at the Sentinel Literature Festival (02/12/2009)
Photo: Nnorom Azuonye.]
Chika Unigwe’s book, On Black Sisters’ Street chronicles the sad odyssey of an army of young women prostitutes drawn from various parts of Nigeria (and the Sudan!) who invade Europe desperate to do for themselves and their clans what waves of prostitute African governments have neglected to do for them. The ladies, Efe, Ama, Sisi, and Joyce are the main characters in a set of stories that collectively narrate epic struggles in the face of fear and despair. In this well-researched book, Sisi leads this pack of warrior-sisters on the streets of Europe determined to force down the doors of poverty and hopelessness that forced them away from home. They go out daily in search of lonely men - and wealth, the new measure of respect back home in Nigeria.
There is plenty to like in the book. It is rich with environment, populated by colorful, pleasant details that do not overwhelm the senses. It is a book that will take you a few days to read – the prose is languid, seemingly in no hurry to get to a climax. I like the way Unigwe introduces side issues into conversations and they stick with you – issues like sexism and the treatment of women as chattel in Africa. It is a neat trick, how she tucks weighty issues into throw-away sentences.
Every character in this book is driven by a deep hunger. Perhaps the monotony of yearning is the story of a Nigeria gradually turning soulless from material lust. In the process, we have learnt to hate ourselves. Energy seems reserved for mimicking the otherness that resides in the West. Unigwe’s book showcases Nigeria as a nation of people deeply invested in acquiring the trappings of an otherness that emanates from the West.
God must be exhausted and Nigerians are to blame. The book captures the ceaseless supplications for more and more and the pious request for God to annihilate our enemies that stand in the way of our more and more. God must regret the day the devil tricked her into creating the Nigerian; we are such a needy group. We see the new Christianity as the new plague sweeping across a nation of uncritical thinkers.
The absurdities of life in Nigeria are expertly captured. Lagos is filth and dust at dusk advertising the meanness of neglect: The chapter named Ama was the best. It hearkens to the beauty of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, of what happens when language is not in the way of the story. Here, Unigwe writes with confidence and her literary muscle barrels her voice into a full-throated roar. The expert way she weaves local Igbo and onomatopoeic idioms into the English is sexy, kpom kwem.
The book offers plenty to frustrate the reader. The prose is uneven overall; as a result the book sometimes has the consistency of pulp fiction. The use of Pidgin English in this book added nothing to the book. Unigwe’s knowledge of Pidgin English seemed tentative or perhaps watered down to make it more palatable to a broader market. Pidgin English has an image problem. In the hands of Nigerian writers it undergoes an extreme makeover and acquires an inferiority complex.
The book’s chapters are not numbered; they are repeatedly named after each “sister” or the street Zwartezusterstraat. There are about thirteen chapters named Sisi. Confusing. The chapters see-saw between multiple consciousnesses; the reader is force-fed the future up front and in the next chapter, the past walks up to the day. The reader learns of the future death of one of the characters – on the first few pages of the book.
The book is not quite convincing in its analysis of how the girls chose prostitution. It is not for lack of trying. Indeed, Unigwe is guilty of an over-analysis of the characters’ motives. She obviously interviewed a lot of prostitutes. One wonders if they held back from this sister who went to too much school.
The plight of Nigerian girls in Europe is the most visible symbol of the wanton rape of generations of youths by badly behaving Nigerian rulers. Unigwe appears however to have no stomach for conflict. Europe harbors a huge contingent of ladies from Edo State in Nigeria. There seems to have been a deliberate attempt to avoid this reality. The chapter named Alek (Joyce) is my least favorite. It reads like an exhausted affirmative action afterthought. The character was developed as coming from Sudan, escaping the war, ending up in Nigeria and then Europe after her soldier-lover got bored with her. Darfur does not belong in this book. The chapter sits like a patronizing ode to the notion that prostitution is universal.
On Black Sisters’ Street is a good story fiercely resisting flight because it is airborne on timid wings. This is a shame because Unigwe has the muscle to communicate proprietary feelings using Standard English. My humble advice is that Unigwe should relax and take maximum advantage of her mastery of loose limber prose and let the words fly recklessly with her imagination. That would be quite a book.
Ikhide Ikheloa lives in the US and is a regular contributor to Literary Magazines and Newspapers.