Chika Unigwe was born in Enugu, Nigeria, and now lives in Turnhout, Belgium, with her husband and four children.
She holds a BA in English Language and Literature from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and an MA from the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium. She also holds a PhD from the University of Leiden, The Netherlands.
Chika Unigwe is the author of fiction, poetry, articles and educational material. She won the 2003 BBC Short Story Competition for her story “Borrowed Smile”, a Commonwealth Short Story Award for “Weathered Smiles” and a Flemish literary prize for “De Smaak van Sneeuw”, her first short story written in Dutch. “The Secret”, another of her short pieces, was nominated for the 2004 Caine Prize. She was the recipient of a 2007 Unesco-Aschberg fellowship for creative writing, and of a 2009 Rockefeller Foundation fellowship for creative writing.
Her first novel, De Feniks, was published in Dutch by Meulenhoff / Manteau in September 2005; it is the first book of fiction written by a Flemish author of African origin.
Chika Unigwe has recently published her second novel, On Black Sisters’ Street (first released in Dutch under the title Fata Morgana), a tale of choices and displacement set against the backdrop of the Antwerp prostitution scene.
Geosi Reads Interviews Chika Unigwe:
GEOSI READS: You write both in English and Dutch. Which of these two languages are you most comfortable with? Why?
CHIKA UNIGWE: English. I still write mainly in English. I understand its nuances, and am much more fluent in English than I could ever be in Dutch.
GR: Your first novel, De Feniks (The Phoenix) was published in Dutch and so was your second, On Black Sisters’ Street before it was later translated into English. Do you translate your books from Dutch to English yourself? If so, how is the process of translation like?
CU: I write the novels in English because I think better that way, and then work with a translator to get them into Dutch. I could never translate my own works.
GR: There has been much debate about the translation of written words. What is your thought on the debate that translations could make a story lose its value and its entertaining power?
CU: I totally disagree. What a good translator does is to approximate a work. I have never thought I should not enjoy ‘A Thousand Years of Solitude’ because I don’t read any Spanish. Or, Anna Karenina because I am not reading it in its original language.
GR: I read somewhere that Flora Nwapa was an early influence on your writings. How true is this?
CU: It is very true. I met her when I was a kid. I was her daughter’s classmate and she would come in and distribute books to the kids to keep us busy before our parents came for us. She was my earliest role model and the reason I wanted to be a writer.
GR: Can you share with us your earliest memories of some of the stories in those books Flora Nwapa distributed? Or, which of her books have you read and loved so much?
CU: They were children’s stories; I can’t remember the stories unfortunately. I think one involved a mammywata, a mermaid. I love her first novel Efuru. The eponymous Efuru is a true negofeminist. Negofeminism, as Obioma Nnaemeka (one of my favorite scholars) defines it is one who is a negotiative feminist. It is a space where reality and theory meet, and one which many strong African women can identify with. A negofeminist works within patriarchy but manipulates it to create her own space. Efuru never rejects her culture (which is mainly patriarchal) but does not create as much space as it is possible for a woman to do within it. She pays her own bride price, leaves her husband when the marriage no longer suits her, and by taking on “manly” duties – example – helping out poor people, she transcends her womanhood.
GR: You studied English Language and Literature at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Did your study in these fields have any particular impact on your writings?
CU: I am not sure. It might have in the sense that it opened up a world of books I never would have gone to look for on my own: Madame Bovary, Emma.
GR: Is it worth it for the would – be – novelist or writer to pick an English or literature degree?
CU: No. There are loads of good writers who have degrees in other fields.
GR: Where do you get your stories from? Where do you write your stories?
CU: I get my stories from everywhere. I am open to inspiration from everything: overheard conversations on the bus; items from the news, and so on.
GR: You won the 2003 BBC Short Story Competition for your story ‘Borrowed Smile’. Was it your first ever prize you won for writing a story? What was the story about?
CU: Yes, it was the first prize I ever won for a short story. “BS” was about a girl who returns to Nigeria on holiday. She is a prostitute in Europe. Her parents pretend not to notice that she is lying when she says she works as a typist, possibly because they want to enjoy the gains of her labour with a free conscience.
GR: You have lived in countries like Belgium, United States among others. What do you make of the literary cultures of these countries as compared to your home country Nigeria?
CU: There are more opportunities in the West, better equipped libraries, better stocked bookshops, more readings organized. Umberto Eco was in Antwerp last week. I saw Soyinka at a reading in London. The year Alan Hurlinghurst won the Booker he was in Brussels.
GR: Your first novel, De Feniks (The Phoenix) talked about a Nigerian woman living in Belgium with a Belgian husband. How much of this book is autobiographical?
