The Jalada Conversations No 3: Chika Unigwe

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Interviewed by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma



1/9/2015


Welcome to the Jalada Conversations, these are conversations about literature and writing, and we talk to some of the continent’s most exciting and respected writers. Today I shall be talking, over Skype, about writing and language with Nigerian author Chika Unigwe (www.chikaunigwe.com). Chika Unigwe is from Enugu, Nigeria, and has lived in Belgium and the USA. She is a prolific author of fiction, poetry, articles and educational material. She has won numerous awards including the 2003 BBC Short Story Competition, the Commonwealth Short Story Award, the Flemish Literary Prize for her first short story written in Dutch as well as the prestigious Nigerian Prize for Literature for her novel, On Black Sisters’ Street. On Black Sisters’ Street is a wonderful, poignant story about four women who have left the African continent for Belgium in search of better lives, and their experiences; the main character, Chisom, or Sisi, around whom the story revolves, is a particularly feisty and memorable character. Chika’s stories have been broadcast on the BBC World Service, Radio Nigeria and other Commonwealth Radio Stations. One of the most interesting facts about her is that she writes in Dutch as well as English.

Chika, it’s such an honour to be speaking with you today, thank you for taking the time to talk about writing and language.

CHIKA UNIGWE:

Thank you for having me.

INTERVIEWER:

You wrote an essay titled “Losing My Voice” that was published in the Aeon Magazine, and it’s a tender story about moving from Nigeria to Belgium and acclimatising to a new culture, a new language. In it you write, nothing I knew before seemed to be of consequence. Not language. Not social etiquette. You write that during your first days of learning Dutch, it sounded deceptively like English but made no sense at all. But you went on to learn Dutch and you’ve written stories in Dutch; your novels have been published in Dutch and in English, and you’ve been called, in Belgium, a Flemish Author of African origin. So that space has embraced you the same way home has. I’m interested in your experience of assimilating the Dutch language, how did this come about and how did this translate to the act of writing in Dutch?

CHIKA UNIGWE:

I moved to Belgium as a grown up; I had a university degree before I moved to Belgium. I wasn’t a teenager. And I think that one of the things that was important for me to do, having moved to Belgium, was learning the language, so that I could feel more, maybe not at home, but so I could feel more like I belonged. Not being able to speak a language locks you out of a lot of things. I remember I always felt a bit left out when my husband’s family visited, and the fact that I couldn’t be part of that communication, a part of their conversations, no matter how trivial those conversations were, I found very frustrating, so that was one. Secondly, when I moved to Belgium I knew I was going to live in Belgium for a while, and part of me living there for a while also included being able to work there. And Belgium is a sort of country where English isn’t the official language, and you can hardly get a job if you don’t speak Dutch, as well as English, as well as other languages, but the starting point, at least in Flanders, is Dutch. I wanted to be part of that community. So it was out of necessity. I love words, I love language. I remember my father telling me once that when I was young I used to say I wanted to be an ambassador. So it seemed like a perfect opportunity, moving to a country where a different language was spoken to learn that language, because I was interested in doing that, but also out of necessity.

Writing in English in a country where English isn’t the official language was very frustrating because it locked me out of the writing community. I couldn’t join book clubs or people who read in Dutch, I couldn’t join writing clubs or people who wrote in Dutch. But also, I didn’t have access to the English writing community outside of Belgium; I remember going to England once for a writing workshop. I booked a ticket, got on the train and went to London for a three-hour workshop because I wanted to be with a community of writers. That wasn’t sustainable, having to go to London or wherever every time I wanted to meet with writers who wrote in English. So when I saw an advert for a competition for short stories in Dutch, I decided to do it, I mean, I had nothing to lose. So I did the competition, I sent in my short story, and to biggest my shock it won.

INTERVIEWER:

How long did it take you learn Dutch to be able to write it?

CHIKA UNIGWE:

My first year in Belgium, I took intensive courses, which is what you take if you want to go to college in Belgium, if you’ve come from a different language and you want to get your first degree which is offered in Dutch, then you have to take an intensive language course. So I did a language course for the basics. I also just sort of took courses here and there. I didn’t write in Dutch because I thought I had learnt enough to speak in Dutch. I wrote in Dutch because I wanted to find opportunities, I wanted to break into that world, and I knew it would take me a lot of courage to do so. It was more daringness than thinking that I had mastered the language. There are some nuances that still escape me. But the good thing about it is that when you’re writing in a language that is not your first language, I think your writing style is different as well. I’ve heard people tell me that they found the language very interesting because of its difference – I don’t want to use the word exotic – but because of the way it’s so different from the way they would use the language, you’re seeing all these things they take for granted, things that they don’t see.

