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On Black Sisters Street

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On Black Sisters Street tells the haunting story of four very different women who have left their African homeland for the riches of Europe—and who are thrown together by bad luck and big dreams into a sisterhood that will change their lives.

Each night, Sisi, Ama, Efe, and Joyce stand in the windows of Antwerp’s red-light district, promising to make men’s desires come true—if only for half an hour. Pledged to the fierce Madam and a mysterious pimp named Dele, the girls share an apartment but little else—they keep their heads down, knowing that one step out of line could cost them a week’s wages. They open their bodies to strangers but their hearts to no one, each focused on earning enough to get herself free, to send money home or save up for her own future.

Then, suddenly, a murder shatters the still surface of their lives. Drawn together by tragedy and the loss of one of their own, the women realize that they must choose between their secrets and their safety. As they begin to tell their stories, their confessions reveal the face in Efe’s hidden photograph, Ama’s lifelong search for a father, Joyce’s true name, and Sisi’s deepest secrets—-and all their tales of fear, displacement, and love, concluding in a chance meeting with a handsome, sinister stranger.

On Black Sisters Street marks the U.S. publication debut of Chika Unigwe, a brilliant new writer and a standout voice among contemporary African authors. Raw, vivid, unforgettable, and inspired by a powerful oral storytelling tradition, this novel illuminates the dream of the West—and that dream’s illusion and annihilation—as seen through African eyes. It is a story of courage, unity, and hope, of women’s friendships and of bonds that, once forged, cannot be broken.

258 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2007

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About the author

Chika Unigwe

32 books194 followers
Chika Unigwe was born in Enugu, Nigeria, and now lives in Turnhout, Belgium, with her husband and four children. She writes in English and Dutch.

In April 2014 she was selected for the Hay Festival's Africa39 list of 39 Sub-Saharan African writers aged under 40 with potential and talent to define future trends in African literature.
Unigwe holds a BA in English Language and Literature from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and an MA from the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium. She also holds a PhD from the University of Leiden, The Netherlands, having completed a thesis entitled "In the shadow of Ala. Igbo women writing as an act of righting" in 2004.

Chika Unigwe is een dichter en schrijfster, geboren in Nigeria en wonende in België (zij beschrijft zichzelf als "Afro Belgische"). Ze schrijft in het Nederlands en in het Engels. Ze is doctor in de literatuurwetenschap aan de Universiteit Leiden (Nederland).

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 351 reviews
Profile Image for Bernadette.
112 reviews55 followers
April 22, 2018
4.5 Stars On Black Sisters Street by Chika Unigwe is a difficult novel to read. The story centers around four women who are sex workers in Belgium. In an all too familiar story, the women leave their native Africa for a "better life," only to end up in Belgium, working in the red light district. They will never be able to pay back their trafficker and must endure a life of violence, loneliness and rape. One of the women, Sisi, is murdered.

While the book is a work of fiction, one can only think of the women and children, world over and in our own backyards, who are being sex- and labor-trafficked. The book left me sad, angry and tired. Unigwe is a talented the writer and is even able to infuse some humor into the horrific story.
Profile Image for Zanna.
676 reviews967 followers
November 13, 2019
I heard second hand a story about a man whose son had died some years before. Asked how he found the energy for his community work after such a heartbreaking loss, he said Life is not about waiting for the storm to end, but learning to dance in the rain. In the self-stories shared by four women in this book, their dreams, their vulnerability, their sufferings all invoke sympathy, but it's the way they somehow pick themselves up and carry on, the way they just about sustain each other, messily and with a 25% critical failure rate, by hearing and affirming and sharing laughter and hope, that makes the book bearable to read, even helpful, like those words of courage in terrible grief.

The fragmentary narrative structure works beautifully, collective memory gradually emerging, enabling the reader to feel the women's relief from the loneliness of living in a foreign country behind the sex worker's protective mask of glamour, when they tell their own stories. This is how I was betrayed by a man and how I have survived.

One thing I found weird about this edition was the blurb, which says the book is about Dele "above all". Maybe this is an attempt to assign responsibility to an abuser, but I don't think it's appropriate. Like all the men in this book, Dele controls women's lives, but the women own it all the way, wresting every shred of self-determination available from whatever horrible situation they're forced into. They are never idealised and are often unlikeable. They make bad choices and abuse others too, but we're made well aware that their options look like the frying pan and the fire.
Profile Image for Cheryl.
464 reviews604 followers
December 2, 2012
I've wanted to read this book since Chika Unigwe won the coveted $100k Nigerian literature prize. This book is entertaining indeed, in some places unfolding just like the popular and highly entertaining Nigerian dramas. One thing that Unigwe did well here was the rich dialogue: you could envision yourself in the middle of the conversation. And the strategic sprinkle of dialect: just enough to be authentic, not too much to overwhelm.

