In which I discuss the skinny volumes which accompany me on my travels, while the heavier volumes (like John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany and Callum Roberts’ The Ocean of Life) remain at home.

Juliane Okot Bitek was inspired to engage with the Rwanda Genocide in response to Kenyan-American artist Wangechi Mutu’s 100 days of photographs: the two women collaborated and Bitek’s poems are collected in 100 Days (2016) 

“One hundred days of killing, one hundred days of witnessing, one hundred days of everything else that seemed to matter and then it didn’t, it couldn’t. And just like that, twenty years had passed and therew as a need to remember.”

Cecily Nicholson’s foreword writes: “The poems in 100 Days pose incisive questions that depen our resolve to witness.” She also brings the circles of resonance that much closer to our personal experience by reminding us that, although “the poems specify land and people close to her Ugandan homeland, Okot Bitek’s insights resonate in relation to the genocide of Indigenous peoples in Canada and elsewhere around the world”.

Sometimes the poems are evocative and lyrical, like the heart of Day 78:

“how else to explain a sky that witesses,
& still insists on magical hues of itself

from indigo at midnight
to the peasant hue of the mother of God
another young woman
to whom a hole in the pale blue announced
that she would bear a child
that she would bear
a boy dressed in madness”

Sometimes the language is spare and direct, like Day 31 (in its entirety):

“It is daytime now
we’re here
it is now twenty years
after a hundred days
that we did not plan on living through

we wanted to prayed yearned to make it
not that those who didn’t didn’t”

Sometimes they are playfrul, even. And poignant. Like Day 11, in which language transforms ‘savage’ into ‘saved’. And sometimes they experiment with recognizable tropes, like Day 21, in which “A ring around a rosy” transforms into “a pocket full of shit”.

These poems remind us that art can help us learn to engage with things which seem to be beyond understanding but which are human all the same.

Georges Perec’s The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise (1968; Trans. David Bellos, 2011) landed in my stack as a lead-up to A Void (the novel without an ‘e’).

I didn’t realise that it’s actually a chapter of one of the books that Kaggsy recommended (but which is even longer than A Void) which I couldn’t find, Life: A User’s Manual. (Here are her thoughts on A Void.)

The concept was designed in 1968, by Jacques Perriaud, at the Computing Service of the Humanities esearch Centre n Paris, “to challenge a writer to use a computer’s basic mode of operation as a writing device”.

This assignment led Georges Perec to break down the steps of the process and then lay them out into a flow-chart (or algorithm).

There is a lot of repetition as the man aims to ask for the raise and runs into (at first seemingly endless) loops of yes/no decisions, beginning with whether the boss is in his office and the choices if ‘yes’, he is or, if ‘no’, he is not, and the supplicant’s next action.

It is this repetition as well as the tone of the delivery which makes for the amusement, as well as the translation which, in this case, adds the word ‘circumambulate’ to describe the wanderings which result, for example, from the ‘no’ of the first step, should the supplicant determine to walk around while waiting rather than follow a stationary arm of the flowchart.

Turns out this is just as useful today, although perhaps the risk of being exposed to measles could be updated to something drawn from the headlines.

Even with the progression of technology, ultimately asking for a raise is best done in person, so this set of instructions is still relevant.

What’s in your bookbag today?