On Black Sisters Street

On Black Sisters Street

4.3 6
by Chika Unigwe

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On Black Sisters Street tells the haunting story of four very different women who have left their African homeland for the riches of Europe—and who are thrown together by bad luck and big dreams into a sisterhood that will change their lives.

Each night, Sisi, Ama, Efe, and Joyce stand in the windows of Antwerp’s red-light district,


On Black Sisters Street tells the haunting story of four very different women who have left their African homeland for the riches of Europe—and who are thrown together by bad luck and big dreams into a sisterhood that will change their lives.

Each night, Sisi, Ama, Efe, and Joyce stand in the windows of Antwerp’s red-light district, promising to make men’s desires come true—if only for half an hour. Pledged to the fierce Madam and a mysterious pimp named Dele, the girls share an apartment but little else—they keep their heads down, knowing that one step out of line could cost them a week’s wages. They open their bodies to strangers but their hearts to no one, each focused on earning enough to get herself free, to send money home or save up for her own future.

Then, suddenly, a murder shatters the still surface of their lives. Drawn together by tragedy and the loss of one of their own, the women realize that they must choose between their secrets and their safety. As they begin to tell their stories, their confessions reveal the face in Efe’s hidden photograph, Ama’s lifelong search for a father, Joyce’s true name, and Sisi’s deepest secrets—-and all their tales of fear, displacement, and love, concluding in a chance meeting with a handsome, sinister stranger.

On Black Sisters Street marks the U.S. publication debut of Chika Unigwe, a brilliant new writer and a standout voice among contemporary African authors. Raw, vivid, unforgettable, and inspired by a powerful oral storytelling tradition, this novel illuminates the dream of the West—and that dream’s illusion and annihilation—as seen through African eyes. It is a story of courage, unity, and hope, of women’s friendships and of bonds that, once forged, cannot be broken.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for On Black Sisters Street

“ [‘On Black Sisters Street’ is] boiling with a sly, generous humor. Unigwe is as adept at conveying the cacophony of a Nigerian bus as she is at suggesting the larger historical events that propel her characters. ‘On Black Sisters Street’ marks the arrival of a latter-day Thackeray, an Afro-Belgian writer who probes with passion, grace and comic verve the underbelly of our globalized new world economy.”
--The New York Times Book Review  (*an Editors Choice selection in the 5/10 NYTBR)
“Powerful....The author's raw voice, unflinching eye for detail, facility for creating a complex narrative, and affection for her characters make this a must read.”
Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Gripping....As Unigwe tells her characters’ stories in interweaving narratives and time lines, the women embody depths of fear and displacement, as well as the will to survive and prosper."

“A novel of desperation, sexual exploitation, and, ultimately, sisterhood. … Unigwe has a talent for capturing the dashed dreams of young women who are stronger than they imagine. … The women’s personal stories are wrenchingly memorable.”
Library Journal

“In her English-language debut, the Nigerian-born Unigwe convincingly exposes an unfamiliar world without sentimentality. Capable drama that puts a human face on the scourge of human trafficking.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Spellbinding…combines a storyteller’s narrative flair with a reporter’s eye for grim, gritty details about the sex industry. … Nigerian-born Unigwe crafts her characters’ voices with crystalline prose and compassion, in a revelatory work as tough, humane and unsentimental as its heroines.”
MORE Magazine

“Chika Unigwe’s ON BLACK SISTERS STREET is a grand and compassionate and moving work of art. The best fiction succeeds when it allows a reader to open a door, step into a different world, look about and say, finally, I feel and know this place and these people as if I have visited many times before. Ms. Unigwe has done that for us with all the men and women of her new novel. We owe her much praise and much gratitude.”
Edward P. Jones, winner of the Pulitzer Prize

"Powerfully and gently, Unigwe gives voice to African women who walk the streets of their nightmares and dreams."
--Sefi Atta, author of Everything Good Will Come

“Chika Unigwe brings an ethnographic eye and masterful storytelling to bear on this complex portrait of African sex workers in Antwerp.  Her startlingly physical prose offers a fresh look at lives made and unmade between Europe and Africa.”
--Mateo Taussig-Rubbo, University of Buffalo

