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Sentinel Poetry

ONLINE MAGAZINE MONTHLY      MARCH 2003      ISSN 1479-425X

 

 

contents

editorial

A Growing Excitement

poems

chika unigwe (Guest):

mundane poems

ike anya:

six poems

leslie harris

the story of us and other poems

meghan l. quinn

Six Poems

interview

nnorom azuonye:

my e-conversation with chika unigwe

Feature

celebrating idzia

Bulletin Board

poetry competitions

notes on contributors

Past issues

home

editor

nnorom azuonye

associate guest editor

lola shoneyin

 

 

MY E-CONVERSATION WITH CHIKA UNIGWE

by NNOROM AZUONYE

 

Chika UnigweNnorom: Hello again Chika. I am springing this conversation on you as a surprise. Hopefully you will want to chat with me. Now is the time to confess that apart from your "Mundane Poems" which appear in the March 2003 issue of Sentinel Poetry, and some of your newspaper articles, I have not read very much of your work. On the run up to this conversation, I spent the last few days searching unsuccessfully for your book "Teardrops" here in London. It is therefore unlikely that I will cite your work too much. For me, this is a journey of discovery - to discover Chika Unigwe; one of the splendid African voices writing in English today. Tell me a little bit about yourself.

 

Chika: I was born in Enugu, Nigeria, the sixth of seven children. I went to primary school at Enugu (Ekulu and WTC) and went to high school at Federal Government Girls College, Abuja. I hold a BA in English Language and Literature from the University of Nigeria and did my post-graduate studies at the Katholieke Universiteit, Leuven (Belgium). I am presently a doctoral student at the University of Leiden in Holland. I live in Turnhout, Belgium with my husband and three children.

         

Nnorom: Isn't that a tough one? How do you strike a balance between the demands of life as a wife, mother and writer?

 

Chika: It is tough but I am a determined person. And it helps that both my mother and my mother-in-law help out very often.

 

Nnorom: In what section of a bookstore would you feel more comfortable to have your books displayed - feminist, womanist, or contemporary African? How have you anchored your writing within your preferred category in terms of your themes and the way you treat them?

 

Chika: Contemporary African, only because it does not sound as restrictive as the other terms. However, I must confess that in my recent writing, (fiction in particular), I have tended to write women's stories. I write about African women and their particular experiences as wives, mistresses, mothers, mothers-in-law in their societies and as the "other" in exile.

 

Nnorom: How did you become a writer and who or what are the major influences on your writing?

 

Chika: I have always written for as long as I can remember. My father still has the "books" I wrote for him as a child and I still have a diary with my poems and stories from when I was about eleven.

 

I let different people influence me at different times. I remember in elementary two, Nwapa came to pick up her daughter from our class and the teacher was out. She handed out her colouring books to us to keep us busy and I wanted to be like her. In elementary four, my father had my sister and I subscribed to "Highlights for Children" (an American childrens' magazine) and suddenly, I was writing about ice-skating and building snowmen!  I read Okri's "Flowers and Shadows" as a teenager and I wanted to write like that. Then, I discovered Emecheta. And Aidoo. And of course, we read Achebe in High school. I will read anything by Jhumpa Lahiri, Anita Desai, Ha Jin, Kazugo Ishiguro, Vikram Seth, the list is endless. I read Ike Oguine  "Squatters Tale" recently and I enjoyed it tremendously. Definitely one of my all-time favourites is Peter Carrey's "Illywhacker."

 

Nnorom: So, what is "Teardrops" about anyway? Could you give me a little insight into the pervading themes, ideas and styles you adopted in that book?

 

Chika: I will send you a copy of Teardrops sometime this year. What is it about? I wrote many of the collections in Tear Drops when I was in high school. The poems do not reflect my present style and themes. It starts with a love poem dedicated to someone I was absolutely head over heels in love with at that point in my life. Very soppy. There are political poems, elegies, satires: an eclectic collection, really.

 

Nnorom: Have you written any other books?

