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Lola Shoneyin

Shoneyin has written three volumes of poems: So All the Time I was Sitting on an Egg (1998); Song of a Riverbird (2002) and For the Love of Flight (2010). Her debut novel, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives (Serpents Tail), is out next month in the UK. Shoneyin's children's book, Mayowa and the Masquerades, is also out later this year. She currently works at an international school in Abuja, Nigeria, and lives with her partner, four children and four dogs. Lola Shoneyin is a fellow of the Iowa International Writer's Programme.


 Between Pa Zuma and Baba Segi

: Your first poetry collection appeared in 1998 and your reputation as a writer has been built on your work as a poet. (Indeed you cannot resist making the title of your first novel a short poem.) Has your debut novel, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives been long in the writing or has it simply taken long to find a suitable publisher?

L.S.: It is true that I have been better known as a poet but I have always written prose. My unpublished collection of short stories was shortlisted for an ANA [Association of Nigerian Writers] prose prize in 1999. I developed a passion for poetry in the early 90s, proving that you produce what you consume. I had an insatiable appetite for American poetry. I loved everything from Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, to Ntosake Shange, from Sylvia Plath to Allen Ginsberg, from Langston Hughes to Anne Sexton.

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives is actually the third novel I’ve written in the last ten years. It’s a classic case of third time lucky. With my first novel, I didn’t allow myself to have any real expectations because I suppose I was still finding my voice, but I was very disappointed when I couldn’t sell Harlot, my second novel. After being roundly rejected by many UK publishers, I needed a new project, a fresh idea, so I decided to go with a story I’d wanted to write for many years. I started writing The Secret Lives in 2005 but I have had months on end when I was caught up in studying or work, therefore unable to give it the attention it deserved.
Getting a publisher is just the beginning. After signing a book, the work goes into a queue and might not hit the shelves for another eighteen months to two years. Writing in the West, you learn to master the waiting game. Serpents Tail is publishing my novel in the UK.

: Confession Time: The Secret Lives has such an aroma of 'lived' truth. Are you by any chance one of a (happier) harem... or was it all observation and writerly research?

L.S.: I’d be lying if I said I did much research. The only times I needed help was when I was writing the hospital scenes. Ike Anya and my husband, Olaokun, were my medical consultants. With everything else, I created the world of Baba Segi, using a number of stories from different sources, stories I’d heard over the years. Growing up in Nigeria, it’s hard not be confronted with the everyday realities of polygamous families, through friends and relatives. You don’t have to live in a polygamous home to appreciate the extent of the bitter rivalry, the intrigue and competitiveness at its most unhealthy. The worst part was seeing lovely women tearing themselves to pieces, fighting for the affections of the man who pitched them against each other in the first place.

: How 'alive and well' is polygamy in Africa?

L.S.: I don’t know the figures for other African countries but in Nigeria, it’s not dying the natural death I’ve hoped for. I used to think there was a correlation between the rise of education and the fall of polygamy but this hasn’t been clear cut: I see more and more seemingly educated people from my generation opting to take a second wife. This happens mostly amongst my Muslim friends who justify it by saying their religion allows it. For me, the only thing that drives polygamy is greed.

: Is Jacob Zuma the face of the future?

L.S.: I certainly hope not! I was absolutely horrified to read about Jacob Zuma taking that beautiful, buxom lady as his third wife. I know polygamy is legal in South Africa but African leaders have a responsibility to practise the less destructive elements of our culture, rather than promoting traditions that are opposed to liberty. What example has he set for the young men and women in a country that has been so tragically ravaged by AIDS? Africa fantasises about the idea of development but surely institutions such as polygamy are antithetical to this. We should be building a society where women are empowered, where there are equal job opportunities, where women know that their success in life will not be based on how conveniently they can wedge themselves between a man’s thighs - any man’s thighs.

Recently in Nigeria, two of the president’s daughters were married off to two governors from the Northern region of the country. One became a third wife and the other joined a polygamous home as the fourth. I’m not saying people shouldn’t marry the people they fall in love with but it seemed all too convenient that two sisters married state governors in such quick succession. One has to ask: were these politically-motivated marriages? Did these young women want to marry these men or have their futures been sacrificed for a pipe dream, the hope that one of these inept governors might one day become the president of Nigeria? Were these young women forced into these marriages? Or did they simply get carried away by the prospect of having unlimited access to the public purse.