INTERVIEWER:

Speaking about how a language sounds different depending on how you use it, this leads me to my next question, which is about the fact that many of your stories, for example On Black Sisters’ Street, have this very vibrant and powerful English, it has a ‘pop’ to it, particularly in the scenes that take place in Nigeria, the spaces and the relationships are conceived as these live, moving things, and one gets a sense of this dumbing down in Antwerp. Was this sort of contrasting energy between Nigeria and Belgium that manifests itself in the language a deliberate choice on your part?

CHIKA UNIGWE:

No (laughter) it’s fascinating for me to hear this. But I think there’s a different sort of, I feel the same sort of difference between Lagos and Abuja. I always say that Lagos has a certain soul to it, I mean, you come into Lagos and you see the world differently, you even hear language differently as well. And then you go to Abuja and Abuja is clean and antiseptic. Abuja doesn’t excite me the same way for example that Lagos does. It wasn’t something that I did deliberately, maybe it’s something that wrote itself into the book.

INTERVIEWER:

Yeah, because there are these memorable lines, I mean when Sisi arrives in Antwerp, she transfers emotions to things, she calls her room a sardonic room, I walked into a sardonic room. She has these lively similes, she compares buttocks to old clay pots, for example, and she says hunger rumbles in her stomach like an old goods train, it’s chugging in her stomach, and there are splashes of Nigerian pidgin in the dialogue. Are some of these similes and metaphors a direct translation from other languages in Nigeria, or is it a type of English in Nigeria?

CHIKA UNIGWE:

There’s something a friend told me, he’s Nigerian, Yoruba. I tried to give him a Dutch book to read. He speaks Dutch well, he can read Dutch. He said no, I never read in Dutch. I said, why, and he said, because when I’m thinking, I’m thinking in Yoruba, and when I speak English, I’m going from Yoruba to English, and if I have to read a Dutch book, I’m reading that Dutch, and then translating it to English and then translating it to Yoruba so that it can make sense to me.  (laughter) And I was like, oh wow, that is so interesting, and I think that sometimes when I write, some of the similes and the metaphors are a direct transliteration of Igbo, from Igbo to English. And now that you say it, that’s one of the things that some of my Belgian readers say too, that some of the ways that I write Dutch, the choice of words or the comparisons I make, are things they find interesting because they are not things they would hear or things they would read from a Dutch book, because I’m working from a different, I’m translating from a different world context.

INTERVIEWER:

That’s amazing, what you said about your Nigerian friend, and I think it leads to the next question, do you conceptualise in Dutch when you write in Dutch and does that change, for example, the Nigeria that comes out on the page? Is the Nigeria that you think about in Dutch the same Nigera that you conceptualise in English?

CHIKA UNIGWE:

I probably conceptualise the same Nigeria, but maybe the way I would put down that Nigeria on paper would be different. When I write in English, I tend to write long, rambling, dense sentences. When I’m writing in Dutch, because Dutch is my third language and I came to Dutch as a grown up, my written Dutch is a lot simpler, it’s not simplistic, it’s just simpler, my sentences are shorter and more clipped, because I haven’t got the skills to write long, complicated, rambling, you know, dense sentences in Dutch, and so it’s a different style. I like that style, and that style works for me in Dutch, I don’t know if it’s a style that I could use in English and it would have the same effect. But it’s nice to be able to work in two different ways, being the same person, it’s like being two different kinds of writers.

INTERVIEWER:

That’s really fascinating, and you said that Dutch is your third language; what languages did you grow up speaking?

CHIKA UNIGWE:

Igbo and English. In Nigeria, because of colonisation, as in many other colonised countries, you learn your mother tongue and your step-mother tongue at the same time, right? You speak one at home and you use the other one at school.

INTERVIEWER:

Same thing back in Zimbabwe as well. So, is there local literature in Igbo, for example? Children’s stories?

