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In Conversation: Chika Unigwe

Chika Unigwe is a writer’s writer. That’s how Aminatta Forna, herself a writer described her. For me, Chika Unigwe is a hero. She took on a subject we all claim to know yet we don’t know the ins and out of it. On Black Sisters’ Street was a very personal book for me for different reasons. The most obvious being that I ws born in Benin and the stories about the number of Benin Girls who are prostitutes in Italy and Belgium is sad. They might not be my blood sisters but they are my people and to be reduced to that name tag world over is truly pathetic and appalling. I strongly argue and believe that this book should be added to the national curriculum in Nigeria. Once our girls, get to SS1, they should all be handed a copy of Chika Unigwe’s book, so that they will know there are no free baby sitting jobs in Europe, the streets are not paved with gold and you most certainly should not sign your life away to a nasty pimp. For the Nigerian government, who are nothing but lame ducks, they could send her an email about her experiences while researching to gain a better understanding of what their citizens are up to. Maybe, the shame will get our impotent leaders to do something. In her own words, Chika Unigwe.

Chika Unigwe (2)Belinda: How did your love for literature come about?

Chika Unigwe: The earliest I remember is being in the same class as Flora Nwapa’s daughter and Flora Nwapa used to come to school with books, she wrote books for children and I remember she came once and she distributed books to us to be reading before our teacher came and I really loved that.

Belinda: Was this the beginning of your journey and of course, you studied English literature?

Chika Unigwe: At university, I studied English literature because I didn’t know what else to study as this was the one thing that I really loved, reading and the opportunity to study it at university seemed too good an opportunity to give up.

Belinda: And no one questioned how you were going to get a job if you study English Literature?

Chika Unigwe: No, my parents have always been supportive of our dreams and I remember when I was in primary school either form 4 or 5 or 6, a classmate of mine had this magazine called High Life which was an American children’s magazine that came every  month and I really wanted it. I told my father and he said okay, get the address and I will subscribe to it for you and your sister. I got my friend’s copy and my father took down the address and he subscribed it for me and I had it until I left primary school. I think he suspected as well.

Belinda: You have been writing for a very long time but did you have that defining moment when you said, this is it. I am going to be writer and I am going to get published?

Chika Unigwe: I think it started from the moment I started idolising Flora Nwapa and I wanted to be everything that she was, which was a writer and a mother. I don’t realise what an impact she had but I remember that after form 2 or 3 that I came home and having written this play or a novel. I found the number of her publishing house and I spoke to her and she was really, really nice and she said, bring what you have written for me to see and for some reason, I think the driver refused to take me. I don’t know what happened but for some reason, I just never managed to go but I think that initial contact with Nwapa just made me really want to do anything that Nwapa did. I wanted to be everything she was, I wanted to have a daughter like she did and she became my role model. Also, before I entered secondary school at the Opus Day Centre run by the catholic and we would have French class, cooking day and we have a cultural day and one of those cultural days, we were shown a documentary. It was a documentary of this Igbo looking woman, a Nigerian sounding woman that had all these kids around her and that was just so fascinating to see this woman who could have been my mother with her kids and she was writing and they gathered all of us together to come and watch it and it was just so powerful. So after Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta became my second idol and then I started reading up on her, learnt that she was a single mother, had five kids and managed to put herself through university and managed to write, and she has always been…I mean when I think I cannot do this anymore, I think if Buchi Emecheta could do it, then you can do it.

Belinda: Let’s talk about your writing journey, was it challenging to get yourself an agent or get recognised by a publisher?

Chika Unigwe: I think I have had a fairly good journey, the first book I published in Belgium was because I did this competition for short stories and they were going to chose 10 people and pair them up with established writers but the publisher who was going to publish the anthology, liked my story and they called me up and asked, have you got a novel? So that was very flattering and in a way very good for me because in a way, it meant I could escape and jump all the other hurdles. And then my agent, I have an agent in the UK but also, in the same way, I went for a Caine Prize Dinner, we sat at the table and we got on really well and started talking and he said, oh, send me what you have written and let me see and I have been very lucky in that way.

