Chika Unigwe is one Nigerian author we have this deep respect for not necessarily for her writing but the fact that she weaves her words with so much finesse and perfection and it shows in the recognition her work has garnered over the years and around the world. In April 2014 she was selected for the Hay Festival’s list of 39 Sub-Saharan African writers aged under 40 with potential and talent to define future trends in African literature. Over the years, Chika has won several awards like the 2003 BBC Short Story Competition for the short story “Borrowed Smile”, 2012 NLNG Prize, for the novel On Black Sisters’ and nominated for the 2004 Caine Prize for African writing to mention a few. Ijeoma reached out to her recently on being shortlisted for the 2016 NLNG Prize and on her mentoring young writers. Enjoy.
- How did you feel being nominated for the second time for the NLNG Prize for Literature?
Humbled but also terribly delighted that Night Dancer was shortlisted.
2. In 2005, you won third prize in the Equiano Fiction Contest. Was Black Messiah written for Olaudah Equiano himself or it was just literary coincidence?
I could hardly write a book for Equiano. He’s written his own book and he’s dead. I have always been fascinated by his story, from the moment I was introduced to him in SS1, I think. It was a very short piece on his abduction but it was enough to whet my appetite
3. You talk about writers you mentor, how have you been able to do that since moving to the US to take up the Bonderman Professor of Creative Writing position at Brown University in Rhode Island?
I teach creative writing at Brown, so in a way, I am still very busy with mentoring. I have also learned with time, that I must not let my own work suffer , so my mentoring is very structured now. For a long time, I encouraged people to send stories to my mail box and I spent days reading and making suggestions. But that isn’t a sustainable model. Certainly not if I wanted to do my own writing.
4. Is Night Dancer going to have a follow-up if any?
5. I read how you went out on the street to do research for On Black Sisters’ Street which won the NLNG Prize for Literature in 2012. Did you have to do that for Night Dancer? Were there times even at the point of editing the work that you wanted to change the plot or characters in the book?
On Black Sisters Street required field work in a way Night Dancer didn’t. I didn’t know enough about the lives of Nigerian sex workers to tell an authentic story , so I needed to find out more.
6. You set up Awele Creative Trust to support writers. Are we going to see an anthology soon?
No. I am neither an editor nor a publisher. Awele Creative Trust just supports by recognizing and (financially) rewarding talent.
7. What is the most unethical practice in the publishing industry?
I can’t speak on publishing as I am grossly unqualified to.
8. Have you ever gotten reader’s block?
No. I always find something fascinating to read or re-read. I surround myself with books I enjoy re-reading.
9. What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
Lots of them. I would have been friends with them even if they weren’t writers because they are are really lovely human beings.
10. How long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
Depends on the kind of research required (if at all)
11. Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?
12. What was your hardest scene to write in Night Dancer?
I get emotional writing scenes of difficult parent-child relationships
13. How long on average does it take you to write a book?
A few years. 3 years?
14. Thank you for offering to do this interview on short notice.
You are always welcome. It’s been my pleasure.
Author image: Paddy Anigbo & Civitella Ranieri