The story is about African women with traumatic childhoods who escape from Nigeria to Belgium in order to better their lives. What they must do in Belgium however, is also traumatic. So how do they go from trial to triumph? That was the problem for me with this book. I didn't see that. I couldn't stay with one character for too long because I got a lot from their childhoods, but not a lot from their adulthood. I yearned to see more of their personalities in their adult jobs, get taken behind the scenes with them more.
Profile Image for Abeer Hoque.
Author 8 books122 followers
December 15, 2015
“That first experience [of sex] was so painful in its ordinariness that she had spent days wanting to cry.” 

On Black Sisters Street by Chika Unigwe is a novel about four African sex workers who by distinct and tragic means travel from their home countries to work in the red light district of Antwerp, Belgium. The story begins with Sisi, perhaps the most complicated character, who turns to prostitution because of a failure of all the options in her life, perhaps most stunningly, education - the holy grail that has been held up by her own thwarted parents to be their saviour. “A prophecy that would rinse her life in a Technicolor glow” ends up failing them all. It is a testament to Ms. Unigwe’s understanding of the economies of mega cities and the politics of those societies, in particular Lagos, that we can see how Sisi’s ambitions burn out inexorably, one by one. 

“Count your teeth with your tongue, welu ile gi guo eze gi no, and tell me what you come up with.”

Sisi’s apparent murder at the beginning of the book draws her three housemates together in a series of confessions revealing their own rich backstories and ambitions. Ama hails from Enugu, in southeastern Nigeria (where Ms. Unigwe and I were both born), an angry tempestuous woman with violence and oppression marking her past. Efe is from Lagos, a young mother abandoned by the father of her child and now seeking a better or at least more monied life to support her son and siblings. And Joyce is from war torn Sudan, perhaps the most beautiful of the four, and the most desperately alone.

“He laughed. A laughter that stretched itself into a square that kept him safe.”

Ms. Unigwe never stoops to cliche nor self pity. Some of the reviews of OBSS have mentioned the stereotypical male characters (who are unilaterally awful human beings), but honestly, that particular critique means little to me. Those men are all based on real people - we know them or of them - and I was more interested in how well the female characters are realized. Each of the four main female characters is fully and distinctly drawn and the writing, like their lives, is sometimes plain, sometimes glorious. 

“She went in and bought a sandwich, with lettuce spilling out the sides, ruffled and moist.”
“…here were drunks with eyes like quarter moons and throats full of stories.”

I love the Igbo interspersed with the English, sometimes translated, often not, as well as the pidgin that some of them speak. Here are three lovely examples: 

“I liked the look of the woman. Ugly. Ojoka, but in a very attractive way.”
“I saw this with my own koro-koro eyes.” 
“With my height, if I no wear heels, I go be like full stop on the ground.”

The women are reaching for “the life of the rich and the arrived” and their end goals and ambitions are as varied as their personalities. But it is their particular histories that tie this clear-spoken heartbreaking book together, how very different people can come together, and move on. 

“…the Udi Hills surrounding Enugu, rolling and folding into one another like an enormous piece of green cloth…”

Ms. Unigwe’s first two novels were written in Dutch (making her the first Flemish writer of African origin) and her next two have been in English. This kind of language proficiency is just marvelous, let alone how challenging it seems to me to write a book about sex workers that has the ring of resonance and truth all around. I’m much looking forward to reading her other work, those written and those to come. 

