Of Paper Wives and Cowardly Existence: A Review of Chika Unigwe’s Better Never than Late | Elizabeth Olubukola Olaoye

A good writer can always imagine stories about a place she has never been to. However, for certain stories to get to the heart of the matter, the writer must know her setting and characters enough to understand their motives, to sympathetically portray their impulses, and to accurately capture their “raison d’être”. When such writers explore characters, they do so with an uncommon depth of insight that reveals desires buried beneath the surface of day to day existence. In this connection, Chika Unigwe is a writer who is no stranger to the plights of Nigerians in Europe. In her much-acclaimed novel, On Black Sisters Street, she reveals the complex and pathetic tales of Nigerian women in Belgium as they struggle to make ends meet by commodifying their bodies as prostitutes. As if extending the scope of her narrative beyond the ordeal of women of pleasure, Better Never than Late presents Nigerians of different backgrounds in Europe and how many of them remain trapped in condescending situations that ridicule their initial dreams of finding a greener pasture in Europe. She also features some stories set in Nigeria, showing some of the conditions and mindsets that plague women in Africa. Fragile masculinity, unfulfilled feminine desires, and nostalgia for home are some of the motifs explored in the stories that make up this collection.

Better Never than Late tells stories of Nigerians in Belgium.
The collection of stories – some of which are not entirely related – appears blunt, unpretentious but equally compassionate in its treatment of the Nigerian immigrant conditions in Belgium. It tears the veil of the utopic conception of Europe by many aspiring Nigerians as a place of extreme wealth and prosperity; a kind of “sugar Candy Mountain” where dreams come true. By describing several instances of dashed illusions, unexpected nostalgia, and almost suffocating loneliness, Unigwe shows that life in Europe is not always a bed of roses. It also reveals that life is complex, refusing dualities like black and white, good and bad, wise and stupid, rich and poor. Rather, the stories in this collection show an unexpected mix of competences, virtues and negative traits. Like the reversed common saying that is the title of this collection, the stories invite us to re-examine our definition of good, bad and ugly. The strength of many stories is in the drawing of virtues from historically forbidden places, in their positions that seem to echo the thought that to never have done something sometimes – in practice- holds more virtue than to have attempted them late.

In the first story, “The Transfiguration of Rapu”, Unigwe presents the existential drama of Nigerian men in psychological torment over paper-wives and real wives while trying desperately to become permanent residents in Europe. “Paper wives” are usually Belgian or other European citizens that these men marry to secure European citizenship. These are usually meant to be temporary arrangements, with the real wives always in the pipeline. The paper wives are however often ignorant of their true positions until it becomes too late to change the situation. In this particular story, Unigwe shows how the complexity of bringing in a Nigerian wife while trying to find the best moment to break the heart of the Belgian wife often backfires. Rapu, who is the real wife, in this case, cannot live freely with her husband until he has divorced his Belgian paper- wife and paid off Shylock, who helped in bringing Rapu from Nigeria. Rapu must live with Shylock and wait patiently for her husband to find a perfect timing to divorce his paper wife. But what Unigwe does in this story is to show the complexity of these arrangements: paper wives do not easily let go and staying married to a woman strictly for papers is almost impossible. Staying under the same roof, having a baby together, going on trips together can breed unexpected emotions which Nigerian men do not always want to own up to. In this particular story we see Hilde, the paper wife, becoming more than an arrangement in Gwachi’s life. While Gwachi, Rapu’s husband criticizes Hilde’s European lifestyle among his Nigerian friends, he secretly enjoys doing things with Hilde. When he finally announces his impending divorce to Hilde, Rapu, his Nigerian wife also finds love in someone else and seems to have moved on. In this story Unigwe shows how the idea that some women are paper-wives does not always work. And a woman like Rapu cannot always be counted on to wait patiently until her husband pays off the debt of her travel or for him to divorce his paper wife. Rapu gets transfigured from being the shy, jealous, and confused woman who arrives in Belgium to wait for her husband to divorce his paper wife to an independent, fun-loving wife of another man.

