Love, Loss and Migrant Womanhood: A Review of “Better Never Than Late” by Chika Unigwe

AiW Guest: Zahra Banday.

AiW note: We caught up with our Guest Reviewer, Zahra Banday, for some of her Words on the Times an AiW series of Q&As, connecting artists, writers, thinkers and educators in our new experiences of the pandemic… You can find her responses at the foot of the post here, with a link to Chika Unigwe’s Q&A, published yesterday in anticipation of Zahra’s review of her collection…

“Agu never talks of those days. It is as if the weight of remembering is too much for him to bear, but Prosperous doesn’t want to forget. Remembering keeps her on her toes.” ‘Remembering Prosperous’. 

When one thinks of the word ‘migrant’ what usually springs to mind is sensationalist headlines and stereotypes. In this current volatile political climate, the subject has become a more contentious and dividing issue than ever. However, Nigerian-born author Chika Unigwe’s newest collection of short stories Better Never Than Late looks to rectify this wrong with an artful capturing of the voices of Nigerian immigrants making their way in Belgium. Unigwe moves away from the negative rhetoric that usually shrouds the subject to humanely show the people behind the headlines. Unigwe commands the imagination of the reader, weaving these stories together like a rich tapestry, overflowing with the multifarious stages of life that her migrant characters endure. These stages manifest themselves as the central themes in the novel – themes of loss, love and womanhood against a backdrop of migration and displacement. 

Through this collection Unigwe firmly moves away from the notion of the single migrant story. She does this not only through her varied stories but also through her female characters that each represent their own set of experiences. A central female character that appears in many of the stories in the collection is Prosperous. ‘Becoming Prosperous’ details her loss, not only in terms of her old home but also of her loss of identity in this European landscape. She consolidates the “heady expectation of their early days” with her new reality. She remarks that although her husband Agu does not like to remember those days, she “doesn’t want to forget. Remembering keeps her on her toes.” Memories of the past comfort her in the wake of an uncertain future, especially as her husband, due to the pressures of European life, changes and becomes abusive. Prosperous represents a woman trapped not only in a relationship that has soured but trapped by the notion that she had a close to perfect life, full of independence, somewhere else, that she can never return to.

In stark contrast to Prosperous is the character of Ego in ‘Cleared for Take Off’. Ego subverts depictions of a ‘traditional’ family dynamic. She leaves her husband Gbolahan and daughter Bola to take a job in London, putting her career first. Ego thrives. When Gbolahan and Bola visit her, “she is dressed like someone out of a magazine. Red lipstick and high heeled shoes, skirts with slits and colourful sweaters.” In comparison, her husband and daughter are “puzzle pieces which no longer fit.” When her husband files for divorce and full custody out of spite, she agrees, not only subverting ideas of womanhood but also of motherhood. Ego’s subversive nature delineates her as one of the most interesting female characters in the collection: she challenges traditional narratives of a female migrant like Prosperous, who gives up her life to further her husband in a new climate; she defies the notion that a man should be the one to succeed and the woman must give herself up to allow that to happen. 

The role of the Oyibo woman is also explored as an added layer to the female experience. In Cunny Man Die, Cunny Man Bury Am Godwin’s wife Tine is introduced, her role clearly laid out by Godwin: “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do! And what a man had to do apparently was marry a Belgian woman.” Tine’s role is to facilitate Godwin’s life in Europe; in a later story she is described as “his passport”. This is similar to the character of Hilde in ‘The Transfiguration of Rapu’, described as her husband Gwachi’s “paper-wife, his German wife”, as though she leads a one-dimensional existence solely for her husband. However, Prosperous is perturbed by this and when both Hilde and Gwachi’s other love, Rapu, are pregnant, she sees an imbalance: “it bothered her that they acted as if Rapu’s baby was the real baby, and Hilde’s own some imposter they had to pretend to care for until Rapu’s arrived.” Prosperous, across the stories, understands the way in which these women are pitted against one another, in a landscape that primarily caters to the whims of men and the deep injustice of this situation. 