“The road is far, uzo eteka."
Profile Image for Amal Bedhyefi.
196 reviews645 followers
May 14, 2018
This was not an enjoyable read . As a matter of fact , it was not written to please , but to disturb .
Reading about prostitution and the stories behind different prostitutes started ever since I discovered Eleven Minutes by Paulo Coelho .
However , this book is different . The message behind this story is different.
This time , I was left with a lot of unanswered questions and I was filled with both confusion and agony.
Is there really an escape for prostitution or are they bound to do this job their whole life ?
The ending left me absolutely furious because I feel that there is neither a proper justification for its reasons nor for its motives ( I'm trying so hard not to spoil ) .
It was as if Chika , deliberatley , left her readers on a cliffhanger .
Why would Sisi's life end up like that ? Didn't she deserve to live the life that she chose ? Didn't she at least deserve to have control over her life and make her own decisions ?
This is heatbreaking .
& knowing that this story is based upon real stories of real nigerian women living through this hell in Belgium is really sickening .
You should definitely add this book to your TBRs if you love reading African Literature that deal with issues which I would say are under-represented in literature.
PS : There are multiple detailed scenes of sexual assault and it also contains other distressing and violent scenes. If you're going to read this book, be aware of that.
Profile Image for Carolyn Moncel.
Author 14 books62 followers
July 3, 2011
Living in Switzerland, stopping human trafficking is a goal for many Int'l agencies here. It's a very interesting book because the topic, though fictional, is very real. It's not just a problem in Belgium, as depicted in the story, but all across Europe, Asia, and yes, North America. The stories and circumstances for which the women find themselves are believable and very sad. The author does a good job in providing some insights into the backgrounds of these characters. If I have any criticism, it is only in the way the book ends -- it rushes too quickly to a conclusion. Also, I didn't care for the way in which the main character, Sisi, was revealed. Overall I found myself invested in these characters from the beginning. At times despite their dire circumstances, I still wanted to strangle them for making such dangerous choices. I look forward to reading more work from this author. Very well done.
Profile Image for Adam.
Author 27 books89 followers
November 15, 2013
This is the story of 4 black African girls living together in Antwerp (Belgium). Each of them owe an enormous amount of money to Dele, a Nigerian in Lagos, who has facilitated their arrival in Europe. To pay him off they must sell their bodies to the sex-starved men of Antwerp.

When I began reading the book I was a little confused, but after re-reading the first few pages a couple of times, I was rapidly sucked into this charming novel. Gradually, we learn about the lives and ambitions of the 4 women, and how and why they have ended up as prostitutes in a Belgian city. It is not only a compelling tale that makes one want to move from one page to the next as soon as possible, but also a revealing series of insights about life in 'black' Africa. Although there are several sad strands running through the book, I was not left feeling depressed, but oddly uplifted.

Chika Uniwe, the Nigerian author of this novel is like her compatriot Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie a good story-teller. She is able to conjure up vivid images in the reader's mind despite being extremely economical with her language. She creates a brilliant picture in few words. I look forward to reading more books by Ms Unigwe.
Profile Image for Ojo.
274 reviews109 followers
October 11, 2016
Reading this book made me reflect on a lot of things about Nigeria: the diversity, the peoples, the hardships and the choices and sufferings of said peoples.

The story is about the lives of four different African women, forced to trade their bodies for a better life far away from their own country, in Belgium. The sudden death of one of the women finds the other women in shock, and in the spur of the moment, they find themselves exchanging previously untold secrets and chilling, grim tales of the experiences that culminated in them becoming flesh traders in a foreign land.

Each of the women has experiences that are both unique in their grimness and horrifying in nature. Each of these experiences closely mirrors the realities of early 21st century Nigeria. The prevailing societal vices of the day, as well as a number of the more horrifying atrocities committed by people on a daily basis, and how they affect the lives of five women is the epicentre of the story.

The story is an expository into how lives are shaped by specific experiences. In the story, all of the four women experience sexual abuse of varying degrees. Coupled with the hardship in the country, and the pressures of religion, society and culture, the women are forced to make a choice... whether to persevere with no end in sight to their sufferings, or to trade their female dignity for European baubles.

The story is told in the form of a flashback. The effect is an increased depth in the intensity of the experiences shared in the story, and the drawing of the attention of readers to a number of common underlying factors in each experience.

The characters are revealed with all the attention and intricacy of a highly skilled artist: A gradual unravelling of the nature, and then the experiences that shape each character. The result is a tale that is incredibly accurate in its portrayal of lower-class Nigerian society. Each character is portrayed in all the gory glory of abuses suffered, dashed hopes, false prophecies, and all of the vices that infest human society.

A must read!
Profile Image for Anetq.
1,058 reviews42 followers
January 3, 2021
The story of 4 women and how they came to end up as sex workers in Antwerpen, for most of them because it sadly seemed like the least bad option. A way out of poverty and powerlessness. It is very well told and it is also a book about life, love and the choices we make, and those others make on behalf of women.
I don't know if the joy and dreamy optimism of these women are actually worse, when you read this, than the harsh realities of their pasts and their present? I'll start with 4 stars but may upgrade to 5...
Profile Image for Tamara Agha-Jaffar.
Author 6 books253 followers
January 22, 2021
Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sisters Street is the story of four African women who leave their respective homelands for Belgium with hopes of improving their lot in life. They harbor dreams of freedom, of sending money home to their families, and of saving money to establish themselves anew. Reality sets in as soon as they arrive in Antwerp. Sisi, Ama, Efe, and Joyce find themselves trapped as sex workers, flaunting their skimpily clad bodies in the windows of Antwerp’s red-light district, trying to entice men to procure their services.

