Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Otoniya Juliane Okot Bitek : Words, worlds and the possibility of an us





          In the fall of 2020, I begin my stint at Simon Fraser University as the Ellen and Warren Tallman Writer-in-Residence, and in the spring as the Jack and Doris Shadbolt Fellow, both within the Simon Fraser University Department of English. And for six weeks in the spring of 2021, I take up the artist residency at the Baldwin House in Burnaby, BC. This year offers incredible writing opportunities: the freedom and ability to think, read, write and be.
I came with a deep awareness that mine was probably as the first African writer-in-residence in this position; exhausted by the weight of firsts, already in the 21st century, I knew that this wasn
’t the luck or privilege of a single person. I came carrying histories, dragging multitudes and drama — precarity and survival always a whisper at the door, and now, in these days, the vulnerability of not knowing when COVID-19 and racism would strike with venom. We had seen, we heard, we remembered the ones who marched in Charlottesville, chanting their survival into the evening air, tiki-ing torches, their words and worlds aflame. In 2020, we also took note of the ones who marched on a sunny day, by Whole Foods on Cambie street in Vancouver, demanding that their right to not wear masks mattered above all others. We wondered out loud why they sounded they same, but quietly, we knew that they were driven by the same impulses — us first, and only us. We were being mandated to wear a piece of cloth on our faces, to protect ourselves and others, while across the country in Quebec, the hijab remains unacceptable in public spaces. There was and is, a very specific us and not all of us are part of it.
’ve spent five decades accumulating words and learning to conjure, to spell, to invoke and provoke with them. I spend time listening, reading, watching and feeling the effects of language around me. At the beginning of my residency, I’d had two thoughts, two goals: to write sentences through stories that imagine space for all of us, and to think about and possibly to write poetry without words. If words spoken, chanted, demanded, invoked, cast upon and ruled over us, could we poets continue to do our work without words? Could I still use language to create worlds? Did it, and does it make sense to be a poet in these days? How can the privilege of having a residency — time and space to write — become the opportunity to think beyond the self?
I started to
“write sentences” which was really an expression of superstition because, like many people who don’t regularly write fiction, I was having to rely on my memories, that of being a teenager in the turbulent eighties of Kampala, as my foundation for storytelling. A fiction writer friend advised: blow up the moments, dramatize the people. As I wrote, my words bent into the narrative into the absurd, the surreal and finally into the incoherent. I stopped writing fiction when I started to feel the heat my protagonist felt as she walked a path through a corridor of fire. (Yes, I know, the drama). Rather than use words as the tools to create worlds, the words became worlds of their own and wanted to do their own thing. Like the poet (and not the fiction writer) I started to wonder when the plot would show up, and what would happen when it did. If plot was a spine, was it my responsibility to trace the electricity between the tail bone and the base of the skull? What happens if I ran out of words, of memories, of the eighties?

Spring 2021
I’m a writer in residence at the Baldwin House in Burnaby, British Columbia. This remarkable house, designed by Arthur Erickson for the Baldwin family during the 1960s, is now part of the city of Burnaby’s residence artists program. The Baldwin House is a glass house (check it out online). It is situated over Deer Lake and is one of two houses set aside for artist residencies. The light is gorgeous inside. There are no bad photos to be taken, Cecily Nicholson tells me. She was the artist-in-residence just before me. Some passersby who take the walk around Deer Lake, do not imagine my presence in that house. I’m regularly accosted with: Do you live here? What are you doing here? And once after I explained that I was a writer, I got: I
m a writer, too, how do I get to live here?
I live in a glass house. I must not throw stones.

December 2020
Halfway through my residency at Simon Fraser University, a man is tasered by the RCMP at the dining room of the Burnaby campus. First, the flurry of explanations and non explanations; the almost apologies, the almost contritions, the anger, frustration, allegation of trespassing, of breaking pandemic rules, the almost, almost something and finally, a charge of trespassing and assaulting a police officer. Attempts to understand the presence of a Black man whose presence cannot be contained on campus during a pandemic with maybe, you know, aggression. Maybe, you know, mental illness. Maybe he wasn’t wearing a mask, you know. Maybe he had bought his food and had to remove his mask to eat, you know. Maybe campus was not open to non current students, you know. Maybe, you know, maybe. A lot of maybes exchanged but nothing to explain that there were others in the dining room too, and that the RCMP was not called on anyone else, and that no one else was tasered.

The man is a Simon Fraser University alumni. His name is Kayode Fatoba. Like me, he is Black and he is African. I am the writer-in-residence in the English department and as a poet, I work with words but I have no words to offer publicly. I
’m tired. I’m tired of reading and listening to all the maybes. I’m tired of words shaped into meaningless statements that are almost, almost something. I’m tired of the memory of Black Tuesdays from the summer of 2019 when institutions and businesses everywhere pledged to be nice to Black people indefinitely and all the promises to “do better” because, you know, Black lives matter. I’m tired of writing into a world that insists on itself as just and fair and ready for a reckoning and/or sometimes reconciliation.
The privilege of a writing residency means that I have the ability to think and write (with a brief sense of financial security), and to live at the Baldwin House, an incredible space where I wake up to sunrise over Deer Lake, and have dinner on a deck watching the sunset over the water. I think about what it means to write wordless poems, and how to articulate a world that includes all of us.