 

Chika: My earliest published poems appeared in "Voices from the Fringe", an anthology of new Nigerian poets, published in 1989 (I was in High School then), edited by Harry Garuba. I had "Born in Nigeria" self-published in 1995. Two Children's books "Rainbow for Dinner" and "Ije At Boarding School" on the Macmillans imprint, originally scheduled for June and December 2002 release are running a little behind schedule. I have just received the proofs for one, hopefully they will both be out before the end of the year.

 

Nnorom: I have just been reading an article on the Internet titled "The Emerging Lesbian Voice in Nigerian Feminist Literature" written by Unoma Azuah citing works by Titilola Shoneyin ("Woman in Her Season"), Promise Okekwe ("Rebecca"), Temilola Abioye ("Taboo") and herself ("Onishe," "The Rebel"). Are you one of these lesbian voices? What is the artistic and literary developmental relevance of lesbianism in Nigerian or any literature?

 

Chika: No. I do not consider myself a lesbian literature writer. I believe that both the male and the female are co-dependent on each other. Neither of the two should exist exclusively. That is obvious in my works. I must add though that I am firm believer in the re-structuring of power so that women in many societies get a fair share of it.

 

As far as artistic relevance goes, any literature that is well written is a pleasure.

 

Nnorom: But you are a believer in the notion of oppression of women in Africa. In Sex, Women and (Hu)Woman Rights you paint a picture of this oppression. From Azuah's paper it appears that some African women respond to various forms of oppression including marital infidelity by their husbands by turning inwards, and seeking to empower themselves through their sexuality, and the frightening thought that lesbianism in fact does go on in many African marriages. My questions are these: are these forms of reaction real in Africa? Do you see characters in your stories evolving in the future into same sex heroines?

 

Chika: Are these reactions real in Africa? These reactions are probably real all over the world. Some lesbians I have spoken to claim they became lesbians because they were sexually abused as children. Some are victims of failed heterosexual relationships.

 

A few years ago, I read a book on Indian lesbians (sorry, I forget the name now and so many of my books are still unpacked, courtesy of moving countries twice in two years) and at least one half of the women whose stories are told are in heterosexual marriages.

 

Maybe marriages provide a cover for lesbian relationships in homophobic societies.

 

I do not think I will ever write lesbian literature. One, because I do not see lesbianism as the solution to anything. Secondly because, while I respect people's choices to be lesbians, my cultural and religious upbringing is against it. I strive to write good literature, but I also strive to write what I believe in. 

 

I do believe that women do get the shorter end of the deal most times and not just in Africa. I harp on Africa because charity begins at home. I am one of five girls (and we have two brothers) and while I was growing up, I was aware of the fact that there were certain things my brothers could get away with it and none of us girls could. One of my mother's friends found out only after her husband was dead that he had a son outside the marriage and to whom he had willed all their property. Because she had no son, she had no foot to stand on to contest the will. I do know that tradition often colludes with the male to keep women in many African societies subordinate to the male.

 

Nnorom: I am always fascinated by the reasons writers give for writing. Why, Chika do you write? If you were to assign a reason to the over-riding motive behind your body of work what would it be?

 

Chika: I used to write to escape boredom. With a husband and three children all under seven and living in a society where the female does all the ironing, I do not have time to be bored. Now, I write to keep sane.

 

Nnorom: If that is the case, why do you get your works published? After you have vented your emotions and thoughts on paper or a computer page at home, why that extra step? Why do you find it necessary to share your loves, your dislikes or hates, your dreams, your ecstasies, your frustrations, or all other things that can make a person mad? Why share them at all?

 

Chika: The most correct answer would be that I get them published to share my message. The truth however is that I do it for the ego. I like to see my name in print. I like to think that someone somewhere is reading my works and going, " that is nice." Seriously though, some things I try to get published because I believe that they are socially relevant.

