I adored On Black Sisters’ Street
and felt a unique connection with each of the characters. You fall in love with the women early on in the book, which makes it all the more heartbreaking as you watch them move slowly towards their fate. What drew you to write a book on the lives of prostitutes trafficked from Nigeria?
Thank you very much. I am really glad to hear that you loved it. The short answer is curiousity. I believe that writers, especially writers of fiction, begin to write out of a sense of curiosity. Certainly, in my case, a deep curiosity, a desire to know, to learn, to unravel is what drives my passion for writing. It is in exploring that curiosity that my stories or novels arise. When I moved to Belgium, one of the biggest cultural shocks I had was seeing sex sold in the open, seeing women behind display windows whenever I took the train into Brussels. I had not even thought it possible that a legal red light district could exist. In Nigeria, I knew there were sex workers, but they were like air. You never saw them but you knew they were there. When I discovered that a great number of the African sex workers in Antwerp were from Nigeria, I wanted to find out more.
Can you tell me about the research that went into the novel? You donned a miniskirt yourself and stepped out in Antwerp, what was that experience like? What were your first impressions of the women you met, and how did this evolve as you delved deeper into their stories?
Because this was a world completely unknown to me, I couldn’t write it without first doing research. To write a character well, one must treat that character with integrity and respect, and that means knowing as much as there is to know about the character. It was especially important to me to do research because I had my preconceived notions of what a prostitute was like. And I also had watched some reportages on human trafficking. If I had written the novel without doing the field work, I would have ended up writing a type rather than individual women.
My impressions of the women began to change the first night I was on their turf and people assumed I was a sex worker too, or at least a prospective one. Suddenly, I realized that nothing - on the outside at least - separated me from these women. I felt the discomfort that Sisi must have felt on her first night and I channelled that discomfort into her character. I was not describing feelings I had imagined, but feelings that I myself, even knowing that I wasn’t going to leave with any man other than my husband, that I wasn’t bound by any contract to stay there, that I could go home at anytime, had. The dominant narrative (at the time, certainly) was that these women were trafficked and forced into sex work. Many of the women I spoke to had chosen (and I use this world cautiously as it implies options that they didn’t think they had) to come; that they had any agency at all was something I hadn’t heard in the reportages I had been exposed to.
The more stories I heard, the more I realized that these were women who were mostly working out of a sense of familial obligation. In Benin City, in Nigeria, where a majority of the Nigerian sex workers in Europe come from, there’s a growing middle class: the families of these prostitutes. The women are building houses in choice areas and elevating their families from economic poverty, The women I met were doing the work they felt they needed to to give their families a better life: the kind of life that I had taken for granted. They were sending money back to Nigeria for widowed mothers, for fathers and siblings out of work, for their children. Their families can afford some of the best healthcare because of them. I remember being asked (when I asked “Why this job?”) that if my father needed expensive medical care and couldn’t afford it but I could, would I? That was a powerful moment. Some of the women hoped to stop as soon as they had paid off their debts to their madams, some wanted to work for themselves once they could. On Sundays, some went to church. In Italy, where prostitution is illegal and the women stand by the roadside, I heard that they would pray and ask the “blood of Jesus” to cover them and keep them safe. They went to parties, they threw parties. This isn’t something one learns from a National Geographic documentary. These were women with dreams and aspirations and lives outside of the red light district. I wanted to capture that in my novel, I hope I succeeded.
What was the reaction to On Black Sisters’ Street
from the sex worker community? There is a lot of feminist in-fighting relating to sex work – the argument of whether it is always exploitative or violent, or whether it can be empowering and seen as a free choice. Having researched and written a book specifically on the plight of trafficked women, what is your stance on sex work within feminism? Can it ever be non-violent, non-oppressive? Even empowering?
I honestly have no idea. No-one from the sex worker community and especially not the one in Antwerp has ever been in touch. I do not know that they have read it. I have heard from Law Enforcement and NGOs that deal with sex work, and I have been told that my novel has provided more insight that is useful to their work.
