Author of On Black Sisters Street and ‘Head Above Water: Scanning Buchi Emecheta’s Oeuvre’, Chika Unigwe, believes it is important for an author to know as much as possible about the characters they are writing about: ‘to write a character well, one must treat that character with integrity and respect, and that means knowing as much as there is to know about the character.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
I read everything. My older siblings’ schoolbooks and novels—James Hadley Chase, M & Bs; Chinua Achebe and Cyprian Ekwensi. A lot of Enid Blyton. A classmate had a subscription to Highlights for Children (an American children’s magazine) and I asked my father to take out a subscription for my younger sister and me too (and he did).
What book from your childhood would you pass on to someone younger?
I loved The Borrowers by Mary Norton, which I got as a gift from one of my big sisters and re-read several times. I remember the incredible power the writing had over me. I was very excited to discover a movie based on it several years later. Also, Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. And I always, always recommend Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart to younger Nigerians because it shatters what is taught in our social studies and history classes that our history starts with colonization, and it also presents colonization as an intervention that upended a civilization.
If you could rewrite a classic book/text, which would it be and why?
I am rewriting the myth of Hades and Persephone (setting it in Nigeria) because I don’t like the way the original one ends.
You’ve lived in Belgium since 1995. What’s something you’re always telling people about living there?
That Belgium has the best pastries and the best chocolates. I can’t eat American chocolate.
And do you have a favourite Belgian word/saying?
‘Als je niet aan tafel zit ben je vergeten’: if you’re not (seated) at the table, you’re forgotten.
I loved ‘The Borrowers’ by Mary Norton, which I got as a gift from one of my big sisters and re-read several times. I remember the incredible power the writing had over me. I was very excited to discover a movie based on it several years later.
What’s one way the pandemic has affected your reading and writing?
I suffered terrible lethargy at the beginning of the pandemic, unable to do/read anything that wasn’t work-related or write anything that wasn’t commissioned. I am grateful for those commissions for getting me to write. However, something happened towards the end of last year that got me out of the funk I was in. I finished the first draft of a new novel, and I am reading a lot for pleasure again.
What’s something you wish more people knew about writing a novel?
That it can take a very, very long time.
Which three books should we all be reading at this moment?
What’s a recent book/text you read and disagreed with, and why?
I read a book by a neurologist recently, which was fascinating in a lot of ways, but I disagreed with his perception of the soul. How I view the soul is based on my Christian beliefs.
What’s a common misconception about contemporary African writing?
That a lot of it is happening outside of the continent.
I suffered terrible lethargy at the beginning of the pandemic, unable to do/read anything that wasn’t work related or write anything that wasn’t commissioned. I am grateful for those commissions for getting me to write.
What’s your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
I try to get the first draft out and then edit.
What was your process for writing ‘Head Above Water: Scanning Buchi Emecheta’s Oeuvre’?
Research, write. Everyone writes academic essays the same way, right?
Your novel, On Black Sisters Street, is about four African women who found their way to Antwerp’s red-light district. What was your process for writing it?
The process involved banging out a first draft (the skeleton of the novel) where my main characters seemed like types rather than individuals, doing research in the red-light district of Antwerp to learn more about the characters I was writing about—to write a character well, one must treat that character with integrity and respect, and that means knowing as much as there is to know about the character, so I went to the red-light district and spoke to Nigerian sex workers like the women in my novel—adding flesh to the skeleton I had. Then I spent many more years refining the novel. The process from the first manuscript to the last that went to print took quite some time, a few years and many drafts.
What’s something interesting you could only have learned while writing On Black Sisters Street?
That shame is a luxury. That if your family is comfortable and you have options, you can afford to have shame.
And your most recent book, Better Never Than Late, is a collection of short stories. Which story did you write first?
I think the story about Oge mourning her dead son. It started life as a novel, but I think it’s meant to go through life as a short story.
To write a character well, one must treat that character with integrity and respect, and that means knowing as much as there is to know about the character.
What’s something simple about writing that still manages to surprise you?
That it always starts with one letter.
What’s more important: the story or how you write it?
Both. It is difficult to hold my attention if a story I like isn’t written well. And vice versa. The different elements of fiction have to work together for a work to be compelling. It is like asking would you rather have a car without a steering wheel or a brake?
What’s the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Who is an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
None. I think every writer I discover has come exactly at the right time.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
I am reading a brilliant collection of essays, The Kuhreihen Melody, by my colleague, Peter Selgin. And I am reading all the new Nigerian writers from Kasimma to Frances Ogamba. I am excited about the writing coming out of Nigeria.
The different elements of fiction have to work together for a work to be compelling. It is like asking would you rather have a car without a steering wheel or one without a brake?
What should we expect you to write about next?
The novel I mentioned earlier is out in two years. In the meantime, I am having fun writing and placing short stories.
As we end the year, which text(s) would you say shaped your 2021?
I have been (re)reading Abdularazak Gurnah, catching up on his works that I hadn’t read yet, and reminding myself of what a master he is. I have his novels everywhere: bathroom, bedroom, study. Many years from now, I am going to think back to 2021 as my year of Gurnah.
Question from Molara Wood: What writing or publication opportunity do you regret having missed?
When one of my books came out in Cuba, I was invited but I couldn’t go (for personal reasons).
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft.
What book is on your bedside table now?⎈
We want to hear what you think about this interview. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected]