Looking forward to fall with SFU’s newest Writer-in-Residence, Juliane Okot Bitek

Okot Bitek talks navigating the remote semester and feelings on the Writer-in-Residence role

Juliane Okot Bitek is looking forward to connecting with writers and doing some writing of her own. Photo courtesy of Seasmin Taylor

By: Meera Eragoda, Arts & Culture Editor

As the fall semester kicks off in remote fashion, so does Juliane Okot Bitek’s role as SFU’s 2020–21 Ellen and Warren Tallman Writer-in-Residence. Okot Bitek is an award-winning and prolific writer, poet, and Acholi woman whose works cover topics such as memory, “anti-memory,” identity, and more. One of her works, 100 Days, is powerful book of poetry which, according to the English Department’s website, “Reflects on the meaning of memory two decades after the Rwanda genocide” and will be taught by Sophie McCall in ENGL 453W At the Crossroads: Indigenous and Black Writings in Canada. I had the chance to interview Okot Bitek over email and ask her a few questions about this upcoming semester.

If you’ve been at SFU for a few semesters, you may have seen that The Peak has written articles on previous Writers-in-Residence. Despite working at The Peak and having read these articles, I’ve never fully figured out what a Writer-in-Residence does. Thankfully, Okot Bitek graciously explained her understanding of what she would be doing to me.

I understand the Writer-in-Residence position as a profound opportunity for a writer to have some paid time to write and spend time with the campus community as well as the wider community. As part of my engagement with the community, I will be visiting classes (by invitation of the instructor), offering manuscript consultations and giving a public talk. For the manuscript consultations, interested writers will be expected to submit some written work to the English Department who will then organize one-on-one consultations with me. I’d like to read creative writing (because that’s my thing).”

The English Department’s “Writer-in-Residence” page currently states that more information on how to get in touch with Okot Bitek will be forthcoming so keep checking for updates.

On what attracted Okot Bitek to this role, she writes, “Are you kidding me — what attracted me to this role? Imagine an offer to spend time doing your heart work and being supported through it. For me, this means that I don’t have to write on the side, as I’ve been doing for a long time. This also means that I have a great opportunity to build and continue to foster relationships with the writing community at SFU and the wider community. As Writer-in-Residence, I hope to continue working on and maybe complete a poetry manuscript that I’ve been working on. I’m really thankful for this opportunity.”

Elaborating on the poetry manuscript, she explains that she’s currently exploring several ideas and hasn’t quite decided on a direction yet. 

“I could work on an already existing and truly unwieldy set of poems that have been accumulating, or I could work on a book manuscript that needs polishing, or I could focus on a series of the Something About poems of which I have about 5 right now. Or maybe a little bit of time on all of them. Or maybe something new will show up.”

Given SFU’s remote operations this semester, I asked Okot Bitek how she felt about navigating this semester. She explained, “Feelings from inside a pandemic are a gnarly affair. I miss real life encounters but I don’t miss the commute at all. As Writer-in-Residence though, it’s that much sweeter that I don’t even have to leave home to do what I love doing, so I’m really, really loving that. I suppose I’ll take the working-from-home as an opportunity to focus on the work but also take a break or go for a walk when I need to.”

Asking Okot Bitek how she felt about 100 Days being taught in class and being read, she commented, “It’s always a privilege to know that folks are reading 100 Days and thinking with it.” She added, “I’m always chuffed that people are still interested in it and how readers still come up with insights and readings in ways that I could never have imagined.”

100 Days is currently available at the SFU library, and further works can be enjoyed on Okot Bitek’s website, julianeokotbitek.com. Additionally, you can find her at the Fraser Valley Literary Festival in November.