The second story in the collection also explores the tension between the Belgian and the Nigerian conception of life. This tension is revealed by interracial marriage. Oge is married to Gunter and their relationship, though seemingly hitch-free at first, reveals the complexity of interracial relationships. While Oge, who is Nigerian, believes that a child needs to be born before he is given a name, Gunter names their son, Jordi, while he is yet to be born. When Jordi dies, Oge is shocked to learn that her son will be cremated. Comparing this to the Nigerian custom of burying the dead, she sees the funeral as cruelty to her dead son. Instead of crying, Gunter’s Belgian relatives smile, eat and exchange pleasantries. This infuriates Oge who cannot fully accept this aspect of the Belgian culture. Despite the love that Gunter and Oge share, their cultural difference stands between them like a gulf. Unable to recover from the grief of her son’s death, Oge becomes nostalgic for her home in Africa. She can face her reality, her husband and her future only after she has made a trip back to her hometown in Nigeria. This story emphasizes how home- represented by Nigeria – with all its attendant contradictions, remains a place of healing for characters who got psychologically wounded in Europe.

In some of the stories in this collection, certain characters are featured in two or more stories simultaneously. One such character is Prosperous. The apartment that she shares with her husband is a meeting point for Nigerians who come there to eat Nigerian food, share Nigerian jokes and generally remember home. It is here that we first encounter Gwachi and Rapu of the first story. In the third story, titled “Becoming Prosperous”, Unigwe plays with the implication of this character’s name and what it means to be prosperous in Belgium. This particular story illustrates the degree of condescending that Africans have to subject themselves to, to survive in Belgium. Not only does their new position as a Black in Europe alter their possibilities, but it also alters their ideas of love and relationship. Comparing her relationship with her husband back in Nigeria to their present relationship, Prosperous discovers that survival instinct has pushed their love life to the lowest point. Not only are they unable to use their Nigerian–earned qualifications in Belgium, but the language barrier also forces them to take jobs that are beneath them:

Prosperous laughs when she recounts—as she often does to her friends—the heady expectations of their early days. I thought they’d take one look at our degrees and offer us jobs on the spot. Company cars, a company house with a massive lawn, a butler and a chef. 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. (32)

Europe, in this story and many other stories in the collection, is thus seen as a place of disillusionment. However, Unigwe also shows that characters often have a choice. Prosperous realizes that she can reject the menial job she has as a cleaner by taking Flemish lessons. That paves the way for her to become a teacher. Rather than waiting helplessly for her situation to change, she rises to the occasion and begins to take Flemish lessons, on her way to becoming prosperous.

Rapu, like several women in the narratives, is presented as someone who realizes her errors of judgment, and then uses the information available to her to rise from both patriarchal oppression and diasporic and racial specific conflicts. These women seem to arrive at their moments of epiphany when they realize they have to take their destinies into their hands. Similarly, Ego, in the story titled “Cleared for Takeoff” realizes that life in Belgium would always put her in disadvantaged employment and decides to move to London against her husband’s wish. In the same vein, after being raped in a bus by a bunch of Belgian youths in the story titled “How to Survive a Heat Wave”, Anuli finds the courage to narrate her ordeal to Prosperous and Oge, her Nigerian friends, realizing that she must be able to face this part of her reality to make peace with her future:

Añuli opens her mouth and the words that could not come out before begin to spill out, spreading out in the room, mingling with her pool of tears, releasing the clamp in her chest, relieving her of that unholy trifecta. (105)

Life in Europe is far from a bed of roses! This is Unigwe’s recurrent thematic preoccupation in many of these stories. Like On Black Sister’s Street, which shows the dilemma and the disillusionment of African ladies forced into prostitution in Belgium, this collection shows several levels of indignity that life in Europe forces Africans into. This is despite the promised glamour. Ego’s husband, who after a major injury can no longer play football and has to work in a factory, gets to his moment of epiphany after divorcing his wife. His four-year-old daughter tells him something that brings him to his senses:

’When I grow up, I’m going to be a teacher, Papa,’ Bola told me as I walked her to school. ‘But first, I have to be white, right?’ (89)

As he analyzes his daughter’s assertion, he realizes that there are no great black role models in the town he lives in for his daughter to look up to, as everyone who does respectable jobs is white. At that moment, he realizes that his life is not something his child can aspire to. Determined to correct this negative impression, he decides to give up the custody of his daughter, concluding that the mother would be a better role model. Other characters in these stories also come to these moments when they realize the missing link in their thinking on either their stay in Europe or their relationships with people in Antwerp. For instance, in “Heart is where the home is”, the protagonist’s mother laments her loneliness in Belgium where she feels isolated:

‘This is what it must feel like to be dumb. To hear and not understand. To speak and not be understood.’ (123)

