Chika Unigwe, after several years living in Belgium, recently moved to the United States with her family. Author of “Night Dancer” and the well-received “On Black Sisters’ Street” – she talks about the background to her seminal novel, the condition of the migrant, cosmopolitan subjectivity and the future of African writing.
SANYA OSHA: How much actual research went into the writing of “On Black Sisters Street”?
CHIKA UNIGWE: A lot. I knew very little of the world of the women in my book, so I had to learn. I went to the red light district, I spoke to Nigerian sex workers, and I asked as many questions as I could. My first night there, I felt what it must be like as a woman to be in a space where men size you up as a potential seller. I felt what my characters would have felt on their first night and so could write it better.
SANYA OSHA: Do you think African women working in Europe in the sex trade is just another form of modern slavery?
CHIKA UNIGWE: Some of the women are being bought and auctioned off; they work for many years to pay back debts to their trafficker and so on. As far as it involves buying women and selling them off, as far as it involves being indebted to some trafficker for so many months (and you have to buy your freedom), then yes it is a form of modern slavery. It becomes complicated when you hear of/ meet women who go to the traffickers and plead to be taken abroad to work in the sex industry, women who agree to the exorbitant fee they must pay, and women who even after they have paid off their debts, they decide to stay on working in the industry, and even sometimes “buy” other women themselves.
SANYA OSHA: What has been your personal experience with the publishing industry? Do you think the industry is adventurous enough?
CHIKA UNIGWE: There are editors who are adventurous. However, we must be aware that “adventurous” is a relative term. One man’s tame is another’s adventurous. And editors join and leave publishing houses. I have been lucky in working with really passionate editors
SANYA OSHA: You wrote your first novel in Dutch… what motivated this?
CHIKA UNIGWE: I was in a country where writing in English locked me out of the writing circle, and I wanted very much to be a part of it. Every writer knows how useful writing competitions are in getting the attention of the industry. And so when I saw a competition for short stories (in Dutch, naturally), I just had to enter. It won a prize, got published, got me noticed. However I should add that when you ask the question about my first novel in Dutch, I ought to make it clear that even though it was published in Dutch, it was written in English.
SANYA OSHA: What is your view of up and coming African writers? Are there any particular names that are after your heart?
CHIKA UNIGWE: I am always excited to discover new African writers, and when I find one, I go out and buy their books. I am looking forward to Elnathan John’s novel.
SANYA OSHA: Is there an African tradition of writing to which you think you belong? And if so, what is the significance of this tradition?
CHIKA UNIGWE: I don’t think very much about which class I belong to or don’t. I am a contemporary African writer.
SANYA OSHA: It would seem writing about migrant experiences is central to your work… would this continue to be so in the foreseeable future?
CHIKA UNIGWE: Who knows? I’m very interested in the migrant experience at the moment, and the stories that haunt me are related to it. However, “Night Dancer” isn’t about the migrant experience at all.
SANYA OSHA: How has your relocation to the United States affected your work?
CHIKA UNIGWE: Perhaps I will start writing stories set in the US. Or write about Nigerians here (and they are very different from Nigerians in Europe).
SANYA OSHA: In what way are Nigerians in the US different from those in Europe?
CHIKA UNIGWE: By Europe, I mean of course the part of Europe I am familiar with (Holland, Belgium primarily). Nigerians in Europe are mostly economic refugees. Regardless of their level of education, they mostly end up as laborers in factories or cleaners. And more recently as assistant nurses in homes. Part of the problem could be that they hardly speak the language of their host countries (without which they are locked out of many jobs); their degrees from Nigeria are not recognized by the host countries, and they do not speak a 3rd or a 4th European language (French and German) required by many employers. In the city I lived in, I had friends who had studied Computer engineering and architecture in Nigerian universities who were working as laborers in a steel factory. The former said she had hoped to continue her education when she moved to Belgium but she was told by fellow Africans who were there before her that “all of us here work in factories,” and so she joined the throng. So, it appears that there is an acceptance of the status quo too. But there is also the very real problem of institutional racism which locks out certain groups from good jobs. Some employers tell job centers that they do not want black workers. It is illegal but no one has ever been prosecuted for it.
On the other hand, here in the States, Nigerians with university degrees (from Nigeria or from here) have better opportunities than their compatriots in Europe. They have the advantage of knowing the language, the opportunity to get advance degrees or training, and they have an incredible amount of role models (Nigerians doing well in various fields, from medicine to the arts), and while racism exists, victims can seek justice.
SANYA OSHA: Is the African immigrant to America story all told?
CHIKA UNIGWE: No. We all have our individual, peculiar stories of our migration. Every single one of those stories has not yet been told. It would be impossible to tell every one of them. So, no. They haven’t all been told. And they will never ever all be told.
SANYA OSHA: When you visit Nigeria, do you still feel like you belong, feel like a Nigerian? Or you’ve stayed out too long and you’re now an outsider?
