Chika Unigwe, The Per Contra Interview by Miriam N. Kotzin
PC: Do you remember when you started to write?
CU: I remember when I began wanting to be a writer. I was in grade two at Ekulu Primary School and one of my classmates happened to be the daughter of Flora Nwapa, the first African woman to be published in the UK. Nwapa also wrote children’s books and would sometimes come to our classroom with (her) books. I was in awe of this woman whose books took me to other worlds, but who was also so very human.
PC: Did you keep a journal? Do you keep one now?
CU: I used to keep a journal religiously but not anymore. I think I stopped because I realized I was using my journals to record every evil done to me, and that is not a very healthy thing to do.
PC: Getting a Ph.D. isn't a casual activity. What were your goals as a student? How did your academic work connect to your writing?
CU: I loved reading and a degree in literature seemed like the only thing to do. I love reading and analyzing texts. It is helpful as a writer to study other writers and some of the writers I worked on for my Ph;D are writers I greatly admire
PC: When did you begin to think of yourself as a writer rather than as a scholar? Were there any precipitating events?
CU: I think I made that transition when the first of my two Macmillan books was published and it occurred to me that if a child reading it were asked the name of the writer, (s)he would say Chika Unigwe. It was a heady feeling, but I didn’t get my “writer” complimentary cards made until very recently.
PC: What took you to the United States? To Belgium?
CU: Nadine Gordimer says in one of her novels, in Get a Life, I think, that women’s migration is mainly related to marriage. Well, mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa. Both times, I moved with/because of my husband. I also get very bored living in one place and I am looking forward to moving again
PC: Do you still write poetry? What relationship do you see between your poems and your fiction?
CU: The Muse of poetry left me when I moved abroad from Nigeria. I moved from a space where I was very comfortable, to a space where I not only had to learn a new language, I had to learn social codes and etiquettes as well. It erodes your self confidence, realizing that nothing you knew mattered anymore. I suffered from panic attacks the first few months and for the first year I could not write anything. I went into a state of mental blankness. When I started writing again, I found out that I could no longer write poetry. I still enjoy reading poetry and read quite a lot of it.
PC: Do you have plans to do more children's books (A Rainbow for Dinner, and Ije at School)?
CU: No, not at the moment. Childrens’ books are extremely difficult to write . Besides, I am enjoying writing for grown-ups too much at the moment to want to do anything else
PC: When you work on a novel, do you also write short stories or do you spend your writing time only on the novel?
CU: Yes,I do write short stories or articles around the novel. I also spend a lot of time reading. Sometimes I need to take a break from the world of the novel I am writing
PC: In what languages do you write? What are the challenges that you face in translating your work from one language to another?
CU: I write in both Dutch and English. I write mainly in English s I understand its nuances better and also take more risks, linguistically when I write in English. Sometimes it is impossible for me to translate myself as I write differently depending on, which language I am using.
PC: How does living in diaspora affect your writing?
CU: I was in Nigeria for a couple of weeks sometime ago and I regularly jotted down story ideas and sentences I might use. I came back to Belgium and looked at those notes and there were lines I could never have written in Belgium. And the story ideas were ideas I don’t believe I would have had here in Belgium either.
Living in the diaspora means that I write differently, other themes find me, but it also means that I am distanced enough from Nigeria to be critical of it in a way that I might not have been otherwise.
PC: Your first novel, De Feniks (The Phoenix), was, I believe, shortlisted for Vrouw en Kultuur debuutprijs, the prize for the best first novel by a woman writer. What was its theme?
CU: Migration. Loneliness. I suppose Lonelinness and migration go hand in hand. It’s about a Nigerian woman who lives in Belgium, is married to a Belgian. When they lose their only child, they both deal with the death in two different ways. It has always fascinated me how cultural differences manifest even in universal experiences. While grief is universal, the way one deals with is influenced by one’s cultural (and religious) background.
PC: How did you prepare to write On Black Sisters' Street ? I read that you went out on the street to do research? Is that true? What trepidations did you have? Did you say that you were writing a novel?
CU: I worried that the street might be danferous ( and so I dragged my husband along) but I also worried that the girls might not want to speak with me. I did say initially that I was a writer but I was laughed at (because in the reality of the girls I spoke to, if one was black, if one was a certain age, then one could not be a writer). Plus I was probably not wearing very “writerly” clothes. I had my shortest skirt on and thigh high boots. As it turned out, they opened up to me when I played along with their belief that I was a wannabe prostitute
PC: What is your next project?
CU: I have just finished the first draft of a new work and trying very hard not to move on to another project I am very excited about. I am not very good at being patient but I do understand that I need to finish one work before I move on to the next.
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