“Chika Unigwe has evoked a chilling, brutal, and terrifying world with warmth, compassion, and courage. The voices of degraded African women are clearly heard, their bodies vividly rendered, their sorrows deeply understood, and their humanity ultimately realized. On Black Sisters Street is a dark tale luminously told, a stunningly moving book.”—Lee Siegel, author of Love in a Dead Language
“Chika Unigwe writes with moral urgency nourished by a nuanced understanding of the human condition and prose that is elegantly calibrated. And for all the dark turns her work takes, On Black Sisters Street is suffused with warmth, hard-won wisdom, and a deep compassion.”—Chris Abani, author of Becoming Abigail and Song for Night
“A probing and unsettling exploration of the many factors that lead African women into prostitution in Europe . . . an important and accomplished novel that leaves a strong aftertaste. Unigwe gives voice to those who are voiceless . . . and bestows dignity on those who are stripped of it.”—The Independent

Library Journal
In Nigerian-born Unigwe's second novel, the main character's murder propels the narrative forward in order to answer the question of how she died. Her death also spurs the other three main characters to share their stories. All four women are prostitutes in Belgium, and all came from poverty in Africa, lured by the false promise of European riches. The murder of one causes the three others to share their tales, each more heartbreaking than the last. This is a novel of desperation, sexual exploitation, and, ultimately, sisterhood. There's little hope here, though the ending suggests that the surviving women endure and finally make a life on their own terms. Unigwe has a talent for capturing the dashed dreams of young women who are stronger than they imagine. While the revelations about the murder are unsurprising, and the details about the red light district not particularly vivid, the women's personal stories are wrenchingly memorable. VERDICT Recommended for readers who enjoy novels about the struggle to survive amid African turmoil, such as those by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.—Evelyn Beck, Piedmont Technical Coll., Greenwood, SC
Kirkus Reviews
Four African women hoping for brighter futures find opportunity—and tragedy—working as prostitutes in Belgium.

While standing in the windows of Antwerp's red-light district (and sexually servicing up to 15 men a day) might not be anyone's idea of a dream job, it does offer the young immigrant roommates at the heart of this page-turner a chance at a better life. Although their personal motivations differ, they are united by their obligation to Dele, a portly, powerful Nigerian "businessman." Based in Lagos, he offers them passports and travel expenses with the stipulation that they send him a hefty cut of their earnings each month to pay off their considerable debt. Once in Antwerp they are placed under the care of "Madam," a hard-nosed African woman with questionable loyalties. Sisi, the most educated of the group, leaves behind a good man, Peter, whose modest ambitions don't mesh with her big dreams. Efe sacrifices her own happiness to support her young son L.I., who lives back home with her younger sister, while moody Ama flees an abusive stepfather. The youngest, Joyce, was born Alek in Southern Sudan. A survivor of wartime atrocities, including rape, she follows Polycarp, a kindly seeming Nigerian soldier, back to Lagos. But their romance sours when Polycarp's mother forbids him from marrying the refugee. He then goes to Dele and pays Joyce's way to Belgium, where she, unlike the other women, initially believes she will be working as a nanny. In spite of her reluctance, her beauty soon attracts a devoted clientele, while she plots to someday open a boutique back in Africa. Sharing a modest apartment, the women bicker and bond until Sisi meets Luc, a white banker, in a Pentecostal church. He pursues her, offering a way out from the brothel. But Sisi's belief that she can escape Dele's considerable reach proves to be a fatal mistake, with far-reaching consequences for the others. In her English-language debut, the Nigerian-born Unigwe convincingly exposes an unfamiliar world without sentimentality.

Capable drama that puts a human face on the scourge of human trafficking.

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Read an Excerpt

MAY 12, 2006

The world was exactly as it should be. No more and definitely no less. She had the love of a good man. A house. And her own money--still new and fresh and the healthiest shade of green--the thought of it buoyed her and gave her a rush that made her hum.

