By Wana Udobang
Lola Shoneyin is a poet and novelist. Her collections of poetry include All The Time I Was Sitting On An Egg and Song Of The Riverbird. Her novel, The Secret Lives Of Baba Segi’s Wives is a tragicomic tale of the four wives of a Nigerian patriarch. The critically acclaimed Baba Segi as the novel is now fondly called was long listed for the 2011 Orange prize for fiction.
After meeting Shoneyin at a book reading, you discover that her personality and energy is as electrifying, exhilarating and as explosive as the characters she writes about. Shoneyin writes about her characters affectionately, even with their flaws, she gives them colour with her use of language, she humanises with their history and despite the darkness, keeps the reader chuckling through the pages.
Reading some of your poems and this novel, sex is an ever present theme. I recently attended a talk on erotica and one of the panellists made a comment that “The ultimate freedom is our ability to come to terms with our own pleasures”. I also remember during a part of your TED lecture, you saying that sex was a metaphor for freedom. Firstly, what is this freedom for you? And secondly, do you think as women around the world, we are groomed without a sense of ownership of our bodies, or understanding of our own pleasures, or perhaps what we should and shouldn’t enjoy is still being dictated to us?
Freedom for me is being able to speak and act in a way that gives me personal fulfilment, without the constraints of a vigorously hypocritical society and without causing anyone distress. Sex, as a theme, is important to me because even though across religions and societies it is an essential ritual that ought to be pleasurable, we have found ways to bleed the pleasure out of it, we have taught ourselves to suppress that which is instinctive. The woman is targeted here. She has become the one who cannot, must not enjoy sex, as if sexual pleasure for her translates to promiscuity and narcissism. This is of great interest to me.
It is this lack of courage and ownership that sometimes prompts me to create female characters and poet personae for whom sex is complex. This is the truth. Like freedom, sex has been made complex for a lot of women. This shouldn’t be the case.
The sex in this book is what I will describe as graphically subtle, as though your grandmother is describing sex to you in many ways and you feel the impact of what she is saying without using the words you think she should use. Was this the writer’s less aggressive way of saying something?
The sex scenes are graphic but matter-of-fact, not gratuitous. I struggled sometimes, and toned things down so readers do not engage with sex scenes at the expense of the story. Nevertheless, I wasn’t going to discard my personal style. My friends who read my book say they can hear my voice. The fact that I am a Remo girl who grew up with five brothers means that I am not a shrinking violet when it comes to calling genitalia what it is. I call it by its name while carrying deep respect for it.
When reading reviews and other pieces about your book, Bolanle seems to be driven as the central character but I feel like it’s made of an ensemble cast even though her arrival is what drives the plot. From the reviews you have seen what do you find to be the interesting misconceptions of the work?
To be honest, I don’t read a lot of reviews. They are a distraction. I’m one of those people who cannot watch themselves on the TV or read interviews in the papers. I cringe. Reviews can cut you quite deeply when people misinterpret your intentions. It’s not worth the anguish, especially when you know that some people in Nigeria will write unsavoury things in order to draw attention to themselves.
In the novel, Bolanle has some unsavoury experiences and she spends a large part of her time in the story in a perpetual haze. During your reading at the Life House, you said you wanted to use Bolanle to shed light on the issue of depression. In this space, where we have something of a disease priority list, how dangerous is it that depression is still dismissed as a serious mental illness?
It’s horrifyingly dangerous. In Nigeria where there is a very high rate of employment amongst the youth, where young girls are married off to old men who basically rape them, where women are put through unspeakable trauma when they lose their husbands, where young people do not have access to basic amenities but see development in other African countries on the internet, where girls are blamed for the sexual abuse they experience, inevitably, mental health has been and is going to be a huge problem.
I think religion is doing a good job of masking these issues. People believe you can pray mental health sickness away, they believe that the discovery or worship of Jesus Christ is accompanied by an inexplicable euphoria. Many have become adept at putting on these performances, by faith, even when they are dying inside, but most cannot pretend… so they are dragged to exorcisms and deliverances.
One of the problems is that Nigeria does not have the number of specialists required to deal with the magnitude of the problems. We live in denial. When things explode, and they will if we don’t develop a more profound understanding of mental health, we will not be prepared.
We live in such a judgemental, superficial society. We are obsessed with an unattainable perfection. When we find that someone in the family suffers from mental health issues or disabilities, we are most concerned about the stigma and those who might laugh at us. Even when we strive for a solution, it is driven by this fear of disgrace. We must start understanding that many people who suffer from mental health problems will never be completely cured. As such, we need to learn to help manage their conditions. That is the sole reason why we are able-bodied and ‘normal’: so we can support the needy, the broken, the depressed, those who society has damned.