As to the second part of your question: I think that there are various types of sex work/workers and my “expertise” is on those who really fall under economic migrants. As far as the Nigerian women I interviewed and my characters in On Black Sisters’ Street
, there’s a level of agency. If feminism is about agency and empowerment, I think there are many I spoke to who would consider themselves radical feminists. Coming from cultures where men “take on wives” and pay dowries, a patriarchal society where men are supposed to be providers (and whatever women bring in is merely a token), these women have the economic wherewithal to turn the tables. In cultures where men are privileged, maleness loses its traditional construct where it is equated to gender, and becomes much more malleable and much more expansive, with room for women who take on male rules. It is this ability to operate within that space that these women most probably yearn for. They are not content with being passive recipients (which marriage with no income for example might confer on them), but active participants, so that we have these cases where some prostitutes marry men who are capable of financially sustaining them, yet they carry on working. Financial freedom moves them from the space of invisibility to the centre of power. These women transcend womanhood by becoming men in the most fundamental way via taking on the cultural roles of men: being the ‘heads’ of their families. Supporting their families (including their fathers and brothers), setting up businesses in Nigeria, where they can do so. Efe (?) in On Black Sisters’ Street
, for example, sets up her own school (in the future). So yes, it could be empowering.
I also know that it is a world that could exploit women, that could be violent, and one way of making it less so would be to decriminalize it. Make it easy for the women to report abuse and violence. The women I spoke to in Antwerp who were the most exploited were those who were working illegally, whether or not they had made the choice to become sex workers.
The women in On Black Sisters’ Street
are victims of patriarchal society both at home and in Belgium, and yet they remain stoic, strong and hopeful throughout their suffering. In your activism and public speaking you have discussed negofeminism, which specifically addresses the needs of African women and their ability to negotiate or manoeuvre within patriarchal society. The characters in On Black Sisters’ Street
and in your story collection, Better Never Than Late
, for the most part, do not fully reject or escape from the patriarchal structures that restrict them, despite readers’ desperation for them to do so. Can you explain how negofeminism shines through in your characters and stories, and how this differs from Western feminist narratives?
Negofeminism, according to the Nigerian scholar, Obioma Nnaemeka, is the feminism of negotiation, and it also stands for no-ego feminism. Negofeminism’s belief is that a paradigm shift can occur without the agents of the shift necessarily going into confrontation with the dominant factors and without breaking down the dominant culture. I think that the women of both On Black Sisters’ Street
and Better Never Than Late
understand that this is the more pragmatic thing for them to do: finding ways around patriarchal landmines rather than attempt to detonate all of them. These are women whose first instinct is survival, whose allegiance is to their community, in which they also find a lot of comfort, and so a complete break would probably incinerate them.
Negofeminism recognizes that (African) women live in societies where individual happiness and individualism (hallmarks of western feminism) are antithetical to how the community works. Nnaemeka often illustrates negofeminism with the (true) story of a woman in some African country who won an award for something and a photographer was sent by an influential magazine to make portraits of her. Every time the photographer sat her down for a picture, she'd rally her many children to join her. The photographer would shoo them away each time, trying to explain to her by gesticulating as they didn't have a common language between them, that the photo shoot was just for her to go alongside the article celebrating her, but it was to no avail. Frustrated, he looks for a translator. The translator tells the woman what the photographer wants, to which she responds that she is nothing without her children, they are her roots and she does not exist without them. Negofeminism is more encompassing, more intersectional (than western feminism). It also accepts, as the women in both books accept, that a certain negotiating with and manipulation (not eradication) of the status quo is needed for success. They do not believe that the status quo can be completely dismantled. For instance, Efe's sense of obligation and Sisi's sense of duty to their families back in Nigeria supersede their desire for their own personal happiness. It is so interwoven with their own sense of self that one could say that their happiness depends on the extent to which they succeed in carrying their families along. The 'I' is not central. The women (I no longer remember which in particular) still want to marry, even if they have to 'buy' their husbands. They would, if they found the right man, put up the money to pay their own brideprice (a radicalism that doesn't rattle the system). They want the respectability of the marriage institution (because their society expects it of women) yet they are independent. Their empowerment comes from making money off men, in a profession that is controversial, even in feminist circles. In Better Never Than Late
, Prosperous and her friends want some independence but are wary of getting it at the expense of their community.
Negofeminism is a practical and realistic route to that independence.
Glowing expectations vs disappointing reality is a recurring problem for your characters - we see this a lot in Better Never Than Late
, and of course in On Black Sisters’ Street
, where all of the characters are setting off in the hope of a new and better life. What were/are the prevailing misconceptions and myths that exist for men and women moving from Nigeria to Europe? Did you encounter any of these yourself when you moved?