Nationality, belonging and citizenship
Every part of my identity is framed by political borders. I am the daughter of Ugandan exiles, born in exile in Kenya, immigrant to Canada, and now just over three decades of living in this country. A couple of months after the residency, someone is filling out a form. She needs to know both my nationality AND my citizenship. It
’s not clear to me why she needs both. What does nationality mean, I wonder. Is it where I was born, or where my parents were born? Does nationality offer a claim? What is this question mean if nationality is different from citizenship? What is the work of citizenship? What is demanded of nationality? Is nationality related to the right to make claims for the world you wish to live in? Is nationality a kind of claim, an articulation of an us? What happens when you’re not part of the us? What do these words do? What does nationality mean, when a fellow African is tasered by the RCMP while I’m the resident poet, tinkering with words in a living that is generously supported, and still have no words to offer? What kind of citizenship is that? The fellow African tasered by the RCMP in December 2020 is an SFU alumni. He is marked by difference. He is Black. How does his nationality function? Is he part of an us, or not? Does he belong, or not? What is he doing on campus? How did he get to be there?
I, too, am Black and African. I am not a current student at SFU, have never been one. Will I be tasered if I go to the dining room at SFU? Will I also be marked out by nationality, by difference, or by privilege? How will the perceived sense of my nationality be interpreted on campus? How about my citizenship?

’m thinking about the tiki-torchers of Charlottesville — perhaps theirs is a show of nationality. I’m thinking about the presence of demonstrators on that warm sunny morning in Vancouver. I’m thinking about the relationship between nationality, citizenship and us. Who’s us and who isnt; who is perceived to belong, to have citizenship and nationality, and who doesn’t.
You know?

I think about the work of citizenship as a Black poet living in a glass house designed by Arthur Erickson for the Baldwin family.
I will not throw stones.

So I sit in silence for months. I reject words and words refuse me in this language. English is my first language but it is not my mother tongue. English, as NourbeSe Philip writes, is a foreign anguish, a father tongue. I am a writer in residence of a foreign tongue. I am a tongue in a foreign anguish. I am residence in a glass house in the imagination of myself.
At the Baldwin House, folks continue to ring the doorbell. What do you here? They demand to know. I live here, I say. Folks are confused. Maybe they
’ve never seen people like me at the Baldwin House. Maybe they’re not used to seeing Black people here. Maybe folks need to know what’s going on at the house as they take their walk around Deer Lake. I’m just curious, they claim. Maybe, you know?.
My most intimate struggle remains the work of words and my role in the creation of worlds in this language. One afternoon, the clouds form like a school of fish which then dissipate into the usual formless cloud. Another day, the clouds like a sternum, complete with ribs down towards the horizon and then it dissolves. I want to write like that. No plot, just stunning clarity for a moment. Presence and freedom. Maybe I should stick to poetry; in this country, I don
’t have to wait for the plot to show.

          The beginning of a poem titled “Raising an Ancestor” arrives. It finds a home in the first edition of Ampersand, a nascent literary magazine:

          1. Last Thursday a poem by the side of my bed asks: what are you doing?
I get
  up, get dressed & sit at my desk with a pen in hand.
A memo
       ry, not mine.
What a
         e you doing?
A tree
. December 1971. A suicide. No note.
What are you doing?

          By the end of the residency, my own words return as a way to think through the experience of being African, Black and the writer-in-residence in December 2020. I am introduced to another former SFU alumni, Emily Huynh, who is generous with her time and talent and helps me to animate my poetry so they can be projected at Simon Fraser University. A local Vancouver artist, Kristin Man, provides a gorgeous art video to run with my words. This fall, with support from SFU Gallery, the English Department and the Jack and Doris Shadbolt Fellowship, my poetry will be projected on a wall on the same Burnaby campus where Kayode Fatoba was tasered by the RCMP. (I’ll send the link when it’s up).
As it turns out, during my residency, the space, time and light allows me to lay out all the writing I
’ve been doing over the past decade, alongside parenting and grad school. Turns out I have enough book projects on the go to also explain why I’m so tired of words. But even then, the negotiation and insistence of an us, visible and possible, is one I cannot afford to let go. And so I return to the work of words and the articulation of an us that remains the undeniable current in the spine.






Otoniya Juliane Okot Bitek [photo credit: Seasmin Taylor] is a poet. Her 100 Days (University of Alberta 2016) a book of poetry that reflects on the meaning of memory two decades after the Rwanda genocide, 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 Luschei Prize for African Poetry.Otoniya’s poem “Migration: Salt Stories” was shortlisted for the 2017 National Magazine Awards for Poetry in Canada. Her poem “Gauntlet” was longlisted for the 2018 CBC Poetry Prize and is the title of her most recent work, a chapbook with the same title from Nomados Press (2019).


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