By Toni Kan
Writing is a solitary vocation, one fraught with neurosis. There are, often, moments of self-doubt, despair and near-madness even.
So when Chika Unigwe, winner of the 2012 edition of the NLNG sponsored Nigeria Literature prize says “I am not a self confident writer,” she is echoing the views of so many writers who labour at their work, dreading to bring it to light, not sure whether it would hold up to scrutiny, yet toiling at it as if it is the Holy Bible.
The occasion was the 19th edition of the monthly Dotun Eyinade-led Book’n’Guage reading sessions, hosted by the Sabo Yaba-based and Debola Omololu-run Debonair Bookstore. Chika was speaking to a packed house of over 60 readers, fans and book lovers who had thronged the enclosed space to hear her read from her award winning book, On Black Sisters’ Street and her new novel, Night Dancer, which has just been published by Jonathan Cape.
She is dressed in white – white flared skirt and white top with thin straps. She is pretty and her long dreadlocks are packed in a bun atop her head. There is a cowrie braided into her locks like a talisman.
The crowd is animated and boisterous. Parresia author, Emmanuel Iduma, is doubling as compere and he is doing a very competent job.
There is lively discussion going on at the back among the guys and the subject is the author. Is she married? She looks pretty? Lovely skin?
Finally, one of the guys grows enough cojones to ask her how she manages to look so young. “Do you go to the gym?”
Chika answers good-naturedly, smiling, telling him that she has no Nanny, irons a lot and takes care of four children. “That is how I keep fit,” she tells him.
She reads more passages and takes more questions and then there is an auction of Salman Rushdie’s fatwa days’ memoir, Joseph Anton before she is herded out for group pictures and more pictures and autograph sessions and then more pictures.
Unigwe is the picture of grace and courtesy and politeness. She smiles, she poses for pictures, she shakes a hand here, accepts a hug there and then the crowd thins and she has to head out to the car that brought her. Looking at her, you would never think that this is a PhD holder, a former alderman in Belgium, mother of four boys, author of five books, (one unpublished) and winner of Africa’s biggest literary prize.
Chika has poise, élan and an accessibility that I have never seen anyone abuse. No African writer that I know of who has achieved Chika’s level of success behaves as freely as she does which is why younger Nigerian writers love her to bits.
Long after she is gone and we are sitting and shooting the breeze at O’Jez in Surulere, I think back to that afternoon and it strikes me that this is how I have always known Chika Unigwe. My idea of her is of a slim, pretty woman; petite, always smiling and ever willing to help.
I remember spending five days in her lovely home in Turnhout, Belgium with my wife and infant daughter in 2004. I remember the night she and Jan, her husband, took us out to eat mussels, a Belgium delicacy.
Most nights, we would sit downstairs and talk about books and writers, sharing our dreams and fears and always, Chika would say how she never sees herself as a successful writer, how she is scared, sometimes, to share her work, even after having won a slew of awards.
I remember how she set up or mooted the idea of an online writers’ workshop where we would all send in our stories and have it “workshopped”. Sometimes, we would be brutal, sometimes we would be soft but Chika always found a way to be kind to the author no matter how shitty the person’s work was.
And these were no push-overs. Most members of that group have gone on to become leading lights of contemporary African fiction from Monica Arac de Nyako to Jackie Butanda, Unoma Azuah, Helon Habila, and a lot more.
Fast forward eight years later and we are in the somnolent university town of Nsukka. It is 9 O’ clock on a Tuesday morning, January 29, 2013 and the cavernous hold of the Princess Alexandria hall is filled to capacity with a proud father and relations, excited ex-school teachers and lecturers, writers and journalists as well as young university undergraduates and secondary school students all eager to witness and by witnessing glean some hope from this historic event.
The crowd has gathered at the behest of the Vice Chancellor of the University in concert with the management of the NLNG, the sponsors of the Nigeria Prize of Literature which was being presented publicly to Unigwe, winner of the 2012 edition.