Above all these though, I am concerned about the message that has been sent to young women of marriageable age across the nation. From where I’m standing, the message is clear: true love, compatibility, the prospect of companionship are no longer wise considerations when choosing a life partner; instead, marry for money, marry for position, marry for power (or the promise of power), marry because you may one day become a first lady, or in this case, a third lady.
Sometimes, I hear people talk about how peaceful their polygamous homes are/ were, how well the wives got along, how everyone was treated the same, but ask a question as basic as how many siblings they have and they will mention the names of the children from their own mothers. The truth is that the only person who is happy in a polygamous home is the man, the husband who enjoys variety, who is pampered by his women, who can take a new wife when he tires of the ones at home. Polygamy devalues women. It is regressive, and oppressive to womenfolk.

: The personal stories of Iya Tope and Iya Femi are couched in terms of a rescue from harrowing circumstances into the arms and provisions of a polygamous matrimony. What are your own personal views about the institution? Do any circumstances justify it?

L.S.: Many of the women in the novel go into polygamy as a way of escaping their harsh realities. Economically and financially, one is tempted to believe that there are benefits to polygamy. But who is to say that these women would not have found alternative lifestyles that would have catered for their emotional needs as well? I do not want to downplay the importance of financial stability for women but to join a polygamous household for this reason alone is lazy, defeatist and sad, really. What woman goes into a relationship knowing that she is only getting a fraction of her husband? Never has the phrase ‘settling for less’ been so apt.

As an institution, polygamy brings out the worst in the women involved. There isn’t one woman alive who wouldn’t rather have their husband to themselves, who wouldn’t want all the children in the household to have come from them. What this tells me is that most women who are living in these circumstances just grin and bear it. The senior wives often don’t have a choice and for their own survival, they learn to bottle up their misery and the sense of betrayal they feel. Most times, they take it out on the new wife who, justifiably, is viewed as a usurper. The newer wives know what they are in for so they come in itching and spoiling for a scrap. The tragedy here is that most of the fighting is done behind the husband’s back. In his insensitivity and ignorance, he boasts to his friends that his wives get on swimmingly.

I have had a problem with polygamy as an institution for years. In my first collection of poems, there is a poem called, ‘You Didn’t Know’ where I cite the Yoruba proverb which says, the same whip that was used in punishing the first wife will inevitably bruise the new wife. This is the true picture of polygamous homes. There is no security for the women; their self esteem is slowly chipped away until they become so desperate that they would do anything to capture their husband’s affections.

: There is a ring to the ending of The Secret Lives that suggests that you may have cracked the door open for a sequel, something about the determination of our graduate to make good. Is this instinct spot on? Will you soon be writing the Public Life of Baba Segi's Ex? Can you say ‘never’?

L.S.: I don’t often say ‘never’ but this time I can and I will. Sometimes with poetry, I feel the need to revisit a theme, or account for a shift in my perspective, but with prose, I never feel that way. The characters in The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives are locked away in a compartment in my head. I don’t think about them much these days because I have another family that I am engaged with, a family that I need to spend time with and get to know. Going back to write a sequel to Baba Segi holds no attraction for me whatsoever. I would be bored. I like the buzz, the excitement of having a new project, the newness of it in itself is thrilling.

: The razing of Iya Femi's family house could work well on a Nollywood screen. Do you see your book going there? What other contemporary African novels do you think are screaming for the screenplay treatment, why?

L.S.: I initially intended to write this story as a play because I thought it had such good theatrical value. In the writing process, I would often picture the characters on stage, picture their clothes, observe their mannerisms and expressions. I think it could be adapted for stage very effectively. With regard to Nollywood, I think this novel would make for an entertaining movie; there’s something in it for everyone.

I wish someone would adapt Jude Dibia’s novels for the big screen. There’s real drama there but I don’t know if we are ready to tackle themes like same-sex relationships in Nigeria. I also think Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sister’s Street would make a fantastic movie. Prostitution is big in Nigeria but as with most things, we prefer to look away and pretend it doesn’t really exist. We need more docudramas, films that hold up a mirror to the lives of ordinary women trying to survive.

