Kenyan-born Ugandan poet Juliane Okot Bitek has been awarded the 2017 Glenna Luschei Prize for African Poetry, for her collection 100 Days. Published in 2016 by the University of Alberta Press, 100 Days is a chronicle of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, the figure standing for the number of days it lasted.
One of the three poetry prizes administered by the African Poetry Book Fund (APBF)—the others being the Brunel International African Poetry Prize and the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets—the Glenna Luschei Prize for African Poetry “annually awards $1,000 USD to a book of poetry by an African writer published in the previous year,” whether written in English or in translation. It is funded by the philanthropist and poet Glenna Luschei.
The 2017 prize was judged by John Keene, APBF board member and 2016 American Book Award-winning professor of English at Rutgers University-Newark. Here are his comments:
“In 100 Days, poet Juliane Okot Bitek set out to memorialize the tragedy of the Rwandan genocide, but the witnessing force of these brief, incantatory poems ripples outward to figuratively encompass multiple histories of violence and brutality, including the terror her own family and countless others faced under Idi Amin’s regime in Uganda. The lyric beauty, intertextual depth, and metonymic power of Okot Bitek’s poetry underscores the capacities of of art and language to cast light into the darkest corners of our human experience, and bridge the gulfs that lie between us.”
Emmy Award-winning poet and Prairie Schooner editor Kwame Dawes, who is Director of APBF, stated:
“It is very exciting to celebrate the brilliant poetry of Juliane Okot Bitek, whose name reminds us of the rich legacy of African letters that she is extending in this beautiful collection. Now in its fourth year, and with renewed support from Glenna Luschei, this important prize continues to recognize not only the work of African poets, but the efforts of those publishers who publish these poets.”
Daughter of the legendary Ugandan poet Okot p’Bitek, Juliane Okot Bitek is completing a PhD programme at the University of British Columbia’s Liu Institute for Global Issues, Vancouver. Her work has appeared in Arc, Whetstone, Fugue, and Room of One’s Own, and has been anthologized in Great Black North: Contemporary African Canadian Poetry and Revolving City: 51 Poems and the Stories Behind Them. Her short story, “Going Home,” won a special mention in the 2004 Commonwealth Short Story Contest.
Bitek says that the poems in 100 Days were “inspired by the quiet homage to the 1994 Rwanda Genocide that Wangechi Mutu started posting on social media on April 6” of 2016. As Mutu posted her photographs, Bitek wrote a poem a day. Last year, Somali writer and visual artist Diriye Osman called the book “a masterpiece,” and Bitek “a memory keeper” who has preserved “the collapse of the imagination” that led to the tragedy.
John Keene also singled out two other collections for praise: Timothy Ogene’s Descent & Other Poems (Deerbrook Editions), for its “lyric and emotional journey that swiftly and utterly captures the reader’s eye and heart,” and Stephen Symons’s Questions for the Sea (uHlanga), as “a debut collection of finely crafted lyrical poems, offering revelatory glimpses into the lives of contemporary white, middle-class South Africans.”
Founded in 2012 “through the generosity of Laura and Robert F. X. Sillerman and in partnership with the literary journal Prairie Schooner,” the African Poetry Book Fund “seeks to celebrate and cultivate the poetic arts of Africa.” In collaboration with Akashic Books, it publishes the annual New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set, which collects works by some of the continent’s finest new voices. Through its imprint, the African Poetry Book Series, the APBF further publishes the New and Selected/Collected Series, Winners of the Sillerman and Glenna Luschei Prizes and African Poetry Translations. The 2018 Glenna Luschei Prize for African Poetry will be open to submissions of books published during 2017 on May 1, 2018.
Congratulations to Juliane Okot Bitek.
Find out more on APBF’s Website.