Saturday, September 25, 2010

On Black Sisters' Street

“They often talk about it: the standing and waiting to be noticed by the men strolling by, wondering which ones are likely to tip well, and which not.  From their glass windows they watch the lives outside, especially the men’s.  It is easy to tell those who have stumbled on the Schipperskwartier by mistake.  Tourists with their cameras slung around their necks, mostly Japanese tourists who do not know Antwerp, seduced by the antiquity of the city and deceived by the huge cathedral, wander off and then suddenly come face to face with a line-up of half-dressed women, different colours and different shades of those colours.  They look and, disbelieving, take another look.  Quickly. And then they walk away with embarrassed steps. Not wishing to be tainted by the lives behind the windows.”

I lived in Liege for over a year in the early 1990s.  This city in francophone southern Belgium is apparently unremarkable; a European urb that has yet to recover from the soot of its industrial past.  The Belgian equivalent of Stoke-on-Trent.  When my pal and I were trying to organise our Erasmus year studying philosophy in Europe, we had had something a little more glamorous in mind, and definitely something francophillic. Tours perhaps, or Strasbourg. Lyons at least. But Belgium was the line of least institutional resistance, and Liege was where we found ourselves.

Looking back, Liege sur Meuse has become a phantasmagoric city of the mind.  I’m grateful for the time I spent there. Hidden dreams and desires lurk still, beneath the threshold of my consciousness.  An infinity of stone steps reaching up, via occluded gardens, to medieval palaces where talented Belgo-Italians play bebop deep into the night in louche bars. Restaurants designed like swimming pools in deserted factories, with cultivated men playing huge board-games in surreal side rooms. A chiaroscuro pall cast over cobbled streets.  Piss swilling into drains from a thousand alfresco penises. Liege was and still is an unheimlich city, where mittel-Europa catholicism sprinkles its ritual powder like snow: in hidden corners, shrines to the Virgin, forever fresh with flowers; Paques celebrations that last for days, resolved only by alcohol, the sound of the drum and mistresses spent in the arms of mistresses. Between the cracks in the mottled seminarial stone, catholic yearnings forever sprouting forth.

Prostitution was part of it all.  There were two red light districts in Liege, one near the Gare Liege-Guillemans and the other, at the back of the Rue Leopold near the footbridge to the Outremeuse.  The one near Guillemans was the upmarket option: young European women in catalogue lingerie, with plastic stickers of accepted credit cards near the doors.  The other place was far more gothic; haggard vixens draped in leather and torn fishnet, idling for an impoverished cash-only clientele.

And so it all seemed to my innocent eyes.  Something in the place haunted me as the years passed.  The memories folded in each other: parallel love affairs with a woman and with jazz; the genesis of arcane philosophical detours; the design of Lucky Strike cigarette packets and sex for sale, behind glass. As the years passed, a gathering desire to be back in the depths of Europe, chimed intermittently, like the quiet bell in the far-off village.  There is a specific type of nostalgia for the foreign cities of youth which threatens the bounds of velleity: to wander once again to the place where vivid memory was set becomes an irresistible impulse.

And so, over a decade later, I headed back, on the pretext of visiting a friend in Maastricht.  The first thing I noticed at Guillemans was the red light district had gone.  Or maybe it was never in the place my memory had allocated it: a shear wrought by time on the mind’s cartography.  The second area was now populated with young black women, dancing and beckoning from behind the neon lit windows.  They were signs of a shift in the economy of desire.  I walked quickly on. The city had also developed; yawning cavities of rubble had been filled with glass and glitz. I struggled to find my way about and had no way of finding anyone that I had known.  The jazz club which soldered my ears to Miles and Coltrane was no more.  I was bereft in the primal scene of youthful departure.  The dissonance had added another layer to my strange desire for Liege. I must return again.

A few years later, in quite another part of Europe, I found myself, at a later stage of philosophical development.  I was bound for the Collegium Phenomenologicum, a philosophical retreat held each year in Citta di Castello in Perugia.  It was a thrill to go at last; I had never had the funds during my years as a doctoral student. Many of the celebrated “continental” philosophers participated, one year or another.