The four women are heavily in debt to the ruthless man who arranged their transportation to Belgium and to the madam who houses them in Antwerp while holding a tight grip on their activities. Although they share an apartment, they share little else with each other, maintaining their distance. But when one of the women is murdered, the remaining three form a bond as each shares her story, revealing who she is and how she ended up in her current situation.

The women come from different backgrounds, but they have in common the need to escape from poverty, sexual assault, violence, sexual exploitation, and the brutality that plagues their homelands. Although educated, Sisi cannot obtain employment since her poverty denies her access to the contacts essential for gaining meaningful employment. Efe is abandoned by her affluent, married lover when she becomes pregnant with his child. Ama is a victim of child sexual assault who is thrown out of her home by her mother and stepfather when she confronts him with his sexual abuse. And Joyce witnesses the murder of her family before being gang raped by the Janjaweed militia in Sudan.

The focus is on Sisi. Her murder is intermittently foreshadowed; her story weaves its way through the novel, interrupting the fragmentary revelations of the other three women. Their stories are horrific. The violence, carnage, atrocities, and sexual assaults they experienced are described in graphic detail. Their betrayal by family members and/or former lovers lead them to seek desperate solutions for their desperate plight.

Chika Unigwe does not initially portray the women sympathetically. They snap, snarl, and ridicule one another, withdraw into themselves, and are distrustful. But when they reveal their true identity and describe the horrors they experienced, their sense of isolation diminishes. By contextualizing their experience, Unigwe generates understanding for her characters’ qualities—their lack of trust, toughness, isolationism, resilience, and determination to survive. Sisi’s death forces them to recognize they need to rely and support one another as they are the only family they have left.

Told in direct, unadorned language through a series of flashbacks, Chika Unigwe allows the grim details of these women’s lives to speak for themselves. Although we may not entirely sympathize with the questionable choices they make, we can at least recognize the desperate and appalling circumstances that left them feeling they had little option but to pursue the course they did.


My book reviews are also available at www.tamaraaghajaffar.com
Profile Image for Sophie.
611 reviews35 followers
November 30, 2021
It seems that most of the books I have read set in Western Africa are stories of poverty, horrors and dreams of escape never to be realized. This book which takes place in Nigeria and Belgium is very sad. It has graphic descriptions of violence, trauma, sexual assaults and manipulation.

Four women find themselves deceived (that is how I perceived it) with a promise of a better life abroad. They are told they can work off the cost of their relocations. Although they live together, there is no trust or sisterhood. This is probably because of their traumatic backstories and that they are really competitors working in the sex trade. When one of the women dies, as her story is revealed, the other three share their true identities and how they came to be in their current circumstances, one story as horrifying as the next.

A very well written portrait of life for women who find themselves grasping for a life better than the poverty and violence they have been dealt.
Profile Image for Wanda.
334 reviews16 followers
June 11, 2011
Wow. I don't even know how to begin describing how amazing this book was. I'm a person who is very interested in other's backgrounds and Chika Unigwe gave me a enlightening glimpse into the past of 4 Nigerian prostitutes and what brought them all together in one of Belgium's red light districts. Their stories broke my heart, and even though this book is fiction, their's are the stories of not just African women, but stories all women can relate to regardless of our differences. Not only that, but it gave a name, face, and voice to the women working as sex slaves and that they are more than just a body standing in a window enticing men; they are human beings who have lives, dreams, hopes, aspirations, and what they are doing is just a means to get them where they want to go because due to life's circumstance, it was the only card they were alloted.

The book takes place in 2000's, but for some reason the ideas and thoughts of the characters kept making me think it was written in the 1950s. It's difficult to imagine that even in the new millenium, people still face fear of genocide, people are tortured by the military, baby's out of wedlock are frowned upon, and men have all the power over a woman's body, but this is still the case in modern day Africa. This book educated and opened my eyes to the horrors women still face daily in some parts of Africa.

