This article is from 2009.
The depiction of prostitutes in fiction can be a one-dimensional affair, but not in Chika Unigwe’s poignant and moving novel On Black Sisters’ Street. Unigwe was raised in Nigeria, but has spent the last decade in Belgium, and it was a culture shock which led her to write about four Nigerian girls working Antwerp’s red light district. ‘When I moved to Belgium one of the biggest shocks was seeing black women in display cases in their knickers and bustiers,’ says Unigwe. ‘I was intrigued, and I wrote short stories about them based on imagination. But I didn’t really know about their lives, so when I decided to write the novel, I went and talked to the girls.'
Dressed in mini-skirt and thigh-high boots to blend in, Unigwe was mistaken for a prostitute by the working girls, a misconception she didn’t correct. ‘I told the first girl that I was a writer and she burst into laughter,’ she says. ‘For her, if you’re a black woman of a certain age, you can only survive as a prostitute, so I let her believe that. After that, they all found it easier to open up to me.’
The result is a haunting and sometimes heartbreaking tale of four women in an impossible situation, and how they deal with that. ‘I learned how much of a luxury shame is,’ says Unigwe. ‘If you’re father’s diabetic and is relying on you for money for medication, where do you draw the line in what you’re prepared to do?’
25 Aug, 4.30pm, £6 (£4)