By Sam Umukoro
I always say that if there is one gift that Providence has bestowed on me, it’s the gift of empathy. If you ring me up and tell me your story, from that moment, I am living in your shoes
Lola Shoneyin carries different titles; wife, mother, poet, teacher and author. But it is the latter that has helped Professor Wole Soyinka’s daughter-in-law carve out an unmistakable identity of her own – with her maiden name.
The author of the widely acclaimed The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, her 2010 debut novel which has been translated into several languages, is as effervescent and outspoken as some of the beautiful characters in her book, and in a very charming and intelligent way.
Maybe this is because Shoneyin, who said that Providence has bestowed upon her the gift of empathy, has also, through her books, been able to harness that gift by painting words and other people’s experiences into pictures that it almost seemed like personal accounts of her own experiences – just like her debut novel; a fine tapestry of exquisite prose about polygamous marriages.
Born in Ibadan, South West Nigeria, where she spent her early years, Shoneyin went to boarding school in Edinburgh, United Kingdom. She came back to her home country and proceeded to study English at Ogun State University, although her father wanted her to study law. All things being equal, Shoneyin, who also sings, look well poised to cement her place in the elite group of Africa’s finest authors, just like her father-in-law.
In this interview, Shoneyin, who has also published two volumes of poetry and several short stories, shares the intimate world of her writing and personality.
SU: First, what influenced your decision to become a writer?
LOLA SHONEYIN: I didn’t set out to be a writer, but I was exposed to words, books, writing and creativity from a very early age. I used to start novels when I was young and poetry was very useful for me. My childhood was pretty chaotic, so being able to write things down in verses centred me. I frequently wrote poems about my juvenile anguish and stuff like that. It was when I got to university that I understood that it was of value to the consumer. I wrote a series of poems and my lecturers praised my work very highly. That was when I started taking my writing seriously.
SU: When you started writing, did you face any opposition from your parents of people that didn’t want you to go into the profession?
LOLA SHONEYIN: My dad wanted me to be a doctor, so he expected me to choose science subjects at the end of Form 3. But unbeknownst to him, I chose pure Arts subjects – Literature, Bible Knowledge, you know, and a couple of subjects from the social sciences. Although I was pretty good at the sciences, I had no interest in them. Then, my dad wanted me to study law at university. But I wrote ‘English’ when filling my JAMB forms. At my book launch in 2002, my dad told this story himself. That was when I realised how closely he had been watching me, and how my decision made him feel. He had high hopes and dreams for me, but I just took my own path. He constantly says, ‘This Lola does exactly what she wants to do.’ He’s very proud of me. He’s a supportive dad.
SU: You’re involved in children’s literature and poetry, write and direct plays, and also sing. How do you combine these with your roles as a mother and wife?
LOLA SHONEYIN: Let me address this singing thing: I don’t sing anymore. And this is not me being self-deprecating. When I hear other people sing, I shut my mouth, quickly. Bringing up kids and writing mean you marry skills that are from two different worlds. Bringing up kids involves nurturing and constant interaction. On the other hand, writing is like being in solitary confinement. I negotiate with my children and also with my work. We reach an agreement that involves a lot of give and take. When you’re in the heat of a project like writing a book, you find that you’re giving more than you ought to be giving, and taking from the kids. But I’m lucky to have kids who have come to understand what I do. Yes, I have been known to write plays, but I haven’t produced one in about twelve years.
SU: You were quite close to the late Chief Bola Ige who was a strong supporter of the arts. How was the impact of his death on the vibrant arts community in Ibadan, and you, particularly?
LOLA SHONEYIN: (Yes) I was very close to him. When I told him I wanted to publish my first collection of poems, So All the Time I Was Sitting on an Egg, he gave me N10,000. That was a lot of money in 1996. He said, ‘Go and use this to do everything you need to do to make sure this book comes out.’ I know he did the same with a lot of other authors. He was just a magnificent character, very generous, a great mentor. He would often host the Oyo Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) readings at his yard. The atmosphere was just so lively, with the wind drifting through trees. I remember reading Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou at one of such readings. And if you ever gave Uncle Bola a poem to read, he wouldn’t just glance through it, he would perform it. He made everything sound better than it was. His death was devastating and it still is. There will never be another Uncle Bola. Not for me anyway.
SU: Was it a deliberate decision not to use the Soyinka name, given that you are married to Professor Wole Soyinka’s son, or is it that you didn’t want to be seen in the shadow of the great man?
LOLA SHONEYIN: Well, most significantly, I think changing your name confuses the reading public if you’re an author. In any case, why should female authors have to change their names because their circumstances change? I find it absurd. My life has been so much simpler because I chose to stick with my original name.
SU: But in your own case, being a writer and married to a Soyinka…
LOLA SHONEYIN: It works for some, like the three generations of Desai, and then you have the Theroux where both father and son are authors. I don’t know how changing my name to ‘Lola Soyinka’ would have worked for me in this terrain. The Soyinka name and everything it stands for was pretty much established before I was born. I like that I have my own identity, my own voice, my own name. The other thing is this: using and keeping my dad’s name is a tribute to him. He has contributed so much to writing my career by pushing and encouraging me.
SU: But has marrying into the Soyinka clan conferred any privileges on you as a writer?
