By Belinda Otas
TURNHOUT, BELGIUM: “I think what I hoped they would get from it is the same thing that I got from the girls; which was, basically, some of us can’t afford to have shame,” says Afro-Belgian author Chika Unigwe, whose second novel On Black Sisters’ Street, a chronicle of the lives of four African women (three Nigerian and a Sudanese) working in the red-light district of Antwerp, is winning plaudits from critics and readers alike. “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’s like there’s this grey area which I found out. So, I hope it would make people less judgmental and realize sometimes that there are a lot of things we take for granted which other people cannot take for granted,” she adds.Originally published in 2007 in Dutch as Fata Morgana by Meulenhoff | Manteau, On Black Sisters’ Street has given voice and put a face on the oldest profession on earth, but not as you know it. On Black Sisters’ Street is the haunting and moving story of Sisi, Efe, Ama and Joyce, four women who decide to escape poverty and search for greener pastures in Europe. However, when they get to Belgium they find themselves unprepared and in an all-but-impossible situation: the job of babysitter they anticipated would be waiting for them turns out to be one of full-time prostitution, and they have no choice but work in order to cover the fee for their passage to Europe. It is a tale of choices and displacement, and throughout, we hear the four women’s voices as they take us into their world in the hope that we will understand their plight and empathize with them, but not pity them.
Born in Enugu, Nigeria, Unigwe moved to Belgium in 1995. She has written children’s books, educational material, poetry and short stories. Her short story, The Secret was nominated for the 2004 Caine Prize for African writing and her stories have been broadcast on BBC World Service, Radio Nigeria and Commonwealth Radio Stations. Her road to becoming a published author was fairly smooth: “The first book I published in Belgium was the result of a competition for short stories,” she told Publishing Perspectives. They were going to chose ten 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 and asked, ‘Have you got a novel?’ So, that was very flattering and in a way, good for me because it meant I could escape and jump all the other hurdles.” The same way she got her first book published was the same way she got herself an agent. “I went for a Caine Prize dinner, we sat at the same table and 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.”
Unigwe writes in Dutch and English and does not shy away from writing about her Nigerian heritage. Her first novel, De Feniks, was published in 2005 by the same Dutch publisher of Fata Morgna.
De Feniks explored the themes of grief, illness and loneliness through a character that shares Unigwe’s Afro-European background and experiences in Belgium. “The things she deals with as she is confronted with people’s narrow-mindedness, that was almost like a mirror,” says Unigwe. “It was about holding it up and saying to Belgians, ‘this is how we see Belgium and sometimes when someone else holds up a mirror, it is not always flattering.'”
On Black Sisters’ Street was inspired by the cultural differences she experienced when she moved to Belgium. Having grown up in a conservative Catholic home, she said, “Moving to Belgium, where it’s very open and you walk the red-light district of Antwerp during the day and see the women behind the display windows in their lingerie waiting for customers, it was a huge cultural shock for me to see. I started experimenting and writing short stories about prostitutes. Then I realized that many of the African ones were Nigerians, and it became even more intriguing as to how and why they were into it. It was not enough to write a short story anymore, I wanted to write something bigger and to explore and, hopefully, get rid of my curiosity. It all ended up as a novel.”
To research the book, Unigwe dressed up in tall boots and a mini-skirt and walked through the red-light district; she brought her husband along as protection. “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 laughed like, ‘yeah, right.’ She thought I was a new girl, who wanted information. And once they thought I was a new girl, I didn’t bother to convince them otherwise and of course, it was easier to get information from them. They were quite willing to talk to me.”
However, she admits her research forced her to confront her own prejudices. “I used to think that I was a very broad-minded and non-judgmental, a good person. The more I spoke to them, the more I realized how judgmental I was. I always say that the biggest lesson I learned was how shame can be such a luxury, but we don’t realize 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.”
Most importantly, Unigwe says that what she saw made her want to confront the Nigerian government with their failures. “I really wanted to hold them responsible,” says Unigwe. “I mean I saw university graduates in Antwerp. It is sad that you will go to university, study for a degree and then end up becoming a prostitute in Europe. That shouldn’t happen. It is a sad reality in society.”
Praised by her contemporaries for her storytelling ability, On Black Sisters’ Street was recently picked by Aminatta Forna, a writer, broadcaster and journalist, as one of her top books for the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper. Forna wrote, “For me Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sisters’ Street is a writer’s book. It is also a reader’s book in that it has a gripping story, beautifully realized characters who the reader can believe in. It is sad, funny, tender and horrifying. But when a writer reads a book, on top of all that we are interested in how the writer has used writerly skills to achieve those qualities. Chika’s book has an intriguing structure. She uses several interweaving narratives, which is already challenging, but it is the way the story is told in different time lines which gives it the extra dimension. That’s why I would say Chika Unigwe is a writer’s writer.”
A proud African, Unigwe adds to the debate about the name tag that limits writers born in Africa as merely “African writers.” “I’m African, and I never question my African identity,” says Unigwe. “What I question sometimes are the expectations that come with being labeled an “African writer.” What you are supposed to write, how you are supposed to write and so on. But then that is the problem with labeling; it comes with a whole box of expectations, usually people’s projections of what the label ought to cover. It’s not always right or accurate.”
On Black Sisters’ Street is published in the UK by Jonathan Cape, Random House. In Belgium by Meulenhoff | Manteau and in Italy by Blacks Pozza.
VISIT: Chika Unigwe’s website.
READ: An interview with Unigwe from the blog of Farafina magazine.
DISCUSS: Is labeling a writer by race or ethnicity reductive?