Vanguard (Lagos)

9 February 2013

Nigeria: I Had to Be On the Street As If Ready to Sell Myself - Chika Unigwe

Chika Unigwe was the winner of 2012 Nigeria Liquified Natural Gas $100,000 sponsored literature prize for the prose category. She won the prize with her entry On Black Sister Street. Last week at two well attended ceremony, the recipient was hosted by the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where she graduated from the Department of English and Lagos , where she had her works read to the audience.In this interview, she spoke to the media about the award, her family, writing abroad and much more. Enjoy it.

How did you feel when you got news of the award?

Great. I was excited and apart from what I do online, where I have some writers I mentor, I plan setting up a writer's centre in Awka. Already, I've spoken with to the governor of Anambra state and he has promised to partner with me. So, we'll see how that goes.

If you had to rewrite the award winning novel, what would change?

I guess at the point when my agent sold it we were both satisfied that it was ready.

There is a church element in your book, the phoenix. Are you a church person?

I don't put myself in my books. The only thing I have in common with the protagonist of the phoenix is that she doesn't like mushrooms. I don't like mushrooms at all. But that's the only thing, I don't put myself in my books and I don't spend 24 hours in a church either.

How did you feel, being on the street while researching on the book?

Initially, it was a bit uncomfortable being on the street as a woman, knowing that you were being looked at as someone who was willing to sell herself for money. So it was a bit uncomfortable. But it was something I had to do, I wanted to feel how uncomfortable Sissy or Ama or any of my other characters felt being there for the first time. I had to forget about my own feelings of discomfort to get through it.

On Black Sister's Street is fiction yet it looks real?

Thank you. That is what a good book is supposed to do, it's supposed to make you believe it even if it's about a talking dog.

Do those four women exist?

No, they don't, they are just composites of different people.

Nigerians have the impression that as a black writer, it's very difficult to get published, how true is this?

Yeah, it's a very competitive market especially if you are going through the commercial publishing route. It's really difficult, first you have to find an agent and the agent has to sell your work. so yes, it's difficult.

Your advice to aspiring writers

I think success in writing also depends on luck. You can't predict luck.

Could that be why most people here try their luck by self-publishing?

Self-publishing is a lot of work. This is so because you have to make sure that you invest in editing as well as self-distribute your work. And as one person, there is only so much you can do with distribution.

Nollywood doesn't seem to be doing well like Nigerian writing in terms of award. Do you think adapting books like On Black Sister's Street into a movie, could do the magic?.

I don't know. I really can't talk on Nollywood because I'm not a Nollywood person and I'm not particularly an expert in Nollywood. But I think that what is happening at the moment is that we have too many movies being churned out. And some of the movies that are being churned out you can see that there isn't much effort being put into them, just somebody with a camera.

So, would you sell the rights of On black Sister's Street, to a Nollywood filmmaker for adaptation into movie?

Why not? They'd have to go through my agent of course and if he is satisfied that they will do a good job, why not?

You've got a family as well as a lot of published works, How do you cope?

I have four boys and you know, kids have bedtime and once they go to bed it's my time.

I write sometimes at night, sometimes early in the morning but I always try to make out time to write, it's a job and not my hobby. It's my career so I treat it like a nine-to-five.

What else would you do other than writing?

Teaching.

How did you become a writer?

I wrote during my school days in Nigeria but that was as my hobby.

I was an undergrad and was just trying to get through with school and get a first class if I could. But I couldn't. What I had was a collection of poems published while I was an undergraduate. But it was self-published.

What happened to that collection?

It was something I did as a kid. It is something like having a very ugly boyfriend with a very famous last name and you just drop the name and hope people don't ever get to meet him.

How about going into poetry again?

The muse has left me. I did try to do poetry shortly after I moved to Belgium but I just couldn't.

What's this about Igbo dictionary on facebook.

We are updating the Igbo dictionary. It's a labour of love. And there are five of us in the core group and over a total of a thousand of us. What we do is extract words from the dictionary. For every word we try to find an Igbo, where Igbo was not existing already, we try to find an appropriate word for it. Im into it because I love languages which is why I did an extensive course on Dutch language when I moved to Belgium.

Are there opportunities abroad that Nigerian writers could tap into?

There are online writing groups, there are agents who receive submissions online, there are magazines they can send their works to. Online literary magazines are scouting ground for literary agents. They go there, if they see what they like, they go for it. They could also send their works to magazines abroad if they are looking for audience abroad.

Most award winners such as Helon Habila, Chimamanda Adichie, come back and teach workshops in writing, is that also in your future plans?

If a Fidelity Bank and Nigerian Breweries sponsor me, why not. Nigerian Breweries sponsors Chimamanda's workshop, while Fidelity sponsor's Habila, they are not investing their own money in it. If anybody is willing to sponsor me, sure.

May be you should do a proposal in that regard?

I also think that we should support those already there, I've taught at Chimamanda's workshop and at a workshop in Abuja. I don't think it's important to duplicate what is already there. I think it's important to help those who have already started something. It's not a bad thing that they have started, it's not a bad thing that we encourage what they have started in any way that we can.

Could there be something Nigerian writers are doing right considering the fact that those in Diaspora have won available prizes in recent time?

I think that because most writers in Nigeria are self published, so their works do not go through the rigorous checks that people who publish abroad especially with commercial publishers go through.

This is an advantage that we in diaspora have. Nigerians who live in Nigeria but publish abroad also have this advantage like Adaobi Nwabauni and Lola Shoneyin. Your book goes through so many rigorous checks because the reputation of the publisher, editor is at stake. But with a self-published book, nobody's reputation is at stake since all they owe you is to deliver the service. So, unless you have publishers who are committed to quality, which is what I think Cassava Republic, Farafina and Parussia are doing. Parrussia, they publish only two books a year because they want to be able to maintain the standards that they have set.

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