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In conversation

“Writing ‘On Black Sisters’ Street’ Made me Less Judgmental” | In Conversation With Chika Unigwe

Chika Unigwe interview
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Last week, we had literary heavyweight Okey Ndibe with on our Twitter #SyncityNGLLL chat series.This week, we followed up in conversation with another writer with a weighty résumé as well. Chika Unigwe is the author of the critically acclaimed books On Black Sisters Street (Jonathan Cape, 2011; Random House, 2012) and Night Dancer (Jonathan Cape, 2013). She was shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2004. In 2012, Unigwe won the NLNG prize for literature. In 2016, she was a Bonderman Assistant Professor of Literary Arts at Brown University. She has a short story  featured in New Daughters of Africa (HarperCollins,  2019) and is currently a Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Emory University. Her new collection of short stories Better Never than Late is set to be published by Cassava Republic later this year.  She writes in English and Dutch.

Our conversation with unigwe was as entrancing as it was enlightening. We discussed her writing and publishing life, writing On Black Sisters Street, sex work & trafficking, her forthcoming book, and so much more. Continue reading to catch up on our chat.

Syncity NG

Thank you for honoring our invitation. Congrats on your new book! Hope to snag a copy when it is released. Tell me, if you weren’t a writer, in what profession would we have found you?

Chika Unigwe

Thanks. I poured a lot of blood and sweat into Better Never than Late. I’m super excited about it. My earliest ambition was to be a writer. I can’t imagine not being that. But I also love teaching. So, I’d have probably carved out a full-time career in teaching

Syncity NG

Can you honestly tell us some of the factors that pushed you to limelight in the literary space?

Chika Unigwe

Luck. Tenacity. Support. When I was shortlisted for the Caine Prize years ago (where I met my 1st agent and my 1st editor), I was living in Belgium, but I really wanted to get into the English writing world. I sent in a story to a magazine, judges liked it. Success in writing requires a level of luck (right place, right time) , but you’ve got to be prepared to ride that luck when it meets you. I was already working on a novel by the time I met my potential agent, and when it sold, I was willing to work on it for as long as was needed.

Image result for chika unigwe

Syncity NG

Luck? So you do agree that luck, time and chance play crucial roles in the ‘blowing’ of a writer?

Chika Unigwe

As with everything in life, a certain amount of luck is always useful. But that luck is useless if it meets you ill-prepared (hence the saying that you make your own luck). And luck is useless if there’s no talent. It’s like life, right? No one chooses the family they’re born into, but if life’s lottery places you in a family that can afford to send you to school etc. But if you have no talent for academics, or can afford to set up in business but you have no interest in that, then that luck is useless to you, right?

Syncity NG

You write beautifully. I had to re-read On Black Sisters Street this evening. Asides putting ego aside (yup, shade right there), how can writers hone their crafts for national and international recognition?

Chika Unigwe

Thank you 🙂 I don’t think you hone your craft for recognition. You do so for your own integrity. You cannot take yourself seriously as a writer if you’re not interested in putting your best foot forward. The recognition is nice, but there are lots of good writers who are not recognized for a whole variety of reasons. Now, having said that: you hone your craft by reading (no better teacher than well-written books in your genre). I am also a believer in writing communities (which is why I love writing classes); people you trust with whom you can exchange reading and critique favors. And really, a writer can’t afford to be an ‘eze onye agwala m,’ as the Igbo say. You’ve got to be willing to accept criticism graciously and with an open mind. No writer grows by thinking they know it all. You’ve got to be able to sift the chaff from the wheat (all critiques are not created equal) and accept that not everyone has to love your work (it’s not money!).

Syncity NG

Speaking of reading other writers, Okey Ndibe, who was with us last week, is also of the opinion that writers should read other writers. But what happens when you begin to sound like another writer you have ravenously read?

