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Chika Unigwe

Biography

Chika Unigwe UNESCO-Aschberg Fellow and a 2009 Rockefeller Foundation Fellow, and holds a PhD from the University of Leiden.

She has received several awards for her writing, including the first prize in the BBC Short Story Competition and a Commonwealth Short Story Award in 2003. In 2004 she was shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing. Her stories have been broadcast on BBC World Service and Radio Nigeria and have appeared in several magazines and anthologies.

Her first novel, De Feniks, was published in Dutch in 2005. Her second novel On Black Sisters Street (Jonathan Cape, 2009 and Random House, 2011) was named by the Telegraph as one of its books of 2009, and was chosen by Alastair Campbell (in The Observer) as his favourite novel of 2010. It has been published in Italian, Hungarian, Dutch and German and has been longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Prize 2011. A third novel, Sin Eater was published in Dutch as Nachtdanser in 2011. It will be released in 2012 by Jonathan Cape in the UK. Unigwe is working on a new novel, For Susannah, based on the life of Equiano, a former African slave who lived in England in the 18th century.

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Authors' text

Letter to Ida Hattemer-Higgins

 

Dear Ida:

There is a deer outside my window! It's unbelievable!! I don't even have to get out of bed to see it. On the trees, the leaves have turned the rich golden colour of maple syrup. It is so magical. I feel like I am a character in a children's story book. I half expect to see Little Red Riding Hood walk by all rosy cheeked and healthy with a thoughtfully arranged basket of fruit for her grandma. Or Goldilocks being happily rebellious and wandering off against her mother's warning, and finding herself in the house of the three bears. Or the 3 little pigs having a friendly banter about what sort of house would stand the test of the big bad wolf's huffing and puffing. I feel the inexplicable desire to whistle. I am the world's worst whistler. Surely, surely I cannot be in 21st century America. Rip Van Winkle could escape his nagging spouse, lean against a tree, sleep here for another twenty years and not be disturbed. Rip van Winkle did sleep somewhere close by for 2O years, did he not? I don't want to get up and break the spell but I cannot lie in bed all day. Besides, it's difficult typing in bed and work beckons.

In discussing my writing, I have often quoted Virginia's Woolf's tenet that a woman must have a room of her own if she is to write. I also often ad that in that room she must have a massive, massive desk. Being here however, I am no longer sure that a room is enough. Writing is no longer for me that isolating, isolated exercise, hunched over a computer, refusing to let my surroundings come in and have any impact on my work. Perhaps I feel like this now because the novel I have come here to work on is historical fiction, a throw- back to the days when the world , not just a quaint little place like this, was like a child's story book. I feel very fortunate to be working on this particular novel, in these particular surroundings. Serendipity. Perhaps this is my literary luck: this encounter, this arrangement, to be plunged into the world of a setting I have been trying so very hard , so very frustratingly hard to re-create.

Of course I have done the research: I have sat through hours of period drama; dredged through piles of documents from the library of archives; read through tomes of literature , but I seem to have, rather unfortunately, an unconscious distrust of my own ability to recreate settings if I cannot experience them directly. It was this distrust that settled in my stomach like a huge stone and weighed me down for a very long time and stopped me from starting work on a subject which fascinated me. I have very often envied authors who have the ability to write of a place and a time they never could have visited. Maybe they discovered this secret of sending themselves to appropriate locations. Maybe they are better at imagining than I am. Maybe they are better able to be empathic. Empathy surely, in huge doses, is desirable in a writer. Yet, my genetic coding seems to make me deficient to a certain degree in imaginative empathy.

However, whatever advantage these historical and science fiction novelists have (had) over me, I am certain that it is leveling out. Here, I notice that my characters speak in an easier voice. It is no longer I- the author- putting words in their mouths, moulding them like plasticine into set shapes, but they feel at home here and roam free. There is no greater gift than this, I think: for the author to be dead to the characters even in the process of writing; to become nothing more but a vessel through which the characters are made visible to the world, their voices heard, their stories added to the others. Zadie Smith writes in an essay , Speaking in Tongues, in which she reflects on moving from/moving between a working-class accent to a posh Camebridge accent , that " ...at home , during the holidays, I spoke with my old voice, and in the old voice seemed to speak and feel things that
I couldn't express in college, and vice versa. I felt a sort of wonder at the flexibility of the thing. Like being alive twice." I too can claim that miraculous experience for my characters who are saying things and doing things they were inhibited from doing before I arrived here. I am certain that they cannot get over the wonder of it all, this new flexibility they have found. They whisper their excitement in my ears. They ask me to write, write, write them out into the world. They tell me that for art to be relevant it has to be free. And that I have given them the greatest gift of all: freedom.

I hope you are finding inspiration in Brussels, discovering the wonders of new places, experiencing the magic of being alive over and over and over again.

With best wishes,
Chika.

Read the letter of Ida Hattemer-Higgins.

 

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