One on One with Juliane Bitek, Author, Poet and Daughter of the Legendary Okot p'BiteK
To answer the question about who Okot p'Bitek was really like you'd have to ask Peter Lehman who recently received his PhD under the supervision of Ngugi wa Thiongo, another close family friend.
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First published: August 18, 2008
The name Okot p'Bitek is well known in the literary world. Not only was he a Ugandan poet, writer and anthroplolgist, who achieved wide international recognition for three verse novels, Song of Lawino (1966), Song of Ocol (1970), and Two Songs (1971,) but he was also one of the first Ugandans to put the country on the map, when it came to literary achievement. His death in 1982 was not only a great loss to Uganda, but to the world-at-large.
Song of Prisoner AND Song of Malaya by Okot p'Bitek
Yet the name and legacy of the much famed and loved Okot Bitek lives on though through his children, who include Juliane Okot Bitek. Juliane Okot Bitek is a fantastic writer, just like her father, but a writer in her own right. Born in Kenya and raised in Uganda, she currently resides in Vancouver, Canada. Like one of her contemporaries, fellow writer Doreen Baingana (writer of Tropical Fish: Stories Out of Entebbe,) she went to Gayaza High School in Uganda. In true Okot p'Bitek fashion, Juliane Okot Bitek has already created a legacy for herself as a writer. Her writing has appeared in several literary magazines including Arc, Whetstone, Fugue, and Room of One's Own. Her short story "Going Home" was an award winner at the 2004 Commonwealth Short Story Contest and was featured on the BBC and CBC. The writer, who grew up calling legendary writers such as Wole Soyinka and David Rubadiri uncles, has received several Canada Council Grants for her writing and she graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in Fine Art (Creative Writing) in 1995 from the University of British Columbia.
Juliane Okot Bitek, has also been published in the anthology Gifts of Harvest, published by FEMRITE Publications and edited by Violet Barungi and has in addition published her own collection of poems called Words in Black Cinnamon: a collection of poetry. She is part of the upcoming 2008 XVIII International Poetry Festival of Medellin.
I had a chance to interview the pretty, gracious writer in a riveting interview that not only gives us as readers rare snippets of Okot p'Bitek as a father, husband, friend and writer, but also gives us insight into the mind and life of one of his offsprings; one who has chosen the same path as her father. Talking to Juliane Okot Bitek feels like talking to an old friend, as well as a sage, teacher and mentor.
Jane: Who is Juliane Okot Bitek in your own words?
Juliane: Juliane Okot Bitek is a woman who's finally found her voice. Ultimately, I am, like everyone else, a sum of my relationships - mother, wife, sister, daughter, citizen, friend, colleague... The combination of my genes makes me unique in my experience of the world so the simplest and most complicated answer would be I'm me.
Jane: Okot p'Bitek is Uganda's greatest literary export and one of the most famous writers ever internationally. As his daughter, it is interesting that you have pursued the literary field. How did your father influence you as a writer?
Juliane: We grew up surrounded by books and both our parents encouraged us to read. In April 1979, while we lived in Nigeria, I wrote a poem in reaction to the liberation war in Uganda and the emerging factions that wanted to rule the country. My father loved it so much that he not only showed it off to his friends, when we moved back to Kenya, he took me down the Kenya Nation Newspaper to have me interviewed and the poem printed in the Sunday children's section. A couple of years later, I read that poem at the opening of what used to be The Centre in Kampala. It was my father who actively launched my career as a writer by being interested and passionate about my writing.
Many times being the child of a famous person brings its own challenges including living in their shadow and not quite being able to be an individual because one is constantly compared to their celebrity parent. Do you ever feel like you are living in your father's shadow?
Living in a part of the world where my father's name is an odd and badly pronounced foreign name, I have had the opportunity to find my own writing style and spend time developing that outside the pressure of being compared to my father. Whereas the shadow of my father might be interpreted as looming or threatening, I feel it as a protective and instructive presence. My father's is an enduring body of work that we still refer to as Africans, Ugandans and Acholi and any scholar and casual reader who is interested in that sort of reading. My father and I write about different things even though both our writing is informed by events in the communities close to heart. Even though I don't write like my dad, I do appreciate his and my mother's influence and encouragement to write. How can I go wrong if I am able to claim a direct connection to such power, talent and wisdom? I remain my father's daughter. I am very proud of that.
