Amid news like the town of Edgewood’s recent adoption of an ordinance restricting abortion, Chika Unigwe’s inflection of the necessity of bodily autonomy in her new work, The Middle Daughter, keenly resonates.
The Nigerian-born Igbo author, whose honors include the Nigeria Prize for Literature, which she won in 2012 for her novel On Black Sisters Street; and the SYLT Fellowship for African Writers, now lives in the US, teaching at Georgia College in Milledgeville, Georgia.
She crafts The Middle Daughter as a modern reimagining of the Greek Hades and Persephone myth, the story of three wealthy sisters in Nigeria whose family is torn apart by catastrophe. Unigwe tells the story through several voices: Udodi, the eldest sister who dies in a car crash while studying in the US, serves as the all-knowing (but perhaps not unbiased) voice of the chorus; Nani, the eponymous middle daughter, carries a narrative thread that reflects the story of Persephone’s rape and kidnapping at the hands of Hades; Ugo, the youngest sister, becomes an unwitting accomplice to her middle sister’s undoing, and does her best to right that wrong; and finally, Ephraim, the itinerant preacher who plays the role of Hades.
The sisters are born into fortunate circumstances, but their privilege quickly sours as adversity plagues their family. At the beginning of the story their father runs a printing press, their mother works as a midwife at a government hospital and they live on a luxurious estate in Enugu, Nigeria, the city where Unigwe herself was born.
Udodi’s death is the first in a series of family tragedies that unfold parallel to, and intertwined with, events of societal injustice and corruption so current Unigwe might be writing news stories instead of a novel. After their father’s death, the sisters’ mother opens a private maternity clinic, which makes her one of the wealthiest women in Enugu within the year. But Nani discovers that it isn’t a clinic at all, but a “baby -factory”—a place where men are hired to impregnate women—often by rape—whose babies are then sold to rich families. In the novel, it’s unclear whether the so-called clinic is directly responsible for the women’s impregnation or only for the sale of their babies, allowing the sisters’ mother an ethical gray area in which she can convince herself she has done them a service.
Unigwe portrays a deeply patriarchal society in which Nani feels powerless against her abductor, Ephraim, leading her to stay with him for seven years, during which time she bears three children. But unlike some versions of the Hades and Persephone myth, Nani never falls in love with Ephraim, never accepts him as her husband or the father of her children, and finds subtle ways to assert her autonomy and resistance.
The nuances of reproductive injustice and misogyny Unigwe renders in The Middle Daughter hit close to home, too. In a post-Roe v. Wade America, most abortions are now banned in more than a dozen states, and the right to terminate pregnancy is threatened in many more. In Unigwe’s novel, Nani’s pregnancy by her rapist leads to a years long ordeal and the loss of the life she’d hoped for herself. Anti-abortion policies and social pressures mean that stories like hers could play out in the lives of anyone who can become pregnant, whether in the US, Nigeria or elsewhere.
Instead of being drawn into a cycle of captivity as Persephone was, Nani finds a path through the “underworld” with the help of other women in her life who believe her and see through Ephraim’s respectable facade, creating a matriarchal narrative within a patriarchal structure.
“There are some burdens one must never carry alone,” a neighbor tells Nani. “We are taught from when we are young girls being prepared for marriage never to share our problems…[but] I say that that is the problem we have as women: we do not talk enough about what we suffer.”
The Middle Daughter is tightly wound with emotion: rage, sadness and, at times, Nani’s hopelessness. But it isn’t a lasting hopelessness. The novel forces readers onward through the story, propelled by Nani’s grit—her refusal, even in total despair, to -relinquish her power.