Chika Unigwe, feminism and 'The Middle Daughter'

Chika Unigwe's latest novel, The Middle Daughter, published in 2023, is a retelling of the Greek myth concerning Hades and Persephone. In the original myth, the Greek god of the Underworld Hades abducts Persephone to rule beside him in his realm. Chika Unigwe rewrites the story of Persephone’s abduction, not letting Hades get away with taking a wife who doesn’t choose him. Instead, the writer re-empowers her, and creates a happy ending. Her Persephone is a teenage girl called Nani, who is lured into marriage and suffers an abusive relationship. The retelling is in where Persephone is freed from Hades; Nani is freed from Ephraim, the abusive husband. As Unigwe says herself in an interview with Brittle Paper: “it’s not a book about a woman stuck in a loveless and abusive relationship, but one about a woman who successfully fights to free herself from a loveless and abusive non-relationship."

About the author
The works of Nigerian (Igbo) born Chika Unigwe (1974) are written both in English and in Dutch. She earned an MA degree at the Belgian University of Leuven and has a PhD in Literature from Leiden University. Before moving to the United States, she was based in Turnhout, Belgium. Her first novel, De Feniks, originally published in Dutch in 2005, was shortlisted for the Vrouw en Kultuur debuutprijs, and is the first novel written by a Flemish female writer of African origin. The English translation was published in 2007 in Nigeria as The phoenix. Unigwe has published short fiction in several anthologies and journals and has written at least six novels. She has won several fellowships as well.

Igbo women’s writing
Chika Unigwe’s PhD thesis is about Igbo women’s writing, “how Igbo women writers transgress the boundary set for them by an earlier male-dominated tradition” and how female authors have needed to create their own traditions and recreate images of womanhood through written literature. As “oral literature restricts creativity…. does not easily lend itself to change; …there is no room for women users of Orature to create counter-discourses to the literature.”

Fata Morgana
Her second novel, Fata Morgana in Dutch and published in English as On Black Sisters’ Street, which came out in 2008, elaborates on the themes established in her thesis. Not only does she discuss the theme of gender inequality, but she also examines the objectification of women. In the novel, young women from Nigeria and Sudan flee the patriarchal structures in which many African societies hold women in servitude; however, they end up working in Belgium as prostitutes, which is seen as another form of slavery. The writer approaches the issue of African women’s human rights by examining the quality of the lives of the women she writes about.

As becomes clear from the above, Chika Unigwe includes central issues of feminism in her work, including the dignities of a woman’s body. She also explores the motivations of women and the way in which they empower themselves in the most dire of circumstances. Unigwe talks more about feminism, or feminisms as she rather calls it, in the article Africa's answer to militant feminism ( Her latest novel The Middle Daughter is in line with this. It is a story about women who reimagine and reinvent ourselves. While mythology says that Persephone remains content with her fate, Unigwe says: no, do not accept that. Leave, and even better, build a new world for yourself and for those coming after you. 

Angela Robson