Were you aware as kids just how famous your father was?
Yes and no. As younger children we'd often heard the story of our dad's poetry causing him to live in exile. We were also aware of my father's awesome daring to pick up the phone and call all kinds of famous people. His contemporaries, who we called our uncles and aunties, seemed to all revolve around him wherever we lived. In Nigeria, we were sometimes taken care of by the Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka while our parents were at work. But there were many evenings where our parents hosted such luminaries as JP Clark, Chinua Achebe, Taban lo Liyong, David Rubadiri and Wole Soyinka among others in lively debates. I don't know too many people who can claim to have had so many literary giants as uncles and aunts. My father's controversial lectures often trickled down to our ears as we grew older, but I think it dawned on us clearly when we got to high school and many of the African literary texts were written by people who were our parents' close friends. I think we took it in stride. I escaped having to study Song of Lawino in high school. That would have been complicated!
Juliane p'Bitek grew up amongst the likes of Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe, seen here at PEN World Voices reading from Things Fall Apart.
What was Okot p'Bitek really like? What kind of father was he?
To answer the question about who Okot p'Bitek was really like you'd have to ask Peter Lehman who recently received his PhD under the supervision of Ngugi wa Thiongo, another close family friend. Peter should be the most contemporary world expert on Okot p'Bitek. It would be unfair for me to answer who he really was because I experienced him as a child. He died when I was fourteen and there are things about him I might have appreciated differently if he was still alive today. But I can take a shot at what kind of father he was. Three things that stick out most in my mind are his laughter, his quirkiness and his fiery temper that dissipated in no time.
My dad was not an autocrat in the house and he was not sexist. All the housework was shared fairly between our brother and sisters. He taught us how to cook some dishes that I still make occasionally. He showed us, for example, how to cook rice and beef on a single charcoal stove by placing the charcoal stove on top of the rice pot and then cooking the beef on top. He made an excellent dish of fried matooke which cooked with lots of ghee and pepper. He was a great lover of Acholi food which we all now appreciate. My dad woke up early every day - my mother tells me he was up between four and five every morning to write. I have memories of my dad waking me up to watch the sunrise from the back verandah of our house in Kololo.
But I also remember his insistence on skinning and drying what became exquisite rugs scattered about in the house. At the time we were so embarrassed by the decaying smell of the tanning skin on the roof of our house! My father skipped with us whenever he found us playing outside on the way into the house from work. He raced with other parents on sports day and, and on the one day that he fell after having had the lead for a while, he told us not to worry because he was the first from behind!
My father invited me to listen to the BBC, Radio Deutsche Welle, Voice of America and Voice of Kenya along with Radio Uganda and then we'd have conversations about the different takes on the news. It was from him that I learned about the politics of hunger strikes, when the Irish Bobby Sands was striking through April 1981. He was also the one who did not mind us opening up the radio, (and even once the TV) to see what was inside. He was instructive, patient, inquisitive, humorous, and engaging. He had no time for unfairness and he let us know quickly and sharply when he had to. And he never seemed to hold a grudge. I still miss him very sorely. I wish my children would have had a chance to know him.
Does being Okot p'Biteks daughter open doors for you, or do you find yourself having to prove yourself all the time?
Yes and no. Sometimes, I do bump into people who are intrigued by my association with the name and want to know how come I use it. I once met a man in Juba who refused flatly to believe that I could ever have been the daughter of Okot p'Bitek. "You're too young to have been his daughter!" He insisted. I also met a woman in a night club in Vancouver who claimed to know the whole Okot Bitek family including Julie and so how can I claim to be in that family. No matter. And there was the woman who, on finding out that Okot p'Bitek was my father asked me outright -- "Do you know who you are?" That said I have met quite a few people who have been supportive and encouraging on finding out my connection with Okot p'Bitek. I understand the protective stance that others might have on his legacy, but after all, Okot p'Bitek was a man of the soil, and the son of the people. He belongs to us all.
Now this is a small detail, but I am wondering... how come your name is missing the signature P in front of the Bitek?
You'd be surprised at how much the name Okot Bitek can be mucked up as it is, especially where I live in Vancouver, Canada. For me, as well as the rest of the family who chose not to use it, it was a matter of simplicity. My father is on record many times trying to explain the p' which is akin to the Arabic bin, the Scottish mac and the Luo k' and so on.