I had been on holiday as a kid with my parents and siblings to London. We flew first class on KLM. I thought that was how everyone who flew abroad did. And we were middle class, not very wealthy, but Nigeria was in a better place then. My father had a house in London (long sold now) and we drove from Heathrow to the house in two taxis (not the mini cabs). At that age, because of the books I had read, I think I expected to see the London of the Famous Five. Adventures and club houses and so on. That was disappointing. However, my biggest shock then was how long daylight lasted in the summer. By the time I moved to Europe, I was older and wiser and had siblings who’d been living in the US already for many years. The shocks I had were more cultural than mythic: that my parents-in-law expected me, when we stayed at theirs, to join them for food at set times; that the TV was turned off for meals; that people didn’t visit during meals or if they did, they weren’t invited to join but that they quickly made their excuses and left; that people expected that being black and coming from ‘Africa’, I wasn’t smart/ambitious/good/whatever enough to do anything other than clean houses. I wasn’t an economic migrant and so I had more options and more space to exercise them than my characters who had to earn money without the luxury of my options. But yes, there are still people who believe that Europe is teeming with opportunities and money; that white women want black men and so on and so forth. Part of why these myths persist is because they are confronted, at holidays, with returnees who have ‘made’ it, returnees who are unwilling, sometimes, to tell the truth of their existence.
I remember a Nigerian man I knew in Belgium who took out a bank loan to return ‘in style’ to Nigeria. He worked in an abattoir in Turnhout (Belgium), hardly took holidays, had little luxuries but it was important for him to be seen by those he left behind in Nigeria as successful. He sent pictures back of himself at parties and beside fancy cars that didn’t belong to him. On that two week holiday alone, he spent so much more money than he would in half a year. He doled out cash to people, ate in the best restaurants, etc. When I asked him if he didn’t think that was excessive (by which I meant foolish), he said no. He’d do it again. For the respect he got, the feeling of importance it gave him. It made him a ‘somebody’. In Belgium, he was a ‘nobody’. If he had to starve himself in Belgium and borrow money to have that life for two weeks in Nigeria, it was worth it. His mates who had stayed back in Nigeria, who saw the cash he spent without knowing the context, were envious of him. If any of them were given a chance to leave for Europe, of course they’d take it. The strongest myth is certainly that of relatively easy economic mobility.
How has Nigerian storytelling influenced your work? You’ve mentioned your mother’s eye for detail in previous interviews - did that shape your own storytelling?
I am Igbo. Ndi Igbo have a strong oral telling tradition but the biggest influence on my work from my upbringing is indeed my mother. You didn’t want to be the one who told her she had a guest while she was out because she would query you and extract the minutest of details from you. It wasn’t enough to tell her that Mrs XYZ came and left a message. She wanted to know if XYZ looked sad or enthusiastic, what her voice was like as she left the message, how she walked back to her car. My mother was not interested in the plot. Well, she was but more important than that to her was the sequence and the narration (which includes details) of it. She would keep you there for ages – which was what we didn’t like - and interrupt and upend your narration to ask you questions, some of which you couldn’t really answer: questions about intentionality (like how could you know?). If she asked about your day at school, she wanted you to structure the narration of it in such a way as to keep her attention. When she said “start from the beginning”, she didn’t mean the chronological beginning of your day at school, but she wanted you to start from where it mattered. As writers, it’s a useful lesson to learn and when I write, I try to replicate that.
Writing such beautiful prose in your second language is not an easy thing to accomplish, yet you have won numerous awards and been celebrated by critics for your work in English. How long did it take you to find your ‘voice’ as a writer, and how does your Nigerian writing style differ from your English style?
Nigeria was an English colony until 1960. What that means in practical terms is that English is the lingua franca. Worse, that if you went to a ‘good’ school, as I did, no local language was allowed. Not only did we speak English in class, we spoke English on the school grounds. I went to a boarding school with students from all over the country (Nigeria has over 300 local languages but no Nigerian language is a national language) and so the only language we could communicate in was English. Still, school rules prohibited us from speaking anything else even if we were talking to schoolmates who shared our mother-tongue. A friend said when he went to school, if one was caught speaking any local language, derogatorily called “vernacular’, one was punished. In his case, he was denied lunch. He was in boarding school, so he couldn’t go home and eat.
