Stolen Children, Laura Pegram Interviews Chika Unigwe


Chika Unigwe was born in Enugu, Nigeria and now lives in Marietta, Georgia with her husband and four children. This brilliant artist and activist holds a BA in English Language and Literature from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and an MA from the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium. She also holds a PhD from the University of Leiden, The Netherlands, having completed a thesis entitled "In the shadow of Ala. Igbo women writing as an act of righting" in 2004. In November 2012, Chika Unigwe won the prestigous NLNG Prize for Literature for “On Black Sisters Street,” a novel about human trafficking. It is a compassionate story about the lives of four African sex workers sharing an apartment in Antwerp’s red-light district. But it is also a story about choices and displacement.

Excerpt from “On Black Sisters Street"  

“It is easy to tell those who have stumbled on the Schipperskwartier by mistake. Tourists with their cameras slung around their necks, mostly Japanese tourists who do not know Antwerp, seduced by the antiquity of the city and deceived by the huge cathedral, they wander off and then suddenly come face-to-face with a lineup of half-dressed women, different colors and different shades of those colors. They look and, disbelieving, take another look. Quickly. And then they walk away with embarrassed steps. Not wishing to be tainted by the lives behind the windows. 

Those who know where they are and why they are there walk with an arrogant swagger and a critical twinkle in their eyes. They move from one window to another and, having made up their minds, go in to close a sale. The street starts filling up at around nine o’clock. Young men in their thirties with chins as soft as a baby’s buttocks and pictures of their pretty wives in their leather wallets, looking for adventure between the thighs of een afrikaanse. Young boys in a frazzled eagerness to grow up, looking for a woman to rid them of their virginity. Bachelors between relationships, seeking a woman’s warmth without commitment. Old men with mottled skin and flabby cheeks, looking for something young to help them forget the flaccidity time has heaped on them. Vingerlingstraat bears witness to all kinds of men.

The women often discuss their customers, dissecting the men and heaping them into one of two categories. The good ones. The miserly ones. They lack the patience, or perhaps the inclination or inventiveness, to find any in-between men. The ones who are neither good nor miserly. Etienne is one such good customer. Etienne with the garlic-scented smile and hair slicked back, wet with gel, so that they constantly speculate on the jars and jars of gel he must go through. 

Etienne is a generous tipper, but you would not tell just by looking at him. He is proof that looks do not always tell the real story about people. Etienne is small and always wears trousers that are too tight for him. Trousers that look like he has owned them since he was fourteen and which make the women joke about the state of his genitals. Not what you would expect from a man who doles out money left, right, and center as if he is scattering rice grains to his pet chickens. He is one of Joyce’s regulars. He calls her “Etienne’s Nubian Princess.” Joyce cannot stand him, the way he calls her “Mama!” when he comes, digging into her waist with his nails, his breath smelling of garlic.” 

The following interview with Chika Unigwe took place over the course of a year and across two continents.  

LAURA PEGRAM:  Edward P. Jones wrote: "The best fiction succeeds when it allows a reader to open a door, step into a different world, look about, and say, finally, I feel and know this place and these people as if I have visited many times before. Chika Unigwe has done that for us with all the men and women of her new novel." Let me start by saying Welcome, Chika and thank you for opening a door for your readers. Your gift, your art, is “sam-sam perfect.”  Your technique is flawless. In Black Sisters Street,” the reader comes to know the stories of Sisi, Ama, Joyce and Efe. We see elements of description that are completely significant. Nothing on the page is extraneous, whether it is the tattoo of a hammer on the side of Dele's neck,  . . . Sisi’s "single bed dressed up in impossibly white sheets," . . . Segun's "busy hands," . . . or the incense Madam used to keep Sisi's spirit at bay. This specificity helps you balance surprise with inevitability. How do you achieve this level of specificity? 

CHIKA UNIGWE:  In my final year at university, I was extremely lucky to have the opportunity to take a creative writing elective. We had an amazing professor, the late Prof. Ossie Enekwe. He opened my eyes to how important specificity is in writing, and how one could use it in moving a narrative forward. Interestingly, my siblings and I often complain of how tiresome it is to tell our mother a story because she insists on details. If we told her about some random stranger who fainted at the supermarket, for example, she'd ask how they fell; what they were wearing and what color their clothes were; what kind of shoes they had on; how tall they were, etc. If we relayed a message from a visitor, or passed on greetings from someone, she'd ask about their tone of voice; their body language. It is almost as if she wants to insert herself into whatever story we are telling her, and see it for herself. We learned to observe so that we could render faithful retellings to her. Years of living with my mother must have also left their influence on me.

LAURA:  In March 2013, you participated in Adelaide Writers Week. It is said to be one of the oldest writers’ festivals in Australia. Can you discuss a few highlights of your panel on Sexual Politics?   

