THE AMBROSE EHIRIM FILES INTERVIEW
Image courtesy of Chika Unigwe
Chika Unigwe is the author of fiction, poetry, articles and educational material. She won the 2003 BBC Short Story Competition for her story "Borrowed Smile", a Commonwealth Short Story Award for "Weathered Smiles" and a Flemish literary prize for "De Smaak van Sneeuw", her first short story written in Dutch. "The Secret", another of her short pieces, was nominated for the 2004 Caine Prize. She was the recipient of a 2007 Unesco-Aschberg fellowship for creative writing, and of a 2009 Rockefeller Foundation fellowship for creative writing. Unigwe's novel "On Black Sister's Street" about Nigerian prostitutes in Belgium won the 2012 NLNG Prize for Literature.
Tell me a little bit about yourself
I was born and raised in Enugu. I got my first degree from the University of Nigeria, and a Ph.D from the University of Leiden, Holland
When did it start occuring to you that writing was going to be your major art?
I have always enjoyed reading and writing. I published a book of poetry while I was an undergraduate, but I did not begin to call myself a writer until after my second novel was published
What had influenced that?
I grew up surrounded by readers and books. There seemed no better way to spend my free time than by doing either.
After discovering the potentials of your talents in writing, what followed next?
I wrote and sent off stories blind to publishers. It was a blind submission that got me my first book contract: two Macmillan Readers, published years ago , and used in primary and secondary schools in some African countries.
Reading "On Black Sisters Street," your second novel, one finds out it's focused on the alarming pandemic of prostitution with Nigerian women abroad. What had compelled you to write on a disturbing subject?
I was very curious about why NIgerian women would travel so far to work in the sex industry. Curiosity was the initial driving force
Why was the plot located in Belgium?
There are many Nigerian prostitutes in Belgium, and since I live here, it seemed the natural location.
The characters in "On Black Sisters Street", especially Sisi, whose dreams would not be known, I would imagine, how did you find yourself so comfortable relating to the characters -- Ama, Joyce and Efe -- the way you portrayed them in the book?
Every writer has to be able to live in the head of her characters. I had to make myself a blank blackboard for the characters to inscribe their lives on me. I had to wipe off that board every time a new character had to be created and totally surrender myself to that new character.
Let's talk about the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas Literature Prize. You came out a winner among a cast of the nation's promising and great writers. What was your reaction upon hearing that "Chika Unigwe is the winner of the 2012 NLNG Literature Award"?
I screamed. I tend to do that a lot when I am too happy for words
How did the news reach you?
I saw it on Twitter.
On your fellow competitors, what were your thoughts about them, particularly when the race had been downsized to three and here you are caught up with the best two for the $100,000 prize money?
My thoughts on them?
Yes, your thoughts.
I was curious to read the books on the intial shortlist that I had not read. I am always delighted to discover new writers and new books.
Let's talk about Nigeria and literature. It has often been said Nigerians don't respect writers. If you'd agree and in your opinion, what would you say had been the problem?
I have been in Nigeria a few times in the past two years, as a writer, and I have never felt disrespected. The organizations I have worked with have been very professional.
If you have been following up, what's your take on an unstable religious and political situation in Nigeria?
I think it's a tragedy that the government seems unable or unwilling to tackle a situation that is getting worse by the day.
What takes your time when you are not writing?
I read. I raise children. I take lessons in French and Logic.
You have an extra $100,000 to spend, what's on your list of things to be done? Anything we should know?
I have absolutely no idea!