Now enough about your father. Let's get back to you. At what point in your life did you decide that writing was your dream career?
I was always a voracious reader and I loved the escape that good literature afforded me every time I read a good story. I was absolutely stoked and totally enjoyed the fuss and recognition that came with my first published poem when I was eleven that I talked about earlier. After that I knew I wanted to write for a living, but it took several years and many bad experiences at bad jobs and bad experiences at mediocre jobs out there for me to realize that writing is the only thing that I can do quite well and that I'm very passionate about. Of course, the pleasure of being able to present my work and the recognition of that continues to be added fuel. Writing is ultimately the only work that I really want to spend my time doing.
Did you have any stereotypes to overcome regarding following your dream of being a writer?
For one, writing as a black woman in North America, it is difficult to write without being conscious of race relations because of its size in the American sense of awareness and being. But I write as an African woman, and for me, that often means that I am addressing issues of being female and African as opposed to being African Canadian. I am also not really interested, for example, in writing about what many readers out there seem to want to latch on - making sense of being an individual in a global world. I don't feel the need to be up and up on all things current. My interest is inevitably on the pulse that sustains it, and that is a constant.
You graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in Fine Art (Creative Writing) in 1995 from the University of British Columbia. Is working in your field financially viable?
I wouldn't know quite yet because I have not been hired for any job based on my degree. What that degree gave me though, was a base to develop the writing style that I use today. Because I continued to write, I have been able to receive 2 Canada Council Grants which are substantial enough that I have not had to have a job on the side for eight months. I have also won wards for essay writing and fiction. Right now, I am in the process of completing a Master's Degree in English at the University of British Columbia. That is supplemented by a teaching assistant job which sustains me through the year. I also have a very supportive husband who recognizes my writing as work as opposed to a hobby or a matter of leisure.
Your story "Going Home" was an award winner at the 2004 Commonwealth Short Story Contest. How did that award help you as a writer?
How does one measure such things? Going Home came to me quickly and fiercely after I received an email one afternoon from a girlfriend who lives in Germany on the existence of this competition whose deadline was at midnight. It was a short piece based on an actual trip I made home to Gulu in 2003. The monetary award was modest, but receiving a certificate, having it read on BBC and Canada's national radio, CBC was tremendously encouraging and yet humbling. It showed me how a few words can receive so much attention; how a story makes a journey that can only start when the story is told or written. It convinced me ultimately that I have stories that should be and must be told. That is my job.
Let's go back to the story "Going Home." What was the main theme?
The main theme of Going Home is the strength of the connection we all have with the place we call home. There is a place where we all belong, where we begin, where we can identify our own faces. The connection we have with this place called home is an umbilical tie that cannot be broken, is what I was trying to say. Eventually we all need to go home, not matter where that place is.
When you write, what are the main themes you focus on?
I write poetry, fiction, and non fiction. But even in my single shot at drama, I find that as the daughter of an exile, born in exile and living away from the place I call home, belonging, Diaspora and identity are the main themes of my work. But I have also written about the thousands of abducted and missing Ugandan children over the last couple of decades. It continues to amaze me that the world did not stop spinning even as the whole world became aware of the numbers. I have also written about domestic abuse, world peace, motherhood and the ever universal unrequited love.
Some writers have to use special pens, sit in special places etc.... Do you have any special writing rituals?
Nah! I'm cheap that way. I write whenever I get an idea, wherever I am. Sometimes a poem or a story occurs to me and then I find myself without a pen and then I'm hooped and the fabulous story gets lost in the ether. Mostly, I try to have a pen and some paper I can write on, even the back of envelopes while I'm on the bus. No special pens or rituals, but I have to say there is nothing as elegant as a good fountain pen. Someday I will get myself a really expensive fountain pen and a specially made desk for me in a 'writing room' in a very comfortable home. But I'm not there yet. I'm working on it.
In 2007 you received a Canada Council grant which has allowed you to spend time writing a collection of non-fiction. How is that collection of stories going?