Belinda: in terms of your influences, I can tell Flora Nwapa and Buchi Emecheta influenced you but apart from those two women, are there any other influences that you can easily point to when it comes to literature?

Chika Unigwe: I read everything and anything but the people I like sort of change. I mean Nwapa I admired from childhood and Emecheta, I admired because of all the things she managed to do even while raising children. But as the years went on, there are other writers I like though I know nothing of their personal lives. I like Carol Phillips for example because he manages to tell stories of displacement so sensitively and so well. I like Alice Munroe as she writes really well. I like Ben Okri’s, In Arcadia, I think that is a brilliant book. It’s a very slim book and I really like it. Indian writers remind me a lot African Writers.

Belinda: In terms of your writing style and voice, if you were asked to describe or define your writing style and voice, what would you define it as?

Chika Unigwe: Wow! I think what we have tried to do is…to consciously to create Africa while using Africa or whatever language we are writing in. and what I hope that people see as my writing style is a style that reflects that African sensibility as long as I am writing about Africa. So, I want them to write it and feel the decadences of the language, smell the place and I hope that the rhythm sort of reflects my Africaness, Nigerianess, and my Igboness.

Belinda: What was the inspiration behind the book?

Chika Unigwe: You know in Nigeria, even though there is prostitution, it is very underground, no one talks about it. And I come from a very conservative catholic home where we could not use the love or sex. I remember there was this song, ‘Let’s move closer, move your body close, like we are really making love’ and every time I sang it, I used to sing it as ‘like we are really baking bread.’ Breaking bread is a lot more innocent than making love. And then moving to Belgium where it’s very open. I mean if you take the bus and pass through Belgium, you will see the women behind the display windows in their lingerie waiting for customers or if you walk the red lights district of Antwerp during the day, its not hidden and it was a huge cultural shock for me to see them and I started experimenting and writing short stories about prostitutes. Then I realised that many of the Africans ones were Nigerians, it became even more intriguing as to how and why and you know they were into it and it was not enough to write a short story anymore and I wanted to write something bigger and explore and hopefully, get rid of my curiosity and it ended up as the novel.

Belinda: What did your research involve?

On Black Sisters' Street

Chika Unigwe: I dragged my husband and we went there. I put on a mini-skirt and high boots and then we went and honestly, the first time I tried to be honest and told one of the girls that I was a writer and I had come to do research, she started laughing like yeah right. She thought I was a new girl, who wanted information they were quite willing to talk to me. And once, they thought I was a new girl, I didn’t bother to convince them otherwise but of course, it was easier to get information from them. One of the things that struck me was that even though I had heard many of the girls were from Benin-City, I think I sort of underestimated what percentage and the café that I went to the first night, all the girls were from Benin. And I asked this girl that I was talking to, where are you from? And she said ‘Benin na! ah, ah,’ that was how she answered me. The more I spoke to them, the more I came to confront my own – I mean I always used to think I was very broad minded and none-judgemental good person and the more I spoke to them, the more I realised how judgemental I was and I always say that one of the biggest lessons I learnt was how shame can be such a luxury but we don’t realise it. If things are going well for you and no one depends on you for basic necessities, you can afford to have shame but for some of these girls, shame does not even come into it because they have to earn the money?

Belinda: How long did it take you to do the whole research and writing?

Chika Unigwe: It was a few months. I was not going there everyday. I wanted to get a composite of stories and also get a feel of the place, so that when I describe Sisi going there for the first time, I wanted it to feel like she would have felt and that is something I would never have got if I hadn’t gone there.

Belinda: It seems like it was quite easy to gain access into this world that so many people think they know but have no idea what’s it’s about.

