Q: With the issue of freedom of speech, do you think the right to offend takes precedence over the right not to be offended?

A: As a black African living in a predominantly white society in a country where the N word is still used even in some polite company (presumably because etymologically, it is ‘inoffensive’) and growing up in a country where recently religious tensions have been high and words can be used to incite,  I find it hard to advocate for total and absolute freedom of speech. However as a writer, I find it unnatural not to. perhaps if I think hard and long, I find that my position is that one’s freedom of speech is limited to the extent that it does not impinge on another’s rights. I do not think that there is such a thing as ‘the right to offend.’

Q: Some books have the power to spark incredibly violent backlashes against them, for example Salman Rushdies’ The Satanic Verse. Why do you believe so many people can become so impassioned against a book?

A: Books- especially well written books- speak to our consciences in a way very little else can. There is a very intimate relationship between readers and books. We believe very often when we read, that a book is speaking to us, personally. No other form of art does that.

When a book offends us, it offends us intimately

Q: The EWWC will also be discussing National Literature which was also discussed at the 1962 Edinburgh Writers’ Conference. How would you describe Nigerian literature to the uninitiated? And do you believe it is important for a country to have a sense of a national literature? And how do you think it has changed the way the rest of the world sees Nigeria?

A: I do not know that there is anything like “Nigerian” literature in the sense of this homogenous, recognizable object. I have a problem with collective identity. I think it is a false and misleading construction. Obviously having the same shared experiences means that sometimes our stories are alike but that is as far as I will concede to ‘National Literature.’ I do not know that that the fact that we have some shared experience is enough to create a collective identity, to describe our myriad of stories as being part of a coherent, identifiable, definable Nigerian Literature. We belong, or our works belong, to Nigerian literature by virtue of coming out ofNigeriaand written by Nigerians. I hope that our different stories challenge the notion of homogenity. That the world sees that Nigerians are individuals, that we are not all internet scammers, that the stories we choose to tell are as valid as they are different

Q: Your novel, On Black Sisters’ Street examines the lives of several Nigerian women who have been trafficked into prostitution. Do you think that this is novel that may have been censored in the past and was there any self-censorship you imposed on yourself when writing the novel?

A: Fanny Hill was censored, so perhaps my novel might have been. I was raised in a strict catholic home where words like ‘sex’ and ‘love’ were not used.

The music we listened to was censored. My mother would switch off the radio if inappropriate music was played. I learned to self-censor myself so that even when nobody was around, I would substitute ‘bread’ for ‘sex’ in Salt ‘n’ Pepa’s ‘Let’s talk about sex.’  I still cannot speak the ‘f’ word but a character in my novel uses it a lot. I had to become someone else to be able to write that novel. I had to pretend that Chika Unigwe did not exist. I was someone with no history, no internalization of what was ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to be able to write a novel that was emotionally true.

Q: What do you think will be the future of the novel?

A: Like we’d say inNigeria, it’s future is bright! The novel in form might mutate with advances in technology, there will be more novels published, not necessarily better books , but definitely more. There will be more people with access to publishing their novels, more people able to achieve their dreams.

 Chika Unigwe chairs this afternoon’s session: Should Freedom of Speech ever have limits?



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