 

Nnorom: Now, Chika, I would like to talk to you about the threat of war against Iraq by President Bush, who by the way, I think is a maniac, but that is beside the point. I wonder what women writers like you are doing or can do, to prevent this war especially as it relates to women. What am I talking about? Every war affects women in more ways than people realise. Wars expose women to rape by unscrupulous soldiers and other war opportunists. Wars widow women, often reducing them to emotionally raped single mothers left to explain to their children why they have not fathers. Wars ensure that many women bury their own children, some of them as young as 18 years old. What can women do, not only against this war, but against all wars?

 

Chika: Women can only do as much or as little as men can in such a situation. There are women in politically influential positions just like there are men.

War is a human problem. As poets, we can join the anti-war movement by writing poetry (there is a poets for peace website), we can sign petitions and try to pressurize the American government from pursuing this war, we can organize rallies and demonstrations.

 

Nnorom: But these are not focused on how they specifically affect women. Why say it is a human problem? Can you imagine what would happen if women all over the world came together and articulated the specific costs and risks of war to women? If these women marched through the streets of the world one day banners screaming - Don't kill our husbands! Don't kill our sons! or War Creates Mad Soldiers, Mad Soldiers Violate Women! things like that, maybe not in those words, I am just being dramatic. The wives of those warmongers would see their womenfolk in the streets speaking even for them, which might lead to some pillow talk that may avert war. Poets for Peace are intellectual invisibles writing poems somebody like George Bush, Tony Blair or that Colin Powell chap has no time to read or may read and not understand. Let me put you on a spot. You are a wife and a mother. In a few weeks some women may be widowed and their sons cut down in their youth. Don't you feel compelled to raise a voice against it?

 

Chika: Okay. Maybe women should take a leaf out of the books of the Nigerian Igbo women who in 1929 successfully took on the colonial administration and stopped taxation. We should have million-women marches, hold rallies, talk into the ears that be.


Women are owners of the wombs. They are life. If women got together and screamed, the earth will shake. Such is the power that we wield. We should use that power and shout down the war.

 

Nnorom: Is it me? Or are you being careful about what you say or are you so happy to go with the flow of things and never get upset? I admire your sense of peace and acceptance of the way things are. It takes a different kind of courage to do that.

 

Chika: I am angry about a lot of things: I am upset that women can be raped with impunity, especially in Nigerian colleges. I am an attempted rape victim. He did not succeed, but had he, I would never had had the guts to report him because I have seen rape victims pariahed by society and blamed because of what they wore: short skirts, tight pants, half-tops, or because of how they walked (did you see her twisting her waist like an ashawo?*) or...the list is endless.

I am angry that some people pre-judge you based on the colour of your skin: I walked into an interim agency once and without asking what my qualifications were, the woman in charge ranted on about a cleaning job they had an opening for.

 

My first year in Belgium, I was accused of theft in a C and A shop in Turnhout (where I lived) and when it turned out that the cashier had forgotten to remove a safety tag from one of the outfits I bought, I did not as much as get an apology. Disabled by language, I took my mother-in-law to the shop the next day and she demanded to see the manager. The manager's excuse was that they had a spate of thefts (by Africans) recently.

 

A friend who was house-hunting was told outright that the apartment was not being rented out to foreigners.

I am angry that many societies have different rules of conducts for women.

I am angry that Igbo proverbs that deal with women tend to negate them (unless that woman is a mother. What of less fecund women?)

 

I am angry that in Igbo societies, a male's birth is celebrated more lavishly than a female's. That my mother told me proudly that having given birth to a third son in a row, an Igbo husband would have killed a goat for me.

I am angry that someone very close to me was sent out of her matrimonial home for having three daughters but no son.

However, I tend to focus on my positives. I did not send you my angry poems.

 

Nnorom: Chika, I understand some of these feelings but surely you must appreciate the psychological and sociological reason why Nigerian Igbo men societies you have cited celebrate male children the way they do.

It is in fact universal, and had its roots in the norm that existed in the past, in which women got married and adopted their husband's names and if there was no male child, the family name would be wiped off. In those days women only cared for homes and did not write books or became politicians or famous scientists.

