Chika Unigwe’s novel, On Black Sisters Street, was on Thursday November 1, announced as winner of the $100,000 Nigeria Prize for Literature, the biggest prize for literature in Africa. She gave me her very first interview as winner of the prize.
So Chika, where were you when you heard the news?
I came in from Mass and went straight to my PC. I saw messages of congratulations, and I broke down in tears
What were your expectations, first entering the competition? It is your first time, no?
Yes. I had no expectations. Nigeria has an incredible amount of talent, so I sent it in and tried to forget about it.
Did you have any success forgetting?
Well, a certain person did not let me forget, especially after it made it to the shortlist of 10
Hahaha! Tell me the story of “On Black Sisters Street”. How was it born; what drew you to the story? Did you look for it, or did it come to you?
I saw it. I come from a very catholic, very conservative home. We couldn't use certain words at home: sex, swear words. If I sang “Let's talk about sex baby” by Salt-n-Pepa, I'd have to substitute 'sex' with 'bread'. So to come form that sort of background to Belgium where sex workers stand behind display windows to solicit customers was an immense cultural shock.
When I was told that many of the black prostitutes in Belgium were Nigerian, I was very curious. So in a way the story came to me.
And the character Ama, very early in the book screams: "Where is my fucking mascara!" Has any of your parents read the book?
Yes, they both have. I don't swear and find it very difficult to read extracts with the swearing in public. Ama was the character who tasked me the most she mocked me and dared me to write her truthfully it's very irritating when one's own character taunts one so I had to leave the private 'me' behind and become the writer who had nothing to do with me to write her.
It's amazing how much our parents are not at all as bad as we think they are. My mother's only concern when she saw the Vintage edition cover was that I wasn't the lady on the cover.
Would you ever model for any of your book covers?
Not even if I said you would look great?
No, not even then.
What would you say to the argument that, instead of writing stories that have become clichés - negative stories about Africans: poverty, privation, prostitution- we should write more positive stories?
I don't believe in prescriptive writing. Writers write out of a passion, not just for writing, but for a story that haunts them. Sometimes the stories that haunt you the most are the sad ones. On Black Sisters Street has a lot of light in it as well. The only thing I think a writer owes readers is the truth, not factual truth, but emotional truth. Write so that your characters live in your readers' head; write so that your readers are delighted –not necessarily by the actions of your characters, but by your prose.
One finds that, because of your usage or your characters’ usage of a lot of “Nigerian English” and slang, there is quite a bit of italicisation in OBSS. What do you think about italicisation of words with common local usage, like “jollof rice”?
It has never bothered me. I think it has its uses and editors tend to favour it when words that are not part of the dominant lexicon of the work pop up. English words are italicised in Dutch novels, for example.
So back to the prize. What next from here?
Life goes on. I am working on the draft of a new novel, so once I get down from cloud 9, I will get back to work.
Do you have any plans to make your books available in Nigeria through a Nigerian publisher?
I am in talks with one. I have no control over the publishing. A Nigerian publisher has to show interest. I would love to have my books available in Nigeria.
Tell me a bit about the "private you" you had to leave behind to write the spicy character Ama. Something I can't google. Apart from your long dreadlocks and love for shoes.
Let me see: I love condensed milk. I buy it here in a tube and eat it straight from the tube. I love walking into puddles.
The private me I had to leave behind, which also underwent a change, was one with a lot of preconceived notions, somewhat judgmental and who saw the world in black and white.
One thing you have always wanted as a writer?
Lots. I am greedy.
I really wanted this award, this NLNG award and I am very happy I got it.
Three Nigerian writers who have impacted you the most?
[Chinua] Achebe, for starting it all. [Flora] Nwapa for showing me that I could be a woman and a writer. [Buchi] Emecheta for teaching me resilience. I discovered all three at various stages of my life.
|CHIKA AND ELNATHAN BOLD AND THE BEAUTIFUL WORKSHOP. 2011|
Kai! That's a difficult question, the most difficult certainly. LOL.
See why I left it until the last?
Thank you Chika for talking with me!