About this writer
Chika Unigwe is a Nigerian writer and author, who now lives Turnhout, Belgium, with her husband and four children. She holds a BA in English Language and Literature from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and an MA from the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium. She also holds a PhD from the University of Leiden, The Netherlands, having completed a thesis entitled “In the shadow of Ala. Igbo women writing as an act of righting” in 2004.
Chika’s stories have been broadcast on BBC World Service, Radio Nigeria, and other Commonwealth Radio Stations. Earlier this month, she was announced the winner of Africa’s richest literature prize, the 2012 Nigeria Prize for Literature, receiving a cash prize of $100,000.
AiA had a brief chat with her:
AiA: Could you tell us a little about yourself? Where you were born, grew up, schooled, etc.
Chika: I was born in Enugu, Nigeria. I was raised there as well, although I went to boarding school in Abuja, a thousand kilometres away. I got my first degree from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka; a post-grad from the KU Leuven, Belgium, and a PhD from the University of Leiden in The Netherlands.
AiA: You have been dubbed ‘the Afro-Belgian writer’. How did you learn to speak and write in Dutch?
Chika: I took intensive lessons on Dutch during my first year in Belgium.
AiA: Could you tell us about your very first novel, and what inspired you to write it?
Chika: My very first published novel is The Phoenix. It is about a Nigerian immigrant in Belgium, dealing with some harsh lot fate dealt her. I have always wondered how people grieve away from their roots. I explored that in this novel, as well as the peculiar kind of loneliness that goes hand in hand with migration; with uprooting oneself and trying to make a home in an alien culture.
AiA: What/who has been inspiring you ever since?
Chika: Life. I listen a lot. A lot more than I talk. I have a terrible habit of eavesdropping on conversations when I am on the train or bus. I always carry a notepad in which I take notes.
AiA: On the average, how much time do you spend writing a book, from conception of the idea to completing the manuscript?
Chika: I would say between 3- 4 years
AiA: Congratulations on your recent winning of this year’s NLNG prize of $100,000! How did you feel when you found out you were nominated, and then when you actually won?
Chika: Thanks. I was ecstatic both times. I am still on a high.
AiA: Who is your favorite author, and why?
Chika: I have lots of favourite books. At the moment, my favourite books are Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo – it is non-fiction, set in an Indian slum – and The Monster Calls, an amazing book by Patrick Ness. The latter is marketed as a children’s book, but every grown up I have given it to read has enjoyed it tremendously. It is incredibly thought provoking and never gives easy answers.
AiA: You have received numerous international accolades for your writing in your career. Is there a particular recognition which you hold very dear?
Chika: The Nigeria Prize for Literature, because it is one from my country.
AiA: Did you encounter any difficulties transitioning from writer to published author? If so, of what nature were these difficulties?
Chika: I had a very lucky break. I won a competition with my first story written in Dutch and got a publisher here based on that. The next year, I was shortlisted for the Caine Prize and at one of the events, I met the brilliant editor who bought my second novel, and my agent.
AiA: How would you rate the publishing industry in Africa? Any areas for improvement?
Chika: There is always room for improvement. I don’t know much about publishing in Africa, but from the little I know about Nigeria, there are not that many publishers. However of what there is, a few are committed to making really beautiful books: Cassava Republic, Paressia, to just name a couple. I remember Emecheta complaining once about the quality of Nigerian-published books; the quality of the editing. Casava, Parresia, and Farafina put a lot of effort into their editorial work. But there are many more that don’t. Investment must be made in that area.
AiA: What’s your pastime when you’re not working or writing?
Chika: I am a news junkie. I listen to the news. I play scrabble. I shop. I love shoes!
AiA: Are you working on anything new at the moment?
Chika: Yes, I am working on a novel based on Equiano, the Igbo slave who lived in England in the 18th century and was very active in the abolitionist movement
AiA: Is there anyone you want to give credit to for your success as a writer and author?
Chika: Lots of people have been instrumental to whatever success I might have. I am grateful to every one of them.
AiA: Any last words for your fans?
Chika: Thank you for reading and liking my works. I would be no writer without readers.