Dawn Major interviews Chika Unigwe, author of “The Middle Daughter”

Introduction:  Associate Editor Dawn Major discovered The Middle Daughter while working with the chief editor of Dzanc Books, Michelle Dotter. Dzanc Books was awarded the prestigious 2023 AWP Small Press Publisher Award, so it should not be a surprise Chika Unigwe, who has received numerous awards, found a home with this wonderful and innovative press. As Georgia-based author herself, Major, hopes her path crosses soon with Unigwe whose writing may be culturally unique to most Southerners, but gives voice to universal societal issues we can all identify with no matter where in the world you are from.

Dawn Major

DM: Nani explains that “After Udodi died, things fell apart.” Is this an allusion to another Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe? I noticed similarities between Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and The Middle Daughter. You both sprinkled Igbo language and proverbs throughout your text. Stylistically, you both write short simple sentences. The main characters are both banished (though Nani’s is self-prescribed) for a seven-year period. Am I onto something here or am I making this up?

 CU: Things literally begin to fall apart for the family after Udodi’s death. I wasn’t thinking of Achebe—whose works I admire hugely—when I wrote that sentence. I think, however, that books are always in conversation with each other, even when the authors do not plan for them to be. There are times even when they are in conversation with works the writer may not even be aware of. That is the depth that readers bring to the writing. They read and make connections based on their own experience(s), completely independent of the writer’s intention. Isn’t that fascinating?

 DM: Why the Greek myth of Persephone and Hades? It obviously works well, but I was wondering if there was a similar Nigerian myth you could have used as inspiration.

Chika Unigwe

CU: Why this Greek myth? For starters, because this particular myth has always terrified and bothered me. I believe in facing your fears. What is this world where a powerful god can abduct a woman just because he wants her; he keeps her and, in some versions, he only allows her six months to come home. And in other versions, she falls in love with him? It terrifies me because it is possible in our world. Powerful men preying on vulnerable women and treating them (and women generally) like objects to collect because they can. Hades doesn’t want a partner, he wants a possession, and when he takes Persephone against her will, he basically rapes her. I wanted to change the narrative and give my Persephone character full freedom. I also wanted to give her more agency, to let her tell her own story. That’s very important to me—that women tell their own stories in their own voices. More importantly, I wanted her to acknowledge what was done to her, the full horror of it and to never validate the crime by accepting the shame of a marriage.

Why not use an Igbo myth? This works well, so why not? In high school, a travelling university theater group came to my school and performed Ola Rotimi’s The Gods Are Not to Blame. It was a moving play steeped in Yoruba culture. Imagine my shock and those of my schoolmates when we were told that this very Yoruba play was a reimaging of a Greek play, Oedipus Rex, first performed over 2,400 years before these students performed it for us. And yet, did its Yorùbáness seem natural to it, or the theme it explored—fate versus free will— was one that  was (and remains) timeless and universal. I probably became interested in cross-cultural adaptations at that moment. Moreover, I loved the challenge of finding equivalents for the chorus and for the main characters that were culturally relevant but recognizable too.

DM: Nothing seems to escape you. Every word and every sentence has its place. So, I imagine your character names were selected with great care as well. For instance, the father’s nickname, Doda, kept reminding me of the eldest sisters’ name, Udodi. And then they both died. How did you choose the names of your characters? Do their names have any significant meanings?

 CU: Thank you. I love unique names, and I love naming. I named all my sons – made up adaptations of Igbo names in three of four cases, and the name I didn’t make up, no one else I know apart from my uncle for whom he was named has it; so, my grandmother might have made that up too. Every Igbo person I know who has heard it from me, is hearing it for the first time. Doda just came to me. That the name is close to Udodi’s with two “Ds,” but it is just coincidental. Having said that, every writer knows that writing does not just happen on a physical plane, so that what we think is happenstance is planned though not consciously.

Nani’s name is made up as well. Nanichimdum: (My) God is my only guide. The short form, Nani, is “only;” “sole,” so the journey she must make alone into Ephraim’s hell and back is hinted at in her name. Her name, both in its short and full form, is symbolic of her entire trajectory in the novel: the loneliness, the abandonment by her family and friends, the journey to finding herself, and the reclaiming of herself.

 DM: When Udodi said, “Whosoever’s voice is heard is not dead, I compared her statement to a verse in the Bible from the Book of John: “Truly I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not come under judgment but has passed from death to life.” However, I felt Udodi’s statement was inclusive and at the heart of The Middle Daughter, is a feminist text. Do you agree? How so or how not?

