Her small frame belies the creative power that lies within. Yet, her large smile sits perfectly on her chocolate coloured face. She has just been announced the winner of the 2012 Nigerian Prize for Literature. Her joy knows no bounds. Chika Unigwe is the winner of the $100, 000 Nigeria Prize for Literature for her novel, ‘On Black Sisters Street.’
Chika Unigwe was born in Enugu, Nigeria, and now lives in Turnhout, Belgium, with her husband and four children. She holds a BA in English Language and Literature from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and an MA from the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium. She also holds a PhD from the University of Leiden, The Netherlands, having completed a thesis entitled “In the shadow of Ala. Igbo women writing as an act of righting,” in 2004.
Unigwe has authored many fiction, poetry, articles and educational works. 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. Her stories have been broadcast on BBC World Service, Radio Nigeria, and other Commonwealth radio stations.
Her first novel, De Feniks, was published in Dutch by Meulenhoff /Manteau in September 2005; it is the first book of fiction written by a Flemish author of African origin. The story, set in Turnhout, explores themes such as grief, illness and loneliness, subjects already touched upon in Unigwe’s earlier works. By featuring a central character who shares the novelist’s Afro-European background, the narrative also exposes some shortcomings of Belgian society, like its pervasive unwelcoming atmosphere and the superficiality of many of its inhabitants.
She has recently published her second novel, ‘On Black Sister’s Street’ (first released in Dutch under the title Fata Morgana), a tale of choices and displacement set against the backdrop of the Antwerp prostitution scene.
The ghost of the protagonist in ‘On Black Sister’s Street’ hovers over Lagos after she meets a brutal death in Belgium. And Unigwe says researching on the novel was a little unnerving at the beginning.
“Initially, it was a bit uncomfortable being there as a woman,” she recalls, “knowing that you were being looked at as someone who was willing to sell themselves for money. So, it was a bit uncomfortable. But it was something I had to do, I wanted to feel how uncomfortable Sissy or Ama or any of my other characters felt being there for the first time. I had to forget about my own feelings of discomfort to get through it.”
She got married in her undergrad years and never really took writing serious as a career. “I wasn’t really a writer before I left. What I mean by I wasn’t really a writer is because it was my hobby, it wasn’t really a career. I was an undergrad and was just trying to get through with school and get a first class, if I could. But I couldn’t. What I had was a collection of poems published while I was an undergraduate. But it was self-published. It was something I did as a kid. It is something like having a very ugly boyfriend with a very famous last name, and you just drop the name and hope people don’t ever get to meet him.”
As a writer, she says she does not usually put herself in her prose fiction. “I don’t put myself in my books. The only thing I have in common with the protagonist of the phoenix is that she doesn’t like mushrooms. I don’t like mushrooms at all. But that’s the only thing, I don’t put myself in my books and I don’t spend 24 hours in a church either.”
In addition, she says she plans to develop some projects on literature with the prize money. Currently, she is bringing her versatility to bear by updating the Igbo dictionary. “It’s a labour of love,” she explains. “There are five of us in the core group and over a total of a thousand of us. What we do is extract words from the dictionary. For every word we try to find an Igbo, where Igbo did not exist already, we try to find an appropriate word for it.”
A lover of languages, she says she did an extensive on the Dutch language when she moved to Belgium. And she thinks success in writing depends on luck. “You can’t predict luck. Most of the people here try their luck by self-publishing. For some people, self-publishing is a lot of work. One, because you have to make sure that you invest in editing as well. Then you have to self-distribute your work as well. And as one person there is only so much you can do with distribution.”
She agrees that for a black writer it is very difficult to get published. “It is a very competitive market, especially if you are going through the commercial publishing route it’s difficult. First, you have to find an agent and the agent has to sell your work. Yes, it’s difficult.”
Unigwe has strove to achieve a good family-work balance in spite of her busy schedule. “The kids have bedtime and once they go to bed it’s my time. Sometimes at night, sometimes early in the morning, but I always try to make out time to write, it’s a job and not my hobby. It’s my career, so I treat it like a nine-to-five. If I weren’t writing, I would be teaching.”