Lola Shoneyin, who attended the renowned Iowa International Writers Programme, Iowa, USA, in 1999, set out as a poet and a short story writer before making a name as a novelist. Her first volume of poetry, So All the Time I was Sitting on an Egg, was published by Ovalonion House, Nigeria, in 1998. Her second volume of poetry, Song of a Riverbird, was published in Nigeria (Ovalonion House) in 2002. Her novel, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives (2010), won international acclaims. Cassava Republic Press, Nigeria, published Shoneyin’s third poetry collection, For the Love of Flight, in February 2010 the same year Mayowa and the Masquerades, a children’s book, was also published by it. In April 2014, she was named on the Hay Festival’s Africa39 list of 39 Sub-Saharan African writers under 40 with potential and talent to define trends in African literature. She is the director of the annual Aké Arts and Book Festival. Henry Akubuiro spoke to her on her writings.
You are a poet, a children’s literature author and a novelist. What’s the secret of writing effectively across genre?
Poetry was my first love, the genre that comes most naturally to me. In the 1990s, there were so many poets around to learn from and share your work with. I miss that. I find fiction to be much more involved, more demanding. Writing for children comes with its own complexities but the delight on the faces of children makes it worthwhile. I say all this, because I am not sure there’s a secret. I read what I like and I write what I like, when I like. That kind of freedom is very important to me.
Your first three published works were poetry offerings, So All the Time on an Egg (1998) and Song of a River Bird (2002), and For the Love of Flight (2010).
What has happened to the poet in you as fiction seems to have taken over given the poetic lull for six year running?
The poet in me is alive and well, although not getting as much attention as I would like. I still write poetry but not often enough. I have been working on my fourth collection, Feather in Nest, for years. The thing is: I am not just one thing. I am not only a writer. There are several other aspects of my life that require my attention, motherhood being one. I negotiate this multi-layered nature of my every day life by prioritising. And if, in the process, writing is relegated, I just accept it as temporary. I don’t sweat over it.
Mayowa and the Masquerades earned you the 2011 ANA/Atiku Abubakar Prize for Children’s Literature. What fascinated you about masquerade, given that its many secrets are shielded from women in traditional African society?
That book was very much about nostalgia, the things about my childhood that I miss, and the things that I fear my children will never experience. Apart from being a story, Mayowa and the Masquerade is a time capsule. Children often ask how adults used to entertain themselves before the Internet, in the days when you had to wait until dusk before TV stations started broadcasting. That children’s book is my answer to such questions. When I was a kid, I loved the flamboyance of Remo masquerades. They were an important element of festive seasons which my family spent in Ilisan-Remo. I was always jealous of my brothers, because I couldn’t participate in the way that they did.
The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives has just been translated to French…
Yes, it has. It’s wonderful when a creative work is exposed to new audiences. It is both exhilarating and exhausting when you have to keep talking about the same book, but I am extremely excited at the thought of going to France to promote it.
In The Secret Wives of Baba Segi, a book longlisted for the 2011 Orange Prize, you utilised the first-person and third-person narrative techniques. What informed the deployment of both techniques?
I had a canvass of characters who were all critical to the telling of the story, so I felt it was important to reveal their back stories. Who better to do this than the characters themselves, in their own words? I used the third person narrative voice whenever the story was taking place in the present, to give the reader a glimpse into their home life, and how Baba Segi and his wives interacted.
Attempts by Bolanle’s co-wives to poison her boomeranged. How sympathetic were you to Bolanle at this juncture with this twist in narrative?
I adore Bolanle and always imagine how different her life might have been if she hadn’t been sexually abused. Bolanle in the The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives is based on the life of young woman I met eleven years ago. She had been horribly violated at sixteen years old and the family’s position was to keep it quiet and never talk about it, so as not to ruin her prospects of finding a good husband. This woman suffered incredible psychological trauma and she never recovered from the experience. This sort of thing happens too often in our country. Victims of sexual abuse are expected to be silent while their abusers go on with their lives and rarely have to confront the consequences of their actions. For this reason alone, Bolanle had my sympathy throughout the writing of the novel. I never for a moment lost sight of how she was feeling or what she was thinking.
You are both the founder of Book Buzz Foundation and the Ake Arts & Book Festival. What has the experience been like?
It has been hugely fulfilling. I love that, along with a team of incredibly talented people, we have been able to create a cultural hub. It’s been a case of “if you build it, they will come”. We are delighted that it has become a space where creatives and consumers of culture troop to every year. One of the ways we know how much the festival has grown is that we, the organisers, have no idea who 90% of the attendees are. I really want to thank you to those who come to Abeokuta for cultural immersion. They are the MVPs.
I am tickled by your biography which listed four dogs alongside four children among your possessions. How priceless are these dogs and how did you come to love dogs?
Possessions? I have never thought of my children as my possessions. Nobody can truly claim to own another human being. The same way it is naïve for one human being to feel they can say where another belongs. I grew up with dogs. We always had them around the house as guard dogs but mostly as pets. We grew to love them, to talk to them, to be able to read their expressions and understand their personalities. Sadly, we’ve lost all our dogs in the space of two years, mainly due to old age. I was heartbroken with the passing of each one of them. Figuring out how to break the sad news to my children gave me sleepless nights, because I knew they would be devastated.
You admitted loving Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Sylvia Plath, Ntosake Shange, et al. What’s the connecting point between you and these writers?
And Anne Sexton! I love their writings for different reasons. Sometimes, it the sense of adventure and their delight at self-discovery. Poets like Plath and Sexton articulate melancholy effortlessly whilst also capturing the inexplicable nature of it. This is something I admire.
You were disappointed when UK publishers rejected your second novel, Harlot. Is there any physiological impact that trails such rejections? How did you handle it?
It was same disappointment that led to the birth of Baba Segi. I cried sometimes when it was a publisher I really admired. If the reason was tokenistic or patronising, I would whine to my agent. The writing world is very competitive, and there are hundreds of fine writers whose works don’t get anywhere near the praise they deserve. In the West, a lot of it is down to marketing. I guess that’s what is so important about Ake Festival. I love that people come to discover and listen to new and established authors from different African countries.
Your next novel will be published soon. What is this work of fiction all about?
It is set in Lagos in the 2000s. It is a domestic, but very different to The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. It explores disappointment, the social media age, perception, the desperation approval. The working title is ‘Comfort’ which, in the story, is both a name and a desire.