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Review: On Black Sisters Street by Chika Unigwe

June 24, 2011

Title: On Black Sisters Street
Author: Unigwe, Chika
Length: 260 pages
Genre: Fiction, General
Publisher / Year: Random House / 2009
Originally Published: In 2007 as Fata Morgana (in Flemish)
Source: Amazon Kindle store
Rating: 4.5/5
Why I Read It: I’d heard quite a bit about it, Adura Ojo’s recent review really made me finally pick it up.
Date Read: 17/06/11

Another truly great Nigerian author from the diaspora. In this case, Unigwe lives in Belgium and writes in Flemish. For that reason I am including this post as part of Iris’ Dutch Literature Month (she made the rules quite loose!). The author has a number of other works but this is both the most recent and, it seems, the most widely available title that she has put out.

This book follows four women who have moved from Nigeria to Antwerp to work as undocumented sex workers. The novel focuses mainly on Sisi and her story, starting with her first day of freedom in Antwerp as she has left the house where she had been living with the three other girls. The chapters switch back and forth between Sisi and the other three girls in the house on Zwartezusterstraat. In addition, both threads take us back and forth through time as we see what led each of the girls to this house on Antwerp, and Sisi to venture out on her own.

I hope I haven’t lost you with that overview of the story, it does sound confusing but it is remarkably easy to follow and very well written and executed. Sisi’s story slowly gives us an idea of why she feels the way that she does and what led her to a life of prostitution instead of a good job using her education which she and her family had always dreamed of. The other three girls, Ama, Efe and Joyce, slowly share their stories to the reader and to each other as they try to cope with what is going on in their lives.

What I really liked about this book is that it showed the various reasons that a woman might choose a life as both an undocumented worker and as a sex worker. Three of the girls have knowingly chosen to move to Antwerp and work as prostitutes while one is deceived into the job. All of them struggle with it at times but also live with what they know are their limited options. They are in not demeaned or shown as less than fully human because of the choices that they have made, and we come to understand them and their choices. I never felt that Unigwe was passing judgement on these women or on the work that they do.

Unigwe apparently did a lot of research with Nigerian women in similar situations around Antwerp. I wasn’t aware that the sex trade was so prevalent, but what this book tells us is that we have to realize the myriad of reasons that women made the decisions they do. Although the women are in a sex trafficking ring headed by Dele and must pay him a large sum of money, at the same time it was willing decisions and some of the women do think that overall it is a good situation. The book highlights the gray areas of the law and of decision-making and responsibility. Clearly the women are being taken advantage of, but what is the solution to this? Simply returning them to unstable situations in Nigeria where they have no options doesn’t seem like a great solution. The quick future we see of each of the women highlights these gray areas and shows the consequences of current situations.

Through the book each of the women has her own voice and story. These stories covered all kinds of different topics from parental expectations, child abuse, war, being a refugee, and more. The book is a really fantastic read that I would recommend to anyone looking for something different.

38 Comments leave one →
  1. June 24, 2011 8:14 am

    I heard Chika Unigwe speak at a literary festival and she was very entertaining. I have been tempted by this book ever since. Thank you for reminding me about it. 🙂

    • June 25, 2011 5:11 pm

      Oh I’m so jealous Jackie 🙂 I am happy to remind you of this fantastic book.

  2. June 24, 2011 8:48 am

    A-ha, so you did get round to it. Interesting to read your thoughts. Glad you enjoyed reading:-) Have a great weekend, Amy.

  3. June 24, 2011 11:23 am

    I have been anxious to see this review since I heard you mention this book in passing. It does sound like it’s really well done and that it really does highlight those morally gray areas in the lives of the women. I would love to read this one and see what I think of it myself. This was a wonderful review!

  4. June 24, 2011 11:52 am

    Wow. I think you just added another one for me to look for when I trip To Barnes and Noble tomorrow. 🙂

  5. June 24, 2011 12:48 pm

    My library has this, so I’m glad to see it’s worth a read! Also, it sounds like it will be less heart-rending than I thought; human trafficking is a HUGE international black market, and I took a class on it in school that left me pretty tramautised. So it’s fascinating to see that this book portrays characters who knew they were going to be sex workers beforehand (rather than being tricked into it, then drugged/raped/beaten/etc.).

    • June 25, 2011 5:12 pm

      It still is heart-rending but not as much as it could have been for sure Eva. I hope you’ll enjoy it. Knowing our fiction tastes I’m scared though 😉

      • June 26, 2011 2:11 pm

        Lol! Just because we don’t always agree on fiction doesn’t mean we never do. 😉 Have you read Purge? (I can’t remember.)

