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Book review: 'On Black Sisters Street'

Dreams play a big role in Chika Unigwe's novel, a bleak look at the African immigrant women who turn to prostitution in Europe as a way out of the poverty at home.

July 20, 2011|By Jessica Gelt | Los Angeles Times

In Chika Unigwe's novel "On Black Sisters Street," the snow-covered streets of Antwerp, Belgium, are a beacon of freedom to the four disadvantaged African women who serve as the book's protagonists. Recruited in Lagos, Nigeria, by a fat slug of a sex trafficker named Dele, the women work as prostitutes in glass stalls along the byways of Antwerp's seedy red light district. They dream big, though, and they never make excuses about why they are there.

In fact, big dreams are why the women decide to work in the sex trade in exchange for passage to Europe, which they view as a paradise of opportunity and riches, far removed from the crushing squalor and bleak opportunities in Africa. The question of what makes a victim is very much at the core of this chilling piece of fiction. And the women — Sisi, Ama, Joyce and Efe — refuse to characterize themselves as such, no matter how tragic the circumstances that pushed them to choose life as prostitutes.

It is this defiance that gives the fierce women with their strength as characters , and it is this defiance that makes the many men who populate the book look even more vile. If the book has one major fault, it is that. The men in the story are so contemptible they come off as stereotypes, all fitting into one of five too-neat categories: weak, cruel, cowardly, vicious and evil.

The story begins after Sisi has been brutally murdered, leaving the other three to sit in the flat they sublet from their callous madam to ponder what happened and why. This leads them to reveal their histories — fragmented, sorrowful memories still tender to the ear, that they packed along with their clothes and girlhood trinkets when they left Lagos for an uncertain future in Europe.

Unigwe was born in Nigeria and lives in Belgium. In the book's acknowledgments, she writes of her gratitude to "the nameless Nigerian sex workers who allowed me into their lives, answering my questions and laughing at my ignorance." So, while the book — Unigwe's second — is a work of fiction, it is drawn from a pool of vivid experience.

The story is told in flashback, with a different chapter dedicated to each woman's story. These chapters are bookended by small moments from the present, and a running description of the final days of Sisi's life, concluding with a window on her death. In this way, the book reads almost like four short stories strung together by a common thread of hardship.

If the women made poor choices, they were driven to them by the predatory ways of the men around them. Ama was repeatedly raped by a man she thought was her father. She only learns that he is her stepfather when he kicks her out. Joyce was forced into a refugee camp in Sudan after the Janjaweed militia — armed Sudanese Arabs that have been at the core of the Sudan conflict for nearly a decade — killed her family in front of her and then gang-raped her. Efe was impregnated at 16 by a much older, married man who left her when she made her shame known.

Ironically, Sisi's story is the least overtly terrible. She grew up very poor and was encouraged to go to college, which she did. But she could never find a job and feared a life languishing in a tiny, dirty apartment in Lagos like her father, who never amounted to anything.

The women meet Dele, who promises to pay their way to Europe, where they will work as prostitutes until they pay off their debt at a rate of 500 euros, or about $725, per month. When they have paid him, he says, they will be free to achieve their grand dreams in the West. Ama, for example, once wanted to go to university, but now dreams of becoming a pop star.

"I imagine that I am standing on a podium posing for my fans. I imagine them screaming out my name, shouting out for autographs. I imagine that my real father hears about me, his famous daughter and reveals himself to me," she says, after Joyce says she thought she would become a doctor, and Efe says she wanted to be a famous writer.

They then wonder what Sisi's dreams were. They will never know, because Sisi takes her secrets and hopes to the grave. But the reader knows she has been pretending to be a rich tourist on her days off, and that she has fallen in love with a kind Belgian man who stays with her after he knows her trade. He also asks her to leave for him. She was leaving the day she was killed.

The senselessness of this death amid a jagged landscape of words that reveal the ugliest sides of poverty, desire and greed is breathtaking. "On Black Sisters Street" is not an uplifting book; instead, it mirrors life itself, where bad things happen to good people who are simply trying to build delicate fortresses of well-being around their vulnerable psyches. They may fail often and their defeat may be bitter, but when the sun rises, they will get up. They will try again.

jessica.gelt@latimes.com

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