Born and raised in Nigeria, Chika Unigwe moved to Belgium after reading succesfully for her BA in English at the University of Nigeria. In Europe, she read succesfully for her MA in English at the Catholic University of Leuven (KUL) and her PhD, also in English, from the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. Unigwe travels to South Africa as a participant in the Literary Crossroads event at the inaugural Abantu Book Fair.
What are your thoughts on your nationalities, your physical appearance and how the world perceives what someone like you should look, sound, think and write like?
I carry multiple nationalities but home is still Nigeria. That is the only nationality I identify strongly with as home. It is where I feel rooted. I don't think much about my physical appearance. That is to say, I do not stand in the mirror wishing I had this or that other thing. I am content with the way I look.
I don't know how the world perceives what someone like me should look, sound, think and write like. I am not even sure I know what "Someone like you" means. What I can say is that I spend each day trying to be the best version of Chika Unigwe that I can be in all of my roles as writer, mother, professor, wife, sister, daughter, friend, neighbour. When I was a teenager and through college, I was an Opus Dei member. One of the things I took away from those years is the aspiration to constantly seek holiness in daily life. It's not easy, it's a daily battle but it is a daily battle I embrace.
What has been the common ingredient which has inspired you to write about the things you have?
I write stories that haunt me. I write to tell those stories.
Please share some of the lessons you have learnt from writing that you think can stand any creative, in whichever medium, in good stead.
Persistence and hard work pay off.
If, according to Rumi, “All language is a longing for home” how have you navigated the language issue with your four children of mixed cultural and linguistic backgrounds?
My children are aware of their cultural mixes. However, because they were raised in their father's country, with a hands-on father and grandparents and a close knit extended family in the neighborhood, their first language, their mother tongue is Dutch. That is their "home" language. Even now that we live in the US, they speak Dutch amongst themselves. I raised the youngest exclusively in Igbo until he started school. They are all very interested in languages to varying degrees, so to that mix, the oldest three have varying degrees of French and German and Nigerian Pidgin English and ancient Greek and Latin. The eldest, who is in college, also started taking Korean and Spanish. They have a few Igbo phrases. Yet, when they long for home, the only language that does justice to that longing is their mother tongue which in this case is their father's tongue.
What does the future of African writing look like to you, someone who has published books for children before?
It is bright. Next semester, I am teaching a seminar course on books by African writers published in the West in the past 15 years. It is amazing how many books I have added to that list since I proposed the course last summer.