In ‘How to Survive a Heat Wave’, one of the most touching displays of female solidarity takes place between three friends, each with their own trauma. Oge, a woman who has lost her child, Prosperous, a woman who has lost her sense of self, and Añuli come together. They find comfort and shelter in each other’s company, highlighted when Añuli reveals that she was raped on her way home from work: “Añuli opens her mouth and the words that could not come out before begin to spill out… releasing the clamp in her chest, relieving her of that unholy trifecta.” Being able to open up to her friends allows her to be freed from the burden of suffering alone. The title of this story is very apt because this is a tale of ‘survival’. How one ‘survives’, being an outsider as a woman, is with the help of other women. 

Throughout this glorious collection Unigwe brings to life the journeys of these migrant women, uniquely shaping their individual stories, giving life to a chorus of voices that are repeatedly marginalised or silenced. As another strong female author Arundhati Roy said in her 2004 Sidney Peace Prize Lecture, “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” Better Late Than Never celebrates the migrant stories that are ‘preferably unheard’ and ‘deliberately silenced’ and in doing so uncovers a wonderful dialogue on what it is to be a woman. 

Chika Unigwe is the author of four novels, including the acclaimed On Black Sisters’ Street (Jonathan Cape, 2009), and winner of the $100,000 Nigeria Prize for Literature (2012). In 2014 she was selected as one of the Africa39 list. In 2016, Unigwe was appointed as the Bonderman Professor for Creative Writing at Brown University in Rhode Island, and was judge of the Man Booker International Prize in 2017.

Zahra Banday is a graduate of English Literature at SOAS, University of London. She works in Advertising, helping global clients find new and interesting ways to promote and enhance their brands. She has used her love of writing to copy write for several campaigns. Literature, film and art are some of her great loves.

You can find Better Never Than Late at Cassava Republic (Kindle, EPUB, and paperback), where it joins Toni Kan’s Nights of the Creaking Bed and The Whispering Trees, by Abubakar Ibrahim in the Cassava Shorts series. 

Zahra’s Words on the Times… below joins Chika Unigwe’s – published on the blog yesterday – and others from our communities who have been affected by the pandemic. Words on the Times is a Q&A inspired by Clémence Michallon’s set of interviews in the Independent with authors whose launches were cancelled due to the lockdown (here), offered in the spirit of community and connection around our common interests in African letters.

Africa in Words: Tell us a bit about your own work and the ways that the COVID-19 pandemic has altered your plans.
Zahra Banday: I currently work in Advertising and due to the pandemic, many projects have been halted. Zoom and telephone calls have become part of my everyday routine. I have found that this pandemic has allowed a needed pause to the hectic bustle of everyday life. I have ample time to read and write. I can engage with my clients more and work out how we can help them and their brands in such an uncertain time. 

AiW: In what ways are you working now that you weren’t before?
ZB: Usually I am running all over London, sitting on the tube had become my stationary time to collect my thoughts and ideas for different projects I was working on. As the tube is no longer a part of my day I do most of my brainstorming on my daily walk. 

AiW: What have you found most supportive and/or heart lifting in this time?
ZB: I am loving the creativity of the ad industry at this time, for example Netflix taking up billboards and writing key spoilers to their popular shows on them to deter people from going out lest their show be ruined. However, the king of lockdown advertising to me is Ryan Reynolds. His IG Stories, full of his dry Canadian wit and deadpan looks to camera have me howling with laughter every time. 

AiW: How can our communities support you?
ZB: I would say that in these uncertain times human connection is incredibly important, checking in on people, even via text, is necessary. Support local businesses where you can, we have been ordering fresh fruit and vegetable boxes from our greengrocers. Read the news to stay informed but don’t overwhelm yourself. Taking care of your mental health is incredibly important, try to do something that makes you happy a day, this could be in the form of reading a new novel like Better Never Than Late or simply having a cup of tea and a digestive. Support people around you but also remember to be kind to yourself during this time.


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