It's going. Not as fast as I would have liked because I have been distracted by life and an international conference in Medellin, Columbia at which I am presenting next week. But I do have a skeleton and have had a couple of meetings with a very talented writer-in-residence, Wayde Compton, who encouraged me to reconsider how to arrange the stories. I'm very excited about it. I received another Canada council Grant this year which has allowed me to take the summer to write. I think it this memoir is a worthwhile project and I'm looking forward to being able to spend more time on it.
Now talking about Canada, how do you find the reception of your writing in its multicultural environment? Is there a place for African-flavored stories there?
This is a multi-pronged question so let me give it a couple of approaches. Today, Canadian literature reflects a nation of diversity that did not exist even 25 years ago. Writers like Rohinton Mistry, Michael Ondaatje, Madelien Thien, Joseph Boyden, David Cahriandry and Wajdi Mouawad, can stand shoulder to shoulder with iconic, white writers like Margaret Atwood, Alive Munro, Robertson Davies, Timothy Findley and Susannah Moodley. Canadian literature is no longer about surviving the Great White North with its expansive wilderness and harsh winters. There are great novels set in India, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Lebanon, First Nations Canada, about terrorism, immigration, love, politics, sexuality and everything but the Great White North.
I would not hesitate to add your name to contemporary Canadian writers who tackle those issues that are important to the general public. And to that end, there is a place for African-flavored stories, if only because there are African-flavored people who read and write this stuff. The reception of my writing, I think, has been largely by an interested white audience. African people are a real minority in Vancouver. Statistics have people of African-Canadian descent at less than 2%. So really, I appreciate and welcome the enthusiasm I have received every time and everywhere I have presented my work. I also think that a good yarn will be appreciated by people from all walks of life.
Also as a Diaspora based African living in Canada, do you think that your experiences as a writer are different from say a continental-based African?
If the theme of the writer is on Diaspora and the meaning of home, of course it will have a different flavor. The other thing is that continent-based writers have their hands close to the pulse of the African continent and so their writing tends to accurately reflect what is going on. Diaspora writers who write about home tend to have nostalgia front and centre of their work. Their imagination is focused on a place that once existed and only remains in the memory. Their accuracy is in the sharp dissonance that comes from expressing the recognition that home only exists in the mind. I think.
How different are African stories from say Caribbean stories and why are Caribbean stories more prominent in the black Canadian literary landscape?
Very different because I imagine that the Caribbean experience is completely different from the African experience. Edwidge Danticat and Monica Arac de Nyeko have both written about painful war experiences including the sexual exploitation of the female body, and both are extremely talented writers, but the experiences of their stories; one based on the African continent and the other in the Caribbean speaks to the unique flavors that a specific geography lends to the writing. My guess is also that the geographical proximity of the Caribbean to Canada, the establishment of a black community in Nova Scotia and sheer presence of Caribbean in Canada cannot begin to be compared with the African presence in Canada. That said, I think that this specific issue is something that you can speak to better than I can because, as I said, the landscape in Vancouver, where I live is not like your Toronto, which is also truly different from that of Montreal, Ottawa, Yellow Knife, Iqaluit.... It is a big country and it's really difficult to make umbrella statements about the black Canadian literary landscape.
Any new projects in the works?
Yep. But I right now I should focus on the two big jobs I'm doing - the Master's thesis which is on a novel, Eyes, Breath, Memory, of an extremely talented Haitian American writer, Edwidge Danticat; and of course this Canada Council Grant sponsored memoir. So I'm trying very hard not to be too distracted.
Are publishers knocking at your door?
They will be soon enough, won't they? This collection of non-fiction will be my first major body of work to be published together. I will be submitting it for publication later this year.
Where can readers find your stories?
I have a small collection of poetry published by Delina Press, 1998, Words in Black Cinnamon. Many of my short stories and some of my poetry have been published in literary magazines, newspapers and on-line. For a quick, easy and free peek, one could always google my name and something will come up. Also Femrite's Gift of Harvest features my "Going Home" in that anthology.
Who are your influences as writer?
The American, Maya Angelou, has been a constant favorite all my adult life. I was first introduced to her poetry as a teenager when a boy who was interested in me claimed that some extremely good poetry that he gave me was his own. I discovered about four years later that it was in fact the last stanza from Angelou's "Where we Belong." Toni Morrison is brilliant, and so is Alice Walker. And so is our Monica Arac de Nyeko who's "Strange Fruit" still sends shivers down my spine. Leonard Cohen, Ishmael Beah, Edwidge Danticat, Rohinton Mistry. I'm repeating myself, aren't I? I'm really fickle. I want to write like every writer who grabs my imagination and holds it hostage to the very last line. Non writers that have really influenced my writing are both my mother and my husband who are consummate story tellers, my friend Nicola Stillwell who is an extremely talented painter and short story writer, and the audiences who lap it all up. The list is long and inexhaustible.
