Queen’s professor launches poetry collection

Juliana Okot Bitek reads newest work at The Merchant

Image by: Rida Chaudhry
A Is for Acholi discusses home

The Kingston creative writing community came together at The Merchant on Monday, Feb. 13, to celebrate A Is for Acholi, a poetry collection by Queen’s Assistant Professor of Gender Studies and English Juliane Okot Bitek. The poetry collection, originally published in 2022, is Okot Bitek’s second since 2016’s 100 Days.

A Is for Acholi centres itself around the diaspora and marginalization of the Acholi people. Filled with formal invention, the collection challenges poetic expectations, explores cultural identity, and intimately examines how home has become fraught by the legacies of colonialism.

There wasn’t an empty seat at the event. Students from all faculties were there to show their support. Professors from Queen’s came out in droves—Arts and Science Dean Barbara Crow made an appearance. 

The turnout made for a bustling, high-energy night in what was a beautiful celebration of the creative writing community in Queen’s and Kingston.

The jam-packed night was emceed by Queen’s Writer in Residence Peter Midgely and opened with an emerging writers showcase. Up-and-coming poets presented live readings of their work, with topics bridging nations and identities.

Big names performed live readings, too. Giller Prize-longlisted poet Kaie Kellough recited his work, imbibing spoken-word poetry with a rhythmic musicality, challenging assumptions about the sonic power of the medium.

When it came time for Okot Bitek to take the stage, she received a warm welcome from the crowd. Reflecting upon the original launch of A Is for Acholi, Okot Bitek noticed the overwhelming support of the Kingston writing community.

“This book was launched in Hamilton with a crowd of less than ten people,” she said, speaking at the event. “This is a bit more than ten people.”

Before jumping into a reading of her poetry, Okot Bitek offered some background on the themes of A Is for Acholi. The poetry collection came as a means for her to navigate her identity and connect with Acholi while acknowledging the effects diaspora has had.

“I am a child of the diaspora, of exile, so my relationship to Acholi—whether it’s culture, language, poems, space—is a little bit problematic,” she said. 

“I needed to be able to claim Acholi, so I thought to myself, ‘how can I imagine Acholi as everything?’”

Okot Bitek opened by reading her poem “An Acholi Alphabet,” a sweeping piece, turning each letter into Acholi while weaving a powerful narrative in the footnotes of the pages. Afterward, she shifted into a section of poems centring upon Joseph Conrad’s depiction of Black people in Heart of Darkness.

Okot Bitek’s collection navigates how those displaced from their homes find belonging. She challenges the often hegemonic structures of academia and scholarship, conversing with the literary canon and confronting its mistreatment of marginalized groups head-on while imagining a better future. 

By experimenting with form, Okot Bitek plays with textual hierarchies like the main text and footnotes, ultimately forming a dialogue around diaspora and identity germane to the moment yet vital for a generative future.

Those interested can purchase A Is for Acholi on Wolsak & Wynn’s website.

Tags

Black, Canadian literature, Poetry

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