The getting there would be part of it: from Stanstead to Rome airport and then the train to Arezzo, with the final leg by bus.  As Tuscany skidded by from inside the metal and plastic interior of the train, it felt like a journey to the heart of things, or to the heart of thought. An English woman told me about her vineyard on a hill close by.

By the time I boarded the bus at Arezzo, the delight of travel had receded; I was by now keen to just arrive, find the hotel and meet my fellow penseurs.  As my mind began to slumber, the bus stopped in some forgotten village and about ten young black girls got on.  I was immediately perplexed: who were they?  Where did they come from?  Where were these girls going and what were they going to do?  They were about fourteen or fifteen at most.  They sat around me.  One had a Walkman and danced to the music.  They all wore jeans and had pink bags and chewed gum.  Their talk was girlish, their perfume garish.  I tried to listen, to understand what they were doing there, but the scene refused to be set.  They spoke in a mixture of fast pidgin and an African language I was yet to recognise. I turned back in my seat.  And then, as the bus sped on, out of the window I noticed girls in laybys, standing, staring up as we passed.  And the shock of what it all meant finally drenched me with ice-water.  Young African girls, a long way from home, selling their bodies, deep in the Italian countryside. 

But these girls are too young! The thought-protest repeated itself.  As the bus twisted and turned on its way to the historic town of Sansepolcro, each widened space would feature a young girl, advertising herself.  Always alone, always black, precipitously vulnerable against a stunning renaissance backdrop.  Sex and the shadow of death amid the cypresses.  And then, the road widened, and a man on a bicycle in racing gear, shaking hands goodbye with two young African women, emerging from behind a bush, a post-coital grin on his face.  Stop by stop, the girls alighted.  By the time we arrived in Citta di Castello, I was alone on the bus, shocked by had transpired.  Back then, I had no idea of the thriving sex trafficking of young Nigerian girls to Italy.

These are some of the capsules of time that flood back to me as I read Chika Unigwe’s devastating novel, On Black Sisters’ Street.  Unigwe’s second book follows the lives of four African sex workers, Sisi, Ama, Efe and Joyce, as they hustle their lives away in Antwerp, in Flemish speaking north Belgium.  Language and diamonds aside, a town probably quite a bit like Liege: ancient and industrial and solemn and leery.  The four women dream of glamorous futures while swilling beer and falling in and out of friendship.  As the narrative progresses, the cat-fight between them quells, for a specific reason.  Sisi has died and no one knows how or why.  The event brings the remaining trio together.  Their Madam gives them the day off.  Unigwe deftly weaves the back-stories together on that day of mourning as they sit on the black sofa in the unlovely living room. All the girls have been trafficked by Dele, a bear of a man with scant command of English and a shag pile carpet in his cavernous office on Randle Avenue in Lagos.  The stories the girls tell each other in those desolate hours after the death are knives sharp enough to slice into any human heart; Ama running from sex abuse at home, Joyce fleeing from Janjaweed ultra-violence in Sudan via a failed relationship in Lagos, Sisi and Efe from the gloomy horizons of impoverished destinies in the slums of Lagos.

The narrative structure of On Black Sisters’ Street is simple but highly effective.  In the aftermath of the death of a friend, shared stories among the ‘sisters’ begin the prolonged work of healing and the transition from non-self to selfhood. Sisi’s sordid end, and the sorrows that led each to Belgium are the two points of trauma the three young women share that bring them together.  The stories they tell begin the work of redemption. At the beginning and on arrival, each woman had taken on an assumed identity.  The transition from Nigeria to Belgium created an existential void.  In a sense, each woman left their identity behind, and had not yet taken up a new sense of self along with the fake passport that got them into Europe.  Each exists therefore in a sort of limbo or hiatus being, between a horror that was and a prophecy that is not yet.  In the new world of Antwerp, each develops their own coping mechanism.  For instance, when Sisi is finally found a window and can move out of working the bar:

“She learned to stand in her window and pose in heels that made her two inches taller.  She learned to smile, to pout, to think of nothing but the money she would be making.  She learned to rap at the window, hitting her ring hard against the glass on slow days to attract stragglers.  She learned to twirl to help them make up their minds, a swirling mass of chocolate flesh, mesmerising them, making them gasp and yearn for a release from the ache between their legs; a coffee-coloured dream luring them in with the promise of heaven. She let the blinking red and black neon lights of her booth comfort her, leading her to the Prophecy.”

