MTPR

'100 Days' Of The Rwandan Genocide With Juliane Okot Bitek

Jul 18, 2019

100 Days is a collection of poems that ask us to consider the 20th anniversary of the 1994 Rwanda Genocide. In 100 poems, written in 100 days during the summer of 2014, Okot Bitek grapples with how language, nature, music, memory and voice can betray, and still offer solace in poetic form.

100 Days

The following highlights are from a conversation with Juliane Okot Bitek about her collection of poems. "100 Days," written in response to the Rwandan genocide. This program was recorded at CiTR at the University of British Columbia. To hear the full conversation, click the link above or subscribe to our podcast. 

What gave you the courage to engage in the conversation of 100 Days?

I’ve been asked that but I still grapple with the idea of courage because I wasn’t thinking about courage. I was thinking about how it’s been 20 years. I don’t know, I really wasn’t thinking about courage.

It was in 2014 that you began responding to the Kenyan visual artist Wangechi Mutu’s postings on social media . . .

She had just posted one photo—it was a photo of a woman holding a sign written 100. As soon as she posted it I knew somehow she was going to count down. I had written to her and said, can I post a poem along with your photos? I guess it just so happened that it was going to work together. She said yes and every day we posted. She didn’t have to wait for me and I didn’t have to wait for her. We did that every day for 100 days.

How did you come to these two lines?

 “The earth palpitates as if it needs violence/ as if violence is a heartbeat.”

That’s a big question.

Laughing

Or, what was it like for you when those lines came to you?

That’s another big question.

I write not necessarily in the moment, but also in the moment. Let me just try and recapture what I was thinking when I was writing this. I went through the alphabet and I found there are many places in the world that have had terrible things happen and continue to. You don’t have to go through the alphabet for that, but if you pay attention there’s something and somebody hurting all the time. And so, why, if it’s not a need, right? It’s a terrible question to ask, but it’s also rhetorical in a sense that it doesn’t need an answer. That’s why it’s “as if it needs violence,” not that "it does need violence," but the echo makes it feel as though that’s the case.

This poem, in a strange and violent way, was a way to say we’re not alone. This is not happening to us because of who we are, even though it seems like it’s happening to us because of who we are. But we’re not alone. We’re never alone in our experience.

How do we hold this, how do we talk about it now—as a world, as nations and people who sat by or stood by and let this happen?

I don’t know about talking. I should probably say in this interview that I’m not from Rwanda, I’m not Rwandan and I wasn’t writing about the Rwandan experience. I was writing about what it means to think about 20 years after the Rwandan genocide. But when I say I’m not sure it’s about talking, I’m really wanting to think about listening because so often there’s this whole business of speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves, or saving people from distress, or doing stuff so that we can feel better about what we are doing. This leaves less time for listening, or as they say, offering space so that those who have something to say, or even nothing to say, can be there. So how do we talk about it? I would say we don’t talk about it. We wait to listen, or we wait for guidance from those who will teach us something, or tell us something, or have something to offer.

About the Book:

100 Days is a collection of poems that ask us to consider the twentieth anniversary of the 1994 Rwanda Genocide. In 100 poems, written in 100 days during the summer of 2014, Okot Bitek grapples with how language, nature, music, memory and voice can betray, and still offer solace in poetic form.

Juliane Okot Bitek
Credit Seasmin Taylor

About the Author:

Juliane Okot Bitek is a poet and a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Her 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. Juliane’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 a chapbook with the same title, is due out in the fall 2019 from Nomados Press. Juliane is also the author of Sublime: Lost Words (The Elephants 2018). She was the Fall writer-in residence for The Capilano Review and the Spring 2019 writer-in residence at Capilano University.