In Nigerian schools today, this is still the case: students are only allowed to speak English. Speaking English is also seen as a sign of upward mobility, so there are many Nigerians who live in Nigeria whose only language is English. It’s a sad and terrible and worrying thing. So, I learned English at the same time as I learned Igbo (which is a time I cannot pinpoint). I like to say that Igbo is my mother-tongue while English is my step-mother tongue. Writing in English doesn’t seem like a ‘second language’ issue, but I hope that my writing reflects my Igboness. The late Chinua Achebe once famously said, (and I am paraphrasing him here): Do not be fooled into thinking that I am writing in English. When you read me, what you read is Igbo written in English.
That’s the same way I feel. It’s a small way of rebelling against a language that was imposed on my country and which, for practical reasons, we can not shake away. We have to find ways to make it our own. And we are. The Oxford dictionary recently updated its entries with Nigerian English words and phrases. If someone said they were eating swallow, for example, it isn’t confusing to someone proficient in Nigerian English. They’d know that the person meant they were eating any one type of fufu. We know that “I am coming” means “I’ll be there as soon as I can.” There is an entire vocabulary borrowed from English and some local Nigerian languages but whose usage is peculiar to Nigerian English. We cannot undo the historical (colonial) past but we can rebel in such delicious ways.
How do you feel your work has evolved since you first began writing? What have been the greatest improvements you’ve made?
At the beginning of my writing career, I was precious about the characters being “my creators”.
I think that I have learned to be more trusting of my characters. I have learned to give them a lot more independence, allow them to lead me to their stories. It’s been liberating. I have also learned to trust the reader. At the beginning, there was the temptation to let the reader in on everything, to explain everything, as if they were kids needing to be told, “this is a lamp, a lamp shines light”. Readers will find out what they don’t know, they’ll put in the work (and often enjoy it), at least, I do.
You grew up in a conservative Catholic household in Nigeria and attended Catholic university in Belgium – how have friends, family and fellow Nigerians received your work? Have any rejected the subject-matter?
Luckily, it’s been well received. I still do events around the book in Nigeria. I joined NGOs on sensibilization programmes in Nigeria. Nigerians are aware, now, that trafficking, whether voluntary or not, exists. In 2003, Nigeria set up The National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) to deal with issues of sex trafficking (especially) because of the enormity of it. My novel doesn’t shock many people, it maybe provides some insight. I went with an NGO to a girls’ school in Benin City on an awareness campaign, and in a class of over 60 girls, every single one of them had ‘aunties’ or ‘sisters’ who were ‘working’ in Europe. According to NAPTIP over 11,000 women and girls were trafficked from Nigeria in 2016 alone. The annual number, if I am not mistaken, is about 10,000. People know the problem is there, they know, if they read papers, the extent of it, but what they don’t get, unless they are intimate with the field, is the sense of these women as just ordinary people, women who could be sitting next to them in church, for example. That’s the depth my novel provides. I did not set out to shock or sensationalize it, I just wanted to tell stories.
You identify as Nigerian and Belgian, but now live in the States with your family – how have you celebrated your ancestral roots and culture with your children, and is it a challenge to keep this rich cultural identity alive in the next generation?
My children have a Belgian father and a Nigerian mother, so it’s easy to keep our cultures alive in little things: what we eat at home, the music we listen to, the holidays we celebrate, their Igbo (Nigerian) names with their Flemish (Belgian) last name. It is up to them to decide what they want to keep and what they want to drop, or if they want to abandon both cultures and choose a different one.
Janice Galloway cited you as one of the writers she’d like to recommend in an interview with our website earlier this year. Can you tell us what your experience was of first meeting Janice and then encountering her novels and stories?
I am so grateful for her generosity. I met Janice in Hong Kong. We had been invited for a panel discussion. I was so taken by her warmth and her intelligence and her grace. In Igbo, we would say that she has obi ocha, a clean heart. I was glad to discover that I also absolutely loved her writing.
Who have been your greatest influences, both in African and Western literature?
Chinua Achebe, Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, Mariama Ba, Ngugi Wa Thiongo and all the other pioneers of African literature. They encouraged me to take up space writing my own narrative. ●
Chika Unigwe is the author of four novels, as well as numerous short stories and essays.
You can read Chika's full biography and about her writing projects via her personal website: chikaunigwe.com
You can follow Chika on Twitter: @chikaunigwe