Lola Shoneyin: Writer, Thinker, Creator
There are three types of people in life – the thinkers, the doers, and those who excel at both. Lola Shoneyin easily falls into the third category. Shoneyin, who describes herself as “passionate, feisty, expressive, loving and honest”, won the Pen Award in America as well as the Ken Saro-Wiwa Award for prose in Nigeria. She was also on the long list for the Orange Prize in the UK for her debut novel The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives in 2010.
Speaking on her critically acclaimed novel, she says that the main inspiration was a story told to her by her brother’s girlfriend when she was 14 years old. “She told me about this particular situation, where a man had dragged his youngest wife – he was an Igbo man and he had three wives – to the hospital, complaining that she was barren and of course, as part of the medical investigation he had to undergo a series of tests as did his wives and what they found out devastated the whole family.”
Her personal experiences are also reflected in the book. “On the other hand, both my grandfathers were polygamous, so I always thought that it was very interesting how that played out in the lives of my parents, especially my mother, whose mother was the first wife and therefore just really unhappy about the notion of polygamy. I just wanted to write that story and look at how our perceptions are changing as Nigerians, as Africans. How we view polygamy, for instance, vis-à-vis culture, modernity, that’s it.”
The most important thing about writing the novel for her was, “the humanity, how a family deals with really serious, life-shattering challenges.”
From her time as a teacher in the UK and in Nigeria, she has led a life inspired by impacting knowledge, encouraging critical thinking, and building self-identity. One of her most successful ventures, Ake Arts and Book Festival, was inspired by the need to have African creatives dialogue and engage the African audience, and the urgent need to provide a viable platform for this to happen.
“I’m a writer and I often go abroad to different festivals. I am also invited to contribute to panel discussions, to talk about my experience as a novelist…I find myself in a position where people are asking me about Nigeria, people are asking me about Africa, people are asking me about culture. And a lot of the time, I am often quite defensive. If I am in front of a crowd that is often not African, I don’t want to portray my people in a negative light.” For her, the question then became, “How do I organise a festival in Nigeria, on African soil, where I will have black African creatives in dialogue with other creatives from other parts of Africa and together, they are engaging African audiences?”
Since its inception, the festival has been able to connect more young people to African literature by de-emphasising profit-making.
“There are a lot of young people who save money every month to come to Ake to buy their books for the year because we sell our books at discount prices. We are a charity and profit just doesn’t come into the equation for us. It’s about how and what can we do to get books into people’s hands, so I think that’s wonderful.”
Ake Festival is not limited to building the bridge between African literary books and those interested readers. Festival-goers are able to meet some outstanding authors from Africa and the Diaspora, who are able to inspire them.
“A lot of people having come to Ake Festival, having come in contact with the incredible number of writers, artist and filmmakers that we invite, feel empowered to go and pursue their dreams.”
Ake Festival, she says, has impacted on the economy of Abeokuta, the Ogun State capital where it is held annually.
“Ake Festival does amazing things for Abeokuta. If you are trying to get a hotel in Abeokuta at this time, it’s always rather complicated because all the rooms are fully booked. The fact that we are here, is having a wonderful effect and enriching impact on the environment.”
The impact is also reflected in an ecosystem of art and literary lovers as she says. “We had over 320 applications for volunteers from all over the country and continent. And that is incredible when people are actually looking at the arts and looking at it as something that is important enough to want to be a part of it, and that really just warms my heart.”
Running a festival of that size and reach can be a daunting task, especially in a country with a low appreciation for literacy and arts. How does Shoneyin attract the number of people who travel to the ancient city of Abeokuta just for the festival?
We are “constantly looking at ways to reinvent ourselves; constantly looking at opportunities for improvement but the biggest and the most beautiful thing is the demographics of the people that we engage and the fact that it keeps getting younger.” Sharing another factor that has challenged the status quo, she says, “our panel discussions are so lively and stimulating, we have highly intelligent people sitting down, talking about issues fearlessly because we have created a safe space and that’s really important.”
Regardless of all the positives, Shoneyin wishes Abeokuta residents would show more interest in the festival that happens right under their nose. Most of the participants at the festivals come from places like Lagos, Abuja and even from outside Nigeria.
From her debut novel which discusses polygamy in Nigeria, to her work with the festival, to Book Buzz Foundation, and most recently Ouidah Books, Shoneyin is a woman who is set in defining the standards for literacy in Nigeria. She says her driving force has “always been to create.”
“I love bringing people together and I love seeing them enjoying themselves and also engaging their minds. I think that is so powerful because sometimes I feel like, in Nigeria, if your parents aren’t telling you what direction to go to, it is the religious institution that you belong to (that’s doing so).”
Shoneyin’s ventures are all aimed at improving critical thinking, the formation of informed opinions and starting discourse. She explains,
“When you come to an event like this and you are listening to two different points of view, even though you’re not contributing verbally, your mind is dancing from one side to the other…I think it’s a really powerful thing because we’ve got to do what we can as a country to encourage critical thinking and to just get people to be able to reason and take their own decisions.”
Speaking of being a feminist in Nigeria, Shoneyin reveals, that she sees herself “as a feminist (even) before it became fashionable in Nigeria.” She believes that feminism in the country is about two things – opportunity and choice.
“Opportunities that are available to men, have to be available to women. I feel we do a great disservice as a country by not letting women flourish, by not giving them the opportunity to do what they want to do; I think we suffer, we are less productive, we are less powerful or empowered economically. It’s about choice as well; when you’re an adult, it’s about ‘what do I really want to do?’ not ‘what does society want me to do?’ not ‘what do my parents want me to do?’ and not ‘what does my husband want me to do?'”
She goes on to say,
“Being able to choose is very important; being able to be economically empowered is very important and independent; being able to say, ‘I want to be a politician’ and be able to go for it and not need to compromise yourself in any way, is very important.”
Shoneyin is also very passionate about people having and developing ideas. She says,
“Just make people have ideas, make them want to develop their ideas. Make them feel empowered to have ideas… When you read a book, it makes you think; when you listen to an interesting conversation, you form your own opinion and you develop your own ideas. For me, that’s what it’s all about. I have seen how you can function in a situation where you are not encouraged to use your brain. I have seen what the consequences are for children. The potential is there but you are not doing anything to set it free and to let it grow. There is too much of that going on in our society, so all these things are like providing a counter-narrative and that’s how I see it. If there was more space for people to think, do things and create, I just feel we would all be happier.”
If there is any preconceived societal notion she will like to eradicate, it is the notion that “there are certain things in this life that you cannot do and I think that is what books teach us through those characters”.
Shoneyin is always creating, her mind is always buzzing and new projects are on her mind like a task on her to-do list. Potential collaborators are not in short supply.
“I had a magical conversation with a bank today who wants us to organise a festival in Lagos. We are also working on the right-to-write project; we are working with Adamawa, Kaduna, Borno, Katsina and Bauchi state and it involves training twenty writers from Northern Nigeria and five illustrators, and the idea is to train them over a period of 18 months and they complete a manuscript.
“We are also training young people in the universities in media, how to use the media safely and how to tell their own stories using film clips and photographs. We are working in partnership with Africultures which is an organisation in France, and it’s something we are very excited about doing over the next few months, and (there are also) lots of collaborations with the Edinburgh festival.”
Towards the end of the interview, Shoneyin reveals her true essence – being creative is not a choice. It is a must. It is what makes tick. “There are lots of inspiring things coming up and that’s how I like to live my life. I need to be inspired on a daily basis, boredom is unhealthy for me,” she concludes.