The choice of Nsukka is momentous and novel. No past winner has been honoured in his or her alma mater before but every year the NLNG finds a new way to make the prize, one of the largest in the world, better.
This year, whoever thought of bringing Chika to the University of Nigeria Nsukka got it absolutely right. There is a carnival atmosphere in the air and the young men and women have stars in their eyes as Unigwe is introduced. She is dressed simply but elegantly in a lacy number: black blouse over red skirt with red accents. It is obvious that right there in that hall, that Tuesday morning, a new writer was being born as he or she beheld that which is possible when you endure and keep at it.
Because no matter what claims the Belgians, (her husband is Belgian) might lay to her, it is clear, even to the blind, that Unigwe’s first step to literary success was taken here, within the dusty precinct of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where as a young student, she was published in an anthology edited by Harry Garuba.
History was being made and broadcast worldwide; live on NTA and via social media. The event was trending on Twitter and Facebook was abuzz and it was doubling fitting because the Princess Alexandria Auditorium is one steeped in history. It was inside that auditorium, in its first incarnation, that Colonel Emeka Ojukwu announced the birth of the Republic of Biafra and that was the hall that Federal soldiers used for target practice when then took Nsukka.
And for years, the hall had lain there, pockmarked with bullet holes, a war memorial and sore reminder of how bloody internecine wars can be.
There were speeches; first from Professor Asodo, the Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic) who stood in for the Vice Chancellor.
In his remarks, Professor Asodo thanked the NLNG for instituting the prize while noting that “we cannot overstate the place of literature in every culture.”
Mr. Babs Omotowa, MD of the NLNG noted in his welcome speech that “the skill of writing helps create a context in which other people can think” and “that is why NLNG does what it does with writers and we are here today to celebrate the emergence of yet another laureate.”
Mr. Omotowa acknowledged the contribution of Anambra state citizens to Nigerian letters noting that “Chika and first runner up, Ngozi Achebe are both from Anambra and proud alumni of UNN.”
Governor Peter Obi who made a late entry and a quick departure said he flew in purposely for the event from Abuja and would leave Nsukka straight to Abuja to attend a Federal Executive Council meeting.
He regaled the audience with the numerous achievements of people from Anambra and ended with a promise that “we will work with Chika in order to raise other Chikas.”
The presentation ceremony and documentary drew thunderous applause and once again, one could sense young spines being straightened with hope as they watched a home grown talent receive the biggest literary award out of Africa.
Unigwe’s acceptance was paced, nuanced and evocative. Entitled “Discovering Magic,” Chika opened her speech in a philosophical vein. “Some people say the novel is dead…The novel will not die as long as story-tellers live.”
She then went ahead to thank all those on whose shoulders “I have climbed on this journey”: teachers, fellow writers, literary forebears and her parents. Special praise was reserved for her father, Ochiagha Fred Unigwe, whom she said believed in her dream at an early age.
Concluding Chika affirmed her belief that wishes come true. “When we speak our wishes into the world, they become real.”
It was an afternoon of tributes and proclamations; one during which those who knew her well and those who had just merely heard about her, poured out earnest encomiums praising her for her literary bona fides and as a role model for the youth.
But the most heartfelt tribute came from Unigwe’s octogenarian father, Ochiagha Fred Unigwe who described himself as “the happiest father in the hall” and the NLNG as “a blessing.” He thanked his Belgian in-laws for providing his daughter and their wife an enabling environment to practice her literary craft.
His description of Chika as a daughter who has brought him pride drew tears from her eyes.
It was a magical afternoon infused with hope and affirmation as well as an acknowledgement of all that which is possible when one says yes and his chi affirms him.
As the young and old trooped out of the hall, it was clear that Unigwe’s words had found eager ears: “When we speak our wishes into the world, they become real.”
She was clear evidence that wishes, really, do come true.
• Kan writes from Lagos