These same streets she had walked before seemed to have acquired a certain newness. Humming, relishing the notion of new beginnings, she thought of how much her life was changing: Luc. Money. A house. She was already becoming someone else. Metamorphosing, she told herself, recalling the word from a biology class. Sloughing off a life that no longer suited her.

What she did not know, what she would find out only hours from now, was just how absolute the transition would be.

Sisi navigated the Keyserlei and imagined everything she could buy with her brand-new wealth. It would buy her forgetfulness, even from those memories that did not permit silence, making her yell in her sleep so that she woke up restless, wanting to cry. Now the shops sparkled and called to her, and she answered, touching things that took her fancy, marveling in the snatches of freedom, heady with a joy that emitted light around her and made her surer than ever that the Prophecy was undoubtedly true. This was the true epiphany. Not the one she had on a certain Wednesday night on the Vingerlingstraat. That one was a pseudo-epiphany. She knew that now.

She was hungry and stood undecided between the Panos and the Ekxi on the Keyserlei. Her new life smiled at her, benevolent and lush. It nudged her toward the Ekxi, with its price a notch higher than Panos's. She went in and bought a sandwich with lettuce spilling out the sides, ruffled and moist. To go with it, a bottle of thick fruit cocktail. She sat at a table outside, her shopping bags at her feet; the bags shimmied in the light spring breeze, evidence of her break from a parsimonious past. What should she get? Maybe a gift for Luc. A curtain for his doorless room. Imagine a room without a door! Ha! The architect who designed the house had a thing for space and light, and since Luc was coming out of a depression when he bought the house, he had been certain that space and light were the very things he needed. The lack of a door had not disturbed him in the least. "Rooms must have doors," Sisi told him when he showed her around the house. "Or curtains, at the very least!" Luc had said nothing in response. And silence was acquiescence. Certainly. Curtains with a frenetic design of triangles and squares, bold purple and white splashes against a cocoa brown, found in the HEMA. She imagined what the other women would say of Luc's doorless bedroom. She imagined their incredulous laughter. And that was enough to feed a guilt that she was trying hard to stop. She hadn't abandoned them. Had she? She had just . . . well, moved on. Surely, surely, she had that right. Still, she wondered: What were they doing now? When would they notice that she was gone?

In a house on the Zwartezusterstraat, the women Sisi was thinking of--Ama, Joyce, and Efe--were at that very moment preparing for work, rushing in and out of the bathroom, swelling its walls with their expectations: that tonight they would do well; that the men who came would be a multitude; that they would not be too demanding. And more than that, that they would be generous.

"Who has my mascara? Where's my fucking mascara?" Ama shouted, emptying a makeup bag on the tile floor. Joyce was at the same time stuffing a denim duffel bag with a deodorant spray, a beach towel, a duster, and her Smiley, so nicknamed by Sisi. Smiley was a lubricant gel, innocuously packaged in a plastic see-through teddy bear with an orange conical hat and a wide smile; it might have been a child's bottle of glue. She blocked her mother's face, looking aghast at Smiley, her lips rounding to form a name that was not Joyce.

"Where's Sisi?" she asked.

"I haven't seen her. Maybe she don' leave already," Efe said, putting an electric toothbrush into a toilet bag. In an inner pocket of the bag was a picture of a boy in a baseball cap. On the back of the photograph were the initials L.I. The picture was wrinkled and the gloss had worn off, but when it was first sent to her it would have been easy to see (in the shine of the gloss that highlighted a broad forehead) that the boy bore a close semblance to her. The way a son might his mother. She carried this picture everywhere.

They still had a bit of time before they had to leave, but they liked to get ready early. There were things that could not be rushed. Looking good was one. They did not want to turn up at work looking half asleep and with half of their gear forgotten.

"How come Sisi left so early?" Joyce asked.

"Who knows?" Ama answered, running her hand quickly across her neck as if to assure herself that the gold chain that she always wore was still there. "All this Sisi, Sisi, Sisi, are you lovers? Maybe she's gone on one of her walks."

Ama laughed, slitting her eyes to brush on mascara.

