Review: On Black Sisters Street by Chika Unigwe
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
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.