CU: I have a Belgian husband, I am Nigerian and I hate mushroom. These are the only traits I share with the protagonist.
GR: Can you explain to us the rationale behind your choice of ‘The Phoenix’ as was the title of your first book? In other sense, why ‘The Phoenix’?
CU: The novel deals with a woman who metaphorically dies. My hope for her is that she rises from the ashes of her “death”. Also her son dies, but she cannot accept this death (her husband keeps his ashes in an urn in the sitting room) and imagines that he would rise from the dead.
GR: Did you actually go out on the streets of Antwerp to do research on blacks in prostitution before coming out with your second novel, ‘On Black Sisters’ Street’?
CU: Yes I did. It was a world I knew absolutely nothing about and the only way I could write about that world truthfully was by going there.
GR: Was it not risky taking up such a challenge?
CU: I never put myself at risk.
GR: What in your view is the major reason why black women would indulge in the trade of prostitution? Could economic reasons be the sole reason?
CU: I assume you mean African women who migrate to Europe to work in the sex industry?
GR: Well, Sure!
CU: I think that like all economic migrants, their sole purpose is to make money.
GR: Has the subject of prostitution always been in your mind? What inspired you to explore this theme in your novel?
CU: I was curious about the whys and wherefores of the African prostitutes and writing the novel helped me answer my own questions.
GR: Could prostitution be classified as a profession? What do you hope to achieve with your book ‘On Black Sisters’ Street’?
CU: In some countries it is a profession, the prostitutes declare their income and pay taxes like everyone else.
What do I hope to achieve by OBSS? A good read. I can’t prescribe what any reader should take away from my writing. I just hope that whatever it is, that they enjoy the ride and feel that the reading has been worth their time (and money if they’ve paid for the work).
GR: Is Nigeria a harsh country to live in? Is it really difficult to get jobs? I am particularly interested in the case of Sisi, a college graduate who was unable to find a job in Nigeria?
CU: The Nigeria I remember, and to which I return once in a while is a harsh one to live in for people who do not have extreme luck or extremely long legs.
GR: My copy of ‘On Black Sisters’ Street’ is published by Vintage and I am interested in the cover page and design of the book which seems to attract or draw so much attention. On the cover is a black naked woman sitting in a bath. Was this an interpretation of a pictorial view of the written words in the novel?
CU: I have no hand at all in choosing my book covers, but I think it’s an astounding cover which can be read in so many different ways.
GR: I noticed an interesting passage in your novel ‘On Black Sisters’ Street’. If I should put you on the spotlight, I may want to ask: ‘Are Ghanaians wanna be Nigerians?’ (Interviewer Is Smiling)
CU: LOL. But of course θ everyone knows that θ One of my best friends here is Ghanaian and she thinks Nigerians are wanna be Ghanaians.
GR: What has been the reception of ‘On Black Sisters’ Street’ since it came out?
CU: Brilliant! It’s been a very humbling experience. It’s out in a few other languages as well and it’s been lovely going for readings and people telling me how much the book’s touched them. It’s coming out in the US in a few months and I am very excited.
GR: I read from somewhere – probably from your website – that your newest novel, The Sin Eater will be published in 2012 by Jonathan Cape. What do you have to say about this?
CU: It is set entirely in Nigeria. I was a bit homesick when I started writing it and it was a cheap way to visit home.
Sin Eater is a novel about how much we are willing to sacrifice for the people we love. But more importantly it’s about different truths. The best way to describe its essence would be to quote from it): The first time Mma saw a prism, she was thirteen, and her science teacher, the enthusiastic Mr. Ogene, nicknamed Einstein for his legendary science skills, brought a block of the most magical thing she had ever seen to class. It was wrapped in a knotted handkerchief which he unwrapped with great ceremony, wiped the block on his shirt and then held it out to the class. It sparkled gloriously. He held it out at various angles and asked the enchanted students what colour they thought it was. Then he drawled in a deep baritone all the teenage girls liked, “The colours produced by a prism are due to different refraction rates. And so it is with the truth. There are different shades to it, and whichever shade one gets is reliant on the angle one is looking at it from.”
GR: Oh Mine! That is an interesting piece, a brilliant prose there. You have me wanting to read more but looking at it carefully, does this mean you have closed the docket on the theme of prostitution? It looks like this novel would have nothing of that sort of the theme of prostitution as was in ‘On Black Sisters’ Street’. Have you moved on?
CU: Thank you. I never choose themes. I don’t do series, so I suppose that all my themes will differ. OBSS answers a different question for me than SE does. If there is any connection to both works, it is probably that of Negofeminism. Discovering that liberated me in so many ways.