LOLA SHONEYIN: None at all. I heard about a conversation that took place in Northern Nigeria a few months ago. Apparently, a lady was saying really pleasant things about The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives until someone answered, ‘What do you expect, is she not Soyinka’s daughter-in-law?’ This made me laugh because Professor Soyinka didn’t even see the novel in manuscript form. I sent him the finished product – the book (because) I wanted to surprise him. I knew that he would be even more proud of me if he knew I had done it on my own. I didn’t get a leg-up. I worked my ass off! (laughs). I found an agent, got my manuscript organised, sent it out, and somehow got through all those rejections. My partner has been great though. I can’t give him enough credit for being my first editor.
SU: Let’s talk about The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. It has been translated into several languages and is one of the international bestsellers from this part of the globe. It’s also a very personal account of polygamy, yet you’re not from a polygamous home. How did you find the inspiration to write that?
LOLA SHONEYIN: I might not be from a polygamous home, but I definitely have a polygamous background. Both my grandfathers were polygamists. They had several wives, especially my maternal grandfather. He was an Oba, the Alaperu of Iperu, and he had five wives. I grew up hearing a lot of stories. It is difficult to grow up in Nigeria and not encounter people who are coping with polygamy: kids dealing with being treated like second-class citizens because they were the children of subsequent wives, or sometimes the children of the first wife, dealing with that sense of entitlement that comes with that position. When two people enter into a marriage contract, the expectations are the same on both sides. The man doesn’t feel the woman will go off, marry another man and have more husbands. That is exactly how women feel. And I’ve found that whether it’s Christian, Muslim, you come from a polygamous or monogamous home, whether you’re traditional, from the rural areas or the city, no woman goes into a marriage believing that she wouldn’t be enough for her husband. When a man takes on another wife, the message is simple: you’re inadequate. As expected, this can really damage a woman’s self-esteem. Everything else that comes after is part of a coping mechanism. The way women change is of interest to me as well, how a polygamous setting can change a woman’s personality, make them mercenary and defensive to the point of aggression. But also, I’d been reading The Lion and the Jewel, Professor Wole Soyinka’s play. Baroka disgusted me. He knew he could have any woman. He believed very much in his loins, his magic member. For him, having sex with women was like taming them. I really wanted to explore this and interrogate it.
SU: Your poetry is very personal. You’re never afraid to literally bare yourself naked. Is that a deliberate ploy?
LOLA SHONEYIN: It’s personal, but not personal in the way that people think it is. I always say that if there is one gift that Providence has bestowed on me, it’s the gift of empathy. If you ring me up and tell me your story, from that moment, I am living in your shoes; I am you. I know what you’re going through. It’s like being a method actor. That’s the way I see it. So, sometimes when I’m writing, especially in first person, it’s the poet persona. I can see how easy it is very easy for people to assume it is me. And I write about all sorts, infidelity, religion, my grandparents and their beliefs, sexual molestation and stuff like that, and these are all not necessarily my own personal experiences. Obviously, some are more personal than others.
SU: People often say that because of the unprofitability of poetry, writers cannot move to improve. Did that influence your decision to start writing prose as well?
LOLA SHONEYIN: I’ve been very lucky. The third edition of my books will be coming out soon. My three books of poems have done very well. I’ve never had a problem shifting my poetry. I think something about it resonates with people. Maybe it’s the honesty. Writing a full-length novel was a challenge I set for myself, something I wanted to do and I wasn’t going to stop until I had achieved it. It’s a real privilege to be able to express myself creatively in different ways.
SU: What was your writing routine like?
LOLA SHONEYIN: It is shit! I haven’t been able to achieve the sort of structure that I had when I was living in England. Things are very unpredictable in Nigeria. Electricity issues, noise pollution, friends stopping by unannounced – which I love. I find that my kids are more demanding now. Before, I could just send everyone to bed at 7.30. Now, they are knocking on my door at 9.30pm, asking if I’d seen some video on YouTube! So, with these changes in my life, I write when I can.
SU: Are you under pressure to write a novel better than The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives?
LOLA SHONEYIN: There’s pressure from my publisher and agent. Recently, someone asked me on Twitter when I was going to finish my next novel. It’s very flattering and I’m honoured that people want to read my work.
SU: The Ake book festival is coming up pretty soon. What influenced your decision to hold a book festival in Abeokuta, Ougn State?
LOLA SHONEYIN: For two and a half years out of the three years I lived in Abuja, I was running an arts event on the last Thursday of every month. Although there were several other organisations doing similar shows, I wanted to do something different. So, along with my partner, Dapo Oyewole, I started Infusion. It was wonderful to see how eager people were to attend. Organising arty programmes and coming up with ideas around the arts is something that I absolutely adore doing. I have a real knack for that sort of thing. The Ake Book festival just seemed like the next step, the way to go after Infusion. We’re bringing a hundred writers, artists, poets and musicians to Abeokuta in November. There will be three days of activities devoted to children, and then three days of just vibrant panel discussions with a host of colourful local and international authors.
SU: Are you going to start singing again someday, maybe an album?
LOLA SHONEYIN: What I’d like to do, and I’ve spoken to Ade Bantu, Funsho Ogundipe and a few other musicians, is some sort of collaborative endeavour. I write songs. I don’t know if I will ever be the one singing them.
This interview was first published on the website Sam Umukoro Interview.