Chika Unigwe is a writer. Not just a writer, but a very good one at that. A multiple award winner, she’s remained humble and accessible despite all her accomplishments and great works like De Feniks, Fata Morgana (On Black Sisters’ Street), Better Never Than Late, Night Dancer, The Phoenix, Born in Nigeria, A Rainbow for Dinner and Tear Drops. For this impromptu interview, all I needed was just to send her a message and swiftly, she responded.
Dark, slim and lively, she was born on June 12, 1974 and attended Federal Government Girls College, Abuja and University of Nigeria, Nsukka where she bagged her BA in English. Currently a PhD holder in Literature from the University of Leiden, Netherlands, the child No. 6 in a family of seven shared with YES INTERNATIONAL! Magazine Publisher/ Editor-in-Chief, AZUH ARINZE, how it all began, what has sustained the interest thus far and more. Enjoy…
If writing hadn’t arrested you, which other profession would you have gladly fallen in love with?
I would have probably been a career diplomat. I love the idea of moving to a new country every few years, immersing myself in a new culture and meeting new people.
How long does it take you to write or finish a book and what are some of the challenges you normally encounter in the course of putting a book together?
It depends. A first draft could be a few months, but fine-tuning it and researching to fill in the skeleton of the first draft could take years. The biggest challenge, for me, is researching things I don’t know about my characters’ worlds and lives. It is also the most rewarding thing because I start from zero and learn a lot. I love learning.
Why should anyone buy and read your books?
Why? To be entertained by good writing, to be confronted with lives different from (or similar to) theirs, to learn. And lastly, to support my hustle, as we say in Naija.
How would you feel if after reading your books people or some people say you didn’t ‘wow’ them enough?
How would I feel? I have read reviews of my work where the critic didn’t connect to the work for whatever reason.
I have read other people’s novels I didn’t enjoy as much as others have. It’s normal. Liking a book has to do with a lot of things: taste (which is personal) and life experiences (which differ from person to person). I can’t control that. I don’t expect my writing to be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s not money. It’s also not my duty as a writer to ‘wow’ everyone. My duty is to write as authentically as I can, to the best of my ability; to tell the stories that haunt me and to write in a way that when I sleep at night, I sleep well. Of course, I always hope that enough people like my work for it not to sink.
How can a woman stand out in any field she’s into? And also not be intimidated by the menfolk?
How do men stand out in any field they are into?Why should anyone who’s qualified to do their job be intimidated by someone else? If women don’t manage to get to certain positions in our society because of sexism or patriarchy, then we should fight to dismantle that. That’s what feminism is all about. If we think it’s a given that women are intimidated by men/ought to be intimidated by men (in whatever society) then we are acknowledging that there’s a problem in that society.
Some people say that women are their greatest enemies. Do you agree with that?
No. I don’t understand why women would be their greatest enemies, but not men. A truer, non-sexist aphorism is the one that says you’re your own worst enemy taken from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.“But the worst enemy you can meet will always be yourself; you lie in wait for yourself in caverns and forests.” It is true, isn’t it? That often we self-sabotage because we are afraid of change or whatever.
You are among the new generation writers that a lot of people look up to. Who are the people that you look up to?
Those that came before me: Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Chukwuemeka Ike, Ngugi Wa Thiongo. Those who made the world sit up and notice the literature coming out of Africa. Late Prof. Ossise Enekwe who gave me my first creative writing class at UNN. I am standing on the shoulders of many great men and women.
In your field, what would you say got you where you are currently?
Persistence. Support. Grace. Favour.
What specifically got you interested in writing?
What must one do to write well?
Read well. Read widely. Develop the habit of listening and taking notes.
To have a taste of success as a writer, what are the things required?
Patience and persistence.
What is the costliest mistake that any writer can make?
I believe writing demands patience of its practitioners. An impatient writer is bound to make many regrettable mistakes.
What do you like most about being a writer?
All the opportunities it’s given me to travel, to meet others, to live my dream.
What don’t you like about writing?
The amount of coffee and cocoa I drink when I am writing; the fact that stories wake me from sleep.
What is the greatest thing that writing has done for you?
It’s given me space to share my imagination with people I’ll never meet. It’s humbling to get a letter from a reader in Argentina saying they loved your work.
What would you have wanted writing to do for you that it hasn’t done yet?
What was the title of your first story ever?
I have no idea. I was probably in elementary school then.
Which of your books don’t you like and why?
I never publish a book I am not proud of.
Which of your books gives you the greatest joy and why?
I love all of them for different reasons. It’s like asking which of my children I love best and why.
Many people read your books and also have you as their favourite author. Who are the authors you love reading their books and why?
I have a lot of favorite books and writers that to name a few would be to do a disservice to the others.
Finally, what keeps you engrossed in a book and also what puts you off in a book?
I tell my students that when they write a character well, everything else follows. I like characters that live and breathe on the page. I also love beautiful language. I’ll read (almost) anything if the language is magical.