CHIKA:  I was on a panel with two terrific authors both of whom are very intelligent: Justine Larbalestier, a YA and fantasy writer, and playwright Bryony Lavery. The conversation somehow, perhaps inevitably came round to the famous but very often abbreviated version of the Rebecca West quote, 'I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute,' and we had a stimulating discussion on why West's sentiments might be (or might not be) exclusionary feminism. Can one be a prostitute and be feminist? Can't one if one has made that choice herself and feels empowered by exercising that choice? 

LAURA:  If we were to ask Isoke Aikpitanyi she would say YES. Isoke was trafficked at eighteen, brought in through Heathrow to Milan where she worked as a prostitute for some years, helping to offset her mother's medical bills. When her mother died of cancer back in Benin City, Isoke quit. You spoke of Isoke during your Tedx Talk in December 2009. She was one of the girls you met during the five year period you were researching your novel. 

"At 25, Isoke is married to a wonderful Italian man and, with his support, has opened up a halfway home for trafficked Nigerian women who want to quit the sex trade. Isoke's seed is growing. She asks nothing of the girls but a willingness to integrate into the larger Italian community by taking language courses. She understands the power of language. Isoke's Italian is perfect and, with the help of an Italian journalist friend, she has written a book on the girls of Benin City. Stories of girls like her from Benin City working, or who have worked, as prostitutes in Italy. Isoke is no minister's daughter. Her father, a civil servant who earned about 75 euro a month, abandoned her mother when Isoke was a child. Isoke's mother struggled to raise her and her seven siblings. Isoke’s husband is not wealthy. You're not going to find his name on the Forbes list or any such list. But he has a belief in his wife's mission. Isoke is not afraid to tell her story and, in fact, she does so regularly all over Italy. Her passion is incredible. Her generosity of spirit is humbling, and she is proof for me that our destiny is in our hands, that we can empower ourselves. And that it is only when we are willing to confront our demons, only when we are willing to overcome our fear of failure and to dive straight in, only when we are willing to take a difficult route, it is only then that we can begin to live our dreams and inspire others to dream."  Tedx Talks

CHIKA:  Isoke is one of the strongest, kindest human beings I have been privileged to meet. To go through what she has and to come through it whole and willing to help others is incredible. 

LAURA:  Each of the four women in "On Black Sisters Street" made a choice to leave behind nearly soul crushing defeats: unemployment, rape, war, . . . “the stench of mildewed dreams.” Healing from these defeats was part of their journey. You talked about a healing experience in Adelaide during the writers' festival. Can you speak about how your time with one Aboriginal author changed you and your understanding of forgiveness and healing?

CHIKA:  [At the Adelaide festival] I met this really wonderful Aboriginal author who welcomed me to 'our land' and prayed for me, when she came to have her copy of my book signed. She told me proudly that the land we were on was Aboriginal land. There was something soothing and regal about her. I was very intrigued by her, and bought her book as soon as I could. I could not drop it once I started reading it. I also could not stop crying. She was one of the 'stolen' children.’ Yet a memoir that should have been permeated by sadness is optimistic. The last sentence of the book is, "Together we will be there always, turning the past hurts into healing.' It helped me reconsider my views on a lot of things. Anger must never replace forgiveness. Or should not. Anger has its place, but to be able to heal, we must learn to be magnanimous in forgiving. Difficult, but I am learning.

LAURA:  I attended a symposium on Toni Cade Bambara at Center for Black Literature (CBL) in March 2013. Farah Jasmine Griffin opened the symposium and described Bambara as a teacher, activist, organizer, mother, mentor, and friend who saw "literature as cultural and political force with power to change our consciousness, our lives, our world." It occurs to me that you have a lot in common with Bambara. Your work reflects your understanding that art has work to do. You have also worked as a facilitator at Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop, and you are part of the organizing team of TEDxEuston. As a mother of four sons and a working artist, how do you do it all? Do you ever sleep? 

CHIKA:  Thanks. I have a strong, supportive network of family and friends who generously give of their time and space , so that I might have both to do the things I am passionate about. My husband and I also try to adjust our agenda so that we are both not away from home at the same time. We made a choice to have children, and so it is important to us that we be there for them.

LAURA:  Kweli tries to nurture new and emerging voices, in the same way you probably nurture your boys and your students. I often share a quote from Ben Okri with Kweli's scholarship students: "As a writer, you must read as if the next day you will lose your eyesight."  In one of your interviews you mentioned a Chinese anthology that inspired you. If you were teaching Kweli scholars, which two stories from that anthology would you use as teaching stories? 

