Wednesday 29 February 2012

An Evening with Chika Unigwe

Photo Courtesy Ike Anya
The reading was in a swanky South Kensignton hotel called The Gore. The event was organised by the Dutch Embassy and was billed to start at 7pm. At 7:15 I rushed breathless into the hotel lobby and was  pleased to discover that the Dutch are as flexible with their time as their Nigerian counterparts. There was a nice, dim waiting area and the main event was downstairs.

It was an informal space, with a few sofas against the walls and a wide floor space in the middle. Nigerian that I am, I sharply found a sofa arm to perch on. Sitting on the floor outside your house is just not done. Before the reading began, Chika mingled with her fans. She was gracious, greeting people like me who she's only met once, very warmly. By the time we were ready to start the room had filled up.

She read from a short story called The Love of a Fat Woman. It was about a Nigeriam man who'd married a woman he found unattractively and nauseatingly fat, in order to get immigration papers in the Netherlands. It's a common story that most Africans are familiar with. Interesting, however, was the manner in which this story was told. Chika neither condemned nor condoned the practice but rather wished to humanise it and did so in a very humorous way. The anti-hero prefers his fiance's svelte and attractive friend but she doesn't not notice him. So he settles for the papers that unfortunately come with a corpulent bride attached to them. When he takes her home he promises his mother that he will marry a 'real wife' later on.

 We felt for the main character's over weight and insecure fiancĂ© who believed that their love was genuine. But we also understood why the main character felt that this deception was the only way. We were moved by his close relationship with his family and because of that, it wasn't so easy to write him off as a cruel and unfeeling paper hunter.

The next story she read was  told from the perspective of his relatives at home and their reaction to the Agaracha's new wife. I found this different outlook on events hilarious. His brother's wife, speaking of the Dutch bride's size, described her as a 'room and parlour.' Her earrings which were wooden had to be African because they did not look like they came from anywhere else and there was a lot of wood in Africa. They tried to offer her Western food but she refused insisting on eating pounded yam and even worse, insisting on eating it with her hands. Her in-laws rather uncharitably concluded that she was trying too hard.

Chika and her fans. :) Photo courtesy Tokunboh @toksy27
Too soon the reading segment ended and we had reached the QandA. In the second short story she read, she had written in English, Dutch and Igbo and one member of the audience asked how she found the process of moving through those languages in her writing. She spoke of how and why she learnt Dutch. She used to suffer panic attacks because after she moved to Belgium with her husband, she couldn't go anywhere by herself because she didn't understand a word of the language. And when she met her in-laws, she couldn't understand them either. So she had to pick up the language quickly.

She spoke about Belgium and why she had felt compelled to write 'On Black Sisters Street', her novel about Nigerian prostitutes working in the red light district. She described the Catholic home she had grown up as one where sex was rarely talked about. One of her favourite songs in her childhood was 'Let's Talk About Sex' by Salt and Pepper. However, the word sex was such a taboo that she substituted it with 'bread.' So whenever she sang it, the song became,  "Let's talk about bread baby." I can imagine that the next line would be, "Let's talk about yeast and dough."
 I know.

So anyway, coming from this background, to get to Belgium and see sex everywhere was certainly a different experience. She described women in their lingerie, posing in glass windows waiting for their customers and she discovered that many of the girls were Nigerian and in particular from Benin. So at first, she tried to write the story without meeting the girls and on showing it to someone, they advised her to meet the women if she wanted an authentic story. So she put on her mini-skirt and took her husband with her to the red light district to meet them. The stories she heard were harrowing. One girl had been invited to Germany by her estranged father who had then sent her to live with a 'friend' in another European country. This 'friend' had run a brothel and the proceeds of her work had been sent to her father in Germany. She told of women without papers arrested by police and allowed to leave on the condition that they slept with the police men first.

She also, very excitingly, said that her next book was coming out in June. It's set in Nigeria and is about a relationship between a mother and a daughter. And her next-next book is going to be a work historical fiction set in the eighteenth century. I'm very, very excited about that one, being a history student et al. It's just been delivered to her agent so hopefully, we'll see that on the shelves soon as well.

And then just like that the evening was over and it was time to go and face the more mundane things of life like grocery shopping and dissertation writing. Chika closed to applause and flowers, which was exactly what you would expect.   

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