Interview With an Author: Chika Unigwe Probes the Gnarly Underworld of African Women Working as Prostitutes in Europe
By Lynette Holloway on Mar 18th 2011 11:11AM
Nigerian author Chika Unigwe marks her debut in the United States with ‘On Black Sisters Street,’ a masterful sketch of four women from Africa who make their way to Belgium in hopes of building better lives for themselves. Unfortunately, they end up working on Antwerp’s Zwartezusterstraat as prostitutes, lured there by false promises and empty hopes.
Unigwe draws a rich tapestry of arresting characters that will remain with readers long after they cease reading the pages. One character, Sisi, was coaxed to Zwartezusterstraat, or Black Sisters Street, by a Belgian businessman who made her an offer she couldn’t refuse. Full of hope and expectations, she leaves the dreary and destitute streets of Lagos only to find the same and worse in Antwerp.
Unigwe, who lives in Turnhout, Belgium, with her husband and four sons, spent years researching the novel and even dressed in skimpy clothes and thigh-high boot to gather details for this must-read story.
BV on Books caught up with Unigwe recently via e-mail to discuss her novel, what it was like to walk alongside the women on the cobblestone streets of the red-light district and what she’s up to next.
BV: Are you excited about your U.S. debut novel?
Cnika Unigwe: I am very excited. America is an important market, and I feel very privileged to be published there and by Random House, no less.
BV: How did you come up with the idea for ‘On Black Sisters Street’?
CU: From the first time I saw the women behind their display windows, and learned that a majority of the African ones were Nigerian, I wanted to know what their stories were. ‘On Black Sisters Street’ was written in answer to my questions.
BV: You were so curious about the lifestyle that you bought clothes and thigh-high boots and spent two years among women in the red-light district. What was that like? Would you do it again and would you recommend it for others?
CU: I spent two years researching and writing the novel. I went to the women because I had no idea about their lives as prostitutes, and because I wanted to know what it felt like to walk those cobbled streets of the red-light district. I wanted to feel what it was like as a woman to be on that street, and to be looked at as a possible worker. It was only by doing that that I could somehow, in a very small way, inhabit the skin of my characters and write them truthfully. It was awkward at the beginning. Would I recommend it to others? I think as long as one is comfortable doing it, that sort of research helps more than any literature.
BV: Did any one person stand out? What was she like? Do you keep in touch with any of the women?
CU: There was a very assertive one in a cafe out of which mainly illegal prostitutes work. She was one of the first I spoke to. She was honest, very brutally so. She was also surprisingly forthcoming, and had a joie de vivre I envied.
No, I am not in touch with any of the women for many different reasons. I remember asking one for her phone number because I wanted to keep in touch and she flat out refused. It is normal, I suppose. They were very gracious, and answered my questions, even when they were dumb questions.
BV: How did the experience help you develop your richly drawn characters?
CU: Just being with the women, for short periods at a time, talking to them, being in that space, gave me a sense of empathy with them that I could never have gotten otherwise.
BV: What’s next for you?
CU: I am working on a collection of short stories, and a novel set in the 18th century and based on the life of Olaudah Equiano. Also, ‘Sin Eater’ is coming out next year.