On Black Sisters’ Street

Author: Chika Unigwe
Reviewed by: Sean Christie

Publisher: Jonathan Cape, 2009, London
www: www. rbooks.co.uk

On Black Sisters’ Street is a book about Sisi (formerly Chisom), Joyce (formerly Alek), Ama and Efe—four African women (only one of whom is not from Lagos, Nigeria) who work as prostitutes in Antwerp’s Schipperskwartier by night, and spend their days at each others’ throats in a house on Zwartsustersstraat by day, watched over by a thick-skinned Madam and a Nigerian man called Segun, whose bad stuttering and deft hands presage either an amorous or murderous role. (We safely assume the latter when news of Sisi’s murder is leaked in the fourth chapter).

The women really do not get on, and like the male migrants John Berger presents in his A Seventh Man: Migrant Workers in Europe, the unsavoury realities of the present are subordinated to anticipations of a better future. Talking about the past is an unacknowledged taboo in the house on Zwartsusterstraat, and each of the women has either altered their name or their appearance in order to efface previous identities—a trend which is reversed by the catharsis of Sisi’s murder. Using tragedy in Belgium as way of unlocking the women’s’ past lives in Africa is a neat structural trick, but one which will ring alarm bells for those readers who see in the sequential arrangement of harrowing testimony the likelihood of a long uphill climb. Indeed, from the moment the story cycle begins the grit flies out unremittingly. Efe’s story charts her mother’s sudden death, her father’s self-destructive boozing, and her own sexual liaisons with an older man who rejects her when he discovers she’s pregnant. Ama tells of her repeated rape by her stepfather and her betrayal by a weak mother who does not take her side. All the women hail from Lagos, except Joyce (Alek), who is Sudanese and has endured both gang rape, the killing of her family by Janjaweed militia, and rejection by the only kind figure she meets at this time—a soldier called Polycarp. These testimonies, all indictments of political failure and African patriarchy gone wrong, find more specific common ground in the company of a toad-like human trafficker called Oga Dele, who roughly praises their physical charms in memorable pidgin (‘you be fine gal now. Abi, see your backside, kai! Who talk say na dat Jennifer Lopez get the finest yansh?’) then offers them a conditional escape to Europe—500 euros of their prostitutes’ earnings must be paid to him every month for many years.

In researching this complex subject matter Unigwe went beyond the call of duty, winning the confidence of migrant prostitutes by roaming the Schipperskwartier in a miniskirt. The hands-on approach is admirable but there is a risk for fiction writers: reality, if it becomes too important to the author, can dim the imaginative bulb. In a great and novel like Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, research is the nitrogen that fertilizes the tree—invisible. This is unfortunately not the case with On Black Sisters’ Street, which reads for long periods like narrative journalism.

The thematic breadth of the novel also proves too much for the grout, and one finds the discourses on such behemoths as African patriarchy, human trafficking and prostitution loosely outlined rather than overturned or added to, reminding one of the truism: good literature always teaches something new.

Unigwe’s publishers have a further few cases to answer to for admitting typos, confused sentences (‘the regularity with which she picked fights suggested brawn of such superiority as to instil dread’), hackneyed description (‘She had a waitressing apron, a drawer full of gadgets and a head full of regrets’) and a fair bit of incongruous verbosity (‘laugh off the fear of ineluctable destiny’ ‘…expiation of this pregnancy…’ ‘Segun’s frame suggests a pusillanimity…’).

Adhering too closely to one’s research gives rise to another problem: comparison with the findings of relevant non-fiction works. It struck me as odd, for example, that apart from Sisi, the friends on Zwartsusterstraat all receive happy-enough endings as successful businesswomen—a great rarity in the prostitution industry. Unigwe’s women are not drug-addicted, diseased or physically abused (while on the job)—glaring effacements which could be used to fuel a charge of cherry-picking from the realities of European prostitution in order to explore the dark side of African patriarchy. It was almost certainly not Unigwe’s intention to use prostitution as a mere backing board, but this is the result, more or less, of an overly ambitious approach. A smaller book would have served her development as a writer better.