Human beings inhabit areas of moral ambiguity – Chika Unigwe caught up with Chika Unigwe who has been touring the world promoting her fifth novel, The Middle Daughter, which was published by Canongate in April. In this interview, the award-winning author and professor sheds light on moral ambiguities and the multitudes that we inhabit as human beings.

Toni Kan: How has the reception been for The Middle Daughter, your fifth novel?

Chika Unigwe: It’s been incredible, and I am so grateful. You always hope a book does well but apart from putting your best into the writing, the rest is grace really. So, I’m happy it’s finding its fans and champions. I feel blessed

TK: So TMD is marketed as a contemporary retelling of the myth of Persephone and her imprisonment in Hades. I also think that it can be read as riffing on an incipient Electra complex in the relationship between Nani and Mother and even Stockholm syndrome to give it a more contemporary flavour. Do you agree with these readings?

CU: The framing of it is exactly that. I wanted a Hades and Persephone story in which the Hades character gets punished, and the Persephone character is rid of him forever. It’s also based on a true story where a young woman gets into the kind of relationship Nani does with Ephraim. And for similar reasons, I’m still rooting for that girl. And I love that despite my intentions, readers are coming to it with their own readings. That’s one of the wonderful things about reading. We can all read the same title and yet be reading different books

TK: Myth and Ovid aside, your story is very topical. Was there a trigger for this and do you care to share?

CU: Part of the trigger is the true story I spoke about earlier and my desire for justice. I wanted to right the wrongs done to Persephone and give her a voice, make her in charge of her own story

TK: There are too many blurred lines and grey areas. People are not totally bad or good in TMD. Mother believes her “Home” has a socio-economic purpose, Ephraim is a loving father but shitty husband, and even Doda is a man of integrity who contravenes civil service rules by running a business while in service. Is this a comment on human nature or your style?

CU: I think that humans are complex and we all inhabit areas of moral ambiguity. Years ago, someone told a story on Facebook about his children taking JAMB after studying hard, but already knowing in the exam hall that they would fail, only because they didn’t have money to give the mandatory bribe the invigilator asked for . The man who posted said he was staunchly anti-bribery but couldn’t afford to send his kids abroad so what to do? Have them bribe the invigilator when they retook the exam the next year or have them suffer for his principles?

When our interests are at stake, we tend to find ways to argue for things we are against on principle. It doesn’t have to be things with as high stakes as JAMB results. How many people would not bribe a cop to get out of unnecessary wahala?

I hated that the kids loved Ephraim too and somehow even prefer him to their mother, but that’s life, right ? Folks can be the worst partners but still be great parents. Folks can be evil but still be nice to those they love. Pick any vile dictator you can think of, they had those they loved and vice versa. We are a multitude of things.

One of my favourite cartoon characters is Homer Simpson. He’s a bumbling buffoon, but he’s a loving husband and father.


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