DATE/PLACE: 4 July, 7.45pm, Purcell Room at Queen Elizabeth’s Hall
I first interviewed Chika Unigwe in Trinidad & Tobago during the NGC Bocas Lit Festival. During our interview, the acclaimed author discussed a host of engrossing topics, ranging from the themes in her compelling new novel, Night Dancer which explores the complexities and contradictions of Nigeria, to ‘nego-feminism’, and how literature has the capacity to effect change. Her event at the London Literature Festival 2012 is sure to be fascinating so do grab a ticket if you can.
Chika Unigwe’s critically acclaimed second novel, ‘On Black Sisters’ Street’ (first released in Dutch under the title ‘Fata Morgana’), is a tale of choices and displacement set against the backdrop of the Antwerp prostitution scene and was longlisted for the 2011 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. She explained her motivation in writing the book:
“‘On Black Sister’s Street’ was a book I had to write because I was very intrigued by the subject matter of the prostitutes in Antwerp. I had to write it to get the curiosity out of my head. The process of writing the book changed me completely. It taught me to be a lot more empathic. I saw a face of Nigeria I didn’t know existed. I didn’t know it was such a huge export of women”.
That shows that literature has a capacity to change both the writer and the reader?
“Definitely. It definitely changed me. My first thought about these women was ‘have they no shame?’, but then I realised through writing the book that some people don’t have the luxury of feeling shame.”
Both ‘On Black Sister’s Street’ and your new novel, “Night Dancer” deal powerfully with the theme of women’s lives, their trials and tribulations.
“Women’s lives is a subject in which I’m very interested, and how women have been oppressed. I went to a talk by Professor Obioma Nnaemeka in which she was arguing that, interestingly, a Western form of feminism isn’t always acceptable in Africa – so ‘nego-feminism’ is negotiated feminism in which you stay within the limits of your culture but manipulate the space you have. One of the first short stories I wrote after listening to this talk about ‘nego-feminism’ was about a young woman in an abusive relationship.”
The title of your compelling new novel, ‘Night Dancer’, has interesting layers of meaning. Could you explain more about that?
“In ‘Night Dancer’, you don’t really see the protagonist as she’s already dead by the time the book opens. Night dancer is a transliteration of a word used to refer to witches – someone who operates outside the accepted norms. That also refers to my protagonist who breaks all the norms.”
This theme of witches is very topical at the moment with some recent horrific news stories of people being accused of witchcraft and brutally punished.
“A video went viral on Youtube of some self-styled bishop in Nigeria who had an altar call and he accused a woman of witchcraft and when she denied it he slapped her. The past five years has been really awful as there are women being accused of witchcraft and sent out of their homes. It’s a society where everything is broken and things don’t work. If you’re working so hard and your business is failing – who do you blame? your daughter for being a witch?”
The image of the ‘broken society’ has been used powerfully in Nigerian literature, including Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” – is this a theme of Nigerian literature you aim to continue unravelling?
“I worked in politics as a counsellor in Nigeria. The reason I went into politics is the same reason I write – I want to change something. ‘ Change’ is such a big word, but I want to have an impact. That’s what motivates my writing”.
“Be the change you want to see in the world”, as Mahatma Gandhi said?
“At least try to. That’s the greatest thing about being a writer – you can articulate your frustrations with the world and society around you and hopefully someone will read it and it will make a change”.
You also powerfully explore stories and lives and people who have not previously been given a voice.
“The important thing to remember is that all these stories have equal validity”.