‘I wouldn’t write what I write if I had remained in Nigeria’

This material was first published in The Nation, Lagos, Nigeria 

Chika 

Chika Unigwe is a Belgium-based Nigerian author with highly priced awards in her kitty. Last December, she came into the country to promote her first full-length novel, The Phoenix. She took time off to speak with The Nation newspaper of Nigeria’s Group Arts and Culture Editor PRINCE SOLOMON TAI ADETOYE on her art, life as a Nigerian married to a Belgian, life of Nigerian writers abroad and state of Nigerians in Belgium

“I travelled down to Antwerp to research my forthcoming novel,” Chika Unigwe told The Nation with a sense of discovery. “Do you know that I went into a café to get information about the lives of Nigerian prostitutes there. I met a good number who spoke openly about their profession and what life is like living in Belgium as a prostitute.”

The forthcoming book is entitled A Tale of Choices and Displacement. Its theme is the lifestyle of Nigerian ladies plunged into prostitution in Belgium. Chika could not have carried out the research at Turnhout where she lives with her Belgian husband and four sons and where she is also a councillor. The town is a smaller one and the Nigerian population there is small. More so, Turnout is not the primary setting of A Tale of Choices and Discipline quite unlike The Phoenix, the book Chika is currently in Nigeria promoting.

Chika Unigwe believes Belgium has been good to the teeming Nigerians resident there. A good number have of them, according to her, have valid papers and have good jobs and live good lives. Others, of course, entered the country illegally or are there with expired visas. As a result, there are engaged in cat and mouse game with immigrations officials.

The subject of prostitution is a major preoccupation with Chika. She had always been interested with the plight of women. Living in Belgium now, she has continued to explore the subject. In Belgium, prostitution is legal. As a result, those engaged in the business have no need to fear the law.

“When I walked into this particular café,” Chika continued, “the ladies I spoke with freely gave me information. I discovered for example, they were not ashamed of telling me their places of origin in Nigeria. I found out that most of them were from Edo State. I asked one where she came from, she replied, ‘Edo State, of course” as if I must have been uninformed asking her where she came from.”

Chika met her husband at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in her undergraduate days. They got married just before graduation and moved on to Belgium soon after. If she has risen to become a city councillor, no doubt she had integrated well. More so, she writes first in the Dutch language of her husband’s homeland. The Phoenix was released in Dutch 2005 as De Feniks. Even her parents-in-law had learnt English language to be able to communicate with her properly.

Yet it must have been a daring move for her to just pack up and move to a strange land. What was her parents’ reaction, for example? “Oh, my parents said they had always known I could make such a more. You see, before I met my husband I had gone out with an Indian.” Chika explained with a mischievous grin.

Oge, the main character in her The Phoenix did not fare as well as Chika although they share far so many resemblances one is tempted to think the author had set out to write a biographical novel.

Like Chika, Oge grew up in Enugu. She met a Belgian there and married him and they later moved to Turnhout, the city where Chika lives. But there the similarities end.

The Phoenix is at once arresting and haunting. The entire story takes place in the course of a train trip from one town to another within Belgium, a country not reputed for large landmass. Oge was on her way to keep an appointment with her surgeon. On the way, a fellow passenger, a white woman who said she had been to Africa although she could not understand while an Igbo speaker would not be able to speak Swahili, kept pestering her with questions about her continent, herself and life of the Africans in Belgium.

In the course of this questioning, Oge’s state of mind was revealed. She was just to preoccupied with her personal burdens she was in no way interested in listening to any small talk or answering pointless questions. As she ruminates absent-mindedly, flashbacks take the reader to the events of her life in both the recent and far past. Of course, with author’s style, things do not follow logical sequence. The story goes back and forth floating with the subject’s mental journeys.

The book opens in the first person narrative form. As soon as Oge’s inner man took over, the narrative shifts to an unusual second person. Consumed in the bipolar manifestations of her life, Oge, living in self denial following her only son’s death, began to refer to herself as “you” as if the subject was an individual not connected with her.

When Oge met her husband, it was a tale of love at first sight. He was working in Nigeria as an expatriate oil worker. They later got married and moved to Belgium. Even then, crisis did not begin until Oge got pregnant. Her husband told her he was expecting her to go into motherhood that early in their relationship when he still enjoying his new status as a husband. Why bring a stranger in between them?

