Chika Unigwe is a global writer. Her debut novel, De Feniks, was published in 2005 by Meulenhoff and Manteau (of Amsterdam and Antwerp) and was shortlisted for the Vrouw en Kultuur debuutprijs for the best first novel by a female writer. She is also the author of two children’s books published by Macmillan, London, as well as short fiction in several anthologies, journals and magazines, including Wasafiri (University of London), Moving Worlds (University of Leeds), Per Contra, Voices of the University of Wisconsin and Okike of the University of Nigeria.
In 2003, she was shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing. In 2004, she won the BBC Short story Competition and a Commonwealth Short Story Competition award. In the same year, her short story made the top 10 of the Million Writers Award for best online fiction. Her second novel, Fata Morgana, was published in Dutch in 2008 and will soon be released in English. Her first novel, De Feniks, was published in Dutch in September, 2005, and it is the first book of fiction written by a Flemish author of African origin. In 2009, Chika Unigwe’s novel On Black Sisters’ Street, about African prostitutes living and working in Belgium, was published in London by Jonathan Cape, winning the 2012 Nigeria Prize for Literature. In this interview with Saturday Sun, online, Unigwe, who resides with Belgium with her white husband, discusses her literary feats.
You admitted losing your voice with your relocation to Belgium. How did you manage to regain that voice?
I learned the language. That gave me some confidence. I am a staunch believer in the power of language to set us free.
Did that sad experience contribute in making your debut, Phoenix, rather grim fiction?
I don’t know that The Phoenix is grim. I think it is a rather optimistic story, regardless of the sad circumstances.
At first, you couldn’t get a job on arrival in Belgium, despite your fantastic first degree from UNN, and was instead offered a cleaner’s job after earning a post-degree qualification from a Belgian university. How despondent did you get at that juncture? And were you a victim of racism?
I was offered the [menial] job because I was black, and I was offered the job because the woman at the desk didn’t think that being black, I would be qualified for much else. How despondent did I get? I was more upset than despondent. I was angry. Anger is a good thing if it motivates us, much more productive than despondency.
How did the muse abandon you at one point?
I don’t know. If I did, I would have stopped it from leaving.
Your award-winning novel, On Black Sisters’ Street, is based on African ladies prostituting across Europe. Why write a fiction that celebrates the seamy side of our life, which writers tend to overlook in the West?
I think every writer writes the stories that grab them. This one grabbed me. It asked to be told. I don’t think ‘celebrates’ is quite the word for what the book does. It tells a story, and hopefully, it tells the story well
In 2012, you won The Nigeria Prize for Literature. Has winning the prize made you regain your lost confidence as a writer, which you noted elsewhere?
After OBSS, I wrote short stories, I wrote another novel. Winning validates what I do as a writer. I embark every new story, every new novel with self-doubt. Every line costs me sweat and blood. I polish and polish, because I never think it is quite good enough. I don’t think that’s ever going to stop.
On Black Sisters’ Street features four Nigerian women. Is there any element of verisimilitude in your character depiction, especially from the perspective of a Nigerian living abroad? Did you have any sort of street experience?
Why would I have had any street experience? I did my research well. When Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart, did he need to have lived at the same time his characters did to achieve verisimilitude? I am writing a novel set in the late 18th century. I did years of research to write it.
After your NLNG triumph, you proposed setting up a writer’s centre in Awka, in collaboration with Anambra State government. How far have you gone with the plan?
The government has both the yam and the knife. I am hopeful that they would deliver. There is no reason to suspect that they wouldn’t. We are still in talks.
Winning the $100 NLNG Prize is a fillip to any writer anywhere. Has it made any difference in your life?
I have bought more shoes.
Senghor Dele, in On the Black Sister’s Street, is presented as a man thriving on sex trafficking from Africa. Aren’t you just making him an anti-feminist stereotype we often read in female writings?
I do not know what an ‘anti-feminist’ stereotype is. Senghor Dele is one man. He is not a type. He is not used to make any bigger statement beyond the kind of person he is. Madam is a female and she is as ruthless as Dele, if not worse. Efe, I think, eventually pays off her debts after working for many years as a prostitute and becomes a Madam herself. She is female. Polycarp’s mother ruins his relationship with Alek. She is female. Need I go on?
You were originally a Nigerian, but now have another nationality, yet you always identify with African prizes. How difficult is it to cut off completely from your African roots?
I was not originally a Nigerian. I am still a Nigerian. I have a dual nationality, like many people do. How does that equate to me cutting off my African roots? People are allowed to have multiple nationalities.
You are also involved in activism. Tell us about the other side of you; what drives your activism?
Basically, life and a yearning for justice.
What’s your writing routine like?
I write when I am not travelling, and I try to write everyday.