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Nigerian writer Chika Unigwe writes about marginalized women’s lives

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Helen Thompson
WVoN co-editor

On an unseasonably cool July evening at the Purcell Room in the Southbank Centre in London, Nigerian fiction writer Chika Unigwe read from her latest novel to a diverse audience as part of an event entitled Nigeria Now.

Noo Saro-Wiwa, travel writer and daughter of activist and author Ken Saro-Wiwa, accompanied Unigwe onstage, and journalist Onyekachi Wambu moderated the panel as the two women read from their works and discussed topics such as writing, food, and Nigeria’s past and present.

I prepared for the event by reading Unigwe’s two novels in English, On Black Sisters’ Street and Night Dancer. By the time I’d finished them, I was very excited about hearing her talk about her work.

Both of  Unigwe’s novels focus on the lives of Nigerian women, the limited choices they have in terms of making a decent living and developing the ability to live life on their own terms.

They also focus on the sex trade and the costs of prostitution for her female characters.

In On Black Sisters’ Street, Unigwe examines a group of six mostly Nigerian prostitutes in Antwerp, indentured to Dele, a male compatriot who offers them a way out of poverty through sex work, but who keeps them from flourishing through insurmountable debt and threats of violence that he carries out in the case of Sisi.

A reviewer in the LA Times said it was not an uplifting book, but I see Unigwe’s work transcend the horrors of the lives of these trafficked women in a couple of ways.

Firstly, as the same reviewer says, the women do not see themselves as victims.

With Sisi’s death comes a chance for them to tell their stories and bond with each other in ways that offer a degree of hope for them because they are no longer alone.

Secondly, the beauty of Unigwe’s language, a testament to her skill as a poet as well as a fiction writer, encapsulates these women in words that not only give voice to their marginalized stories but also memorializes their strength and resilience.

Unigwe’s latest novel, Night Dancer, provides a different trajectory for examining Nigerian women’s marginal identities.

In a plot revolving around a mother and daughter, we witness Mme’s estrangement from her recently-dead mother, Ezi, due to the latter’s ‘shameful’ status as a single mother who supports herself and her adult daughter through prostitution.

An adept storyteller, Unigwe firstly unfolds Mme’s emotional journey to discover her father before she reveals the story of how Ezi ends up in such a marginal state.

As with On Black Sisters’ Street, Night Dancer takes the reader into the painful territory of women’s limited choices, but in the character of Ezi we witness a woman who relinquishes her reputation in order to avoid living with a husband who has morally compromised his family.

Mme’s journey is one that many of us will recognize.

In trying to distance ourselves from our mothers, we discover that we are more like them than we were willing to admit. But with knowledge and maturity, we hopefully embrace the similarities.

During the Nigeria Now event, Unigwe talked about Nigerian women’s empowerment in cultures that are decidedly patriarchal.

She described the term “negofeminism,” a liberal feminism that is more appropriately suited to African women’s experience, given the prominence it gives to negotiation and ‘no-ego.’

In an email interview, Unigwe expounded further by saying:

“It recognizes that African women come out of cultures which encourage negotiation, complementarity, give-and-take, and collaboration. Negofeminism is also not individualistic in the way western feminism is.

“It understands that for a majority of these women, a radical break with their culture, even if it’s patriarchal, is not possible for so many different reasons.”

In Night Dancer, Ezi represents the consequences for a woman breaking with her culture—isolation, marginalization, and expulsion from community.

Unigwe was born in Enugu, Nigeria, and has lived in Belgium and the Netherlands, where she completed a Ph.D. thesis on Igbo women’s writing.

She is a vehement supporter of Nigerian women and an outspoken critic of the Nigerian government in both her fiction and articles written for The Guardian and the Nigerian Daily Times.

From critiques of marriage, an institution that that she believes facilitates the patriarchal attitudes that shelter abusive husbands, the high incidence of Nigerian women dying in childbirth, to the government’s failure to stem Boko Haram’s terrorism in the North, Unigwe writes to effect change in her home country.

She told me that she supports legalizing prostitution “because it protects women [and] also makes good economic sense as the women then pay taxes on their revenue.”

However, she qualifies this statement by pointing out that in Nigeria “our government should be doing a lot more to give young women alternative choices so that those who choose prostitution do so out of multiple alternatives, and not because there is nothing else for them to do.”

In all of her writing, Unigwe’s engagement in social justice is evident.

She says of her work: “I write from a place of anger, of frustration. Perhaps being a woman, I write to foreground our experiences. Having said that, I also write from a place of passion.”

Unigwe has received multiple accolades for her work.

She won the 2003 BBC Short Story Competition, a Commonwealth Short Story Award and a Flemish literary prize.

In 2007 she received a Unesco-Aschberg fellowship and in 2009 a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship.

In 2011 the committee for the 2011 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award longlisted On Black Sisters’ Street.

This same novel is currently on the longlist for the 2012 Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa.

Unigwe’s next project is a novel about the life of Olaudah Equiano, an 18th century Nigerian man who, as an ex-slave, wrote about his life and became involved in the British abolitionist movement.

Chika Unigwe is participating in the Edinburgh International Book Festival in an event entitled Upbringings Against the Odds with Kim Thúy on Friday August 17 at the RBS Corner Theatre from 8:30 – 9:30 p.m.

  1. Akinboyewa Oluwabunmi Favour. says:

    Night Dancer is a very inspiring story. We need more of such inspirational work. I’ll love to write my Long Essay on this novel. Am hope i’ll be able to get materials for the research work? Keep the fire burning!

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