When pregnancy did not destroy his wife’s stature as he feared Oge’s husband began to soften. By the time the scan of the pregnancy presented them a preview of their baby, he began to fall in love. By the time the baby was born, they both fell in love with him and set out the business of parenting. Then at the age of five, death struck. The baby died as the result of an accident at his school.

Both parents were devastated no doubt. But Oge went to the extreme. She insisted her boy was not dead. For a whole year she bought his Christmas gifts and birthday gifts. The pyjamas were laid out for the dead boy every night and neatly folded at dawn. The physical evidence of the cremated boy’s ashes poured into an urn that was in the sitting room did nothing to make her face reality.

When Oge met a Nigerian at a supermarket while shopping and that one invited her to a church where miracles happen on a regular basis, she jumped at the opportunity. Special offerings, fasting and prayer accompanied with reading of prescribed Bible passages daily did nothing to reverse the situation. When she told the pastor her son was not yet back he simply replied that it was because her faith was too small. She walked away from the church but with nowhere to turn to.

With the death of their son and their resultant opposite poles acceptance of the situation, husband and wife drifted apart. The love that bound them together evaporated and bickering ruled the home. Cultural differences between the two came to the surface and Oge would have returned to Nigeria but for the fear that her parents – her mother in particular who was a devout Catholic – would not accept her divorcing her husband.

One blow knocking one down is not the same as being hit after taking the fall. Son dead, marriage turned into a nightmare, Oge would have thought that was enough. Then the discovery of a lump in her breast which turned out to be cancer. Oge refused to share with anybody including her husband and even the pastor of the church she attended and the only person she has close to a friend in Turnhout. Her mental torture snowballed into frenzied search for a way out of the hell hole. Suicide seemed the best option.

When Oge received a letter from his father in Nigeria, she knew it was something odd as it was the first letter from him in her eight-year stay in Belgium. Skilfully Chika Unigwe steers the reader back to Nigeria. In fact the ruminations of Oge’s husband is another such “intrusion” at this stage of the narrative. In this particular “diversion” the crises rocking the Niger Delta zone of Nigeria became the setting.

Her mother who although married to an Igbo man hailed from the Niger Delta joined other agitators to protest a new pipeline project that was going to further adversely affect her hometown. In the course of the peaceful rally, the police moved in with batons and guns. Some died but Oge’s mum only escaped with major injuries. His father then persuaded both mother and daughter for the mother to visit Belgium for a short rest.

The mother’s arrival was the turning point. On arrival, she was moved into the only spare room in her son-in-law’s apartment. It was the late son’s room which Oge still preserved proclaiming that her son needed to meet his things in proper state on his return. When she suggested taking his clothes back to Nigeria as gifts for a needy child, Oge flared up. What would her son come home to meet? The mother was flabbergasted. With a child dead for a year how could it have been impossible for someone to come into terms with the reality of his eternal departure?

This was the time Oge came to accept the reality. That night too, her husband turned to her in bed and held her as of old. Healing time one might say. It was then the story reverted to the first person narrative.

Although the problem of cancer persisted till the end of the story it was not a major problem if the doctors assurances were anything to go by.

Can a Nigeria-based author create the kind of stories told by Nigerian authors in the Diaspora? That was the question The Nation put to Chika Unigwe after discussing her novel. Her response was that the experience of relocation from one’s homeland is a peculiar one. The sense of loss of roots forges in the writer what no other experience can achieve.

Hear her: “I wouldn’t have been able to write The Phoenix is I had not left Nigeria. The theme and story line are just in line with my experiences gathered in the course of living in Belgium for years. I have no doubt it is the same with other Nigerian authors based abroad.”

Based on this premise, one was tempted to conclude that home-based writers were at a disadvantage. Not so.

Chika Unigwe was flanked by Anwuli and Eniola of Farafina during the course of the chat. Farafina is the publishing house that published The Phoenix and organised the book tour that brought Chika to Nigeria. As we chatted sitting opposite each other on low stools separated by a low table, Muktar Bakare worked at one section of his office. Farafina is his brainchild and he runs the outfit. The section had normal working table while this side had a relaxed curio-filled furnishing. Both sides boasted of exquisite art works hanging on the walls most being paintings of another Nigeria author and painter, United States of America-based Victor Ehikhamenor.