 CU: The entire novel is a feminist text. But Udodi’s statement is also illustrative of how Igbo culture views death. The departed are all around us, they do not go away. If a deceased parent is not buried well, for example, they can come back and haunt the children who have not given them proper respects in death. During important occasions, libation is poured into the earth for the dead, the ancestors at the beginning of the harvest season. In my part of Igbo land, heads of families killed chickens and drained the blood into the earth so that the ancestors could partake in the festivities; people died to be reincarnated as other people and so on and so forth. If your departed are such an integral part of the living, then they are not dead. There is a depressing finality to death which this philosophy eschews. It is remarkably close to the Christian belief in that death isn’t the end of it: you either wake to eternal happiness or to eternal damnation. I love the connection you draw between Udodi’s statement and the quote from the Bible. Again, see how these two disparate cultures have certain similarities?

 DM: You gave the characters, Udodi and Ephraim, stylistically unique voices. While both are told in first-person point of view, the literary techniques you chose created distance. Udodi reminded me of the ghost child from Toni Morison’s Beloved. She was very fluid, presented in stream of consciousness. Ephraim felt as if he was always preaching, as if he was always on stage and performing, even when the text was direct interior monologue. Will you please elaborate on your narrative style choices?

 CU: I wanted every narrator’s voice to reflect their unique personality and age, and so I had to slide into their skin and be them. Udodi must have a wise voice because she is an ancestor, but  her wise voice also reflects her relatively youthful age. Her references are contemporary and age-appropriate even though she is also ageless (as an ancestor) and all-knowing; Ugo is giddy and loves music and I tried to give her a voice that is reflective of that. Nani has the tendency to blame herself for things she has no control over, and we hear that in how she narrates. However, Ephraim’s voice was the most challenging for me. I had to find a voice that captured his insecurity and at the same time his pompousness. I tried and failed with different voices, until I landed on this bombastic way of speaking—which really you only do if you’re trying to prove a point because you’re insecure. He’s also a narcissist. If he occupied space in Nani’s story, I wanted him to use his own lips to condemn himself. I didn’t want Nani having to tell us all these things about him, I wanted it to be obvious from what he says and how he says it. Does this make sense?

 DM: I appreciated your clean style of writing and straightforward prose, and I compared your style to Hemingway, but I am wondering if your style has something to do with the Igbo language and/or Nigerian culture. Would you please elaborate?

 CU: Thank you. I love Hemingway. I think every novel finds its own prose, much the same as every writer eventually settles into their voice. I love telling stories, and I think of myself as a storyteller; hence, the straightforward prose which works well for storytelling. This novel also demanded that kind of prose, nothing obfuscating or calling attention to itself.

DM: I am personally glad Nani decided to remain in Nigeria and build her new life, raising her children as Nigerians in her country rather than moving to the U.S. There is this lingering misconception that everything is better in the U.S. But her story happens everywhere and even in the states. It is not the country per se that caused her situation, but something more universal to females who are the product of rape. You did an amazing job of delving into the shame Nani carries. What inspired you to write about rape?

 CU: Like you said, what happens to Nani and the shame of it is universal. I was almost raped in college, and had he succeeded, I don’t know that I would have told anyone, except maybe my brother so he could go beat up the perpetrator. I wouldn’t have known any other way to get justice. It still traumatizes me to this day, the thought of it. Crimes that are predominantly committed against women tend to be the ones where victims are blamed the most: sexual assault and domestic violence. We don’t see the same level of victim blaming with theft, for instance. The culture of victim blaming encourages silence, and where there is silence, there is shame. Maybe a part of me hopes that the more we write about these things, the more we explore the damage that victim blaming can cause, the more we influence the culture to change.

DM: Who are some contemporary African authors everyone should be reading?

 CU: Gosh! Where does one begin? An easier way to answer this would be to list just the ones who have recently released new books or have debuted in the past year: Chikodili Emelumadu; Ukamaka Olisakwe; Ebele Chizea; Ijeoma Ogunyemi; Lola Akinamde; Chibundu Onuzo; Ayobami Adebayo. Also read Brittle Paper curates African writing/writers’ news.

 DM: You are not one to stay in one lane and have authored novels, collections of short stories, poetry, essays…the list goes on and on. What is on your agenda next? A new novel? Collection of short stories? Poetry?

 CU: I am working on a new novel. I very rarely write poetry. I wish I could write more good poetry. I try to write one for our Christmas cards every year.

DM: We at Southern Literary Review value the time you spent responding to our interview questions and wish you much success with The Middle Daughter and in your future writing career.

 CU: Thank you so much.


Leave a Reply