INTERVIEW: It's Challenging Writing About Nigeria From Outside

Chika Unigwe. Image: Rocio Forero B via The New York Times

Author and lecturer, Chika Unigwe, who is a visiting professor of Creative Writing, Emory University, United States, talks about her works, among other issues with

Your first novel in Dutch, ‘De Feniks’ before ‘Fata Morgana’ later published in English as ‘On Black Sister’s Street’ didn’t gain much attention. What do you think is responsible for that?

The attention a book gets or lack of it isn’t entirely in the hands of the writer. There are many factors that influence why one book might get more attention than the other, and these factors are often not ones a writer has any power over. Besides, I think that you should be asking reviewers/critics this question: Why do you think ‘The Phoenix’ didn’t get as much attention as ‘On Black Sisters Street’? I’d love for all of my books to get as much attention as possible. I can’t imagine that there’s any writer who doesn’t want maximum publicity for their works. This is perhaps the right time to mention that my newest book, ‘Better Never than Late (Cassava Republic)’, is out.

What has become of Awele Creative Trust which you floated to support young writers in Nigeria?
Awele Creative Trust is growing. We have been running an annual competition for young writers in Nigeria between 16 and 26 for the past five years or so. This year’s winner will be announced at some point during the year and a cash prize awarded to them. I am grateful to be able to still run this, to be able to encourage young writers.

Your grasp of English and Dutch is grand and this largely reflects in your ability to write novels in both languages. How did you learn Dutch?

My working language is English. It is the language I write mostly in. How did I learn Dutch? My first summer in Belgium, I took intensive Dutch classes and then over the years, I continued to take classes to improve until I could no longer do so. It’s necessary to learn the language of whichever country we find ourselves in because it helps us to better participate in the community. I lived in Belgium for several years, and at some point, I won a city council election and became the first African city councillor there.

As far as I know, there hasn’t been another one since then. This was possible because I spoke the language. There is a Dutch proverb that says that if you’re not at the table, you’re forgotten. One of the ways I felt I could carve out space for myself at that hypothetical table was by learning as much of the language as I could.

How do you combine your roles as a mother, wife, author and lecturer?

The same way my husband combines his roles as a husband and father with his roles as a consultant engineer. The same way many people all over the world combine whatever multiple roles they play: making out time for what is important to them, outsourcing what they can so that they do not get overwhelmed. It also seems to me that (professional) women get asked this question (and varieties of it) more than men because the tendency is still there to think that a woman has certain roles in the home that suffer once she does work outside of the home.

It is also implied that those roles are more important to anything else she might (want to) do. Or perhaps that those roles are her ‘natural’ roles and so she never gets asked how she manages it all. Would you ask a stay-at-home mother with no help how she combines her roles of being a mother and wife on the one hand, with those of being a house cleaner, washer woman, cook on the other hand? Or would you ask a man how he combines his roles of being a father, a husband and whatever else he does?.

I read your recent interview with Prof. (Andy) Egwunyenga of Delta State University, and at no point was he asked how he combined his professional role with fatherhood, even though he volunteered that the day he became a father was the happiest day of his life and that his wife has a professional life too. We have to be aware of the biases that curate the questions we ask others. While questions might be motivated by innocent curiosity, questions themselves are not always innocent (i.e free of bias).

The novel, ‘On Black Sister’s Street’, documents lives of African prostitutes in Belgium. What motivated you to explore the theme?

Curiosity motivated me. I wondered why anyone would travel so far – from Nigeria to Belgium– to service the red-light district and I wrote the novel to answer the questions I had. It achieved a lot more than satisfy my curiosity; it taught me empathy and gratitude. I went to the red-light district and interviewed Nigerian sex workers. I wanted to make sure I got my characters right, and the only way I could do so was by doing proper research. Writing it also taught me patience. That book took me a very long time to write. Everything I have ever written, I think, has been motivated by my desire to answer a question.

In 2012, the novel clinched the NNLG Nigeria Prize for Literature and you carted home $100,000. What did you use the whopping cash prize you won as a Nigerian nay African writer in the Diaspora for?
I have been using part of the money to fund Awele. This year is the only year we’ll have a donor sponsor the prize. Besides that, what does one do with money but spend it? Even investing is spending it, right? In any case, I find discussions about money, in this context especially, boring. What the prize did for me was to boost my confidence. To be read by the calibre of judges, including the late Prof. Abiola Irele, who judged the NLNG that year and to be declared winner was an incredible honour. I was aware of Prof. Irele’s works as a scholar and was a huge admirer of his. After meeting him at the NLNG award, we kept in touch. He lived in Boston while I was in Providence and he came to visit me once. We had coffee and an excellent conversation at a cafĂ©, and I walked him back to the train station. It seemed so surreal to me, that I was chatting away with the Abiola Irele, and the memory of that day is one of my most treasured ever.

What would you identify as the challenges facing Nigerian nay African writers in the Diaspora?

