After not being overly lucky with my German Literature Month choices this year, I was really hoping for a great read, and thankfully On Black Sisters’ Street met, nay, far exceeded the challenge. This was most definitely one of the best books I read this year! I came across it through the lecture by Taiye Selasi I went to. Chika Unigwe also came to speak as part of the same lecture series, but unfortunately I couldn’t make it to her talk (after reading On Black Sisters’ Street, I’m really sad about that). This novel was first published in Flemish as Fata Morgana.
This amazing novel is set in Antwerp, Belgium, and tells the story of four African (all but one are Nigerian) women. All of them are sex workers who have come to Belgium through the same Nigerian “businessman”, Dele. He makes his (huge amounts of) money by shipping hopeful women off to Belgium to become prostitutes who then have to pay him back for his “services” for years and years until they have bought their way out of the profession.
Three of the women, Sisi (not her real name; her real name is Chisom), Ama, and Efe, have come to Belgium in the hope of making enough money to lead a better life, either back home in Nigeria or by staying in Europe after they’ve paid Dele off. The fourth, Joyce (real name: Alek), is from Sudan and had been brought to Nigeria by her boyfriend, whose family refuses to let him marry a Sudanese girl, so he has to ship her off somewhere. They all end up living together in Antwerp, in the same house as their “Madam” (who also works for Dele and ensures they do their jobs properly) and Segun, a stuttering man who does odd jobs around the house. But something happens: Sisi is killed. As Ama, Efe, and Joyce sit in the living room trying to come to terms with the death of their colleague and house mate, they start telling each other their stories, which they had previously cautiously kept to themselves. They’re interwoven with Sisi’s story, how she comes to Belgium and what eventually leads to her death.
The stories are more than hard, there’s poverty, war, rape, and the maybe futile hope for a better future. And yet, I thought this was a beautiful book. I loved how the women’s stories were slowly revealed, and how by sharing their lives, they start to become friends – or start to realise that they’ve become friends, or even something like family. The street they live on is called Zwartezusterstraat (Black Sisters’ Street), and as they narrate their stories, Ama, Efe, and Joyce realise that they’ve become something like sisters, and that Sisi was their sister too.
I also liked that despite the horrific events in their lives and their dire situation as illegal sex workers in Europe, the novel doesn’t give in to hopelessness. If you think about it, this can be a bit conflicting: of course the women are exploited, illegal immigrants, deprived of their rights. But on the other hand they knew exactly what job they were going to do in Europe, perhaps with the exception of Joyce, whose boyfriend and Dele told her she’d be working as a nanny. And despite their undignified situation, they are making money and able to send some money back home to their families, even though they’re unable to meet demands for cars, mobile phones, and other luxury goods they’re asked for. So is this really such a bad deal for them? Of course it’s awful, absolutely terrible, that this is their only shot at getting a better life. But at least they get a shot, there’s hope at the end of the novel for the three that survive. Is that something to be grateful for? I’m not sure. While the system is completely warped, within it there does seem to be some room for individual improvement. This is – among other factors, of course (such as the greed of European men who view sex and a woman’s body as being for sale) – what perpetuates the system Chika Unigwe describes, I think. Because there’s a silver lining, women are willing to play along with the system, which makes it all the more terrifying in some ways.
Another thing that I loved about On Black Sisters’ Street was the writing. It sucked me in and took me right there, to the house on Zwartezusterstraat, to Lagos, to Sudan. And despite all the despair, it’s very funny in places.
Has anyone read this? I’d be really glad to discuss. So if you haven’t read it, go do that. This is an excellent book.