CHIKA UNIGWE: Nigeria is my home. I can’t imagine ever feeling like I do not belong. No matter where I have been, no matter how long I have been away, I land at Murtala Mohammed (Airport) and I feel at once that I am home. Home is where the heart is. For me, that place is Nigeria.
SANYA OSHA: When you get the opportunity to talk to aspiring writers, what do you say to them that you wish someone had taken the time to say to you while you were seeking recognition?
CHIKA UNIGWE: Patience is a virtue. Even in writing. Especially in writing. Allow that story, that novel, that poem to take as much time as it needs to take to mature.
SANYA OSHA: So, have you arrived at the stage whereby anything you write can get published?
CHIKA UNIGWE: No. And I am not sure it is an enviable position to be in. I want anything I publish to go through rigorous vetting and critique. I hope I always have that.
SANYA OSHA: You explained in an interview with Per Contra how you stopped writing poetry. In your words, “the muse of poetry left me when I moved abroad from Nigeria”. Can you elaborate on that a little? In your view, what does moving away from a writer’s primary source of inspiration take away from the writer? Is that the price to pay for seeking other climes?
CHIKA UNIGWE: When I moved to Belgium, certainly in my early years there, I suffered from panic attacks. I could not write anything at all. I had just got married, I had just moved to a new country, surrounded by people who spoke no English. I had to learn a new language. I had to learn new social and cultural codes. I had to develop a new network of friends. I was relatively young. It was overwhelming. I found it difficult to cope. I did not know that others go through the same experience. With time, with the knowledge of the language, my confidence came back and I found that I could write again. However, when I started to write, I was haunted by fiction rather than poetry. I still can’t write poetry now.
SANYA OSHA: Your mother reportedly greatly impacted the development of your sense of observation. Can you share how that happened with our readers? Do you think this is something that a writing programme could have imbued?
CHIKA UNIGWE: My mother likes to imagine a story rather than just hear one. When we were young and she had a visitor while she was away, or she sent us to deliver a message to anyone, we couldn’t get away with just saying so and so came. Or “I left the letter with Mrs. X. She said to say thank you.” We had to pay attention to their tone of voice, their body language, the look on their face when we delivered the message or said our mother was not home because we knew that she would ask. She would ask, “How did she say, ‘say thank you to your mother’?” for example. We learned to read and articulate the unspoken, and to give richness to what was spoken. It was a chore delivering a message to her, and as children we didn’t look forward to it, but we couldn’t avoid it so we trained ourselves. I am very grateful now for that training.
SANYA OSHA: How are your ‘men’ acclimatizing to life in America? It seems everyone in your family has now experienced the immigrant life first hand. Is observing all of them change and adapt adding fuel to your creative fire?
CHIKA UNIGWE: My men are acclimatizing well. It is fascinating observing the shock that comes from moving cultures through their eyes. The boys had no idea that cheerleaders and school yellow buses were real. One of them said he thought they just existed in movies. He came back from school and he said, Mom, cheerleaders are real. And football captains! The food is taking a lot more time for them to get used to (we still cook a lot at home and eat together as much as we can). We had to shop around to find the brand of bread that tasted close to what they were used to. They miss not being able to ride their bikes to school and to their friends’; they are shocked that school cafeterias serve pizza; they miss their family in Europe, but they are doing very well. I am very proud of them.
SANYA OSHA: You focus on African women and their experiences in your books. Is that going to change with the Equiano novel you’re working on?
CHIKA UNIGWE: I have absolutely no idea. It sounds cliché but I do let my stories find me. Regardless of what I am working on, my ultimate goal is to tell it in the best way possible.
SANYA OSHA: You go to mass. You’re a catholic. But you have complained in the past about the damage Christianity is doing to Nigerian – specifically Igbo – traditions. How do you reconcile the two? You think someone should tell the current Pope who appears to be open to progressive ideas?
CHIKA UNIGWE: In my experience, Catholicism seems much more amenable to marrying Christianity and tradition than evangelical Christianity is. I have never had a priest denounce the new yam festival, for example, as a “heathen festival that should be avoided by a true Christian.” The Pope, if I remember well, in his recent speech to the US Congress, spoke about (or at least implied it) the dangers of polarization, and so I am certain that he, too, will see the sense in Christians respecting local traditions. Some of the Igbo traditions being destroyed are not at all in opposition to the church. New yam festival is not. It is a celebration of life. I find it saddening that we are willing to throw our beautiful and meaningful cultures overboard all in the name of Christianity; that people are rejecting Igbo names because they are not “Biblical” and burning shrines that have been there since time began because they are “demonic.”
SANYA OSHA: What is next for you in terms of your writing?
CHIKA UNIGWE: Hopefully more books, more writing competitions via the NGO, Awele Creative Trust. It is a privilege to be able to give back. And I think an obligation as well. I have received so much from others, it’d be ungrateful not to give back any way I can.