Friday, 14 October 2016

Book Review: On Black Sisters' Street by Chika Unigwe

2016 review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

From afar Europe seems to many a continent of marvels where everybody can live in peace and enjoy all the amenities of modern life without having to struggle day after day. Those who come here quickly realise that reality is quite different from what they were told. Even the well-educated often find themselves at the bottom of society all of a sudden. For women this may mean prostitution. This year I already presented two forgotten German-language classics from the first decade of the twentieth century focusing on prostitutes in Germany and Austria (»»» read my reviews of The Diary of a Lost Girl by Margarete Böhme and The Red House by Else Jerusalem). The bestselling Belgian novel On Black Sisters’ Street by Chika Unigwe tells the stories of four young Nigerian women who hoped to escape a life without perspective in Lagos accepting the offer of a sly Nigerian to get them to Antwerp, Belgium, and ended as sex workers.

Chika Unigwe was born in Enugu, Nigeria, in January 1974. After her studies of English Language and Literature at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka, she joined her husband in Turnhout, Belgium, and continued her studies at the universities of Leuven (MA) and Leiden (PhD). In the 1990s she brought out two volumes of poetry and since the early 2000s she has been publishing short stories in English and later also in Dutch. As a novelist the author made her debut with The Phoenix (De Feniks: 2005) that was followed by much acclaimed On Black Sisters’ Street (Fata Morgana: 2007). Her latest works are the novels Night Dancer (Nachtdanser: 2011) and De Zwarte Messias (2013; The Black Messiah). Since 2013 Chika Unigwe lives in the United States with her husband and four sons.

Sisi is one of four young women from Nigeria sharing a flat on Zwartezusterstraat, i.e. On Black Sisters’ Street in Antwerp, Belgium, in 2005/06. Ama, Efe, Joyce and Sisi don’t know much about each other, but they are sisters in misery because at different times and for very different reasons they left their bleak surroundings in Lagos with the help of a wealthy, though not actually trustworthy man called Oga Dele. They all wished to believe his promises of a better and easier life in Europe – and found themselves thrust into Antwerp’s red light district Schipperskwartier as sex workers in the care of a madam who keeps their (false) passports and behaves detached, cold and superior to them. With the exception of Joyce, who is really a Sudanese refugee called Alek, they at least suspected what kind of job they were meant to do in Europe and let themselves in to it despite all. Sisi had doubts, but for the sake of the bright future that was prophesised her as a baby and that her university diploma won’t give her as she learnt during years of hunting for a job in vain, she pushed them aside giving up her old self as Chisom and becoming Sisi. Nonetheless, when she first sees where and how she is going to earn her living she is at the same time amazed and taken aback:
“… They took a side street and came to a wide road on either side of which blocks of flats stood. The ground flats caught her attention. Huge windows like showcases, the edges of the windows lined with blue and red neon lights, and behind the windows, young women in various poses. Mostly poses that involved their chest being pushed out, eyelids fluttering, a finger beckoning. Pretty girls all in a row. Bodies clad in leather or half dressed in frilly lingerie. Boots way up the thighs. …”
Neither her upbringing nor her education have prepared Sisi for this kind of existence and she finds selling her body increasingly hard to bear. Then Luc, a Belgian who first sees her in church, comes into her life. He convinces her that she deserves better and that she should just stop working for the madam, but she owes a lot of money to Oga Dele who organised and paid for her voyage to Belgium…

The original Dutch title of On Black Sisters’ Street is Fata Morgana and at least to me it seems more appropriate than the English title considering that Ama, Efe, Joyce and above all Sisi went after the treacherous mirage of quick and easy money in Europe. Moreover, Sisi makes herself believe her lover’s naïve illusion that she can simply step out of her life as a prostitute and forget about her “benefactor” in Nigeria without having to pay for it one way or another. The plot alternates between the central figure Sisi, who just followed her heart shutting out reason, and the other three women, who are together in the sitting room on Zwartezusterstraat. While the author gives Sisi a solo part to take stock of her life, notably her comparatively sheltered childhood and youth in disgraceful poverty that pushed her into the oldest trade of the world, Chika Unigwe brings the other three women closer together making them talk about their pasts that paved the way for their becoming sex workers. With great tact and narrative skill the author thus unfolds a rather representative kaleidoscope of female suffering in an environment where local traditions and above all male chauvinism keep being very strong (seduction of a minor, child abuse and rape included) as well as in the context of flight from civil war and ethnic cleansing. The tone of the novel is unsentimental, the language simple though spiced with powerful, sometimes even poetic images.

Although On Black Sisters’ Street by Chika Unigwe is fiction, not a first-hand account of true events concerning existing people, from my outsider’s point of view, it seems despite all a very authentic and realistic book about women on the margin of society whom most of us willingly overlook, if not shun in real life because they are strangers and even worse prostitutes. The well-written and well-structured story convinced me, and as always, I appreciated very much the chance to slip into a milieu that is far from my own experience… and to learn. It’s also an important novel because it opens our eyes for the everyday problems of far too many people in Africa and at the same time it shows Africans that Europe is all but paradise on earth. In a nutshell: a recommended read.

* * * * * 

This review is a contribution to
(images linked to my reading lists):


  1. This one sounds like a lot to take in. I think I have read about those windows with the girls in them in another novel. Possibly, Until I Find You by John Irving.

    1. It's not that bad actually. A less tactful writer might have written a much more shattering novel.


Dear anonymous spammers: Don't waste your time here! Your comments will be deleted at once without being read.