 
Now that it is all happening, modern women like yourself, tend to keep your family names. You are married to a Belgian for instance but have retained your father's name Unigwe. This is still frowned at in most parts of Africa and even in Europe, and is sometimes seen as lack of serious commitment to the marriage by the women. Another thing is that divorce rates are so off the scales now that women get tired of changing their names back and forth.

 

Chika: I have kept my last name for three reasons: the combination of an Igbo name, Chika with a Flemish last name: Vandenhoudt, does not sound right.

Secondly, I went through the first twenty odd years of my life as Chika Unigwe and I was loathe to give it up.


Thirdly, it is actually the norm here in Belgium for women to retain their names even after marriage (I guess administratively, it is a lot easier). I am Mevrouw Chika Unigwe but as a couple, my husband and I are Dhr. en Mevrouw Vandenhoudt-Unigwe.

 
Personally, I think it is awesome that both the legal and the cultural systems make it possible for marriage to be viewed as a partnership rather than as a relationship where one spouse is completely subsumed in the other's identity. The fact that I choose to keep my name should not be defined as an act of not loving him enough.


I am aware of the cultural and economic implications of an heirless Igbo home. In my village, Osumenyi, it used to be that fathers could keep a daughter at home to procreate for them. The chosen daughter (most often the first child, would sleep with any man she chooses but her sons would belong to her father. Girls could not inherit property or land. Girls could not perpetuate the family name. But things are changing and priorities are changing too. Some women are the breadwinners in their families and are literally, keepers of the homestead. Even Igbo women in Igbo marriages are keeping their last names.

 

Every child deserves equal opportunities. Why should a male child be celebrated but not the female? The world is changing. Today's woman expects her husband to share in the household duties. She expects him to spend time with the children. Women are going out to work, to chase their dreams. Daughters as well as sons should be trained at home to adapt to the realities of today. My sons help in the kitchen, even as young as they are. Their toy box contains dolls as well as trucks and building blocks. My friend's daughter got a toy workbench for Christmas.

 

Nnorom: Now isn't that an awful thing? A girl would be retained by her father to procreate and give him an heir. Tess Onwueme tackled that subject so well in "The Broken Calabash" Isn't it fantastic to have grown out of such traditions? I don't know which was worse, that or the killing of twins back then.
 
Now, I find the Belgian nuptial system fascinating, since as a couple both family names are linked, example "Vandenhoudt-Unigwe." Truly Fascinating! That is bloody perfect, is it not? As both parties acquire a family, and no risk of the loss of family name. Would you know how that came about?  

 

Chika: I agree that it is an awful tradition but some people posit that it is liberating for the woman: no marriage but condoned sex. I do not know about that. I have a few Unigwe relatives whose fathers are not Unigwe!
 

As for the history of the Belgian system, I could find out. However once a woman is widowed or divorced, she may no longer use her husband's name. My grand-mother-in-law started life as Maria Smekens, then became one half of the Branders-Smekens family, but died a Smekens.

 

Nnorom: Oh forget it. The system sucks then. Let's go back to writing. Why is it that more women writers tend to focus on the liberation of women and equality with men, rather than on works the foster family values and the need for strong family units? Should women write more family feel-good fiction and poetry or are these a bit utopian in our modern world?

 

Chika: Let us take the example of Nigeria. Earlier literature by Nigerian men from Chinua Achebe to Cyprian Ekwensi created women as either rural docile wives or urban whores. In Achebe's "Things Fall Apart," Okonkwo's wives dare not talk back to him. Ekwensi's "Jagua Nana" is a good-time girl. Look at the Onitsha market literature and its portrayal of Nigerian women. Men had the upper hand in writing because they got better educated. Igbo communities sent off sons on scholarships abroad but taught the women the essentials of domesticity, how to be good wives for the new elite men.
 