Chika Unigwe
Photo via: Book Depository

Chika Unigwe

You eventually find your voice. I wouldn’t worry about that. At the beginning, most people start off by imitating their favorite writers. That’s okay, those favorite writers did it too. You’re a unique individual. That ultimately affects your voice. It’s really an anxiety that shouldn’t be. And really, it’s close to impossible to be a writer if you don’t read. It’s like cooking. I don’t think any 2 people make the same dish the exact same way, even if they copy the same recipe. There are always variations in taste, right?

Syncity NG

Right! These days, the NG writing industry has turned writers to lobbyists, and some have had to grovel before publishers or the gate-keepers of the literary space before they can be recognized. What are your thoughts on this. Also, do such scenarios occur in the West?

Chika Unigwe

I know very little of how the NG writing industry works, but I am not sure I understand what you mean by recognition. Could you clarify, please?

Syncity NG

Recognition: Getting published here and in the West.

Chika Unigwe

Publishers are in the business of publishing the best manuscripts they get. Commercial publishers especially, have to be objective and careful because at the end of the day, it’s a business for them, right? I do not see how it serves any publisher well to publish a book that’s been lobbied for, if there’s no merit to the book, if there’s no chance there’d be any return on investment for them. So I honestly do not see how that would work. I’ve always sold my works via an agent (most publishers in the west do not accept unagented submissions). Your agent is your early reader, your champion, the one who tries to get the book into the right editor’s hands. And even after the book’s sold to an editor, even after it’s been published, that’s still no guarantee of ‘recognition’.

Out of curiosity, who are these ‘gate-keepers’ of the Nigerian literary space?

Syncity NG

I can’t say something now and my Oga at the top will say another. 😏😏😏😏😏😏😏 Ha ha! Okay, let’s talk about On Black Sisters Street; how far did you go in researching the book’s major theme: Prostitution?

chika unigwe interview
Photo via Flanders Today

Chika Unigwe

I interviewed Nigerian sex workers in the red light district of Antwerp. I knew nothing about what it felt like to be the women in my novel. I had to find out (to a reasonable extent what life for them was like). The first night I walked down the street, the first time I entered the cafe out of which illegal Nigerian sex workers operated, I felt the same way Sisi would have on her first night. It helped me translate her emotions better. I felt her vulnerability; her discomfort, I imagined, what if I couldn’t go home? What if my husband, tall and broad-shouldered (somewhat:) wasn’t where I could see him, nicely blending in with the men?

Syncity NG

Did anyone ever say how beneficial your book was in shedding light on the plight of sex workers? How did that research change your perception of the sex industry?

Chika Unigwe

It made me less judgmental. When I was young, I couldn’t even say the word. ‘sex.’ To sing, Salt ‘n’ Pepa’s Let’s talk about Sex, baby,’ , I had to sub. ‘bread’ for ‘sex.’ I thought all sex workers were selfish, greedy, amoral women at best and at worst, victims, forced into it. The research showed me how little I knew and how wrong I was. I met (Nigerian) women who chose to do this because they felt they had no options. They migrated willingly to service the industry. I met women who were doing it to look after families back in Benin City (many of the women I spoke to were from Benin). On Sundays, they filled the African evangelical churches in Antwerp. They sent money home to parents and siblings and children.

I’ve done work with anti-human-trafficking organizations in Europe, and a few years ago, we were in Nigeria for a sensibilization campaign. A team from the UK (law and order) said they read my book to help them better understand. I think I’m happier if what my book does is remind us that these women are people, like us. People with lives and dreams and families. And in many cases, women who are putting their own comfort last so that their families back home can enjoy.

I hope it reminds us that shame is sometimes a luxury. I remember being asked when I asked one how she could bear to do this, “If your very ill father needed money for medicine, and your family has NOTHING and you could only get it by doing this, would you?”

chika unigwe interview
Photo via African Writer

When I did my research, the women had to pay back an average of (I don’t remember very well) , I think 40-60 000 euros. To pay that back, even over several years, you’re denying yourself of a lot. Some of the women come in not knowing why they’ve been brought into the country: I met a Bini woman (after the book came out) whose father was her pimp. He’d brought her to Germany to ‘go to school’ but after three weeks, sent her to a madam in Antwerp to [do sex] work. When she called the father, he asked her ‘don’t you want your own fine things?’ So she started working. Fell out with her madam (long story), married a client and when I asked her if she hated her father, she said No. ‘Back in Nigeria, I had nothing.”