Sisi went out alone at least twice a week, refusing company when it was offered. Nobody knew where she went except that she sometimes came back with boxes of chocolate and bags of Japanese fans and baby booties embroidered in lace, fridge magnets and T-shirts with Belgian beer logos printed on them. "Gifts," she mumbled angrily when Joyce asked her once who they were for.

Joyce was already out of the bathroom. She had hoped Sisi would help her cornrow her hair. In between perm and braids, her hair was a wilderness that would not be subdued. Neither Ama nor Efe could braid. Nothing for it now, she would have to hold it in a bun and hope that Madam would not notice that the bun was an island in the middle of her head, surrounded by insubordinate hair that scattered every which way. If Sisi had not left, if she was simply running late, she would have Madam to answer to. For Sisi's sake, Joyce hoped she would be back on time. How could anyone forget what Madam had done to Efe the night she turned up for work late? Nothing could excuse her behavior, Madam said. Not even the fact of her grandmother's death.


It was not every death that earned a party. But if the departed was old and beloved, then a party was very much in order. Efe's grandmother was both. And since she was too far away to attend the burial herself, the next best thing, the expected thing, was a big party. Plus, in dismal November, nothing could beat a good party.

Efe did not tell Madam of the death. Or of the party. Nobody told Madam anything. It was not like, if she were invited, she would attend anyway.

The girls had started the day in the kitchen doing dishes from the previous day. Sisi's laughter was the loudest, rising and drowning out the voices of the other women. She slapped her thighs with a damp kitchen towel, and the strength of the laughter shut her eyes. "Tell me, Efe, your aunty really believed her husband?"

"Yes. She did. He told her she could not go abroad with him because the British embassy required her GCSE results before they would give her a visa. Dat na de only way he could tink of to stop her wahalaing him about traveling with him. Four wives, and she wanted him to pick her above the rest? And she no be even the chief wife. Imagine! De woman just dey craze!"

"Your uncle handled it well. Sometimes it's just easier to lie to people. Saves you a lot of trouble and time," Joyce said, placing a drinking glass she had just dried in the cupboard above her head.

"Men are bastards," Ama said.

"Ama, lighten up. Since when did this story become about men being bastards, eh? Everything has to be so serious with you; you know how to spoil a good day. You just have to get worked up over nothing!" Sisi wiped a plate dry, examined it for smudges, and finding none, placed it on top of another on the work surface beside the sink.

Ama turned toward Sisi and hissed. "Move the plates, abeg. If you leave them there, they'll only get wet again. Why don't you put them away as soon as you've dried?" She hissed again and went to work scrubbing a pot in the kitchen sink. "How could you burn rice, Sisi? I can't get the fucking pot clean!"

"I don't know what's eating you up, Ama, but I don't want any part of it. Whoever sent you, tell them you didn't see me, I beg of you."

"Fuck off. Why don't you fuck off on one of your long walks?" Ama's voice was a storm building.

Efe tried to calm the storm. "Girls, girls, it's a beautiful day. Make una no ruin am!" She hoped it would not rain. It was a beautiful day for November: leaves turned aubergine-purple and yellow and white by a mild autumn and a sky that did not forebode rain. A minor miracle for the time of year. "See as de day just dey like fine picture, and una wan spoil am?"

"Nobody's ruining anything. Anyway, I'm done here." Ama pulled out the now gleaming pot and walked out of the kitchen into the sitting room. She flooded the room with the twang boom bam of a Highlife tune. She lit a cigarette and began to dance.

Efe, swishing a kitchen towel over her head, sighed and followed her into the sitting room. "I can see you don' dey get ready for the party, Ama. Oooh, shake that booty, girl! Shake am like your mama teach you!"

"Oh, shut it! What has my mother got to do with my dancing?" Ama moved away from Efe, the crucifix around her neck glinting. Her anger seemed blown up. Exaggerated. But Efe let it pass. She had other things on her mind.