: You have exercised such authorial restraint in your novel that it is interesting to contrast your firm anti-polygamist zeal with your sympathetic characters. Let me press you one final time on behalf of Polygamy. (As a Devil's advocate, you understand.) Do the children of polygamous homes bear more emotional scars than, say, the children of broken homes?

L.S.: I don’t know if comprehensive studies have been done on this so I can only speculate and base my argument on interaction with people from broken homes and from polygamous homes. I think both situations cause children much misery. However, in many ways, I think children from broken homes eventually adapt and come to terms with their new reality. The dissolution of a marriage does not necessarily diminish the child’s position or relevance in the family. Perhaps the most damaging thing for children born into polygamous homes is the struggle to find their place within the home. The pursuit of relevance tends to stay with them when they are eventually exposed to the outside world. They can be very insecure, constantly seeking attention and validation. This is what happens when, growing up, merit is determined by your mother’s position within the home. Conversely, the children of the most senior wives grow up with a superiority complex and an unattractive sense of entitlement. I want to repeat that these are just my observations.

: Did converts to monogamous religions who sacked their 2nd and 3rd wives and their children get it right?

L.S.: I can only talk about Christianity and I don’t know that this happens often. As a matter of fact, I know several converts to Pentecostal Christianity who have retained their second wives but who cannot, based on the New Testament, hold certain positions in their churches. If the wives have converted too, I would expect them to leave the man for his first wife and find a man who will cleave to them. Women with children from previous relationships remarry all the time. Everyone deserves to have their own partner. The idea of having to share a man is unpleasant, unless the equation can work the other way too. The children should continue to be supported by their father.

: Perhaps the time for polygamy has passed in some milieus... but, by 2020 for instance, the stats suggest that China might have 24 million more men than women. Might that open a window for another kind of polygamy: the polyandrous woman? If two brothers choose to share one wife for the most practical reason in the world, can bystanders judge them?

L.S.: Why wait till 2020? You see, for me, it is about even-handedness. If the religions that say men can have more than one wife also allowed women to take more than one husband, perhaps we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Polygamy favours men; they are able to enjoy variety and choice in ways their wives cannot. But while the mischievous side of me would love to see how men handle polyandry, I would still advise against it. How well would it work? Would it be fair on the men who predictably would be consumed by jealousy? The incidence of domestic murders would sky-rocket. The other thing is that your question runs the risk of oversimplifying the role of women in the world, in that they are only here to pleasure men or procreate. I would hope that these are not the only reasons why people marry. Why would it be necessary for the second brother to marry if he couldn’t find a wife? Why could he not be content with being a wonderful uncle? And if it is companionship he desires, why can’t he be content with his fellow men folk? You see two brothers sharing a wife, I see twelve million fulfilling male partnerships being useful to their society. China is an anomaly, you have to agree. Beside, a nation where female children have been undervalued for so long should pay a price.

: You are now back in Nigeria after a spell abroad. What is your impression of the state of readership now?

L.S.: I think it’s important to note that even in the UK, readership has dropped dramatically. In all the schools I taught in while living there, there were huge campaigns geared at improving the reading culture. When I was working in Bucks for instance, every eleven year old child was given a brand new novel of their choice. The books arrived in school beautifully-wrapped. It was like Christmas. This initiative by the government encouraged children to value books, and by extension, their own literacy.

: Any chance that the popular success of Nigerian music and film is going to reach the bookshops anytime soon? What practical steps can writers, publishers or booksellers take to raise the profile of books in pop culture?

L.S.: To answer your question, there is a big difference between books and the other elements of pop culture that you have mentioned because reading requires literacy-- a specific skill that is developed in the process of education. You don’t need to be educated to listen to music or watch films. However, if you haven’t had a formal education, you can’t access a novel! Besides this, in Nigeria, books are much too expensive to be absorbed into ‘pop culture’. Books should be subsidised but our government is not interested in literacy. It is tragic that as the rest of the world is moving beyond paper and into the electronic age, illiteracy is on the rise in Nigeria. We are travelling backwards.