CHIKA:  There is "The Transformer" which is a story about a young child from a poor home who wants a toy transformer that is in vogue. His mother foregoes a much needed winter scarf to get it for him. The joy she gets from seeing him play with it is enough for her but it is short-lived  for something happens. It is a small tragedy but it is written with such depth and careful attention to details that we are sucked right into it. The second is a story about a young girl who loses her father and has to learn to love her step mother. Every word in the story does what it should do. There is not a single extraneous word. Each sentence is tight, controlled and striking. Perfect story for teaching the craft of writing a short story. 

LAURA:  In the preface to “The Red Convertible, Selected and New Stories,” Louise Erdrich wrote: “Every time I write a short story, I am certain that I have come to the end. There is no more. I’m finished. But the stories are rarely finished with me.” "Shamengwa" is one story that would not let go of her. It grew to become the critically acclaimed novel "Plague of Doves." Was this the case with your award winning short story "Borrowed Smile?" Did you feel as if the subject matter of global sex trade would not rest in short story form?

CHIKA:  My curiosity needed a format bigger than the short story to explore itself. Apart from "Borrowed Smile," I did a few more short stories on the subject before finally writing “On Black Sisters Street.” 

LAURA:  Our Winter 2013 issue used "Searching for Zion" by Emily Raboteau as a springboard of sorts to discuss faith. In one section of this memoir, Emily discusses Creflo Dollar and prosperity churches. The Exorcism, a short story we published in Kweli, looks at this practice in the Nigerian church. Journalist Seyi Rhodes produced a documentary on these new churches springing up throughout Nigeria, the U.S. and other countries. What motivated you to tell this story? And can you touch on the religious dimension of your work, or the religious themes and questions raised in your novels and short stories? 

CHIKA:  I find the relatively new pentecostalism intriguing in the way that I find unfamiliar things intriguing. Having said that, and without wishing to tar all of them with the same brush, I also find some aspects of it disturbing. For example the kind of absolute hold the pastors seem to have over the congregation (and which some of these pastors seem to encourage); the deification of these pastors so that they can never be criticized and the way that they encourage a polarization of the world so that it is easy to convince people that any ill luck they face is down to an aunt or uncle somewhere plotting their downfall and waging a "spiritual warfare" against them. Recently, a certain young man spoke of being kicked away from home because the pastor of their church had told his father that he (the son) was the evil spirit responsible for the series of losses the father had had in business! A friend's brother accused his own mother of "eating" his son because his pastor had told him that his mother was a witch and was responsible for his six month old baby's sudden death. Nothing and no one can convince this otherwise intelligent young man with a degree in engineering that the pastor is wrong, for his pastor is "a man of God" and is therefore infallible. This pastor has torn the family apart. Such stories break my heart but they also make me curious about how otherwise intelligent people can be so manipulated. How can parents be convinced that their young children are the spawns of the devil and need exorcism so that their families can prosper? 

LAURA:  Let’s talk about another heart breaking story that is now making international headlines. On May 4th, MSNBC correspondent Melissa Harris Perry addressed her weekly letter to the young women of Chibok, Nigeria who were kidnapped three weeks ago by the al Qaeda-linked group Boko Haram—which means “Western education is sinful." In part, MHP stated: "You have not been forgotten. We are sorry it took us so long to pay attention. But we are watching now, we are pounding the drums, because each one of you matter." Can you please give us an update on the Chibok girls and their mothers? 

CHIKA:  Sadly, the Nigerian government seems incapable or unwilling to confront Boko Haram. Last night, twenty two days after almost 300 girls (no one is sure of the figure, not even the Nigerian government), eight girls were abducted. When questioned about efforts to rescue the Chibok girls, president Jonathan responded to journalists that nobody knew where they were, and that Sambisa Forest, Boko Haram's enclave was a no go area and he couldn't send anyone in there because they'd be killed. The Minister of Interior told a BBC journalist that it was a "waste of energy" trying to figure out precisely how many girls were kidnapped. How do you go after rescuing girls if you don't even know how many are gone? The First Lady complained of citizens wanting to "make me a widow." The government has shown such ridiculous incompetence which would be laughable if it weren't tragic. Update: the president did nothing for 2 weeks and then set up a committee; the committee revised the number of missing girls from 234 to 300; the US has pledged to help find the girls; Boko Haram has claimed responsibility and said they intend to sell the girls (into sex slavery) yet there are people within Nigeria who doubt the veracity of the abduction, who claim that this is just opposition politicians trying to destabilize Jonathan's government, who claim that the women crying for their abducted daughters were hired to do so. The mind boggles!

LAURA:  Thank you for sharing time and truth with Kweli Journal, Chika. We will keep pounding the drums for the Chibok girls. And we will continue to keep a close eye on you and your compassionate and moving works of art. 

CHIKA: Thank you, Laura.