I would definitely recommend this book to any and everyone because it is a reminder of how resilient the human spirit really is.
Profile Image for Yasmin.
309 reviews5 followers
June 28, 2011
On Black Sisters Street is the story of four African females, who for various reasons, end up prostitutes in Belgiums red light district. All are chasing the dream of a better life outside their native countries in Africa. For one of them the dream will end tragically. On Black Sisters Street is a raw, provocative and riveting novel from debut author Chika Unigwe. The beginning was a little juxtaposed for me, but once I got past the first couple of chapters and began to hear the voices of Ama, Joyce and Efe, against the backdrop of Sisi, it became a very engaging read for me and one that I didn't want to put down until I got to the very last page. Of course, I had to know what happened to Sisi and how she came to her demise. I recommend On Black Sisters Street to all who enjoy literary reads, storylines about women from the African disapora, stories about female protagonists who despite life's circumstances still dare to dream. Get ready to care about these women and empathize with them and their situation. Get ready to be emotionally charged by these characters. I hope this author writes something else soon as I would definitely read another book by her.
Profile Image for George Ilsley.
Author 12 books237 followers
January 20, 2023
On the front cover, Ali Smith says “This powerful book will leave you haunted.”

True enough, I feel haunted, like I just watched a disturbing documentary about sex trafficking. The content is gripping, especially the backstories, but as a novel this book left me wanting more— I found it hard to get into, and never could remember the difference between the four main characters.

The backstory sections were so long that they wiped the present day Belgian situation from my memory. By the end, I had no clue what Sisi was doing when the book opened.

Unigwe seems more fluidly comfortable as a writer in the backstory sections (or perhaps that was just my experience as a reader). However, the overall approach felt more sociological rather than novelistic. The power of this book comes from the vivid portrayal of modern day slavery. Perhaps the feeling of being in limbo, lost between two worlds, was intentional.
Profile Image for Marcia.
1,053 reviews109 followers
April 27, 2021
‘In het centrum van Antwerpen kon het mensen niet schelen of je leefde of dood was.’

Fata Morgana van Chika Unigwe is geen vrolijk boek, maar de rauwe werkelijkheid van vele immigranten. Vier Afrikaanse vrouwen zien hun droom van een beter leven in het Westen vernietigd als ze in de Antwerpse prostitutie terechtkomen. Een verhaal over moed en overlevingsdrang, met hier en daar een klein sprankeltje hoop. Maar Fata Morgana is bovenal een verhaal over het belang van vriendschap. Wat een prachtig boek ❤️

📖 Mijn complete recensie lees je op Boekvinder.be.
Profile Image for Imade (Bridge Four).
30 reviews60 followers
September 7, 2015
Very well-written book. I felt immersed in the story, and very involved in the lives of these four women, who life has crushed at every turn. The story portrays the hard & cruel realities created by gender, race and class and its victims therein. The point where Joyce/Alek narrates her rape experience, I couldn't take it anymore I was just literally screaming & tearing up. Not a happy ending, but a not a sad one either. It's just as messy as real life is.
Profile Image for Jade.
382 reviews23 followers
January 4, 2020
Oh gosh Chika Unigwe writes with such heartbreakingly beautiful prose… You will need to have a box of tissues nearby when you read this book as it is impossible to keep the tears at bay. While On Black Sisters Street is fictional, human trafficking is a very real problem that is a very real part of our world. Ama, Sisi, Efe, and Joyce may be fictional characters, but I am sure there are many women around the world who can relate to their stories, past and present.

On Black Sisters Street is the story of four women who work as sex workers in Antwerp in Belgium. Sisi, Efe, and Ama are from Nigeria, and Joyce is from South Sudan by way of Nigeria. The women work and live together but are not close in terms of friendship until one of them dies. This is when they slowly reveal their own secrets and pasts to each other, and the reader understands how and why each one of them ends up where they are now.

Written in a fragmented fashion where the narrative skips from Sisi’s life and death, to the other three women, and back again, the novel slowly reveals how tragedy, family, love, and despair leads the women to each make the choices they made, and to put their lives in the hands of a fat, demanding trafficker in Lagos. I couldn’t put the book down, every page I turned felt like a layer being unveiled, new sources of light and darkness being ignited and extinguished on these women’s lives.

This one is going to stick with me for a while. I’m looking forward to reading other work by Chika Unigwe.
July 2, 2017
Four young African women—Sisi, Efre, Ama, and Joyce—(the "black sisters" of the title) have been trafficked to Antwerp, Belgium, by Dele, a wealthy, corpulent Nigerian. Three of these young women believe that they were the ones who made the choice (no one coerced them!) and that work in the sex trade is the route to a better life. One of the four is actually university educated, but even this had provided no advantage when it came to finding work in Lagos. For all of the girls, their bodies are their last resource.

Once they’re installed in a house in Belgium--run by a Nigerian madame with skill in placing the “spicy” and exotic black flesh (so craved by bored white Belgians) where it can be seen to the best advantage--the girls must turn over their passports to her. They’re told they’ll get the passports back when their debts are paid. They make monthly payments by wire to Dele in Nigeria (for their costly and troublesome passage to Europe), and they also owe the madame rent for the red-light district window spaces from which they show their wares. The girls quickly learn that it's hard to realize your dreams when you’re so busy paying off the people who are exploiting you.

