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On Black Sisters Street: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, April 26, 2011

29 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. In her U.S. debut, Nigerian immigrant Unigwe sets a melancholy tale in her adopted home of Belgium. When "Sisi" receives an offer from a questionable businessman to work in Belgium she accepts, agreeing to repay expenses as she works. She leaves the depressed, jobless Lagos only to find herself employed as a prostitute on Antwerp's Zwartezusterstraat (literally "Black Sisters Street") along with fellow Africans Ama, Joyce, and Efe. Despite her dire circumstance, Sisi falls in love with a native Belgian who encourages her to break free from her madam and the Lagos businessman. Freedom, however, remains elusive for Sisi, whose pitiful life is cut short with the swing of a hammer, prompting her Zwartezusterstraat sisters to share their own stories of fear, abuse, and violence, and allowing Unigwe to give powerful voice to women of the African Diaspora who are forced to use sex to survive. The author's raw voice, unflinching eye for detail, facility for creating a complex narrative, and affection for her characters make this a must read. (Apr.)
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Praise for On Black Sisters Street

“ [‘On Black Sisters Street’ is] boiling with a sly, generous humor. Unigwe is as adept at conveying the cacophony of a Nigerian bus as she is at suggesting the larger historical events that propel her characters. ‘On Black Sisters Street’ marks the arrival of a latter-day Thackeray, an Afro-Belgian writer who probes with passion, grace and comic verve the underbelly of our globalized new world economy.”
--The New York Times Book Review  (*an Editors Choice selection in the 5/10 NYTBR)
“Powerful....The author's raw voice, unflinching eye for detail, facility for creating a complex narrative, and affection for her characters make this a must read.”
Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Gripping....As Unigwe tells her characters’ stories in interweaving narratives and time lines, the women embody depths of fear and displacement, as well as the will to survive and prosper."

“A novel of desperation, sexual exploitation, and, ultimately, sisterhood. … Unigwe has a talent for capturing the dashed dreams of young women who are stronger than they imagine. … The women’s personal stories are wrenchingly memorable.”
Library Journal

“In her English-language debut, the Nigerian-born Unigwe convincingly exposes an unfamiliar world without sentimentality. Capable drama that puts a human face on the scourge of human trafficking.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Spellbinding…combines a storyteller’s narrative flair with a reporter’s eye for grim, gritty details about the sex industry. … Nigerian-born Unigwe crafts her characters’ voices with crystalline prose and compassion, in a revelatory work as tough, humane and unsentimental as its heroines.”
MORE Magazine

“Chika Unigwe’s ON BLACK SISTERS STREET is a grand and compassionate and moving work of art. The best fiction succeeds when it allows a reader to open a door, step into a different world, look about and say, finally, I feel and know this place and these people as if I have visited many times before. Ms. Unigwe has done that for us with all the men and women of her new novel. We owe her much praise and much gratitude.”
Edward P. Jones, winner of the Pulitzer Prize

"Powerfully and gently, Unigwe gives voice to African women who walk the streets of their nightmares and dreams."
--Sefi Atta, author of Everything Good Will Come

“Chika Unigwe brings an ethnographic eye and masterful storytelling to bear on this complex portrait of African sex workers in Antwerp.  Her startlingly physical prose offers a fresh look at lives made and unmade between Europe and Africa.”
--Mateo Taussig-Rubbo, University of Buffalo

“Chika Unigwe has evoked a chilling, brutal, and terrifying world with warmth, compassion, and courage. The voices of degraded African women are clearly heard, their bodies vividly rendered, their sorrows deeply understood, and their humanity ultimately realized. On Black Sisters Street is a dark tale luminously told, a stunningly moving book.”—Lee Siegel, author of Love in a Dead Language
“Chika Unigwe writes with moral urgency nourished by a nuanced understanding of the human condition and prose that is elegantly calibrated. And for all the dark turns her work takes, On Black Sisters Street is suffused with warmth, hard-won wisdom, and a deep compassion.”—Chris Abani, author of Becoming Abigail and Song for Night
“A probing and unsettling exploration of the many factors that lead African women into prostitution in Europe . . . an important and accomplished novel that leaves a strong aftertaste. Unigwe gives voice to those who are voiceless . . . and bestows dignity on those who are stripped of it.”—The Independent

