Chika Unigwe is an Afro-Belgian writer of Nigerian origin, who currently lives in Turnhout, Belgium. She is the author of fiction, poetry, articles and educational material. Her second novel, On Black Sisters’ Street, was published in Dutch in 2008 (as Fata Morgana) and in English in 2009. Night Dancer, her most recent novel, was released in June 2012 by Jonathan Cape. A multi-award winning author, Unigwe 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. In this interview with Africa Book Club, she talks about her books and her enthusiasm about the state of African literature.
Tell us about yourself – who really is Chika Unigwe?
I was born and raised in Enugu, south eastern part of Nigeria. Every year, at least once a year, we spent some time in Osumenyi, our ancestral home. I moved to Belgium after my BA and live in a little city called Turnhout. I am a full time Mommy and full time writer.
When did you start writing, and at what point did you decide this is what you wanted to do?
I always wrote. I have always loved words but I only started writing seriously in 2000. It was not until after my second novel that I started referring to myself as a ‘writer’ and even got calling cards made to that effect.
There are some similarities between your own life and that of your characters? Are parts of your work biographical?
My characters are people you could know, but they are not based on any one person I know. I try to keep away from using my own life to write. It’s boring. I prefer discovering new people.
In your book, On Black Sisters Street, and in some of your other works, you have explored the subject of African women being driven into prostitution. What led you to explore this particular subject?
I was raised in a very conservative catholic home and discovering sex for sale in Belgium was a huge eye opener. Seeing the women behind display windows like cakes in bakers’ windows was a huge cultural shock. When I was told that a majority of the African prostitutes in Antwerp were Nigerians, I began to wonder about the whys and wherefores. Curiosity dragged me to the theme.
You also have another book, Night Dancer, that came out recently. Would you like to tell our readers about it?
Night Dancer is really a story about the love a mother has for her daughter and how much she is willing to sacrifice for that love. It is about relationships, about seeking personal freedom even at the cost of communal displeasure.
You story as a writer is quite unique in that you’ve attained success in a language other than English. From your perspective, has African literature come of age, and is there a market for it beyond the traditional English and French speaking worlds?
There is always a market for good writing. More and more Africans are being published by mainstream commercial publishers abroad and this is making our work more (internationally) visible. That is a good thing. It counters the single African story, this multitude of voices.
How has your work been received in Africa, particularly in your home country Nigeria?
You’ve won numerous writing awards in the past, including the Caine Prize. How significant have these awards been in defining your writing career?
I was shortlisted for the Caine. I am not a confident writer, I am assailed by doubts every step of the way. Prizes are a validation of the work I do in private, shaken by doubts. They tell me that maybe I am doing something right and make it easier to continue on this path.
What is your proudest accomplishment since you started writing? At what point did you feel that you had finally made it?
I still don’t feel I have made it. I think my proudest moment was signing the first book In wrote. Nothing beats that moment. Except maybe the first time I held a copy in my hands
Who are your favourite African writers, and what books would you recommend to anyone interested in reading African literature?
I admire so many of my contemporaries for so many different reasons: Chikwava, Adichie, Cole, Nwaubani, Dibia, Wainana, Warner, Osondu, Habila, Shoneyin. The list is endless. I am enthusiastic about so much of the new writing coming out of Africa. I have recently read and enjoyed Saro-Wiwa’s Looking for Transwonderland, Tendai Huchu’s The Hairdresser of Harare, and Onuzo’s The Spider King’s daughter.
Any advice to upcoming writers? What does it take to succeed?
Persistence and a willingness to fail.