The agency of the sex worker is affirmed in passages like this, at the same time as the distance between active self and pleasure is maintained.  Pleasure or even happiness remains deferred, in the form of the dream of the life that will take place once the mortgage to the fat pimp in Lagos is paid off. The novel is all the more powerful for the crystalline dramaturgy of Unigwe’s language.  For instance, in the scene where Oga Dele decides to try out Ama before she is packed on her way to Antwerp, she writes,

“He pulled Ama close and she could feel his penis harden through his trousers.
‘I shall sample you before you go!’ he laughed. The sound that stretched itself into a square that kept him safe. Lagos was full of such laughter.  Laughter that ridiculed the receiver for no reason but kept the giver secure in a cocoon of steel.”

Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sisters’ Street is a shockingly powerful read, exposing the lives of women who are far from home and from familiarity, using the power of story to weave a sense of belonging amid the cold strangeness of northern Europe.  It shocks me just as I was shocked back on that bus in Perugia. There is however a form of therapy at work in the text, for both the characters, and for the reader. For the women, the tragedy of Sisi’s passing is the moment when the surface is broken: artificial identities and stories that cannot be told cede to narrative integrity: three selves meet and recognise each other in that tawdry red living room. 

“They do nothing.  They are in unknown territory here, having always had a relationship which skimmed the surface like milk.  They have never before stirred each other enough to find out anything deep about their lives…The territory they are charting is still slippery.  They are only just beginning to know each other.”

And for us, we think back to all those other windows we may have passed.  For the stagnight wolf pack over from England, or the Japanese tourist missing his way, or for the alienated divorcee, or for the trembling virgin, or even the young philosopher, these streets present a gratuitous street porn, good for a laugh or even for a quick release.  And yet, behind those windows there are shattered lives and fractured dreams resolving to mend.  And there, amidst the shadows and the death, as Unigwe reminds us, we may find solidarity and even love. 


Nollywood 9:03 a.m.  

I am reading this at the moment... I'll be back when I finish!

Jeremy 9:26 a.m.  

The Italian government estimates there are 10,000 Nigerian sex workers in Italy alone, the majority of whom are from Edo State. See here:

joicee 1:44 p.m.  

My thoughts exactly...too long, the use of language in this piece is beautiful though.

Anonymous,  1:48 p.m.  

Ehm, OGA Jeremy this one na thesis o. Shay you no say nor be everibodi wey dey read ya blog sabi book?
Abeg make u break am down next time. My head dey pain me for this long epistle wey u force me read so.

@ Nollywood
Goodluck on getting back!
would that be today?

Jeremy 4:01 p.m.  

@ Anonymous - sorry for that. As Cicero said, "If I'd had more time, I would have written a shorter letter..."

Now go read the book!

2cute4u 9:02 p.m.  

This is illuminating.. I totally enjoyed reading..

janny,  11:01 p.m.  

Really a page turner.....can't wait to read the whole thing.

Anonymous,  7:17 p.m.  

Ah OGA Jeremy, how u no say i neva read the book? U be witch abi na wizard? U no as our fada dem talk. Na pesin wey food reach im belle dey buy book o. Make u go buy for me make I read na.

Myne Whitman 8:18 p.m.  

I think this will be my next read. Your accompanying write-up and review make it very vivid too.

Tisha 7:00 p.m.  

it breaks my heart...
I am proud of the folks who are doing more than talking.

they need to understand their dignity.

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