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On Black Sisters' Street [Paperback]

Chika Unigwe
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
RRP: 8.99
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Product Description

Review

"On Black Sisters' Street is ultimately a story of female strength and resilience... the book draws on a rich oral story telling tradition to illuminate the West from an under-represented perspective" (Aesthetica)

"This harrowing subject matter is handled deftly by Unigwe, with lyrical insight and splashes of dark humour, in a book that is both thought-provoking and eye-opening" (Doug Johnstone The List)

"Lively and engaging...Unigwe has a good ear for idiosyncratic language...On Black Sisters' Street is a pleasure to read: fast-paced, lucidly structured and colourful" (Zoe Norridge TLS)

"Gritty" (Adrian Turpin Financial Times)

"Exquisitely observed and heartbreaking" (Nicola Barr Guardian)

Review

Not many novelists would wander around the seedy red-light district of Antwerp in a mini-skirt and thigh-high boots to carry out research. But this is what Nigerian writer Chika Unigwe did for her novel about the lives of African sex workers in the Belgian city. She also spent time persuading these women to share their stories.

Her diligence has paid off. On Black Sisters' Street is a probing and unsettling exploration of the many factors that lead African women into prostitution in Europe, and it pulls no punches about the sordid nature of the job. Four naive young women, Sisi, Joyce, Ama and Efe, fall under the money-making spell of pimp-daddy "Senghor Dele" in Lagos.

Rich, vulgar, ruthless, he specialises in exporting girls to work in Belgium for a modest fee of 30,000 euros. This they must pay back in monthly instalments over many years of turning tricks ten hours a day. They don't all know that this is what lies in store but, fake passports withheld, the consequences for those who try to escape are dire.

Sisi, around whom most of the novel's suspense revolves, is an ambitious graduate unable to find suitable work. Efe is a teenage mother struggling to raise her son with no support from his father. Ama has escaped an abusive childhood only to find her dream of escaping Nigeria crushed by a dead-end job. Joyce, without family, home or money, is abandoned by her boyfriend. The women's dreams come in different sizes, from financial support for struggling relatives back home to the allure of big houses, fancy cars, gold jewellery and expensive plait extensions.

Unigwe's vigorous prose is at its best when describing the utter humiliation Sisi feels when forced to dress like a hooker in "a gold-coloured nylon skirt" that rode up her legs when she walked and "showed her butt cheeks when she bent". So too with the degradation of her first encounter with a client in a toilet: "She baptised herself into it with tears, hot and livid, down her cheeks, salty in her mouth, feeling intense pain wherever he touched, like he was searing her with a razor blade that had just come off a fire".

Men in this novel are generally drunks, murderers, rapists, weak, cold-hearted, pathetic - although Unigwe avoids the fallacy of women as passive victims. Hers make choices, for which there are consequences. But their choices are restricted by circumstance and the Lagos they leave behind is a harsh place to survive, where "on any given day one was likely to find a corpse abandoned by the roadside".

She shows what the women become, too. Sisi, who felt she was living the dream on her first day in Belgium because she was eating jam, can "no longer bear to look at herself", while Efe's plan is to run her own brothel one day when she has paid of her debt. What Unigwe does brilliantly is to delve into the psychology of each woman, eliciting different levels of empathy.

This is an important and accomplished novel that leaves a strong aftertaste. Unigwe gives voice to those who are voiceless, fleshes out the stories of those who offer themselves as meat for sale, and bestows dignity on those who are stripped off it. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Book Description

A tale of choices, displacement and courage, suffused with the richness of the oral story-telling tradition and set against the backdrop of the Antwerp prostitute underworld.

From the Publisher

Before Efe came to Belgium, she imagined castles and clean streets and snow as white as salt. Belgium: "...a country wey dey Europe. Next door to London."


At the house on the Zwartezusterstraat four very different women have made their way from Africa to claim for themselves the riches of Europe. Sisi, Ama, Efe and Joyce are prostitutes, the girls who stand in the windows of the red-light district, promising to make men's dreams come true - if only for half an hour and fifty euros. The murder of Sisi, the most enigmatic of the women, shatters their already fragile world and, as the women gather to mourn, the stories they have kept hidden are finally told.

Drawn together by the tragedy, the women reveal, each in her own voice, what has brought them to their present lives. Joyce, a great beauty whose life has been destroyed by war; Ama, whose dark moods manifest a past injustice; Efe, whose efforts to earn her keep are motivated by a particular zeal; and, finally, Sisi whose imagination takes her far beyoind the squalor of her relaity. These are stories of terror, of displacement, of love, and of a sinister man named Dele...

Raw, vivid and suffused with the power of the oral storytelling tradition, On Black Sisters' Street is a moving story of the illusion of the West through African eyes, and its annihilation. It is also, however, a story of courage, of unity and of hope. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From the Back Cover

Lively and engaging...Unigwe has a good ear for idiosyncratic language...On Black Sister's Street is a pleasure to read: fast-paced, lucidly structured and colourful' Times Literary Supplement

'An important and accomplished novel that leaves a strong aftertaste. Unigwe gives voice to those who are voiceless, fleshes out the stories of those who offer themselves as meat for sale, and bestows dignity on those who are stripped off it' Independent

Four very different women have made their way from Africa to the red light district of Brussels. They have come to claim for themselves the riches they believe Europe promises but when Sisi, the most enigmatic of the women, is murdered, their already fragile world is shattered.

Drawn together by the tragedy, the remaining three women - Joyce, a great beauty whose life has been devastated by war; Ama, whose dark moods hide a past injustice; and Efe, whose determination to earn her keep is motivated by a particular zeal - slowly begin to share their stories. They are stories of fear, displacement, love and most of all, they are stories of a sinister man called Dele...

'Sobering... the humiliations endured by the quartet are forcefully driven home by Unigwe' Sunday Times

About the Author

Chika Unigwe was born in Nigeria and now lives in Belgium with her husband and four children. She is an award-winning short story writer and the author of two novels, written in Dutch. Her first novel, De Feniks, was the first work of fiction to be written by a Flemish author of African origin.
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