Quite early in this relatively short and fast-paced novel, the Madame reports to three of the girls that the fourth, Sisi, has been found murdered. The reader is less certain she is dead, however, since her story is still unfolding in intermittent chapters over the course of the novel. These chapters make clear that Sisi has been contemplating an escape from prostitution after having formed a relationship with a Belgian man. As her three housemates grieve Sisi, each tells the never-before spoken story of how she came to this place in Belgium. These stories, increasingly horrifying and harrowing, are related in far more detail than are the particulars of the girls’ “work”. About the latter, it should be noted that what is told is as sordid as one would expect, and probably more than enough.

The reader must wait to the end to find out Sisi’s fate. Through it, the author makes clear that any agency the girls may have felt upon entering the sex trade is entirely illusory.

Unigwe’s storytelling and characterization are solid and affecting. Initially, I had difficulty telling the four women apart, but I found that it got much easier once the backstories started. I also struggled with the Nigerian Pidgin dialogue, often having to reread or read aloud passages to get their gist. While the conclusion of the novel is certainly credible enough given the details Unigwe provides about those who manage this particular sex-trade business, the immediate events that lead up to it—specifically, those that concern Sisi’s Belgian boyfriend—did not entirely convince.

Thank you to my Goodreads friend, Mandy, for alerting me to this unusual and well-written novel.

Rating: 3.5
Profile Image for Chiseke Chiteta.
63 reviews8 followers
April 23, 2021
This book was an eye-opener to the reality of women who are trafficked for sex work. Fictional as it may be, I believe it presents the reality of (mostly unskilled) women, from third world countries who take the opportunity to move to first work countries under the guise of better work opportunities only to realise that they were trafficked for sex work. Some are lucky enough to know exactly what they will be doing once they move to those countries, for others that may not be the case. Moving abroad may be moving from the proverbial frying pan to the fire. I enjoyed reading this book even though I am left saddened by the unfortunate reality of many women who fall under this predicament. Kudos to Chika Unigwe for this work of art.
Profile Image for Sara.
1,406 reviews69 followers
April 19, 2011
2.5 stars. I won this book from GoodReads and thought it sounded promising - four Nigerian immigrants are thrown together in Belgium, where they've been imported to work as prostitutes, and the murder of one of them draws the other three closer together into a tight-knit sisterhood. Unfortunately, this book did not live up to its promise. I never felt as if the women were truly bonding or forming a sisterhood, and the story was so weak on the main plot that threaded everything together that it felt extremely lackluster.

It took me a number of chapters to actually be drawn into the story or feel any emotion for the characters. The novel is written with flashbacks throughout Sisi's life, narration from the other three women about how and why they came to Belgium, and a few chapters of the three remaining "sisters" commiserating with each other. The strongest parts of the novel were the chapters describing the lives all the women had back in Nigeria and how they were lured to Belgium; during these times, I was interested to keep reading and discover what would happen next. However, these separate stories felt separate, as if the author simply decided to weave the life stories of immigrant sex workers together into a book but wasn't sure exactly how to blend it seamlessly into a novel. The plot of the novel as a whole was, as mentioned above, rather weak, and the fact that it took me at least a quarter of the book to get interested in it was rather frustrating as well.

This wasn't a bad book by any means, but it also wasn't particularly memorable, at least as a whole. I enjoyed the individual tales, but that does not make a good book - at least not in this case, and at least not for me. I'm sure there will be people who enjoy this because it wasn't a poorly written book and the subject matter is intriguing, but I doubt I'll be recommending this to anyone.
Profile Image for Ashley .
166 reviews40 followers
December 20, 2019
I would have DEFINITELY given this book 5 stars if it hadn't ended so poorly. This book started out rich and decadent right out the gate, filled with heart and vivid imagery. Each chapter jumped from one period in time to another from each of four women whose lives intertwined because of their connection to the dark underworld of sex work in Belgium. Though the stories were sad and heartwrenching, Unigwe tells them in a way that is very matter-of-fact and tinges the endings with hope. The story of Sisi, though technically the main character is almost colorless compared to the stories of Ama, Joyce, and Efe. Her life was a mystery to these women and we as readers had insight, but it still wasn't enough. The end of the book was a huge letdown and I expected more, not sure why the author lost steam near the end, but she did.
Profile Image for Lorraine.
464 reviews150 followers
July 23, 2017
You know when a book is so good that you cannot find words to describe it, this is the one for me.