My theory is that many people in government are themselves poorly-educated so it makes sense that they scorn literacy and by extension literature and reading. One also gets the impression that the government feel somewhat threatened by the prospect of a reading nation. A reading nation is a thinking nation. Thinking may not be a skill the government wants to promote because people might start to question the illogic of their actions and their malaise on key issues. The connection between reading and literacy is very real. Without increasing literacy levels through a proper education, without providing book subsidies, without a viable reading campaign directed at children in non-paying schools, there is very little that any writer, any publisher or any bookseller can do. Books will continue to be bought by the few people who can afford them – the same people who have the leisure time in which to read them.

: You mentioned that you did some 'medical research' to write your book. The ailing Nigerian president spent three months (incommunicado) in Saudi Arabia for want of a decent hospital ward in the country. Hundreds of public officers similarly travel to and fro every year for the most routine medical treatment, often at the hands of Nigerian specialists in foreign hospitals. Is there a novel - or at least a farce - there, waiting to be written? Did your research turn up some good news in medicine?

L.S.: The bulk of my research was done to address issues relevant to the novel. I needed to know, for instance, what the side effects of poisoning might be. I was born in Oluyoro Nursing Home in Ibadan where I was delivered by an Indian doctor who had left his own country to work in Nigeria. The fact that Nigerians now have to go abroad for medical treatment is something the government should be hiding their heads in shame over. How embarrassing is it that our own president couldn’t be treated in Nigeria! It is a failure of every government that has ruled this country in the last 30 years and I strongly believe that they should be held accountable for the unnecessary deaths, the absence of information, and the hordes of quack doctors that extort money from people who consult with them out of desperation.

: The Noma is given from Japan, the Caine from London. Even the Commonwealth prizes have the patronage of Her Excellency. These are among the most hallowed prizes in African Literature. Should we be slightly embarrassed that approbation comes from without, or will that be Chauvinism gone wild?

L.S.: As a continent, we have a lot to be embarrassed about. The classic example to use here is the situation in India where writers can make a living from writing, selling over 200,000 copies of their books, within India. They don’t need to rely on the West for recognition because they have considerable readership on their own shores, they have prizes that are meaningful and rewarding on their own turf. Being published in the West doesn’t mean you are the best your country has to offer. A lot of it has to do with pure doggedness, as it was in my case, being in the right place at the right time, and a whole lot of luck. Therefore, the tokenism, and the tendency of the West to saturate the world with the writers that they select saddens me. But the blame is ours, as a people, as Africans. The blame lies at the footsteps of the neophytes who impose themselves on us as rulers, who have neglected all the things that foster collective pride and focus on enriching ourselves as individuals.

There should be many more prizes funded by Africans for Africans to reward African writers. We need to build proper networks so that Anglophone Africa has access to Francophone and Lusophone African literature. We need to become self-sufficient.

: Teacher is not a major character in your novel, but in his final appearance he cunningly advocates the sack of Baba Segi's wives to secure the health of his own business. With that singular act he acquires a striking resemblance to Wole Soyinka's eponymous character in The Trials of Brother Jero, who advises the chastisement of Chume's wife for his own profit. You have just made it more difficult for men in desperate straits to take the advice of their best friends, haven't you?

L.S.: Teacher is a minor character but he is an important one to the men in the novel. Apart from selling home-made whisky which will scramble their livers, he offers them his words, spoken in his fantastic English accent. He is a clever man and he has become adept at taking advantage of people. He is a self-made god but when you listen to his turn of phrase, his use of English idioms, you realise that he gets everything jumbled. He really isn’t as wise as he portends. I hope readers will appreciate that sometimes, they have the answers to their most pressing problems. They are just not thinking deeply enough.

: For Kiitan and Jolademi are among the most poignant and beautiful poems in the collection, For the Love of Flight. Were they autobiographical? Can you share something of the inspiration that birthed these poems?

L.S.: Yes, both poems are autobiographical. I am wary of owning up to this because readers then start wondering just how much of the work in that book of poems is about my life. I realise that some of the subject matter is provocative.

