Largehearted Boy: Book Notes - Chika Unigwe ("On Black Sisters Street")

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August 11, 2011

Book Notes - Chika Unigwe ("On Black Sisters Street")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

On Black Sisters Street, Chika Unigwe's first novel published in the United States, tells the tales of four young African women working in Belgium's sex trade. Unigwe shares their tragic stories in calm and measured prose in this important book.

The Independent wrote of the book:

"This is an important and accomplished novel that leaves a strong aftertaste. Unigwe gives voice to those who are voiceless, fleshes out the stories of those who offer themselves as meat for sale, and bestows dignity on those who are stripped off it."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, request an invitation.

In her own words, here is Chika Unigwe's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, On Black Sisters Street:

"Money, Money, Money" by ABBA

In my childhood, my mother was a huge ABBA fan. I remember waking up on many Saturday mornings to ABBA playing on the BETAMAX video machine in the living room. My mother's love for the band infected me and ABBA became the first group I really truly fell in love with. I spent hours memorizing the lyrics to their songs. I am still a huge fan, but haven't managed to convert anyone in my immediate vicinity yet. When I created the character Ama in my novel On Black Sisters Street, and found out she was growing up in Enugu, in a house similar to mine (sans the sanctimonious parents) I knew she would have to love ABBA. I played ABBA a lot writing Ama's chapter. "Money, Money, Money" found its way into her chapter because it is a song about dreams, about an alternative lifestyle (economic-wise) and about the Great Escape: all the things Ama's claustrophobic life drives her to seek.

"Annoying Song" by the Butthole Surfers

The first time I went to the red light district in Antwerp to research On Black Sisters Street, I went to a café called 't Keteltje which has often been in the news for harboring illegal Nigerian prostitutes. It has been raided a few times , and women arrested and repatriated. The café itself is subfusc and altogether rather tacky looking, but it is an interesting study in contrasts. On any given night, you can be almost certain of the following: All the men are white. All the women are black. All the men have their own hair. All the women have hair extensions of varying lengths and colors. A majority of the men appear to be over forty. A majority of the women appear to be under twenty-five.

However, the most enduring memory of my first visit there is of a woman sitting by herself behind a table, a tiny mobile phone in her hand, tapping one foot self assuredly to the rhythm of the "Annoying Song". She was one of the first women I spoke to. She is one of the most confident, and most forthright people I have ever come across in my life. That woman, her phone, and the café (albeit under another name) make it into the novel.

"Teacher, Don't Teach me Nonsense" by Fela Kuti:

Polycarp is the ex- soldier boyfriend of Joyce/Alek, one of the four protagonists. I imagine him as a cigarette-smoking Fela lover, who would often visit Fela's shrine at his Kalakuta Republic in Lagos. I play Fela a lot. He can be deliciously irreverent, his lyrics are always thought provoking—whether you agree with him or not, and he plays the sax like an angel. I imagine that Polycarp loves this track as much as I do. For some reason I cannot explain, neither Fela nor his shrine make it into the novel, and Polycarp (who never smokes once in the entire book) goes to Saturday night dancing parties on the streets of Lagos where Fatai Rolling Dollar is played. And if I remember correctly, he sees Fatai perform once. Perhaps this is not wholly coincidental as both Fatai and Fela have a connection. On the night of February 18, 1977, the Nigerian military, under the orders of then head of state Olusegun Obasanjo, burnt down Fela's self-proclaimed Republic. At the time, Fatai lived two doors away, and lost his home and all his musical possessions in the fire. It put a stop to his career and forced him to take refuge in a one-room shack in a poor neighborhood of Lagos. For twenty five years, he did odd jobs, working as a security man at some point to feed himself and his family (which included ten children.) His career got a second chance when his fate was lamented in a newspaper article which got the attention of the French cultural centre. At the time Polycarp sees him perform, he has just been resurrected.

If I were to re-write the novel, I would set it in 1996, the year before Fela died and have Polycarp watch him perform as well. I am sure he (Polycarp) would love that.

"Fire on the Mountain" by Asa

This is one of the songs I played (and danced to) ad nauseam while I was editing On Black Sisters Street. Asa has an amazing voice. She doesn't make it into the novel because she is too contemporary for the characters. Plus, I discovered her only after I had finished writing the novel while on a visit to Nigeria. Every time I was stuck in traffic, and had forgotten to take her CD along, I bought another one from a hawker. Asa is young, fearless, and prodigiously talented. She is one of the best things to happen to Nigerian music. I like to think that Efe is like her. Efe doesn't have much education, has had a lot of knocks but she is resilient, and remembers quotes from books she read as a younger student (that is a talent, surely?).

"Uwa Enwe Mmete" by Sir Warrior and his Oriental Brothers

Highlife is a genre associated very often with men (especially Igbo men of south eastern Nigeria) , drinking palm wine and mulling over the meaning of life. About twelve years ago, I picked up an Oliver de Coque CD on a whim and really listened to it. I realized that my musical tastes had shifted to accommodate Highlife. I bought more CDs and haven't stopped since. Sir Warrior's band is one of my favorite and their music helped me when the writing overwhelmed me. "Uwa Enwe Mmete" reminds you that you can't do more in life than your best. I needed to hear that several times to be able to trudge on until I— finally, finally— finished that first draft.

"To Be Young, Gifted and Black" by Nina Simone

I came to Simone rather late in life, but fell for her with the enthusiasm of a child. Her voice is the perfect voice to listen to while writing. It doesn't intrude, but is content to stay there in the background creating a sense of calmness. She is like Yoga for the soul. This line from the track I have chosen, “When you feel really low, Yeah, there's a great truth you should know, When you're young, gifted and black, Your soul's intact, “ is what I imagine Sisi is saying to herself at the moment she realizes that she is dying. It is the mantra that calms her, and allows her not only to hope, but also to let go.

Chika Unigwe and On Black Sisters Street links:

the author's website
Wikipedia page by the author

Amy Reads review
The Bookbag review
Guardian review
Independent review
Kirkus Reviews review
Libereading review
Los Angeles Times review
Lotus Reads review
New York Times review
Philadelphia Inquirer review

Black Book News interview with the author
BV on Books interview with the author
Clutch interview with the author
Drumtide interview with the author
Geosi Reads interview with the author
Publishing Perspectives profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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