Lola Shoneyin (born Titilola Atinuke Alexandrah Shoneyin; 26 February 1974 in Ibadan, Nigeria) is a Nigerian poet and author who launched her debut novel, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, in the UK in May 2010. Shoneyin has forged a reputation as an adventurous, humorous and outspoken poet (often classed in the feminist mould), having published three volumes of poetry. In April 2014, she was named on the Hay Festival’s Africa39 list of 39 Sub-Saharan African writers aged under 40 with potential and talent to define trends in African literature. Lola won the PEN Award in America as well as the Ken Saro-Wiwa Award for prose in Nigeria. She was also on the list for the Orange Prize in the UK for her debut novel, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, in 2010. She lives in Lagos, Nigeria, where she runs the annual Aké Arts and Book Festival, an annual literary, cultural and arts event that she founded in 2013 taking place in Abeokuta, Nigeria. Although it has featured new and established writers from across the world, its focus has been to promote, develop and celebrate creativity on the African continent in diverse genres. In 2018 the festival was held for the first time in Lagos, from 24 October to 27 October, with the theme being “Fantastical Futures”. The Aké Arts and Book Festival has been described as the African continent’s biggest annual gathering of literary writers, editors, critics and readers. In 2017, she was named African Literary Person of the Year by Brittle Paper.
LitVo: The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives addresses rape and how it affects and changes the life of the victim. Bolanle would never have married Baba Segi if not for the aftereffects of her trauma which caused her to withdraw into herself and lose all hope and aspirations. Now if only Bolanle had opened up about her trauma and sought help, she might never have gone through what she experienced in Baba Segi’s house. The culture of silence in relation to rape has plagued the world for a very long time and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. What is your view on this, and how do you think this silence can be broken permanently?
Lola Shoneyin: It’s easy to talk about Bolanle opening up about her trauma, but the question is who was she to open up to? Her sister? Her mother? A therapist? Experiences that involve mental or emotional health are often very difficult to admit to oneself or to others. A lot of the difficulty has to do with the culture of shame. The culture of shaming women, especially. Regarding the culture of rape in our society, it boils down to the absence of consequences. The seeds of patriarchy are so deeply ingrained into the fabric of our everyday lives that men rationalise their behaviour, even where they have acted in a way that is disgraceful to humanity. We need a complete overhaul of the way women are seen and infantilised. We need fathers to be more empathetic to the condition of girls/women. We need solid allies who raise sons that understand the privileges that they enjoy. It’s critical that men educate themselves so that inhumane behaviours are not passed from generation to generation. What’s wonderful is that more women are talking openly about their experiences and speaking their truth. Hopefully, this will become the norm.
LitVo: Baba Segi’s ways are typical of a lot of Nigerian men who exercise complete dominance over their spouses and maintain a master-servant relationship with them. What ways can couples in Nigeria move away from male dominance, lack of communication in marriages, and seeking professional help when due?
Lola Shoneyin: Systems created for the advantage of men, or where men are the primary beneficiaries are very difficult to dismantle. I will never be able to understand behaviour that results in the dehumanization, or the demeaning of another individual, particularly those that we claim to love. Indeed, we do often come across situations where a wife is subservient to her husband but it’s important to understand that it is often about survival. Women have learned to operate within patriarchal structures so that they are not consumed by them. This is why women make exceptional leaders, and brilliant decision-makers. All the women in The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives were concerned about finding a space for themselves within the family. I think the solution is for menfolk to value women and appreciate their potential as human beings, whilst ensuring that they have access to opportunities and they can make their own choices.
LitVo: On one of the covers of the book, Iya Femi, Iya Segi and Iya Tope were depicted to be walking ahead with a considerable gap between them and Bolanle. Was that the gap of literacy? Or the gap of deception? What exactly did that gap signify? I’m very curious about it.
Lola Shoneyin: There are several covers so I am not sure which one you are referring to. I have very limited input into the covers that are chosen by the different publishers. The cover often depends on the market and the sort of cover the publisher believes will work best in that environment. The gap could be alluding to any number of things. It could be the level of education; it could mean the fact that Bolanle is the newest wife. Several things distinguish Bolanle from the other wives, but they also have much in common.
LitVo: The Secret lives of Baba Segi’s Wives was published in 2010. The book is now ten years old. If you could go back in time to change something about the book, what would it be? And why?
Lola Shoneyin: It has been 10 incredible years, and I refer to this novel as the gift that keeps on giving, given the different forms in which it has been presented: stage play, one-woman show, radio play, graphic novel and now a TV show. The journey has been phenomenal. I’m very proud of that. I think the story hit the spot in the way I imagined it would. I would rather not punish myself by questioning the choices I made ten years ago.
LitVo: Bolanle’s home was described as a somewhat toxic environment for her and her sister while growing up. This greatly affected the choices they both made in life. It’s a fact that a person’s environment shapes them and their choices. This was very well depicted in your book, but I’d like you to offer solutions and suggestions to parents so as not to create a revolving cycle of toxicity in our youths thereby influencing their adulthood and their kids in turn.
Lola Shoneyin: I think it all starts with empathy, especially on the part of the parents, and the courage to follow reason and common sense, rather than becoming slaves to culture and the more traditional ways of thinking. If our goal is to raise children who understand the value of decency and compassion, we must model appropriate behaviour. Many people are either too lazy to break the cycle or they are beneficiaries of the cycle itself. It takes courage to overhaul your beliefs and convince those around you to buy into your views. Many cannot take the palaver that comes with that, so they go with the flow.
LitVo: The book has a feminist touch. From the experiences of the wives to their pursuit of offspring. It’s not very common for Nigerian women to make such bold choices. What are your views on feminism and where do you draw the line? What do you think is toxic feminism?