The stories behind the glass cage in Antwerp's red light district, so heartbreakingly haunting. I cried for Ama. I cried for Alek. I cried for Efe. Most of all, I cried for Chimson.

Profile Image for Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship.
1,161 reviews1,257 followers
February 10, 2015
This is one of those books that hides lazy writing and cardboard characters behind a topic you can’t criticize: in this case, it’s sex trafficking. Now, if you love every book you read with tragic subject matter you should probably skip my review, but if you are looking for literary merit, then read on.

On Black Sisters Street features four women – three from Nigeria and one from Sudan – working as prostitutes in Belgium. At the beginning of the book we learn that one of them, Sisi, will be murdered; from there the chapters alternate between Sisi and the other three women, tracing their backstories and documenting their lives as immigrant sex workers.

The story moves fairly quickly, and for the first half I had some respect for Unigwe’s avoidance of the expected stories. Most of these characters go into sex work with their eyes wide open, driven by a general lack of economic opportunity rather than grand melodramatic circumstances. And while they are sex workers, they aren’t defined by sex; the depiction of their lives is in no way exploitative. The backstories get more stereotypical as they go, however, until we reach the one full of mass killing and gang rape and with a character tricked into sex work. Unigwe’s writing isn’t up to such intense material, and it reads just like every other overly violent sequence in every other book that tried to force through tragedy an emotional connection that the author was unable to build with real character development.

And the writing style leaves plenty to be desired. Witness:

“The house itself was not much to look at. Truth be told, it was quite a disappointment, really. A ground-floor flat with a grubby front door and, as she would find out later, five bedrooms not much bigger than telephone booths. The sitting room was a cliché. An all-red affair except for the long sofa, which was black and against the wall right beside the door; a single thin mirror ran from the ceiling to the rug. Sisi often thought that had she been asked to draw the room, she would have drawn exactly that, down to the mirror. The only thing she would have left out would have been the incense, which Madam burned nonstop, believing totally in its ability to rid the world of all evil.”

I won’t nitpick the grammar or wordiness (you can judge for yourself), because the larger problem is that I don’t know what this means. If Sisi were to draw the room, she would, um, draw it, but without the smell? Scents tend to get left out of my drawings, too.

Then there are the passages that make clear that not only is the author not a native English speaker, but Random House evidently couldn’t be bothered to have someone copyedit her work:

“She hoped she would never have to cry like that again for as long as she lived. She was wrong.” This was only a hope, so she wasn’t wrong; she was disappointed.

“Sisi was shown into a sardonic room with a single bed dressed up in impossibly white sheets.” Try as I might, I cannot imagine how a room might be sardonic.

But okay, most of us can forgive some stylistic infelicities if we come to know and love the characters. Sadly, these portrayals are only skin deep. Ama is the angry one. Efe is the one who speaks in heavy dialect. That’s about all there is to differentiate these women from one another. And so, for me, the worst passage is found on the last page:

“Anyone who knew Sisi well might say that she [spoiler removed]. . . . For Sisi was not the sort to forgive.”

Clearly, this reader never knew Sisi, because despite having just read a book in which she is the main character, I had no reason to believe she was malicious or prone to grudges, nor would I have predicted the action she takes. And when a book’s characters don’t come alive, all I can recommend is that you look elsewhere.
Profile Image for JenniferD.
1,006 reviews359 followers
February 28, 2015
2.5-stars, really.
"There were worse things to become, she reminded herself. She was not a robber, not a cheat, not a 419er sending deceitful e-mails to gullible Westerners. She would make her money honestly. Every cent of it would be earned by her sweat. She did not need to enjoy her job, but she would do it well."

i am having trouble rating this novel. the issues unigwe highlights are very important, and telling these stories is important. we are given four women who have been trafficked from lagos, nigeria to antwerp, belgium, in order to work as prostitutes. three of the women are nigerian. one is sudanese. they are saddled with a nearly insurmountable debt ($30,000 euros) they must repay and it seems a vicious cycle from which they will never escape. three of the four women go into the agreement aware of what is expected of them. the fourth woman believes she will be working as a nanny. of course the reality of their lives in antwerp is horrible. but as we are given the women's backstories, their realities at home were incredibly hard. atrocious. these women - sisi, ama, efe, and alek - are survivors. the dreams each of these women had was powerful. their desires to get to europe or north america so strong. so when given an offer from dele - the man running the operation in lagos - each woman grabs for the escape, and then endures the work as prostitutes. i feel as though the question of what makes a victim is a large part of this story. sisi, ama, efe, and alek (aka joyce) seem to refuse to characterize themselves as such, no matter how tragic the circumstances that pushed them to choose life as a prostitute. (and, of course, the question of choice for these women is also an interesting idea for discussion and consideration.)