Her husband later told me that she still (years later) , drove her to her father’s house every weekend to clean it (show of gratitude). I also met women who, even after paying off their debts, stay on and continue working in the industry. I met one who brought in her step sister and became her sister’s madam. I met women who wanted to leave but couldn’t because their families back in Nigeria still needed their income. Their stories are varied. PS: Luka Roegler produced a brilliant documentary, Sisters of No Mercy, about Nigerian sex workers deported from Italy.

I met a lovely woman in Milan: Isoke, former prostitute, who set up an NGO for Naija prostitutes who want to leave the industry but cannot. I heard incredible stories from her. A pastor told one who wanted out that by shopping her Madam for protection and stay in Italy, she was breaking a bond and committing a sin against the spirit, but that by working as a sex worker, she was only committing a sin against the flesh , and therefore should not seek to quit. She told me of another one who wanted out but whose mother had sold property in Benin City to get her out, and so she was stuck.

The (illegal) ones in Belgium told me of how they were sometimes at the mercy of corrupt Belgian cops (corruption is everywhere!) who wanted sex in exchange for letting them go free.

@mystiquesynn

Questions for Chika: 1. What do you think about writers having mentees? Do you have any? If no, are you open to a few? 2. Some of your works have been adapted into University curriculum. How did that happen?

Chika Unigwe

I am a huge believer in writers looking out for each other. I have been touched and humbled and helped by the generosity of other writers, writers who passed opportunities my way. I always try to play it forward. 2. That’s absolutely out of my power.

@dezehmi

How long does it take you to write a book from start to finish?

Chika Unigwe

The collection of short stories took about 2 years, On Black Sisters Street took a lot longer. I am still working on a novel I’ve been working on for five years now.

@gwinuc

How do you deal with writer’s block?

Chika Unigwe

Lots of chocolate and wine and gummy bears 🙂 I try to write every day. The Muse needs to be lured out, and I’ve found that writing daily flatters them into coming out 🙂 Sometimes, what I write is crap. Other times, I’m lucky and it’s stuff I can use

@ah_nnie__

Where or how do you draw inspiration to write. And,  is self publishing better than submitting works to publishing houses?

Chika Unigwe Interview
Image via James Murua

Chika Unigwe

I eavesdrop a lot (bad habit), but I’ve heard stuff on planes and trains that have sown the seed for some of my works. Self-publishing isn’t for me because, one, I do not have the energy to market my own works. Two, I want someone else who believes in me to invest in me as a business. And, three, I do not have the required knowledge to get my books into libraries and festivals and bookstores.

Syncity NG

Tell us about your new book and where we can purchase previous works.

Chika Unigwe

Better Never than Late is a short story collection, set in Belgium and Nigeria, and is perhaps an expansion of an essay I wrote years ago, Losing my Voice. [You can purchase my books from] bookstores (I hope) [and on] Amazon. The new collection is about loss and hope, resilience and growth. I am incredibly proud of it and super excited. The stories deal with questions I’ve grappled with for years.

Syncity NG

Chika has been nothing short of amazing! I need to learn Dutch though😩😩😩😩 How can one human being write in 3 languages? Not fair😭😭😭 Let’s wrap the show with this: Last piece of advice for up and coming writers?  @chikaunigwe

Chika Unigwe

Keep writing. Keep reading. Enjoy your successes. Learn from your failures. Be grateful for/to readers. Thanks for having me. I appreciate the honour.

Syncity NG

Thank you so much for coming, Chika. Thank you, Synners, for tuning in tonight.

Join us next Monday as we host another brilliant writer; follow us @SyncityNG on twitter to keep in touch. Did you enjoy reading this conversation? Please share to your friends!

 

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