The Big Idea: Chika Unigwe
All too often, people can do the wrong things for what they think is the right reasons. In author Chika Unigwe’s Big Idea, she goes into detail about how things done out of “love” can end up hurting people, and how this sort of situation inspired her new novel, The Middle Daughter.
The Middle Daughter is a retelling of the myth of Hades and Persephone set within a Nigerian family. I really wanted to write this because I didn’t like that in some versions, Persephone falls in love with her abductor, and in some even though she doesn’t fall in love with him, she’s forced to spend parts of the year with him. I wanted a version where Persephone would never accept Hades, would be free of him, and Hades would face judgement. The novel was also inspired by the true story of a young woman who was lured into a relationship by a man and who stayed in it for several years because she did not believe that she had the option of leaving.
Nigeria is highly patriarchal. The consequence of this is that gender roles are delineated, with ‘good girls’ expected to behave a certain way or risk bringing shame on their family name. Perhaps, one of the most obvious ways this could happen as an unmarried woman is to be sexually active–whether or not it is consensual. At my university, girls who were sexually assaulted kept it a secret because the burden of shame was on them. They were no longer “good girls.”
This of course emboldened offenders. There were students who were infamous for being rapists. They wore their infamy with pride and weaponized their reputation to “keep girls in check.” Not too long ago, there was a newspaper article about a father in some part of Nigeria who discovered that his tailor had raped his teenage daughter. He took the tailor to court to force him to marry his daughter because “who would marry her now that she’s been defiled?” That story has haunted me since I read it. I wanted to explore the dangers for women in a society where victims of sexual assault are either forced into silence, shamed or made to marry their assaulter.
I often think about that teenage girl and how sad she must be, how she must hate her life but I also wonder what she thinks of her father whose actions were motivated by a sense of obligation and love. He thought he was doing what was right for his daughter, saving her from ‘disgrace.’ Would this father had forced his daughter’s assaulter to marry her if he did not think she’d been ‘defiled’? If he didn’t think that she’d be judged and found wanting by their society? It did not matter to this father that he would be punishing his own daughter and rewarding the criminal, it probably never even occurred to him.
Growing up, I knew young men that were forced to marry young women they got pregnant regardless of whether or not the women wanted them to or not. In a majority of the cases, these relationships were insisted upon by families of the women. It was seen as righting a wrong, it was always done out of love. In my novel, I wanted to explore this idea too. What happens to parental love when it is refracted through the lens of culture/society? When it makes double victims of the same people the love claims to protect? How does the relationship between parent(s) and child survive such ‘love’?
Yet even in a patriarchy, with all its marginal spaces for women, with all its strictures and gender norms, some women manage to thrive, not concerned at all about what society considers appropriate for them and some men are bona fide feminists, using their privilege for good. Two of my fondest characters are my protagonist’s social aunt who is single by choice, and my protagonist’s father who encourages his daughters to fly. Even if both characters are aware that dismantling the status quo is challenging, they will work with what they have to fight a system that is skewed against women.
And that is ultimately what this book is doing too: fighting an unfair system, contributing to the dismantling of a disturbing status quo and attempting to right a wrong.