"A is for Acholi" by Ontoniya J. Okot Bitek


It's been six years since Otoniya J. Okot Bitek published her debut poetry collection 100 Days, which powerfully revisited the one hundred days of the Rwandan genocide. I was lucky enough to interview Otoniya shortly after that book came out - you can read that interview here. 100 Days went on to be shortlisted for the Dorothy Livesay, Pat Lowther and Robert Kroetsch awards, among others. 

I've been waiting patiently for Otoniya's next book - and I need wait no more! Her new book, A Is For Acholi, will officially be published next week. As the titled suggests, this book focuses attention on her people, the Acholi of Northern Uganda. 

A bit of a side note: Song of Lawino, the most famous work by Otoniya's father, Okot p'Bitek, was originally written in Acholi. p'Bitek opened the English translation of the book with a note that read: "Translated from the Acoli by the author who has thus clipped a bit of the eagle's wings and rendered the sharp edges of the warrior's sword rusty and blunt, and has also murdered rhythm and rhyme."

Here's an excerpt from A Is For Acholi, which shows that Otoniya's rhythm is alive and thriving:

A dictionary
for un/settling
so now I reckless I damned I candied I salt I tempered I soft I terrified I terrified I terrified they said you weren’t dead yet I terrified that that might also be true so I reckless now I given up I sullied I done they said you’re on the way back I terrified you bandied you toughness you vented you fought you kicked you beat you shouted you lied now I terrified that you’re here I terrified that you’re here & I terrified that you’re here for good

so I reckless now painting my nails only after three in the afternoon I doting on cats I watchful for new news I watchful for the bizarre the whispered the curse I dried hard I cracked I happened only in the shatter oh gather oh lean in listen listen these are only moments stacked up against atop beside each other moments beaded like necklaces moments incremental incidental instrumental sometimes dire because dream because fate because old gods pointed right not left oh gather & listen to this refuse this stance this rejection this rant assemble now poets now singers now crowd in the cords & the lyrics in the back room where you stored tune & rhythm assemble now poets singers & drummers where are the dreams where’s the tune & rhythm section

so reckless me thrown reckless me down reckless me throned to moments without you in the periphery in the distance or shadow at my door reckless me damned reckless me sinner there was never anything else offered in the clamour

The book ranges more widely than the tight thematic and stylistic focus of 100 Days. Its subject matter includes "exploring diaspora, the marginalization of the Acholi people, the dusty streets of Nairobi and the cold grey of Vancouver." Formally, the book is wide-ranging as well: lineated poems brush up against prose poems, concrete poems, erasures and - in keeping with Otoniya's 2019 chapbook Gauntlet - voluminous footnotes. 

Otoniya recently went and moved away from cold grey Vancouver (to far colder Kingston, Ontario!), but she's making a very welcome return for two events at the Vancouver Writer's Fest later this week: Poems for the Twelfth Hour on Friday, October 21st, and Poets in Conversation the following day. 

Do consider checking out the events, or picking up the book, or - gold star for you! - both.


Otoniya J. Okot Bitek is a poet and scholar. Her collection of poetry, 100 Days, was nominated for several writing prizes including the BC Book Prize, the Pat Lowther Award, the Alberta Book Awards and the 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. From the fall of 2020 to the spring of 2021, Otoniya was the Ellen and Warren Tallman Writer-in-Residence and one of the SFU Jack and Doris Shadbolt Fellows. She has recently moved to Kingston, Ontario, to live on the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe people. Otoniya is an assistant professor of Black Creativity in Queen’s University, Kingston.

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