i found, though, that unigwe was not consistent in her storytelling. some moments we are given quite deep looks into the lives of the characters. but at other times ideas, places, or characters, are just barely skimmed. and i found the writing could be quite thin at moments, then weirdly overwritten at other moments - the use of language, from the very simple (precise, straightforward), to the dialects - was interesting to me. but every now and then a $20 word would stick out like a sore thumb. so i felt like there was a bit of a struggle for voice going on with the author. by the end of the book, i felt like unigwe had presented stories of four interesting women.... but she didn't really give us the women - if that makes sense? in their strength and defiance we have some pretty fierce (in a good way) female characters. but they never developed, for me, to their full potential. and the men of the book served as a huge fault for me. they are so contemptible and they come off as stereotypes. they are pimps, johns, drunks, rapists, adulterers, murderers, and one (white) jealous saviour.

i read that unigwe did a lot of research with women working in antwerp's red-light district. and i am glad that she was compelled to fictionalize these lives and situations. it's an unsettling novel she's given readers - and it should be! but it is not a story devoid of hope. that, in itself, is a rather remarkable achievement. i just wish i felt the writing to be stronger.
Profile Image for BookishGlow.
166 reviews38 followers
June 5, 2011
On Black Sisters Street is an eloquently written novel, that provides a vivid account of the global sex trade industry. Author Chika Unigwe depicts the numerous elements of the trade, by profiling four young African women, who each come from different backgrounds and circumstances, that bring them together in Antwerp Belgium to serve as night women. A tragic loss will transform the women as fellow work and housemates to a permanent bond of sisterhood, which delivers encouragement and strength to one another. As a result of the heartrending event, each woman is left to ponder their present identity, and begins to reveal to one another their unfortunate hidden pasts. It is through these powerful confessions, that the women are slowly liberated from the chains of their past and present contingencies. Unigwe pungently captures each woman’s personal journey to joining the sex business, by focusing outside the realm of the standard analysis. Each woman’s story does not consistently reverberate the notion of being captured and physically forced to prostitute her body. However, the reader is reminded of the human capacity for pain and love, and the irrevocable innate desire for freedom and survival. At what cost will a woman gain financial growth and/or liberty? Can the repercussions of her decisions strip her soul of integrity and honor? These questions and more are acknowledged in this poignant novel. Also included, are moments of comical satire that expose the reader to the witty capacity of Chika Unigwe. Intriguing, raw and inspiring, this debut novel illuminates Chika Unigwe’s talent within the contemporary African literature genre. I highly recommend this book to others.
Profile Image for Minakshi.
87 reviews
April 18, 2011
Black Sisters Street is Zwartezusterstraat, in the middle of Belgium's red-light district, home to four African women who have left their homeland in the naïve hope of betterment. The story begins when one of the women, Sisi, is found murdered. As her remaining co-workers and house mates, Ama, Efe and Joyce come to terms with her death, each relives their painful journey from Nigeria to Belgium to become sex workers, and how they have been brought together by Dele, a Nigerian pimp, and by "the trump card that God has wedged in between their legs".

Unigwe's prose is clear and calm - although some terrible things take place in the book, the reader doesn't feel weighed down by it. Unigwe is also skilled at introducing into the narrative issues that are typical to Nigerian society like polygamy, sexism, belief in superstitions, tribal divisions and so on, using just a single reference or a passing comment, leaving the reader with a fleeting but precious sort of cultural snapshot.

I won an advanced copy of this book on Goodreads First Reads giveaways and highly recommend it, but be warned: this novel leaves a strong aftertaste.
Profile Image for Madolyn Chukwu.
58 reviews19 followers
August 14, 2019

What a brilliant book, so empathetic.
At the end this moving passage almost haunts me: (quote) ' Come here" Ama says to Joyce and Efe. She stands up and spreads her arms. Joyce gets up and is enclosed in Ama's embrace. Efe stands up too and puts one arm around each woman. Their tears mingle and the only sound in the room is that of them weeping. Time stands still and Ama says, "Now we are sisters".'
Profile Image for Siyamthanda Skota.
54 reviews13 followers
December 6, 2016
- Armed with a vagina and the will to survive, she knew that destitution would never lay claim to her"

- Whoever said that money couldn't buy happiness had never experienced the relief that came from having money to spend on whatever you wanted
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