It is not only the inability to communicate with people that isolates this woman, but it is also equally her daughter’s lack of friends and her inability to bond with other Nigerians. This creates a sense of hopelessness in the mother who has to be booked on a flight back to Nigeria. This happens after her daughter finds her on the floor, weeping for no particular reason. This story particularly shows the height of psychological alienation and loneliness that some Africans feel in Europe and other African diasporas. One is then plagued by the question: if life is like this in Europe, why do Africans keep trying? Some of the stories in the collection give a backdrop of life in Nigeria and portray the injustice and psychological dilemma that make people decide to leave. Many of the characters have parents who look up to them as family messiahs that will save them from the harsh reality in Nigeria where backward mindsets continue to keep people in oppressive situations. They also have the same setting in Belgium. The common element in all the stories in this collection is the candid presentation of the plight of Nigerians, both at home and abroad, who all build their hopes on countries or societies that turn out to be oppressive structures that reduce them to shadows of who they are.

Overall, these stories are beautifully crafted, showing aspects of diasporic experience that threaten not only the female character but also the masculine ego and make people take offers that are beneath their self. Like On Black Sister’s Street, this collection continues to question the logic of departing Nigeria without a clear plan on how to succeed in Europe. Unigwe’s present narrative is a great follow up on the effects of being severed from one’s roots and the psychological implication of such severance. The language is eloquent and pithy, giving short episodes of characters in their most epiphanic moments. Unigwe also adopts the conversational style where characters are revealed through dialogue as well as through internal monologues. Nigerian pidgin, which is also a marker of Nigerian communities both at home and in the Diaspora, features in this narrative giving it a unique Nigerian flavor. White people are consistently referred to as ‘Oyibo’ in this text. Characters also throw in Igbo words in between English to get to the heart of the matter in their conversations. For instance, Godwin and Agu discuss in “Cunny Man Die, Cunny Man Bury Am” about Godwin’s newly found paper wife:

‘Love nwanti nti,’ Agu teased. ‘No wound me with your
love ooo!’

Godwin snorted and said in Igbo, ‘Nwoke ma-ife o naeme.’
A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. (76)

This mix of English, Pidgin and Igbo reflects the hybrid nature of the Nigerian community in Belgium. Living within several types of consciousness, their language reflects their reality. In addition to Nigerian food and worldview, this language use is one major marker of the Nigerian identity in this collection. One story in particular is using a Nigerian pidgin expression in its title: “Cunny Man Die, Cunny Man Bury Am.” This title is significant in revealing that being cunny is not a trait that is peculiar to Nigerians. We see this as the fat paper wife overturns the table and beats Godwin in his game of deception. Godwin assumes that Tine, the fat Belgian girl is unaware of her position as a “paper wife.” However, while conversing with Prosperous, Tine reveals her awareness of Godwin’s intention:

‘I wanted a wedding. Ever since I was little. And I got my dream. I got him to spend a lot of money! ‘All those euros on a wedding, and one day when I get tired, when I stop liking him even a little… because I will one day…‘I will because my heart can only take so much, no?… When that day comes, I’ll tell him it’s over.’ She cleared her throat, shut her eyes and when she opened them, stars were dancing in them again. ‘When the time comes, whether he has his papers or not, I’ll tell him it’s over….‘I have a feeling that that day is soon. Very, very soon. There won’t be time for him to have those papers!’ (87-88)

This story questions the wisdom of male swindlers and challenges the opinion that white women fall foolishly in love. Apart from rebuffing the claim of white women’s stupidity, the story equally draws attention to the cunny nature of some white persons, especially women who are often portrayed as gullible in Nigerian circles. Unlike some of the women in the earlier novel, the women here are given more agency to make changes by confronting their pasts and facing their future with boldness. The writer seems to be saying, the harm has been done but where characters, especially women, chose to go from their epiphanic moments is solely their responsibility. Whether it is the error of assuming Ijeoma is a witch in the story entitled “Better Never than Late” or the assumption that Belgian women can be used and dumped after securing Belgian citizenship in the story entitled “Cunny Man Die, Cunny Man Bury Am”, characters must realize the limitations of their earlier assumptions and forge ahead in complex situations. Humorous and thoughtful, this collection is a brilliant addition to the corpus of narratives of the Nigerian diaspora. Like Ngozi Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah, it raises issues of Africaness and survival in the West, and how these complicate the female experience both for black and white women.

Unigwe, Chika (2019), Better Never than Late. Abuja/London: Cassava Republic, 144pp., ISBN 9781911115540

This book review was published in: Africa Book Link, Spring 2020