Lola Shoneyin: I think Nigerian women have always made bold choices. But in order to survive in a society that is hostile to women flexing their agency, they have learnt to be reticent and shrink their gifts and their power. If only people understood what a glorious thing it is when a woman is in a position where she can determine her destiny. Feminism for me is firmly tied to the agitation for the dismantling of Patriarchy and any other power structure that denies girls and women the rights and agency to pursue their dreams. Feminism can become problematic when it embraces and employs the same hateful practices that it is fighting against.
LitVo: Characters like Taju and Teacher were considered allies by Baba Segi but they did not reciprocate this feeling. Although the Teacher’s deception was not as great as Taju’s, it all the same depicted the absence of a moral compass. Why do you think people almost always look out for themselves to the detriment of others?
Lola Shoneyin: Empathy often has to be learnt. And if it must be learnt, then it follows that there is a need to actively teach people how to be empathetic through appropriate responses in times of crisis. When people grow up in an environment where they have been subjected to neglect by the state or by their families or those they love, then that is the only behaviour they know. Access to stories addresses this in a very real way.
LitVo: Your book is about to be adapted into a series on Netflix. I assume that this would arouse mixed feelings in you. How do you feel about this development? Do you think justice will be done to your book? What are your expectations? I ask this because so many times we’ve had beautiful books that failed to be done justice to on screen.
Lola Shoneyin: I love the idea of the works of African writers being adapted to the big and little screen. I have a lot of faith in Ms Mo Abudu and many of the individuals who are working on it. I also understand that the transition from page to screen demands significant changes to the story. I’m mentally prepared for this. It’s out of my hands and I am alright with that.
LitVo: You are married to the son of a legend in the writing space. Yet, you built a name for yourself with little or no help which you could have easily gotten. A lot of people assume you attained this pedigree only because of your marital privilege. How do you handle such assumptions? And what advice would you give young girls coming up in the Nigerian literary space?
Lola Shoneyin: Such assumptions are to be expected but they do not bother me. It’s just noise. I had a writing career within the Nigerian literary space before my marriage. I like to remind young women that they were built to conquer and excel. Everything and anything that looks like an obstruction can be moved with the right tools.
LitVo: How would you describe the situation in Nigeria concerning writers? Why do you think Nigerian writers flee at the first opportunity and how can we make the situation here more conducive?
Lola Shoneyin: The Nigerian literary landscape has become more complex than it was when I was a younger writer. I suppose that then and now, aspiring writers are seeking a tribe that is nurturing. Many of us looked to the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) and found the community to be a safe one. I wouldn’t be a writer today without ANA. Writers leave Nigeria because they want to grow, and because there is something they need that Nigeria is not providing. One of Nigeria’s biggest failures is its sluggishness in supporting young people with creative talent.
LitVo: You founded the Ake Arts and Book Festival, a highly commendable feat it is. How are you using the festival to ensure that the youth can access the literary scene?
Lola Shoneyin: The primary goal of the Ake Arts and Book Festival is to promote, develop and celebrate creativity on the African continent. It’s a continent-wide initiative and we look both ahead and we are interested in where we are coming from. It’s important that we celebrate that generation of writers that paved the way for us, whilst acknowledging the fantastic work being done by creatives working at this present time. We are passionate about engaging the youth. During the festival, we take our guest writers into schools to read to, speak with and interact with pupils. We call it ‘Project Inspire!’ Beyond this, we invite young people to host events and moderate discussions. My administrative team is quite young, so I am fortunate to have very loud youth voices talking into my ear when I am curating the festival.
LitVo: How does it feel to have somebody you are working with win the Nobel prize for literature? What’s the nature of his relationship with Ake?
Lola Shoneyin: It feels amazing. It feels like an African literary festival has its finger on the pulse of important happenings on the African literary scene. Abdulrazak Gurnah has been a joy to work with. He’s been very generous and very kind. We’re all incredibly proud of him.
LitVo: Black Africa is picking the prize for the first time in over thirty years. Does this second but late coming suggest a slow growth of literature on the continent? Do you think Africa is adequately represented on world literature map?
Lola Shoneyin: I’m interested in the African literary map, and how it can be populated with quality writing by Africans. That’s my focus for now. Everything else will fall into place.
LitVo: Attending the Ake festival would be a dream come true for a lot of young writers I am familiar with. Do you think myself and my co-interviewers at Literature Voices could have a chance at this opportunity sometime? We have so many questions just waiting to be answered, and the answers to those questions lie on the lips of your guests at Ake festival. Is this possible in the coming years?
Lola Shoneyin: Ake festival attracts young writers, young thinkers, young artists, and young culture enthusiasts. I am passionate about creating a comfortable and conducive environment for young writers. This was cooked into the original idea of the festival. It is always an honour to meet emerging literary stars. The festival is online so everyone can access the conversations and all the different events free of charge.
LitVo: Thank you very much ma’am for this opportunity. It was a great pleasure chatting with you. This interview has been quite insightful. I look forward to more opportunities like this.
Halima Ahmad Katun has a Bachelor of Law Degree (LL. B) from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria where she was an executive member of the Creative Writers’ Club, Kongo Campus. She also served as a Public Relations Officer, Secretary and finally Head of Drama and Publicity in the institution. Her work was featured in an Anthology on sexual violence: “My Name Is Sorrow”, published by the Creative Writers’ Club, Kongo. She is from Niger State and a member of the Hill-Top Creative Arts Foundation, Minna. She holds strong views on human rights, feminism, gender inequality and violence. She loves to read more than she loves to write. Email- firstname.lastname@example.org, Instagram – haleemah_katun, Facebook – Haleemah Ahmad Katun, Twitter- haleemerh_katun, WordPress – haleemerhkatun.wordpress.com, LinkedIn- Halima Ahmad.