration that wants to define how it is we should remember the past, or even the present. 100 Days, I hope, provides a space in which we can consider different voices and ways to think about those days (and other ones) outside the usual prescription of commemorations.
JH: In Day 95, it's stated "how can we exist outside of betrayal by time and land?" Time is conceived as a linear inevitability, with a violent conclusion in this case. Can poetry exist outside of this betrayal, or can it remedy time in some way?
JOB: I try to resist the linear. I think about time as an all encompassing bubble from which we cannot escape and I hate that. If we can use art, meditation, music, dance, prayer, dreams, or any exercise that can suspend time, we may indeed consider other ways of being free. Surely any space that allows us to escape the constraints of time and the ensuing betrayal is a wonderful thing.
JH: Who were your formative literary influences? Was there ever a style or literary trend that you tried to avoid?
JOB: For certain, the exposure we had as children to amazing storytellers has to define my formative literary experiences. I read a lot. My dad was committed to buying me a book every time I finished one so I was never lacking a good storybook. But it was my parents and their friends who enthralled us with stories. It would be difficult to trace those literary influences just because I'm so much more aware of the politics of repetition so perhaps it's more honest to speak about the most powerful influences as an adult. But to be sure, I was first introduced to the poetry of Maya Angelou as a teenager. Toni Morrison, Ngugi wa Thiongo, Chinua Achebe, and Joseph Conrad. Morrison for her bravery; wa Thiongo for his daring; Achebe for his sustained anger; and Conrad for poisoning the well so powerfully that people still write about Africa as the heart of darkness without thinking. Of course, there are so many writers whose works continue to sustain me, but those are the big four. I don't think I've consciously tried to avoid a style trend because I've spent more time looking for my own style and voice. I admire spoken word poets a lot but I also recognize my limitations so I'm happy to be in the audience when those poets take the stage.
JH: How do you feel about being linked to your father's body of work? Is this a blessing?
JOB: It's a bit of a stretch to think about being linked to my father's body of work because I like to think that we write from such different contexts (but maybe not). My father wrote in and about the time of independence and the growing pains of post-colonial Africa. He also thought a lot about how academia (especially Western academia) did a great disservice in how they portrayed Africa and Africans. We're still having those debates. Binyavanga's "How Not to Write About Africa" and Taye Selasie's definition of a new African identity, Afropolitanism, for example. Come to think about that, I did write about the muting effects of westerners on African efforts during the Invisible Children debacle for Warscapes sometime ago. So yes, I think that anyone writing today stands on the shoulders of past thinkers and artists and for sure, this is a blessing.
It's also an incredible privilege to have the lineage and the opportunity to have grown up in the environment that I did. My siblings and I grew up surrounded by books and stimulating debates and music and sports and heartbreak. I couldn't have asked for a more enriched childhood.
JH: I hear you like Leonard Cohen. Do you have a favorite song? ("Avalanche" does it for me, especially this version.)
JOB: It is not possible, I think, for me to have one favorite Leonard Cohen song. I've been an ardent fan since I discovered his music in the early nineties. Right now, I think that I appreciate “If It Be Your Will” which was also done so well by Antony Hegarty. In my head, I'm the Alexandra that he sings about in “Alexandra Leaving.” Never mind that I also know that the song is based on a poem by Constatine Cavafy published at the beginning of the 20th century.
JH: Would you mind summing up some of the current projects you're working on?
JOB: I completed the 100 Days poems in July and took a break. Breaks are for recuperating but I started to feel restless after a few days so I started a new poetry project called The Mundane, the Sublime and the Fantastical: 165 New Poems. I'm a few poems in and I totally don't feel the need to post daily. I'm excited about it because it provides a home for some lonely poems that haven't found company and it allows me to explore spaces that are not steeped in heartbreak the way that 100 Days was. I'm also getting ready to embark on my field work which will take me to Britain, Uganda, and Tanzania to look for a forgotten story. I have also been involved in a fascinating project with Notre Dame University that explores the connection between spirituality, compassion, and art and I'll be able to say more about it when it's done later this fall. Most of the time, however, my mind is occupied with how we process difficult stories through art and academic endeavors. My family keeps me honest and grounded as do my friends.
Images via Wangechi Mutu's Instagram and Juliane Okot Bitek.