The party, for starters. The Moroccan man who had promised to get her cartons of beer at a discount had just called to say that his contact had not come through. Now the drinks would cost her a lot more than she had budgeted for. The girls had promised to help her with the food, but with Ama in this mood, she might have one fewer pair of hands. Everything had to go to plan today. A burial ceremony for her grandmother had to be talked about for months to come. That was how much she loved the woman. And they were not even related. She wanted a party that would last all night.

And that would be what would put her in trouble with Madam. The party was a success, so much so that Efe could not leave until almost midnight. Madam's anger manifested itself in a laughter that was dry like a cough and a sneering "Ah, so you've earned enough money to waltz in to work whenever you want?" For a week she refused to let Efe use her booth. One week of not earning money was enough to put anyone off getting into Madam's bad books.

Still, Iya Ijebu got a party deserving of her. "She is not even my real grandmother," Efe told the women when she told them of her death. "I been dey call her granny, but she be just dis woman wey live near our house. On Sundays, she made me moi-moi. When I was in primary school, if my mother wasn't home, she'd make lunch for my younger ones and me. Ah, the woman was nice to us. Which kin' granny pass dat one? Goodbye, Granny. Rest in peace."

"What killed her?" Joyce asked.

Even Efe did not know how the woman had died. The news of her death had been an interspersion between "Buy me a Motorola mobile phone" and a "Papa Eugene wants to know how easy it is to ship a car from there to here." A distant "Iya Ijebu died two weeks ago," carried along a faint and crackling telephone line from a telephone cabin in Lagos to a glass-doored booth in a Pakistani Internet/telephone café in Antwerp.

"She died? Iya Ijebu? Osalobua! What killed her?" A voice loud enough to reach the other end. She had tried to drag her sister back to the news she had just delivered. "How? What happened?"

"What? I can't hear you. Did you hear what I said about the Motorola?"

And then the line had whined and died, and Efe went around in a frenzy organizing a party.

She did not know the details of the death, but at the party she would distribute badly xeroxed pictures of the deceased: a woman in a huge head scarf, looking solemn and already dead, against a backdrop of palm trees painted wildly on a prop behind her. Below it would be the announcement that she had died after a "sudden" illness at the age of seventy-five (which was an estimation; who cared, really, about exact ages?). And that Efe, her granddaughter, was "Grateful to God for a life well spent." Summer would have been a better choice, its temperament better suited to feasting, but a party was what dreary November needed to cheer it up. She had a lot to worry about. What to cook. What to play. Who to have. There would be lots of Ghanaians; those people were everywhere. Nigerians, of course, went without saying. A sprinkling of East Africans--Kenyans who ate Samosas and had no traditional clothes and complained about the pepper in Nigerian food, not really African. The three Ugandan women she knew who stumbled over their words, brackening black and renthening long. And the only Zimbabwean she knew, a woman who shuffled when she danced. Those guests would spawn other guests, multiplying the guest list to infinity, so that she was glad she had the foresight to hire a huge abandoned warehouse close to the Central Station, not the parish hall of a church she had rented last year to celebrate her birthday.

Here she had enough space not to worry about the number of people who would eventually turn up. And unlike the floor of the parish hall, which she had to ensure was spotless at the end of the party, this place had no such obligation. The tiles had come off in some places, exposing dark earth, like half-peeled scabs over old wounds. Against the walls were high metal racks, most of which were already corroded. The racks would come in handy for stacking crates of beer and cool boxes of food, so Efe did not need to borrow tables. In front of the racks were white picnic chairs. The space in the middle provided ample dancing room.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Chika Unigwe was born in Nigeria and now lives in Belgium with her husband and four children. She was a 2008 UNESCO-Aschberg fellow and a 2009 Rockefeller Foundation fellow (at the Bellagio Center), and she holds a Ph.D. from the University of Leiden. She is the recipient of several awards for her writing, including first prize in the 2003 BBC Short Story Competition and a Commonwealth Short Story Competition award. In 2004 she was shortlisted for the Caine prize for African Writing. Her stories have been on BBC World Service and Radio Nigeria. Her first novel, De Feniks, was published in Dutch in 2005.

From the Hardcover edition.

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On Black Sisters' Street 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
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