What challenges have you met along the path to becoming a published writer?
If I can start by saying that everything that is worth while is worth waiting for, then I will say that gaining patience has been my biggest challenge. Of course when I read some of the stuff I wrote many years ago I realize that my writing has come a long way as I continue to learn this craft. It's a matter of time, really.
What has been your greatest success to date?
That really depends on when you ask me. There is nothing I can claim as a personal success because I haven't done anything without immense support and love around me. My favorite though, would have to be my children, nieces and nephews. I'm in constant awe of being witness to these young people as they grow into their lovely selves. I love being who I am, where I am with who I am. Nothing complicated.
Don't you have a sister called Jane like me? What is she up to?
Jane is in Kampala. She is a mother, lawyer and published poet, Song of Farewell. Speaking of inspiration, my sister, Jane is the woman we should all aspire to be.
Any tips for wannabee writers?
Keep the faith, as the rocker Bon Jovi says. Keep the faith.
Where do you see yourself in say 20 years?
I see myself twenty years older and hopefully a grandmother still working at being me and writing. Who knows these things? In twenty years, I hope to be still in this literary path. It's a place I love to be.
What music do you listen to?
Really, I generally love whatever music is on radio. I tend to veer towards the eighties music because that's when I was coming of age, but my perennial favorite singer is Leonard Cohen. There has been absolutely fabulous music from Uganda over the last while -- Chameleon, Bosmic Otim, Ragga Dee, BSG Labongo and always, Lingala music.
What are your five favorite books?
Again, as the fickle woman I am, that depends on when you ask me. Over the last few years, I think it's fair to say that the ones the have blown me away completely are:
A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry, Gabriel Maria Marquez (many of his books), Testament, Nino Ricci, Beloved and Paradise both by Toni Morrison, and I can't decide one over the other and The Farming of Bones, Edwidge Danticat.
- 'The Busuuti and the Bra,' Room of One's Own, Vol. 20.3. Vancouver, Fall 1997.
- Going Home,' A Grain of Harvest. Kampala: Femrite Publishers Limited, 2006.
- 'Going Home,' BBC Radio and CBC Radio. Featuring winning entries of the Commonwealth Broadcasting Short Story Competition 2004, November 2005.
- 'My Husband Has Got Beautiful Hands,' Fugue Magazine. Vancouver: University of British Columbia, 2006.
- 'War No More,' www.stopwar.ca Competition Winning essay. March 2006
- 'A Ugandan Steps out of Powerlessness,' www.thtyee.ca. November 2005
- 'Memory as Home,' We Have a Voice: An Anthology of African and Caribbean Student Writing in BC. Vancouver: Rhino Print Solutions, 2006.
- 'Blackness.' Arc, Vancouver, 1996
- 'Bonch.' In Exile. West 49th. Vancouver, 2002
- Words in Black Cinnamon: A Collection of Poetry. Vancouver: Delina Publishing, 1998.
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First published: August 18, 2008
Jane Musoke-Nteyafas, poet/author/artist and playwright, was born in Moscow, Russia and currently resides in Toronto, Canada. She is the daughter of retired diplomats. By the time she was 19, she spoke French, English, Spanish, Danish, Luganda, some Russian and had lived in Russia, Uganda, France, Denmark, Cuba and Canada.
Jane won the Miss Africanada beauty pageant 2000 in Toronto where she was also named one of the new voices of Africa after reciting one of her poems. In 2004, she was published in T-Dot Griots-An Anthology of Toronto's Black storytellers and in February 2005, her art piece Namyenya was featured as the poster piece for the Human Rights through Art-Black History Month Exhibit.
She is the recipient of numerous awards for her poetry, art and playwriting including the 2007 Planet Africa Rising Star Award and the 2008 African Canadian Women Achievement Award. Her first book Butterflies of the Nile was published in May 2008. Please visit her website at www.nteyafas.com.