Mellon Creative Resident Chika Unigwe
Fifty years ago, Chinua Achebe wrote the landmark novel Arrow of God. Next week, October 6-9, the Tri-Colleges will host the conference (Ir)reverence in celebration of this anniversary, featuring Mellon Creative Residents Chika Unigwe and Niq Mhlongo.
Chika Unigwe is the author of On Black Sisters’ Street, which won Nigeria’s biggest literary prize, the NLNG Prize for Literature. She has written in both English and Dutch. Niq Mhlongo is the author of the novel Dog Eat Dog. The Spanish translation, Perro come perro, won the 2006 Mar de Letras prize.
We caught up with these two writers for a sneak peak on the conference. To hear more, come to their writing workshop and panel discussion.
Mellon Creative Resident Niq Mhlongo
Mellon Creative Residencies: Why do you think readers are still attracted to Arrow of God fifty years after publication?
Chika Unigwe: Achebe’s writing is timeless. Arrow of God, like the best of his writing, is written in an elegant, warm tone even while it deals with very serious themes, so it is very easy to draw readers in. The effects of colonization are still with us in Nigeria in many different ways, and so Arrow of God remains relevant.
Niq Mhlongo: In Arrow of God, I think Achebe had effectively showed that literature can be used to tell the African story from an African perspective. He had successfully demonstrated to readers that literature can be used as a weapon to restore or regain people’s lost identity, self-respect, and dignity. He does this by showing readers in human terms what happened to them and what they had lost.
Personally, I subscribe to the notion that a novelist can be a teacher, an idea brought forward by Achebe himself. Like Achebe, I’m of the opinion that no matter what our history has been, our destiny is tied to what we create today. This is the reason I think Arrow of God’s relevance is timeless.
MCR: Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
Niq: No, I didn’t know I was going to be a writer. I grew up wanting to be a rich and successful person. Success then meant that I would be married with kids, driving a beautiful car and having a big house. My role models then were lawyers and doctors in my township of Soweto because they were rich. I envied their lifestyles, the way they talked, and the way they were so very important in the community. For example, during apartheid times, doctors were important figures, as they would heal wounded political activists. Lawyers were also important, as they defended the people that were always wrongfully accused and imprisoned by the apartheid government. I wanted to be like them. That is partly why I studied law at the university. Writing interrupted these dreams by choosing me, and I obeyed. I had to sacrifice law at the end, and I don’t regret not being a lawyer.
MCR: Has your writing been received differently in the different countries that you’ve lived in?
On Black Sisters Street, by Chika Unigwe
Chika: I believe that people do not read in a vacuum. Our response to a particular piece is influenced by our environment, culture and background. I notice that while readers in Nigeria are shocked, for example, that my women in On Black Sisters Street knowingly choose the sex trade as a means of breaking out of poverty, my Belgian readers, for example, are more shocked at the fact that I insinuate that Belgian police officers are corrupt enough to collude with pimps to keep victims of the sex trade enslaved.
MCR: Who were some of your most important literary influences?
Niq: I grew up reading everything in the African Writers Series. Actually, I would say I was very biased in terms of what I read. So I read Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiongo, Oyono, Ayi Kwei Armah, Camara Laye, Eskia Mphahlele, Buchi Emecheta, Dambudzo Marechera, Hove, Peter Abrahams, Sembene Ousmane, Mwangi, etc. These were all writers that were published in the African Writers Series, and they were my early influences. Then there were writers like Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, George Orwell, George Lamming, who I also discovered along the way and who also played a role.
MCR: How do you decide which language to write a particular story in?
Chika: English is the more natural language for me to write in. I came to Dutch as a young adult and only began writing in it out of necessity because of where I lived, and because I wanted to get noticed. It was my first short story written in Dutch that got me a Belgian publisher. When I write in Dutch, my sentences are clipped and follow a strict grammatical structure. I cannot (perhaps ‘dare not’ is a better term) play with words; language becomes this solid structure I cannot bend because I am too scared to move away from the ‘straight and narrow path.’ I find it quite frustrating. One can only play with a language when one is at ease in/with it; when one understands all its nuances; when one isn’t second-guessing oneself all the time. It is not a comfortable way to write fiction.
MCR: Are there any themes or questions that you find yourself returning to in your writing?
Dog Eat Dog, by Niq Mhlongo
Niq: I think many people think that the theme of apartheid is the theme of the past. I differ from those people. Apartheid is the theme of the past, present, and future. Whatever themes I’m addressing in my novels, be it HIV/AIDS, xenophobia, homophobia, unemployment, inequality, corruption, teenage pregnancy, drug abuse, and so on, I find these themes linked to apartheid. I find myself returning more often to apartheid, as it is one of those unresolved haunting themes.
MCR: What keeps you writing?
Niq: The urge of sharing stories and making sense of society is what keeps me writing. I feel as if my head is like a traveler’s suitcase. It is full of stories that are weighing me down. The moment I release a story for the world to read, I feel healthier and light again. That is what keeps me writing.
MCR: Do you have any advice for young writers?
Chika: Read widely. Be patient. Learn to accept criticism. Write.
Niq: Write as provocatively and as fearlessly as you can. Read more widely.