Nigerian poet, writer, publisher and festival organiser Lola Shoneyin was in Nairobi this week for the Artistic Encounters event that happens at the Goethe Institut in Nairobi. She is the writer of The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives and three volumes of poetry.
Is this the first time that you are coming to Nairobi?
It’s not the first time that I am coming Nairobi but it’s the first time that I discovered the roasted corn on the cob with lime, chilli and salt, which is itself a fantastic revelation. The reason that I was here was to attend an event at the Goethe Institut, where I had the privilege of being in conversation with Zukiswa Wanner. I then saw Maimouna Jallow perform her one-woman play based on my novel, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, and had a book signing on Friday at another Nairobi revelation, Prestige Bookstore, with its wonderful collection of contemporary and old African and international literature.
The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives is based on a polygamous man with three uneducated wives who have given him many children. When he marries the educated fourth wife, she fails to conceive to their mutual distress. How has this book being received?
I feel very lucky because it has been very well received. It has been sold now to ten different markets. There are German, Dutch, Turkish, French and Hebrew translations, and I think the Norwegian edition is coming out this year. I often refer to it as the gift that keeps on giving because it is always a very pleasant surprise when my agent calls me and says that they have sold the rights (again).
In terms of the story itself, it continues to resonate with people and it continues to find new readers who seem to find parallels either in their lives or with people that they know. Just recently, a man declared on Twitter that it was advisable for all men in Nigeria to go and do DNA tests for their kids because there was a different story of man who had all these kids only to discover that he hadn’t sired them.
Every time there is a story that has to do with a polygamous or even monogamous situation and there is some sort of uncertainty around the paternity of the children, people are constantly referencing my novel. More than that, I find that when people are trying to describe women who are wily or women who are in control of their circumstances to the detriment of their husbands or partners, again that is a situation where you will have people saying that she is like “Iya Femi” or “Iya Segi”. It has been the wonderful occurrence for me as a writer that people remember the story.
This wasn’t the first time that your book was adapted for stage.
It was first performed in 2013 as a full production at the Ake Festival. I was approached by Femi Elufowoju Jr who said that he wanted to do the stage adaptation and we managed to get Caine Prize winner Rotimi Babatunde to write it for stage with Femi directing it. I feel that it wouldn’t have been my preferred play to stage at the festival that I was organising but I was most encouraged by the other people who were involved in the production. I felt that since people were so keen to see it on stage, maybe just give them the opportunity to see that performance.
Tell us about the Ake Book & Arts Festival, which you founded in 2013. How did it come about and what has it done to the Nigerian literary scene?
It came about as a result of me going to Europe in my capacity as an author and being in a situation where people were asking me questions about Nigeria, about the culture, and about Africa. I realised I wanted to have those conversations but with Africans in the audience. Because when you are talking about our traditions, culture or politics how useful is it really when you are having that discussion in say Italy when the kind of feedback you are looking for is from speaking to other Africans?
As a writer, you are in a situation where you find that you are at a festival and you are one of two black authors or the only African author, you start developing a hunger for situations where the majority of authors are African. That is what happened with me; I felt there was a
need to create a cultural hub where African authors, creatives, film makers, poets, could come together to talk about issues that are important to Africans.
How has the response been in Nigeria and the wider literary community in Africa?
It has been pretty phenomenal. In Nigeria we have an annual exodus, a pilgrimage, where people come from all over the country to attend the festival and be part of the energy that the authors that we invite have been able to create.
It has become quite a special place. A lot of people who were not readers before have started reading books. A lot of people save their money to purchase books because we sell at discount prices. What I think is also wonderful is that a lot of people from other countries have started talking about replicating what we do. You want people to network at the event but also go and start new things. That has been the most fulfilling thing for me.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o was the headline artist at the Ake Festival last year. Why did you pick him?
I want to do everything to celebrate in our own little way the trailblazers, the first generation African authors, who have given us so much and who paved the way for so many of us. We have had Wole Soyinka headline the festival before and we had Prof Niyi Osundare. We had Ngugi with us last year.
He has always been for me such a fascinating man both for his personal life story but also his work. The fact that he has been very focused on promoting African languages has been of great interest to me. It’s important that we celebrate these authors and show that we appreciate them and recognise and acknowledge what they have done for us while they are still with us.
You have a new literary festival that is happening soon.
We are going to have the Kaduna Book and Arts Festival, which is taking place from July 5 to 8. What is special about this festival is that it is happening in Northern Nigeria. We have seen instances where some of the leaders (in that part of the country) have burnt books (in public).
We have seen situations where there has been a lot of censorship of writing. We are also aware that there has been a lot of religious violence in those regions. Boko Haram in itself means “Western education is forbidden” and by extension that means reading and having access to fiction.
This sort of festival celebrates the creativity that does exist in those regions. It also draws attention to the incredible number of writers, of artists, of poets who are from that region who, for all sorts of reasons, have not had the sort of audiences that can give them a national or continental relevance that they would ordinarily deserve.
You’ve also set up a publishing firm called Ouida Books; why did you see the need to set up another publishing firm?
We have lots of publishers in Nigeria from Parrésia to Cassava Republic to Quramo who are doing amazing things. For me, Ouida Books is just another outlet to add to the incredible work that has already been done. I don’t think you can have too many publishers. I don’t think that you can have too many companies who are seeing to it that great work is published and put in other people’s hands. That is the driving force.
One of the other great things about Ouida Books is that we do everything in Nigeria. We print in Nigeria, use Nigerian illustrators, and Nigerian designers. It’s a book that is completely made in Nigeria.
A lot of publishers complain about the quality of printing but I feel that if we don’t keep giving them a chance they are not going to start producing books of the quality that we want.
In the long run, it will drive down the price. If less people print in China and India and more people publish in Nigeria it makes it more competitive.