On Black Sisters' Street Paperback – 2 Sep 2010
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"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)
"This powerful book will leave you haunted" (Ali Smith)
"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)
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.See all Product description
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Top customer reviews
Chika Unigwe’s approach of enlisting four protagonists – Sisi, Joyce, Ama and Efe - enabled her to break the construct of the single sex-worker narrative. On Black Sisters’ Street portrays the decision to go into sex work as stemming from more than naiveté and trickery. Nigeria as an economy failing its graduates, women and families creates conditions that allow for a man like Dele to flourish selling the bodies of women not protected by a wealthy home or progressive career prospects. The respect Dele garners simply for being a “big man” is well captured in this narrative. Unigwe also touches on the flexibility of religious beliefs and morality in Nigerian society.
A great deal of the narrative takes place in a room on the wrong side of Brussels as three women bound by their profession are forced to confront the fact that they are strangers living under one roof. They are in unknown territory here, having always had a relationship which skimmed the surface like milk. This meeting is brought about by tragedy; the death of one of their own forces them to pull back the curtains between their past and present and redefine the relationships they have with one another. For the three surviving women, sex becomes a power tool and love plays no part in what happens between the sheets.
The promise of autonomy that informs the women’s decision to go into sex work is so string attached it boggles the mind. Apart from being illegally in the country, the women have no hold of their passports and are 30,000 Euros in debt to Dele who arranges their trip into Brussels. No repayment is not an option - a fact Dele knows given the lack of opportunities for the women back in Nigeria. In OBSS, Chika Unigwe explores tribalism, culture, family, love and loss, and provides a wonderful array of positions on how the sex trade is able to thrive. These women have their stories told in a manner that elevates them from the blasé umbrella of victims. It is not so much that we can relate to their stories, it is simply that we can see them.
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For The Book Banque.
I thought about it for days after reading which is always the mark of a good book.
Unigwe has a habit of dropping spoilers into the middle of her own novel, telling you in the middle of the book what happens to certain characters years later, after the events of the main plot are over. This kills the tension a little, but then again this isn't really meant to be a standard murder thriller.
The perspective sticks closely to that of the four women, so we don't get much in the way of wider context, and it feels a little unbalanced in terms of the time spent exploring how their lives back in Africa forced them into accepting these jobs in Belgium, compared to what that new life in Europe is actually like and what it means to them. And the ending ties things up a little abruptly and I didn't feel like it ultimately had anything major to say about the issues it raises other than that it's sad and unfortunate and how much resilience and thick skin it takes to survive it.
Still, glad I read it.
Fascinating and moving read.
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