Literary Zone

Nigerian writer Chika Unigwe

21 June 2021 at 23:24 | 2593 views

Chika Unigwe was born on 12 June 1974 in Enugu, Nigeria, the sixth of seven children. After completing her secondary school education at Federal Government Girls’ College in Abuja, she earned a BA in English at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, in 1995. That same year, following her marriage to a Belgian engineer, Chika moved to Turnhout in Flanders, Belgium’s Dutch-speaking region. The couple have had four children.

In 1996, Chika obtained an MA in English from the Catholic University of Leuven (KUL), and then earned a PhD from the University of Leiden, The Netherlands, in 2004, for her dissertation entitled "In the Shadow of Ala: Igbo Women Writing as an Act of Righting". She spent two years in Seattle from 2000 to 2002, but otherwise lived in Belgium until 2013. That year, she and her family moved to the Atlanta area in the USA, where she now resides.

Chika’s first published works were collections of poems: Tear Drops (1993) and Born in Nigeria (1995). She continued writing poetry until 2005, but soon started to focus on writing fictional and non-fictional prose. Her short stories earned her several awards and distinctions, including the 2003 BBC Short Story Competition (for "Borrowed Smile") and a nomination for the 2004 Caine Prize for African writing (for "The Secret").

Chika’s first novel, The Phoenix (2007), was written after her move to Belgium. Although originally written in English, the book was first published in Dutch translation; this would also be the case for her later novels. The Phoenix centres on the character of Oge, a Nigerian woman who lives in Turnhout, Belgium, and who is faced with a number of hardships: she has just been diagnosed with breast cancer, she has become estranged from her Belgian husband, and she is struggling to come to terms with the coldness and superficiality of social interactions in Belgium. She has also been traumatized by another major event, whose precise nature becomes clear only as the novel progresses. As Chika has reported in interviews, The Phoenix is not an autobiographical book, but it was inspired from the sense of "visceral loneliness" that she experienced after her arrival in Belgium ("An Interview with Chika Unigwe").

Chika Unigwe, On Black Sisters’ StreetChika’s second and best-known novel, On Black Sisters’ Street (2009), is set between Nigeria and Belgium and follows the lives of Ama, Sisi, Efe and Joyce, four African women (three Nigerians and one Sudanese) who journey from their countries of origin to the red-light district of the Belgian city of Antwerp, where they work as prostitutes. The novel opens after one of the women, Sisi, has been brutally murdered, and the narrative then proceeds, through multiple flash-backs, to tell the interwoven stories of its protagonists. A powerful exploration of migration, agency, exploitation and dignity, On Black Sisters’ Street has received wide critical acclaim. In 2012, it earned its author the prestigious NLNG (Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas) Prize for Literature.

Published more than fifteen years after Chika left her native Nigeria, Night Dancer (2012), her third novel, is in many ways her most "Nigerian" book to date. Set exclusively in the author’s country of origin, the book focuses on a young woman, Mma, and her mother, Ezi. As the novel begins, Mma starts reading the letters left to her by the recently deceased Ezi, with whom she had a difficult relationship. Over the years, Mma indeed blamed her mother for walking out on her father, Mike - a transgressive act that led the two women to become social outcasts. As the story unfolds, however, Mma begins to discover the reasons that led her mother to leave home. Through the story of its female protagonists, Night Dancer offers a biting critique of patriarchal Nigerian society, in a way that is reminiscent of earlier writers such as Flora Nwapa and Buchi Emecheta. Yet the book also compellingly renews the tradition of the Nigerian novel, most notably through its thematic scope and fragmented form.

Chika Unigwe, The Black MessiahChika’s latest book, The Black Messiah, has currently been published only in Dutch translation (as De Zwarte messias, 2013). It centres on the figure of Olaudah Equiano, the famous eighteenth-century slave who, after buying his freedom, became a prominent voice of the abolitionist movement. Equiano is mainly known to contemporary audiences for his memoir, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself (1789). Chika, who first heard of Equiano when she was fourteen, chose the medium of fiction to explore some of the more personal aspects of Equiano’s life, such as his ardent wish to assimilate into white society or his grief following the death of his white English wife. As Chika said in an interview with the Flemish channel VRT, even if The Black Messiah deals with a historical figure, its central themes - racism, human trafficking, and the desire to belong - are eminently contemporary concerns.

Credit: The Chika Unigwe Bibliography

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