Chika Unigwe: I think it was because I am black and Nigerian and it was very difficult for them to believe that I could be Nigerian and could be doing anything else but just asking for information so that I could come and work there as well. So, they were very nice and freely gave me information and of course, I am sure for a none-Nigerian or somebody who did not sound or look Nigerian, it would have been a lot more difficult to reach them. As far as they were concerned, I was just asking for information, so I could come and work. But I think one of the saddest things that I have heard was this; a Nigerian guy told me this about the auction houses in Brussels where these girls are auctioned. He said that for him, being a man it was so uncomfortable seeing these girls smile while all their assets are being priced like ‘Number 3, oyinbo go like this one well, well. See im nyash’ and all that and the girls would be smiling and very happy. He said that it was very sad for him to see that.

Belinda:  When you were writing the book and discovering these things that must have been challenging and painful to swallow. What was it that you wanted the readers to discover about the secret lives of these four women?

Chika Unigwe: I think what I hoped they would get from it is the same thing I got from the girls which was, basically, some of us can’t afford to have shame. Most of the time when you watch documentaries or read articles about prostitutes, it is usually black and white. They are either being exploited or they are exploited but it is like this grey area which is what I found out when I did my research, like Dele, (the pimp) in the book, who helps them out and its easier to say he is exploiting them but there are girls who are grateful to people like Dele for giving them a chance. So, I hope it would make people less judgemental and realise sometimes that there are a lot of things we take for granted which other people cannot take for granted.

Belinda: In terms of the characters themselves; was it challenging for you to write about these women based on the stories you had heard or did you have to totally create something new?

Chika Unigwe: It was a mixture of stories I had heard and imagination. I had what I had written before and of course the outcome of my research. The reason I allowed myself to be challenged was because I wanted to make sure my characters were more authentic. I wanted to see them and hear them like they were real women. But I also had my imagination that I wanted to use. To think that poverty can have the effects on people it has and the fact that people have to do things like this to survive. To get a job is hard and it is not based on your qualifications but more on who you know. Poverty in Nigeria has made honesty so unattractive. The situation is sad and it is an indictment on the Nigerian government. Because I don’t know what else they are expected to do. All those values we were raised with, is gone out the window. Nothing is bad anymore. You wonder the type of values that are being given children. What sort of values are they going to grow up with?

Belinda: Was that something that you also wanted to challenge in society because we as a people, we seem to have failed a generation of people?

Chika Unigwe: The people I wanted to indict were the government more than anybody. I really wanted to hold them responsible. I mean I saw university graduates in Antwerp. I mean it is sad that you go to university, study for a degree and then end up becoming a prostitute in Europe and that shouldn’t happen. You have a degree but to get a job is another wahala. It is a sad reality in society.

Belinda: There is the relationship between the powerful and powerless, was that something you wanted to deal with in the book?

Chika Unigwe: The disparity is so huge and though there is disparity in other parts of the world, it is not so huge.  There is something really, really wrong. So I have always been intrigued by the dynamics of power and how it affects the decisions we make and how it affects our lives.

Belinda: This is your second novel and I don’t know what the first one is or the point from which it was written but how have been able to relate to these stories from an African perspective.?

Chika Unigwe: It is new for them but it is also confrontational…the first one is about a Nigerian girl, married to a Belgium man and how she deals with the things she is confronted with and people’s narrow mindedness and that was almost like a mirror, holding it up and saying to Belgians, this is how we see Belgium and sometimes, when some else holds up a mirror it not always flattering. So in Holland, the reviews were more objective but in Belgium, on the whole, it was a lot more personal and the impression I had, whether or not they found it positive or negative, they found it hard to distance the writer from the characters. But it is still a new terrain in Belgium. We have a Moroccan writer, she grew up here, so she is Belgian with Moroccan origin and then there is  a Turkish one but apart from that, the stories of Africa, they have been used to the stories being told from the other side.

Belinda: Are you comfortable with the label of being an African writer or do you have moments when you question it?