        • June 27, 2011 9:12 am

          That is true Eva, we do have some similar taste – usually for the best books 😀

  6. June 24, 2011 3:53 pm

    This sounds like a really fascinating book which I will definitely have to check out. I like the idea of understanding the different reasons behind why each became a sex worker.

  7. June 24, 2011 5:21 pm

    i recently listened to an audiobook that touched on the sex worker issue–his point was that many of the women working in amsterdam are now from other countries as opposed to his first visit in 1972 when the women were all from the netherlands. on black sisters street sounds like an interesting read–i’m really trying to broaden my reading and author horizons!

    • June 25, 2011 5:13 pm

      Yes seems to be a very true point Nat. Do you mind me asking what book that was? I’d love to check it out as well.

  8. June 24, 2011 5:24 pm

    this seems like a important book Amy on a subject matter that doesn’t get higlight thanks for review will seek it out ,all the best stu

  9. June 25, 2011 4:54 am

    I guess if one were to objectively write about why people involved themselves in robbery we would come to similar reasons: limited opportunities, lack of parental upbringing and more. I don’t mind if people voluntarily decide to be substitutes, whether from a good home or a poor home. But to justify it by pointing to where you came/come from is not good enough. Many individuals have all come from this background and have chosen a different path and have come out “successful”. Options are what they are ‘options’. I read somewhere that it is the allure of quick and good money that make these individuals (mostly women but also include some men) to fall victim to these sex-ring gangs.

    • June 25, 2011 5:17 pm

      Yes, it’s true Nana. And it really highlights the point that we shouldn’t stereotype people for the choices that they make. If men visit and pay for prostitutes then how can we stigmatize those women who take advantage of the job opportunities? If you want to do something about it you really have to look at the big picture and everyone involved. There is the allure of money and women are definitely tricked into it, and the solutions to these issues have to come in ways that don’t hurt the women involved more I think.

  10. June 25, 2011 5:50 am

    Sounds fantastic, love how you managed to combine Dutch month with your faible for Nigerian lit 🙂

  11. June 25, 2011 10:55 am

    Oh…and I forgot to add…thanks for the mention:-)

  12. June 26, 2011 9:55 am

    This sounds interesting but I’m not sure I could read it. I read a Vanity Fair (I think) article recently about sex trafficking in America, and it was so terrible. It gave me nightmares. 😦

    • June 27, 2011 9:12 am

      Yes, it is terrible. Knowing some of how and why the women get involved might make it less scary though possibly? Hard to know Jenny!

  13. June 26, 2011 4:46 pm

    I heard about this one a few months ago and have been curious ever since. After your review, it sounds even more fabulous! Sex trafficking is such a sad thing, but it happens the world over, and most of the books I’ve read on this topic are from the perspective of a viewer or a savior. I’m glad to see this one actually follow the characters.

    • June 27, 2011 9:14 am

      Yes it is definitely not often that we see the story from the point of view of the women – AND that they aren’t completely vilified Aths! I would recommend it just for that 🙂

  14. June 26, 2011 9:23 pm

    I LOVE that this book is written from a diasporic (not a word, but it should be) perspective. I think a lot has been done in treating the English diaspora with respect, and perhaps the Spanish one, but not much has been done with the French or Dutch (as far as I can tell), particularly from a woman’s perspective. How great that this book exists and is doing well 🙂

    • June 27, 2011 9:14 am

      Heh it should be you are right Aarti 😉 I am also happy that the book exists and am hopeful for more both from this author and from other diasporic perspectives 😀

  15. July 2, 2011 4:09 pm

    I have this one on Mount TBR and am really looking forward to it, even more so after reading your review Amy. This seems to have slipped under the radar in the UK some what.

    • July 6, 2011 7:32 am

      I hope that you really enjoy it when you get to it Simon. I haven’t heard a ton about it locally either, mostly only online 🙂

  16. July 12, 2011 3:39 am

    I really need to read this book. Been on this my list for ages. Reminds me a bit of Amma Darko’s Beyond The Horizon. Though that follows a young girl from her life in Ghana to her involvement in the sex trade in Germany. Thanks for the review.

    • July 13, 2011 12:23 pm

      Ahh Amma Darko is high on my list of authors that I really need to read Kinna 🙂 I would highly recommend this to you.


  1. Saturday Review of Books: June 25, 2011 | Semicolon
  2. June 2011 Reading Wrap-Up « Amy Reads
  3. An Overview of Posts for Dutch Literature Month (2) | Iris on Books
  4. Largehearted Boy: Book Notes - Chika Unigwe ("On Black Sisters Street")

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