When Nigerian women started writing, they wanted to reverse those images. They wrote counter-discursives to the males' works. They had to undo many years of damage to the female psyche. This is the reason why many women are focused on liberation and equality matters. Another reason, I believe, is that many women writers think that by writing the sort of fiction you have just proposed, they will fall into the trap of writing what society expects a woman to write. We want to write ourselves out of stereotypes that have been hung on us for many years. African (especially Nigerian) men, according to Ogundipe have been "weaned on centuries of male domination (and) will not willingly relinquish their power and privilege" By focusing on women's liberation and equality of sexes in their works, women writers are trying to balance the power structure. For (us?), writing is an act of righting. There will be time enough to focus on other issues.
 

I think every woman, every writer should write what (s)he feels comfortable writing, what she is passionate about. However, as an Igbo woman living in Belgium, my passion at the moment is the drawbacks of being an African woman in my particular society as well as the experiences of my sisters, and my friends, in their own communities.

 

Nnorom: I must say, Chika, it has been a good chat. Are you working on anything special at the moment?

 

Chika: I am working on a collection of short stories. One of the stories -  "A Borrowed Smile"  recently won a BBC short story competition and will be broadcast sometime next month.  I am also busy with school.

 

Nnorom: What is the one book in the world that you will never travel without?

 

Chika: This is the most difficult question you have asked me. It is like asking which of my babies I love the most. There is no "one" book I will never travel without. There are a few I always cram in my bag and my mood determines the one I will read at any given time.


I like Flowers and Shadows for its naiveté and simplicity. There is this innocence in it that is lacking in Okri's recent books. Dahl's Omnibus is another one I am loathe to travel without. I like the sick humour and the ingenuity of the writing never fails to impress me. Jhumpa Lahiri's collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies is another favourite. I particularly like the story, " A Temporary Matter." It tells a simple story of a couple who are drawing apart but it tells it in an uncommon way.

 

Nnorom: Are you a spontaneous writer or do you allow ideas to roam around and gestate in your head until they become unbearable then you pour them all out?

 

Chika: I think I used to be a spontaneous writer: I could get up in the middle of the night, rush to my pen and paper or computer and write away.
Now, I go to bed late and have to be up at six to attend to the baby and  get the bigger ones ready for school.  I let the ideas gestate in my head until I have the time during the day or night to work on them.

 

Nnorom: What inspires you to write the most? When you have a dry spell like all writers do, how do you rediscover the urge?

 

Chika: My greatest inspirations for my poems are my children. For my stories, I would have to say life in general: my experiences as well as other people's.

 

When the muses desert me, I read my favourite books. I find that a good book is the best way to bring them back.

 

Nnorom: Do you have any regrets? I mean do you sometimes look back at what you wrote years ago and go, "What the hell was I thinking?"

 

Chika: No. No regrets. Sometimes, I am embarrassed by things I have written, but I am yet to write something I have regretted. I see the different phases of my growth in my works and I learn.

 

Nnorom: Right. Chika, it has been a little over two weeks since I fired the first question. The coffee will taste different today. I thoroughly enjoyed this conversation. I look forward to talking to you again in the future, but next time, I will not ask you anything about being a woman writer, a wife or a mother. I should think I now know exactly where you stand with those. I must say that your e-mail signature "Egbe Belu, Ugo Belu" - advocating equal rights for the eagle to perch where the kite perches, very much sums up your philosophy in life. Thank you very much for talking to me, but just before I go, I'd like to know from what well you draw so much positivity in such a fundamentally negative world perfumed with a mixture of the scents of racial and religious intolerance, violence, child abuse, murder and war. 

 

Chika: I have also thoroughly enjoyed doing this. I draw my positivism from God and my children. It is great to know that there is a God at whose feet I can drop all my problems. And children tend to bring out the best in people. When I take my baby for a walk, I get more smiles from people, people offer to help me, it is amazing. How can I help but be positive at times like those? " Egbe belu, ugo belu...

 

©2003 Nnorom Azuonye & Sentinel Poetry Movement. Al rights reserved. nnorom.azuonye@sentinelpoetry.org.uk

 

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