Chika Unigwe: I am African, and I never question my African identity. What I question sometimes are the expectations that come with being labelled “African writer,” what you are supposes to write, how you are supposed to write and so on. But then that is problem with labelling; it comes with a whole box of expectations, usually people’s projections of what the label ought to cover.

Belinda: This seems like the best time to be an African writer because it feels like we are in a bubble right now. Do you have any reflections on being one of the writers who have gained from it?

Chika Unigwe: It is exciting to be an African writer right now because more and more African writers are gaining international recognition. There is certainly a renaissance of sorts on the African writing scene and I’d much rather be a part of it than be at the margins.

Belinda: What are you currently working on and when should we expect the next book from you?

Chika Unigwe: I am working on a new novel.

About Author: Chika Unigwe is an Afro-Belgian writer of Nigerian origin. She is the author of fiction, poetry, articles and educational material. Her second novel, On Black Sisters’ Street, was published in Dutch in 2008 (as Fata Morgana) and in English in 2009.

For More about Chika Unigwe, visit her website: Chika Unigwe

Images are the property of Jonathan Cape

Please Do Not Use Without Permission.


14 Responses to “In Conversation: Chika Unigwe”

  1. Myne Whitman says:

    I really liked this interview. I read the review by Ikhide and was a bit leery but maybe I will go ahead and buy the book. Good work Belinda.

  2. Temitayo says:

    I love I love the way Chika writes 🙂 Her first novel, I couldn’t drop till I finished. I gave a friend to read and it came back looking tattered because he passed it around his Community Development group (NYSC) in Kaduna…so looks like we are many who love her writing. Not yet read her latest offering but I can’t wait 🙂 When is it coming to Nigeria?

    Belinda, this interview has depth 🙂 I want more, more and more . LOL

  3. Belinda Otas says:

    @ Temi, I loved the book. It was a very personal thing for me which is in the intro. I didn’t read her first novel but loved this one. Like you, I didn’t drop it until I finished it. Thanks for the compliments…interview has depth, my head don big oh 🙂

  4. Belinda Otas says:

    Thanks Myne. I believe you best read the book and decide for yourself. Sometimes, reviews are the critics interpretation. So, I don’t always go by reviews. Maybe it touched me because I grew up with the words, ‘Italio and ‘Ashewo’ ringing in my ears and I have heard too many stories that made me feel this book was needed and so, should be taught in schools. I also know of people who have lost their lives to the trade…it does not have to be that way…so for me…it is an excellent novel even if it has faults that others want to pick at.

  5. downtheaisle says:

    how do we get the book?

  6. Belinda Otas says:

    @ Downtheaisle, Amazon is your best bet. And based on your location, ie country, try online bookshops you know like Barnes and Noble, Waterstones etc but Amazon, they have it in surplus.

  7. Hans Schippers says:

    It’s definitely true that the book draws a very realistic picture of a subsociety which is very isolated and hidden to most.
    As mentioned in the interview, the most important message is that these girls are not carricatures; they are neither ignorant nor credulous.
    Given their circumstances they make very human decisions, are deceived and abused at some occasions, but very determined and certainly not helpless.
    This is what the book manages to do so well: portray these girls as the human beings they are, instead of reduce them to a stereotype, be it good or bad.
    Highly recommended and psychologically educative!

  8. Belinda Otas says:

    Thanks for the review Hans. You sure say it so well.

  9. Hans Schippers says:

    @Downtheaisle, you can also get the book here:

  10. Lauri says:

    Great interview! I so want to read this book. I love how Chika talks about how prostitution is so easily pushed into black and white with clear cut lines and already defined definitions when in fact that is not the case at all.

  11. Belinda Otas says:

    Thanks Lauri. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

  12. KT says:

    This is a nice interview. Very thorough. Well done.

  13. Belinda Otas says:

    @ KT, thank you.

  14. […] of Belgium and conduct one-on-one interviews with the prostitutes, and record their stories. In a recent interview, she confessed that she was able to earn their trust only because they didn’t believe that […]

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