Regarding For Kiitan, about nine years ago, I had to terminate a pregnancy because the baby had a crania anencephaly. In layman’s terms, this means that the baby’s nervous system didn’t develop, so the baby was unlikely to live beyond twenty-four hours. I don’t remember much after collapsing in the examination room, and then, about three weeks later I had to go back into hospital for the actual termination. It’s still a bit of a haze. I think what was most difficult from me was coming to terms with the fact that I would have to take pills which would suffocate the foetus and set off contractions. Now, I am totally in love with all my children and this process starts from the moment I know I’m pregnant.

Back to the termination, the pregnancy was too far gone so I had to deliver the baby. I experienced very painful contractions and in the end, there was no baby to show for it. I was devastated but I had to contain my sorrow for the sake of my other children. I couldn’t let myself fall apart. I knew I did the right thing because I honestly think watching my baby die soon after birth would have killed me; it would have been too much for me to handle. I was delicate for many years. The act of suspending the mourning process didn’t do me any good. Then, one night when I was home alone in High Wycombe, I consciously relived that day, those hours. I remembered every single detail and wept. I wept for hours, and out of my tears came this tribute.

I’ve read about Frida Kahlo carrying the preserved foetus of her baby around until her death. I can relate to this. In Yoruba culture, parents are not allowed to see the burial place of their own children, in order to sever the connection and manipulate memory. They are forced to expunge the memory of the child and go on as if she/he never existed. Because of this, the process of grieving is suspended. I wanted to publicly mourn this child as a way of propping up other women who may have been through the same. For Kiitan sounds so much like ‘forgotten’, doesn’t it? It’s more like a subtitle. But now, this child, like so many children/ foetuses who are forced out of the consciousness of their mothers, will never be forgotten. This poem is a tribute to them all, every single one of those babies, and every single mother.

Jolademi is about my younger son; he’s nearly six. Ever since the day I gave birth to him, he has brought me nothing but delight. I can say the same about all my children but this one always surprises me. Just last week, his classmate had a birthday party in school. As soon as I got home, Jolademi told me he had kept something for me and went to his shirt pocket to retrieve a mangled half-eaten sweet. He must have decided that he wanted me to share his sugar rush, and saved a piece for me. He is totally unselfish and I swear, his forehead smells exactly the same as it did the day I gave birth to him. He still smells new. Isn’t that something?

: The restraint of your novel seems to disappear in your poetry. In the final section of your new collection, in lines more apoplectic than token, you rail against the assassination of Bola Ige and electoral crimes in Ekiti. You slash at religion and government, likening female federal ministers to menstrual rags.... Have you turned your back on the demure ideal of the genteel poet?

L.S.: There is an activist in me because I detest injustice of any sort. I learnt a lot from the last section of Chinweizu’s Energy Crisis because he is honest and to the point, politically. This is essential, now. In the last few days, a horrific photograph of mutilated bodies has been making the rounds; various blogs and media houses have featured photographs of the wanton slaying of men and women who made the mistake of travelling from one part of the country to another in those large coaches. They were waylaid by armed robbers and all the people who didn’t have any money were asked to lie on the road. The robbers then instructed the coach driver to crush them under his tyres. This, happening in the twenty-first century! For over a week, not one government official come out to condemn these acts. When the senate awoke from their slumber, it was to blame the bus driver, suggesting he should have died a hero by refusing to drive. I still haven't heard anything from the Inspector General of police, promising to deploy policemen to these regions to protect the lives of innocent citizens.

This is a society consuming itself. In Nigeria now, being poor is a crime. The poor have no protection, no insurance, no hope. These circumstances demand directness! I doubt anyone in government will read my poems but I really feel that writers must engage with these times. History is no longer being taught in many schools. Records are being forged and tampered with. There are those who want to redefine history, to rewrite it for their own benefit. We must not allow this. Uncle Bola was special to me. He was like a second father. His death is a reminder that no one, indeed no one is truly safe in this country. I hope those who killed him remember this.

: Great culinary metaphors in your poem, Colonies: And now the Chinese are here,/chopsticks in tow /chins in their bowls /to swallow it whole /like a sweet, sour ball. Do you think then, that the growing Chinese presence in Africa represents more threat than opportunity?