CHIKA UNIGWE:

No. I remember when I was young, my older siblings were in high school. They had to read an Igbo book by this guy called Tony Obesie. He had about two or three novels, but I don’t think his books are in print. He died really really poor, he died in penury. By the time I went to high school, in Abuja, we had to do the three major Nigerian languages, but we had to have a very rudimentary knowledge of these languages. Nigeria has over three hundred languages, so we had to do the three major ones which are Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba. We had to learn to count from one to ten, which really isn’t much, I mean our French, we had more in depth French. So in Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba we had to learn to count from one to ten, we had to learn to say the alphabet, we didn’t even have written exams, we had oral exams where they would ask you to dance or to sing or to clap or to whatever just to see if you understood the phrases. There would always be like a stack of maybe ten different phrases, and the teachers would pick one of the phrases and ask you to dance or to clap. So what many people did, because some pupils didn’t even bother learning the phrases, they would just learn the meaning of the ten, and they knew that there was one in ten chances that they would get it right the first time. (laughter) So a teacher could say clap in Igbo and you’d start dancing, but if the teacher was a ‘good’ teacher, the teacher would give you ten chances and you’d definitely get it right! (laughter)

But by the time you’d done your third year of French in Secondary school, you were supposed to know enough French to write an entire essay, but nobody demanded that of the local languages. And I remember when I was very young, there was an Igbo newspaper, but that also went out of circulation a long time ago. And why is this so? For you to be able to read and write in Igbo, you must to be able to read and write in English as well. There are many more Igbo people who read and write in English, than those who read and write in Igbo language, because Igbo isn’t taught in all the schools, even in the Igbo states, it’s not taught in all the schools. There are many people who speak Igbo fluently who can’t read Igbo and who can’t write Igbo. So Igbo literature has a very small market, nobody is interested in investing that much money for very little returns.

INTERVIEWER:

That’s fascinating, I think you’ve answered my next question which was that, do local languages have a space in literature? We have an oral tradition, but in a country like Nigeria where you say there are over three hundred local languages, how would that work?

CHIKA UNIGWE:

Hausa literature is very vibrant. There are many Hausa writers who don’t write in English, and they have a huge market, they are being read in the North.

INTERVIEWER:

Why is that so?

CHIKA UNIGWE:

I think partly because Hausa is also one of the languages spoken outside Nigeria. Hausa is spoken in many other parts of Africa; you can do Hausa literature in universities in the UK and in the US. So there’s a huge market for Hausa literature outside Nigeria.

And I think also that the educational system in the North is so different, in terms of the way it’s organised, to the educational system in the Southern part of Nigeria. I think that in the North, Hausa literature and Hausa language is taught in schools, unlike what happens in the South-East. There is no ‘good’ school where you are expected to learn Igbo language. And actually, the more elite the school, the ‘better’ the school, the less likelihood that you’d take any Igbo lessons at all. There are lots of kids growing up in Enugu, which is basically the heartland of Igboland, which is where I was born and raised, who don’t speak a word of Igbo. I went back to Nigeria some two years ago, and I saw this seven-year-old girl whose parents are not upper middle class, they are lower middle class, working class people, and she does not speak a word of Igbo because the school she goes to, which is a step higher than the public schools, does not encourage any Igbo at all. So this girl doesn’t speak any Igbo, and apparently she doesn’t understand any Igbo, because she didn’t understand when I asked her something as simple as what’s your name, she didn’t know what I was talking about. But because her parents are not wealthy enough to send her to one of the private schools where they have teachers who actually teach proper English, her English too is very very very flawed. So she doesn’t speak any Igbo, she doesn’t speak any English. So there is this whole generation of univocal children who are not proficient in any language.

INTERVIEWER:

That’s fascinating.

CHIKA UNIGWE:

It’s also very sad, I mean, she came to my father’s house and she didn’t know the difference between a cat and a rat. She saw a cat and she said, oh this is a big rat, and I said, it’s not a rat it’s a cat. And she didn’t know the proper pronouns to use for animals. When I asked her how old she was, she couldn’t even answer me in proper English, she said, how old am I is one years old, how old am I is two years old, until she got to seven. I found it very annoying but also very saddening. Because she doesn’t have the basics for good English, she’s already lost that now, and due to her parents’ financial status, she’s probably going to leave this school and move on to another private secondary school where the teachers also don’t speak very good English, and she still won’t be able to speak Igbo, and the older she gets the more difficult it’s going to be for her to pick up Igbo.

INTERVIEWER:

It becomes a crisis.

CHIKA UNIGWE:

It becomes a crisis. I mean, I went to church, and this is a neighbourhood where many people are working class, and there were about twenty kids running around in church, and not a single one of them, I’m not exaggerating, not a single one of them spoke Igbo.

INTERVIEWER:

So the parents are not teaching their children Igbo.

CHIKA UNIGWE:

The parents are not teaching their children any Igbo because they see it as holding them back in terms of social mobility. All the people that they look up to, their bosses’ children or their bosses and the people they see on TV etc, everybody is speaking in English. And as far as they are concerned, the only way to give their children access to the centre is by giving them the advantage of English. But then they don’t have the funds to make sure that they are getting the right sort of access.

