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I walked the redlight district to write my novel –Chika Unigwe

Your new book, on Black Sister’s Street has been creating a storm in Europe. Tell us about it? It is a novel about choices, about…

Your new book, on Black Sister’s Street has been creating a storm in Europe. Tell us about it?

It is a novel about choices, about how our lives are circumscribed by the choices available to us, and how life is hardly ever black and/or  white.

 

You had to dress up like a prostitute and walk the streets of Antwerp to research for this novel; can you share this experience with us?

I dressed up in a mini-skirt and high boots and walked the redlight district. I also went into a cafe frequented by (mainly) illegal Nigerian prostitutes. I wanted to find out more about the girls but I also wanted to know how my characters felt the first time they had to take that walk. That was the only way I could create them truthfully.


Would you say the experience has been worthwhile?

 The experience humanised my characters for me and created in me a sense of empathy for them. 


Let’s talk about the depiction of men in your novel, most of them are drunks, abusive, weak or pathetic, why did you choose to portray them that way?

 There are also strong, loving men in the book. The men are as human as the women and therefore prone to human frailties. Circumstances determine how they turn out.


What do you hope to achieve with this novel really?

 I suppose the same as any writer wants to with any book: as wide a readership as possible. These- these girls’ stories- are our stories too. In that sense the book is a commentary not only on the west’s relationship to the south, but also on the state of contemporary Nigeria. What sort of government creates a situation where working as a prostitute in Europe is a more attractive option to finding jobs back home for its young girls? Or creates a situation where parents pretend not to know what their daughters are up to so they can enjoy the fruits of their labour without any guilt? Go to Benin City and see the new middle class coming up: families with daughters in Europe servicing the sex industry.


Now, you write in Dutch and English and your two novels have all been released first in Dutch, then in English, why is this so?

Belgian publishers are fast workers. The average duration from manuscript to finished product is six months.

 

Which language do you now prefer writing in and why?

I love the suppleness of English and how it allows me to appropriate it and imbue it with the cadences and rhythm of Igbo. It is almost like the colonisation of English, striking back at the empire. 

You have been living in Belgium since 1995. How would you describe life over there?

Everybody’s life is different, so I can only speak of my life here. It’s comfortable, busy, but I try to make out time once in a while to go out with friends and just relax.


Can you tell us how supportive your husband have been?

 For any relationship to work, especially one in which both partners are busy and children are involved, the partners must be supportive of each other. He is very supportive of me and I am very supportive of him.


How do you multi-task as a wife, a mother of four and a writer?

Multitasking is a necessity in my life, as it is in the lives of many of my friends here. We do not have live-in helps. My cleaner comes twice a week, but the house needs cleaning seven days a week. Clothes need to be ironed and food needs to be cooked. My husband cooks at the weekend and my boys have daily chores. They set the table, clear the table and so on. We send them to the bakery for bread. They vacuum, clean the garden etc.  Even the youngest, who just turned four has to help too. He has to clear his toys.

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