The journey started three years ago. Today, not only Diaspora-based authors like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Chika Unigwe are enjoying Farafina’s commitment to the book industry.

“Our mission and commitment is telling our own story,” Farafina’s Anwuli said quoting the company’s pay-off line. Qualitative publishing of books by Africans is their commitment. The editing and printing of their books leaves no one in doubt of their commitment. From new authors to established ones, the work only needs to be a good one to attract Farafina’s attention. From Kenyan Ngugi wa Th’iongo to Nigerian Ben Okri, Tanure Ojaide to Segun Afolabi, they have been shunning out works of fiction of high quality. Even now, as reflected in the list of coming works in The Phoenix, at least four books by Maik Nwosu are in the pipeline. Beyond fiction, they are moving into school books and other areas of publishing.

No doubt one of the greatest problems of Nigerian authors is that over the years there had been a dearth of committed publishers. This resulted in many writers having to publish themselves – a shoddy arrangement, to say the least. With the entrance of committed publishers like Farafina, aspiring writers now have hope.

Farafina does not just publish, they take the books and the authors to the reader. Last weekend, Chika Unigwe had readings at Quintessence at Ikoyi, Lagos and Bookworm at Victoria Island also in Lagos. A week before that she was at Jazzhole at Ikoyi. Months earlier, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was in town to promote her Half of a Yellow Sun.

Were these readings organised to expand the reading audience? “No,” Farafina officials said. “That comes with it but it is not the main objective. The main objective is to introduce out authors and their works to the reading public. It does not make sense if an author’s work is released to the market and those who actually read are not aware of it. So, the readings are interactive sessions between the authors and the reading public.”

Is Farafina interested in expanding the market? You bet. Part of their efforts at expanding the reading audience is the ongoing Farafina Read and Rule campaign. It started on December 1 and runs till January 15 next year. During this period, anybody purchasing any title on the Farafina stable enjoys between five and ten per cent discount. There is also gift vouchers valid for purchasing their books which one can give out as season’s gifts.

“This is a season of giving. This is our way of giving back to the society while at the same time growing the book market.” Definitely a reasonable combination. Despite its commendable success in three years in the business, it is in the interest of Farafina to grow the market.

“Being an author is Nigeria is not the same thing as publishing abroad,” words of Chika Unigwe. The Phoenix, she said, passed through close to ten re-writes. “Over there, you have editors and all sorts of people to work with. This is both an advantage and an irritant at times. It enhances the quality of the work you finally produce but at the same time their insistence on some changes can be difficult to swallow at times.”

Chika’s stories have been broadcast several times on BBC World Service, Radio Nigeria and many other Commonwealth radio stations around the world.The author won the 2003 BBC Short Story Competition for her story Borrowed Smile and a Flemish literary prize for her first story written in Dutch, De Smaak van Sneeuw. She was also a nominee for the 2004 Caine Prize. Her short stories Dreams and Thinking of Angels were short-listed for the Million Writers Best Online Fiction in 2005. The same year her story Confetti, Glitter and Ash came third in the Equiano Prize for Fiction.This beautiful, married mother of four began her foray into the world of Arts with a BA in English Language and Literature from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and holds a Masters of Arts from Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium. Chika Unigwe also holds a doctorate from University of Leiden, Netherland with a thesis tracing the antecedents of Igbo women’s art of writing as a form of setting things right.

Having to take care of four boys, Chika explained, was responsible for her wearing simple braids – dreadlocks. Asked what her odd traits were as all creative people manifest different such traits, Chika answered with a low laughter. She cannot burst a balloon. She does not wear wrist watches. Throw in a couple of such oddities more and the image is nearly complete.

Physically, the slim fair-skinned beauty hardly manifests traits of someone who had given birth to a child let alone four boys. Artistically, The Phoenix reveals her and a highly observant and deeply meditative writer. Her use of language is simple without being simplistic. She picks her words carefully and the story flows fluidly with considerable use of similes.

As Chika heads for Abuja on the next phase of her book tour, one gets the impression of some whose only destination is upward. Does she plan to go into other things in life other than writing?

“No. Although I intend to obtain a PhD in Anthropology,” she answered with a giggle.

No doubt a digger – into the souls of men and the past.

 

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