INTERVIEWER:

It’s a catch-22 situation, and it’s very saddening. Do you think there’d be space for say the Igbo language to be viable?

CHIKA UNIGWE:

There definitely is, I don’t think you can afford to have a language die out, the Igbo speaking states in Nigeria have over three million people, if not more.

INTERVIEWER

That’s a substantial number.

CHIKA UNIGWE

That’s a substantial number. I’ll have to find out the exact number, but Igbo is one of the endangered languages. It’s on the UNESCO list as an endangered language.

(NB: According to the CIA World Fact Book, Igbo people make up about 18% of Nigeria’s population).

INTERVIEWER:

That’s alarming.

CHIKA UNIGWE:

It is alarming, and then you see Dutch that has how many speakers, and it is not endangered, there is a vibrant Dutch literature, there are people who speak it and they use it in schools. There is no reason why a language spoken by that number of people should die out. But that is what is happening. But one of the good things that’s happened in the past few years is that they have launched Magic TV Igbo, which is apparently very popular. So, what literature isn’t doing the entertainment sector is doing, and that’s good.

INTERVIEWER:

That’s really great, Magic TV Igbo. Because when a language dies out, it’s also a culture that dies out.

CHIKA UNIGWE:

Yes, definitely, and is it Rumi who said that language is the key to the soul, or something to that effect, it’s the window to a culture, and one of the best ways of understanding a culture is understanding a language. One of the examples I always use because I think it’s so fascinating is the Igbo word, Ndo. And usually when Ndo is translated into English, it is translated as sorry. But Ndo is not sorry; so if I stub my toe or my mother-in-law stubs her toe and I tell her sorry, she tells me, oh, but it’s not your fault (laughter), because sorry has a certain implication of wrong, as if you’ve done something wrong. But if my mother were to stub her toe and I tell her, Ndo, she understands, because what Ndo has that sorry doesn’t have, is a certain level of empathy that sorry doesn’t have. Because Ndo says I feel for you and I feel with you, which is a very cultural concept, it’s a concept of we are all one, whatever hurts you hurts me too, which is absent in the Western world.

INTERVIEWER:

So these are the nuances within a language and a culture.

CHIKA UNIGWE:

Yes, definitely, and it’s the same reason why in many African cultures, we find it very difficult to understand that depression exists, or that depression is a mental health issue. In Igbo, for example, there are only two or three words for mental health problems, and all these words refer to the kind of mad person that runs around naked on the streets. So the language has no word for depression or for people feeling suicidal or suffering from post-partum depression; there are no words for those things. But if you look at the English language, there are many culturally accepted and medical terms for all the spectrums of mental health challenges. But in our African languages you don’t have any of those, and that’s the challenge that we are having.

INTERVIEWER:

So, perhaps updating or modernising our languages.

CHIKA UNIGWE:

Modernising, updating and realising that language grows, and opening up spaces for all those words to come in. On Facebook we have The Igbo Dictionary Project that I’m working on with a whole lot of other people, and the idea of the project is to update the Igbo language with contemporary words but also socially relevant words, words like ‘barbecue’, for example. There’s no word for barbecue in Igbo, because it wasn’t something that was part of the culture when Igbo stopped ‘existing’, so we have to find words for that and words for ‘post-partum depression’ and all those other words that don’t exist because if the words don’t exist it’s very difficult for you to accept that that thing exists even as a concept.

INTERVIEWER:

Yes. That’s the bridge between language and culture. That’s really exciting, an Igbo Dictionary.

CHIKA UNIGWE:

We have been working on it for years now, it’s a challenge, but we are happy with it.

INTERVIEWER:

That’s amazing. Hopefully other parts of the continent will take up such projects.

CHIKA UNIGWE:

Yeah, definitely, Kola Tobuson is doing something with the Yoruba language as well and he’s doing an amazing job.

INTERVIEWER:

Wonderful. Chika, it has been so lovely talking to you. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.

CHIKA UNIGWE:

Thank you for having me.


Novuyo Rosa Tshuma grew up in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, and has lived in South Africa and the USA. Her collection, Shadows (June 2013), was published to critical acclaim in South Africa by Kwela and was awarded the 2014 Herman Charles Bosman Prize for the best literary work in English, as well as long listed for the 2014 Etisalat Prize for African Literature. She earned her MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was the recipient of the Maytag and Teaching-Writing Fellowships, as well as a Rydson Award for Excellence in Fiction Writing. Novuyo is currently an Adjunct Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Iowa, where she is finishing work on her novel. She is the Deputy Editor of Jalada. Visit her online at http://novuyotshuma.com.