I guess that writers– regardless of where they come from– face similar challenges: how to tell compelling stories, how to find a market for those stories, how to stand out in a world with competing voices, how to write a work that transcends time. And whatever individual challenges they have are individual to them. I can speak about my individual challenges as Chika Unigwe, but I daren’t speak as Chika, mouthpiece of Nigerian writers in the Diaspora. I couldn’t do that, that’d be foolish of me.

One of the challenges that I face is trying to write about Nigeria while not living in it. I do return but only for short periods at a time. How do I engage with a country that I haven’t lived in for a very long time? How do I resist the bait that some Nigerians in Nigeria throw out to those of us in the Diaspora that we are not enough? That our observations, our patriotism, our exploration of Nigeria in our works, our love for Nigeria could never match theirs? Those arguments frustrate me and I have to learn to ignore them. I do not need to prove my Nigerianness to some self-appointed adjudicators of who a ‘true’ Nigerian is, or that the Nigeria in my novel is somehow not the ‘true’ Nigeria.

What do you engage your time in if you are not writing?

I read. I teach. I tweet. I judge competitions. I netflix. I play games. We love board games in my house and try to play when we can.

Would you say African writers have done enough to project the continent’s stories to the outside world?
This is a question that gets asked in various forms to African writers but hardly ever to western writers. Nobody asks American writers if they think they’ve done enough to project American stories to the outside world. We read fiction by American writers, aware that what we’ve read is just a slice of American reality, or not. We judge the fiction on its own terms not for how well it captures the American ‘story.’ Yet, African writers are somewhat expected to write an ‘Africa’ in their fiction that captures everything. How can any one book do that? Sometimes, in other contexts, that question is really asking if African writers have done enough to project a sanitised Africa to the world: an Africa where poverty and corruption and dirt do not exist. Western writers do not walk about with the burden of the anxiety placed on African writers of somehow making sure that the portrayal of Africa in one’s novel is one that ‘portrays Africa the right way’ whatever that is. African writers are writing their African stories. There is so much beautiful writing coming out of the continent, so many different stories. We really should be celebrating this.

Do you have any novel you are working on and what’s it about?
I am always writing. I am working on a novel which re-imagines the myth of Hades and Persephone in a contemporary Nigerian setting. It explores a lot of the themes that have interested/hounded me over the years. I am thrilled with the way it’s going at the moment as I have been working on it since 2013.

Did you experience any culture shock in Belgium before moving to the United States where you currently reside?

Every move comes with its own shock, although it was less of a shock moving from Europe to the US than it had been from Nigeria to Belgium. The US is more culturally diverse than Belgium, I didn’t have to learn a new language and my mother and all of my siblings live in the same city we settled in. This was certainly an easier move for me. It was some sort of a homecoming.

Self-publishing has been become increasingly tough for most writers. Do you think the attendant challenges can be tackled to allow more writers push their works to audiences?
I am not sure what the question is here, but I am not an expert on self-publishing. I do not self-publish and I am also not a publisher and so I am perhaps not the best placed to answer a question of this sort. I am more interested in talking about writing. My writing. Cassava Republic has recently published my latest book: a collection of short stories, Better Never than Late. It’s my first short story collection, and I am really excited it is out in the world. I worked on it for several years, poured a lot of sweat and blood in it, and I hope it makes its way to a wide readership.

The stories are set in Nigeria and Belgium and follow the same group of Nigerian immigrants navigating their way in their new country, missing Nigeria but being unable to return.

What leverage has writing given you and has it in any way curtailed your freedom?

In my experience, writing, especially writing fiction, helps foster empathy. To write any character well, one has to inhabit that character, imagine oneself into that person. The constant pulling in and out of other skins forces one to walk in shoes different from one’s. And you know what they say about walking in someone else’s shoes.

Writing fiction frees you because it makes you think of or be aware of all the alternative possibilities that there are. Imagine being able to create different worlds with each new work, populating those worlds and giving flesh to the words.

How do you get the raw materials for your works?

From life. I think every writer does, it doesn’t matter the genre one is writing in.

You retain your Igbo name to identify your root. How do readers from the West react to your name and works?

Why or how should anyone react to a name that is not theirs? And why should I care? I have always used my name, Chika Unigwe, because it is my name. I doubt that readers pick up a book and worry about the pronunciation of the author’s name. While reviews and interviews can reveal to a writer what is thought of their book (at least by critics), they reveal nothing or hardly ever about what is thought of their name. I am also less interested in how a reader reacts to my name than how they react to my work.

What’s the experience like teaching in the US?

I love teaching. I love introducing my students to global literature. I love reading their works, guiding them to better writing, reminding them that writing isn’t all intuition but has a technical side to it too. American professors are not demigods, and so the barrier that exists (certainly did in my time) between students and professors in Nigeria isn’t there. There is reciprocal respect and professors are approachable. I really love that. It makes for a much more enriching teaching/learning experience.

What experience do you hope to create for your readers with your works?

I hope readers come out of my works feeling that the experience of reading (them) has been worth the time (and maybe money) they’ve invested in the reading. I hope my books tell the human stories I try to tell well, so well that a reader forgets that they’re reading but are completely immersed in the experience, in the world of the book.