The back stories of the women in the novel create a sense of prior history, ambition, emotion and even prior encounters with their own sexualities. But in our highly patriarchal communities, we have labels of daughter and wife and everything in between is meant to be a vacuum. What is your take on the evolution of the female in contemporary Nigerian society and even African society? For you what are the dangers regarding this kind of identity suppression and sometimes lack of it?
The Nigerian/ African society has changed in the last hundred years. Sometimes, I don’t know if it’s for the better. So many elements of our cultures, especially the part of us that lives and let’s live, the ingredient which made us tolerant has been lost. With foreign religions has come a very hypercritical streak. There is a condemnatory tinge in the way we regard other ethnic groups, other genders, other religions. This has fed nicely into the patriarchal societies.
I remember one of your twitter updates, where you had read a review of your book described as Chick Lit. Any responses?
It wasn’t a review. That silliness can be found in an article written by Ellah Allfrey for Guardian UK. Believe it or not, she worked as an editor at JonathanCape for many years and is now one of the editors at Granta. I don’t think Ms Allfrey read the novel, in which case it was totally unprofessional to classify it that way. Either that or she just doesn’t know what chicklit is, which is, at best, disappointing.
I am not knocking chicklit. It is enjoyed by hoards of women and personally, I’m up for anything that encourages people to read more. However, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives is not chicklit. I sincerely hope Ms Allfrey knows that now.
In the book, you take on different voices and so the pages shift from first person narrative to third person, so you let each wife tell their story themselves instead of telling it for them. What prompted that decision?
I wanted readers to ‘hear’ directly from the wives. This opportunity does not come about very often. Women in polygamous homes are often cagey about their personal views because there is too much at stake. A wife seen to be exposing matrimonial secrets could jeopardise her place in the family. Yet, every woman has a story. In my head, I created an invisible character that they could all talk too, hence the conversational tones of each narrative voice.
Baba Segi reads to me like a televised play, that was written in Yoruba and then translated. As the creator of the work, are my assumptions on the right track?
I first heard the story when I was fourteen years old. The second of my five brothers had a girlfriend who was a medical student at the local teaching hospital. She would often come over to our house and tell us about her interesting day-to-day experiences. As soon as she told me this story of the polygamist, I could see the tragic element, as well as the farcical. It had great dramatic potential so I decided that I would one day write it as a play. Twenty years on, I was at a low point because I couldn’t get a publisher for my unpublished novel. Out of frustration, I ran the story of Baba Segi by my agent. She loved it and I started working on it straight away. Most of the ‘scenes’ would be played out before me on an invisible stage before I actually started writing them down. That’s how I write. I see it first.
What kinds of stories do you like to read?
I like short novels that are under four hundred pages where the plot thickens quickly and characters themselves display astuteness and sensitivity, where there’s humour and some irony. I write what I like, in that I write what I like to read.
As someone whose work was long listed for the Orange prize, do you feel any level of validation by winning prizes?
I fret when I am nominated for awards; I feel exposed and vulnerable. My partner constantly tells me to just pause and enjoy these moments. He’s right. I feel very lucky that The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives has done so well in winning the prizes it has won but I don’t read anything into them. I don’t let myself. I still have too much to learn.
Humour seems integral to your writing both as a poet and a fiction writer. If you were forced to analyse your own work, what do you think it adds to the darkness?
A light-hearted interrogation of society that precipitates serious evaluation.
As someone who is a writer, a teacher, a woman, a mother and a wife, what does feminism mean to you?
Feminism for me is about creating an enabling environment for women, especially in societies like ours where the doors have been shut in their faces. It’s is about women regaining complete control of their bodies. It’s about the luxury of having options, the value of being able to make make choices.
Sula by Toni Morrison
Probably Avatar. A lot of my friends hold this against me but I don’t have any hang-ups about its commercial appeal. I like what I like.
Book you wish you wrote?
The books I wish I’d written are full of pain and anguish. So, although there is something beautiful about the tragedy, I can’t imagine what it must have taken out of the author. We have to be careful what we wish for sometimes.
What’s your take on writing with a message or writing for art sake?
I believe in the freedom of expression the freedom of interpretation.
Do you think art should always have something to say?
Not if it feels like being silent.
This article was originally published on www.guerillabasement.com