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; First U.S. Edition edition (April 26, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400068339
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400068333
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #210,842 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

14 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Bianca P on January 25, 2012
Format: Hardcover
By all reasonable standards, I should really like On Black Sisters Street. It deals with incredibly real and relevant issues to Nigerian women, so often trapped between the lack of economic and social opportunities in their home countries, and the mammoth impossibility of immigrating to the West. It was heartbreaking to hear the four main characters struggle with the compromise of paying off enormous debt with their sexualities in exchange for an opportunity to "make it" abroad in Belgium. It's not a choice anyone should be forced to make.

And yet, I wasn't drawn in. Perhaps I have simply become so jaded to the hard knocks narrative of the African writer that it's impossible for me to feel a story like this in my bones. On Black Sisters Street read like a cliché for me: the daughter of a pious churchman silently suffering sexual abuse, the refugee from a bloody rebel massacre and violent rape, the child whose drunken father and dead mother force her to look to an older man for money and social mobility and ends up with a baby of her own. The only story that did seem real and poetic was that of Sisi, college graduate and devoted only daughter who seeks out sex work in Belgium to make money for her family. Her story was unusual, as much because only children are unusual in Nigeria (where children are life insurance for parents in old age) than because of a depth to Sisi's character. The novel felt like too much drama packed into 250 pages for the sake of being compact.

Perhaps what vexes me then about the structure of the novel is how the main characters, who are faced with impossible decisions that compromise their sense of self and cause them incredible anguish, seem to exist in a vacuum.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By JKJ on June 19, 2011
Format: Paperback
I don't know why this book doesn't have 100 customer reviews. It's one of the best pieces of modern fiction I've read in too long a while. The writing is beautiful, and the characters deeply compelling. I wonder if the author did the English translation herself, as no translator is listed.

It's the story of four young African women who have gone to Belgium to work as prostitutes. The four have widely varying educations, backgrounds, and reasons for having made this decision, and none of them came to it easily. Three of them have come because of increasingly desperate circumstances, and maybe that could be said of all four.

They must pay huge fees to a pimp back in Lagos, Nigeria, and are under the thumb of an African madam who is his employee and enforcer. Yet in Belgium they also have a degree of personal freedom. It's not divulging anything to say that the story begins with the death of one of the four. They all have dreams that they're working toward, and sacrificing for, and it's impossible for the reader not to become bound up in those dreams.

As is the case in most good novels, as each of these women reveals her story, it unfolds that their situations are not just those of young people, or Africans, or women, or whatever. Their wants, needs, desires are universal, and I felt each one deeply.

In the last few years I've read too many novels where the protagonists simply drifted along, never making a sensible decision or any decision at all, never planning beyond the moment, ultimately being rescued by some deus ex machina device.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Lisbeth on June 9, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book tells the individual stories of five young African women who, out of desperation, become prostitues in Belgium. Like indentured servants, they are at the mercy of their benefactor pimp and madame for years in order to pay their debt and win their freedom. The story centers around the murder of one of the women while interweaving the lives of the others and the hopelessness that led them to their current circumstances. With beautifully written dialog and the rich, harrowing details, I could not put the book down!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Tashima Corley on January 27, 2012
Format: Hardcover
I feel in love with this book from the first sentence. The author did such a good job of portraying each character that you couldn't help but to be captivated by them. I love books where the characters seem to come alive and you don't want to put it down and can't wait to pick it up again. I can't wait to read the authors next book.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By E. Smiley on February 9, 2015
Format: Hardcover
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.
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