The four women in On Black Sister’s Street, Sisi, Efe, Ama and Joyce, provide four very different means to one end, the red-light district in Antwerp, Belgium. What these women do have in common is that they all made the difficult decision to “go abroad” and become part of the sex industry. I loved how Chika Unigwe did not let any of the four major characters get away without rounding them out. Even Efe, who had an affair at an extremely young age and then left her child, did not come off as entirely passive. The novel explains the thought process of the women so much so that they can all be related to.
The only aspect of the novel that I found a little cliché was this establishment of what felt like a girls club. While it was fascinating to see the interaction between the different women, their bickering got tiresome just as the format of observing four women who live and work together (no matter how unconventional their work is) also felt exhausted half way through the novel. If this was an intentional decision, a critique of a cultural trope that throws different women into one environment and expects them to become fully supportive sisters through difficult situations, then Unigwe did not effectively complete her critique as the setup still feels somewhat camp.
It is often a goal of African writers to complicate the idea of a singular identity. Influenced by colonization and the Western perspective, novels coming out of Nigeria often work to reject that any country or person has one story. On Black Sister’s Street also pursues a more nuanced construction of identity. Here, we have four women, living the same life but all with different personalities, background, biases, emotional baggage and different futures. But to the western men who benefit from their services, they are just objects much like Westerners have reduced the identities of Africa.
The structure of the novel might take some getting used to for some readers. Time in On Black Sisters Street, is portrayed as happening all at one. The novel simultaneously divulges the backgrounds of the four women, how they got into sex work and how they collectively cope with Sisi’s murder. Unraveling the past and present at once is common in Nigerian literature, seen in other contemporary novels including Graceland and Half of a Yellow Sun. In On Black Sisters Street, the method is effective in that it reinforces the prominence of the women’s past in their decision-making. For example, Sisi’s decision to become involved with sex work is very much tied to her parents’ inability to fulfill their dreams. Therefore, it makes sense that Unigwe would write about them together. This fragmented concept of time is successful throughout the book. However, it does make for a slow start, as the reader is not sure at all what is going on. As the book goes on, the format becomes much more enjoyable. The more I read about the present actions of Ama, Joyce and Efe, the more curious I became about how they had arrived at that house on the Zwartezusterstraat.
All in all, On Black Sisters Street certainly has its flaws, yet it is worth the read for it’s compelling stories and characters. Sisi, Efe, Ama and Joyce are in extreme situations caused by the environment of Lagos, yet through this portrayal, a distant issue can feel so close to home. Chika Unigwe gives four faces to two corrupt systems, the sex industry in Belgium and the hierarchy of dishonest wealth in Nigeria, highlighting the humanity in even the most desperate times.