L.S.: I watched a documentary about Angola where the Chinese are helping to rebuild infrastructure. The only jobs offered to Angolans were ridiculously menial, like pushing wheelbarrows. I was appalled that those who signed these deals didn’t think that a clause which meant that their own citizens would be empowered was necessary. Angolans were not being trained to better themselves economically; they were just there doing shitty work. And you know, the language barrier means there is very little communication or interaction between the Chinese workers and the Angolans. Who really benefits from these deals? I just worry, that’s all. There is much that Africans could absorb from the Chinese - the work ethic, for one – but any form of exploitation should be guarded against. Leaders should aim for the emancipation of their people, in every sense. Work that could improve the economic condition of a people should not be wholly farmed out to foreigners. What will happen when the Chinese leave? Will they ever leave?

: Instinctually, are you Remo, Nigerian, or Pan-African? Do you think the 'pan-African' political and economic movement is a faddish response to the EU, et al, or the only realistic way for Africans to negotiate their way out of the global ghetto?

L.S.: The word ‘Pan-African’ is incongruous to me because Africa, as a continent, is much too diverse, too complex to be contained in such a simple, single concept. The ideals of the average North African are completely different to those of West Africans. These days, many North African countries might as well be an extension of the Middle East. This immediately raises all sorts of issues because allegiances and interests are divided. The ideal of an Africa that is united politically, for me, is at best romantic. I have utmost respect for the founding fathers and believe that it was a necessary philosophy for those times, but I am disillusioned with it now because my belief is African countries need to start looking inwards, individually. My starting point is always to ask myself if I am proud to be African. Following this, I ask myself: okay, what exactly am I proud of? This is where it all begins to fall apart, you see. It is easier to think in smaller units, and to contribute positively and develop these smaller units. Perhaps then, we can start talking in terms of the whole—Africa.

I often think that the things that separate Nigerians are more significant than the things that bind them together. I suppose this is one of the main problems that we face in forcing the people of Nigeria together as a nation. I work in a school where we have to sing the national anthem and recite the pledge twice a week, on assemblies. There’s so much about the anthem and the pledge that doesn’t ring true. It’s like a strange mantra; it is as if we believe that if we call ourselves “compatriots”, or call Nigeria “our fatherland” enough times, we’ll start to believe it. It’s not that such a union is impossible, or unimaginable; it’s more that the odds are so deliberately stacked against those who hail from the East and the southernmost parts of the country. It’s ludicrous, therefore, to talk of “love” or “strength” or “faith” in one other. These are remote concepts to those whose lives are made unliveable. This is a country that needs to be reconfigured.

I understand the need for labels because whether or not we approve of them, human beings by nature need to make links and create points of reference. What is important is that people are more rigorous in their approach. Perhaps the question: ‘how would you like to be described?’ is one that should be asked more often.

: Your family includes four children and four dogs... is there a story here? Does every child have his/her own dog, or are you the pet lover?

L.S.: Yes, I am an animal lover but somewhat hypocritically, I draw a distinction between the ones I can consume and the ones I like to have outside my digestive system. I love my dogs because they love me back in a way that is so complete, it’s hard to describe. They would put themselves in harm’s way to protect me so I do the same for them. We have a motley crew of dogs: a Boerboel called Mandy (after Mandela), a Dalmatian called Patra (after Cleopatra), a three-legged Alsatian called Skooby and a gentle mongrel, Tinker, who sleeps on his back with his legs in the air. We just acquired them over time, they are all part of the family.

: What happens next? True, just holding it together is a full-time job in Abuja, but do you have any plans your readers should know about?

L.S.: I’m writing another novel and more poetry will follow. I’m just taking it easy. There’s no hurry. There’s something funny about living in Nigeria again: there is so much inspiration but it’s harder to be as disciplined as I need to be. I find I’m always busy doing things for other people. I look forward to a time when I can just go somewhere for a while to focus on my writing.

: Thank you for talking with . I wish you the best with your 2010 books.

it was an absolute delight talking to you. I have a very warm feeling about African Writing and I really hope it goes from strength to strength.

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