In Conversation: Lola Shoneyin
Lola Shoneyin’s debut novel, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, is a tragic-comedy, which tells the story of Baba Segi, a larger-than-life character with a boisterous personality, his four wives and their riotous polygamous household. Set in Nigeria, Shoneyin explores and exposes the detrimental effects of polygamy on those caught up in it. In her own words, Lola Shoneyin and why polygamy is a vile institution which dehumanises women.
Belinda: What inspired The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives?
Lola Shoneyin: I started writing The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives because I was depressed about failing to find a publisher for my second unpublished novel, Harlot. I desperately needed a new project so one day, while staring at a blank page, I remembered this story that I’d been meaning to tell. The novel is based on a true story that was told to me by a medical student called Anne. She was my brother’s girlfriend when I was about fourteen.
Belinda: Who are your influences when it comes to literature or for their writing style?
Lola Shoneyin: My influences are varied and many. I would say my greatest influence is Toni Morrison. I have loved her work for a long time, right from University. I wrote my thesis on three of her novels. Apart from Morrison, I would like to think that I have been influenced by Margaret Atwood and Isabel Allende.
Belinda: How would you describe your ‘voice’?
Lola Shoneyin: I try to stay away from self-exegesis but people often say my ‘voice’ is very similar to my personality: irreverent, humorous, melancholic, unpredictable, and with a healthy dose of naughtiness.
Belinda: Each of the characters in your novel tells the story from their own perspectives. How challenging was it to write with these very different narrative voices within a story that is so succinct?
Lola Shoneyin: Uncannily, it was quite easy for me, possibly because of my personality. I have a huge capacity to empathise. I cry when watching movies, reading books and even when someone tells me a story. I invest too much of myself in other people’s troubles. And because some of the characters are based on real people, it was very natural to ‘become’ them. Despicable as some of them were at times, I tried very hard to articulate and communicate their feelings. I have a lot of love for my characters, especially the ones who make an effort to be unlovable.
Belinda: Baba Segi’s household gives readers a picture of polygamous homes within an African context. What place would you say polygamy, which some argue is an integral part of African culture, has in today’s world?
Lola Shoneyin: We must remember that polygamy does not only exist in Africa. It is acceptable in several Islamic states and is even practiced, surprisingly, by certain religious sects in America, hence the successful television series, Big Love. Where polygamy is practiced has little bearing on the devastation it causes. The novel is set in Nigeria but its focus is on some of our most basic instincts as human beings — to love and to protect. These instincts are universal and, unfortunately, they are the very ones that polygamy mutates. In today’s world, we know far too much about the way the mind works to subject or invite women into institutions that chip away at their self-esteem and ultimately dehumanise them.
Belinda: President Jacob Zuma of South Africa in recent times has brought the issue of polygamy to the fore. What’s your gut reaction when you hear about individuals in powerful positions engaging in polygamy, basing it on their cultural and tradition beliefs?
Lola Shoneyin: When I first heard about Jacob Zuma’s marriage to a third wife, I was greatly dismayed because South Africa has been ravaged by HIV/AIDS, which has been spread in part by people having multiple partners. I would therefore expect a South African leader to be apprehensive about promoting practices that validate promiscuity. I must be slow to criticise though because the late Nigerian leader, President Yar’Adua, married two of his daughters off to state governors. One became wife number three and the other joined her husband’s household as wife number four. Forgetting the fishiness of these political unions, these actions will undoubtedly force back the hand of progress regarding the psychological wellbeing of women in Nigeria.
Belinda: Do you find it puzzling that people justify polygamy, by making reference to African cultural and traditional practices?
Lola Shoneyin: It puzzles me greatly. Cultural practices are not static; they change constantly over time due to interaction with other cultures, an appreciation of medical science, and sometimes, all it takes is a broader understanding of the emotional and physical damage that some of these cultural practices bring cause. Take female genital mutilation for instance. It must have made sense a few hundred years ago to chop off the parts of a woman that enhance her sexual experience. Today, we know that the procedure is not only very dangerous, it is detrimental to a woman’s psychological and physical well being. Armed with appreciation of the human mind and body, people are working tirelessly to rid the world of this awful tradition. Polygamy causes unspeakable psychological damage to women. It should have been wiped out but this will be a complex process because too many men refuse to pass up the opportunity to having a bit of variety in the sack.
Belinda: The novel explores other themes such as family dysfunction, jealousy, deceit and poverty, and one thing that stood out for me though was Bolanle’s journey of self-discovery.
Lola Shoneyin: I invest a lot in the personal journey of my characters. At the start of the novel, Bolanle is lost because of a traumatic event that took place during her teens. She drifts into Baba Segi’s arms because she believes she will be invisible in the midst of so many women. She is also convinced becoming a polygamist is better than living with her verbally abusive mother. By the end of the novel however, Bolanle finds her place in the world again. I hope she will inspire other traumatised women to make regain control of their lives.
Belinda: The novel tugs at the heartstrings, especially when things really fall apart in the household. I could identify with the ‘food trap’ as I come from a similar background to Bolanle. How important was it for you as a writer to bring these kinds of emotional facets into your work?
Lola Shoneyin: It was important for me draw attention to at least one of the consequences of the unrelenting competitiveness that you find in polygamous homes. I was just telling it like it often is.
Belinda: When the characters tell their individual stories, their language is steeped in the rich oral tradition of African story-telling. Did this come naturally to you during the writing process?
Lola Shoneyin: I did my best to get into the mind of each character. I read every paragraph aloud after writing. In a novel that contains several first person narratives, cadence and tone are important so that readers find it relatively easy to distinguish between the characters. You will pick up on Iya Segi’s smug, self-assured, superior tone. She also has audible ticks. Iya Femi is very aggressively religious and, ironically, her nastiness is clear from the way she calls everyone by the name of one animal or another. Iya Tope uncertainty about her life is clear from the number of questions that readers are confronted with. Remember also that these characters are Yoruba. Even though the novel is written in English, I wanted it to read like Yoruba so I had to make sure everything the characters said was a direct translation, without over-simplifying the language they employed. I was conscious not to dumb-down or diminish their eloquence in Yoruba, in spite of the fact that I was writing in English.
Belinda: During the writing of this novel, you’d been living outside Nigeria for several years. Was it challenging to recall stories or the experiences captured in the novel while writing it?
Lola Shoneyin: When the ways of your people are as deeply embedded in your subconscious as they are in mine, you don’t have far to reach to recall these experiences. My grandfather was a polygamist with five wives so I grew up with a wealth of information about polygamy.
Belinda: How long did it take to write?
Lola Shoneyin: Altogether, the novel only took me about eighteen months to write because the story was resolved in my head. While writing however, I had to take a number of breaks to study and focus on my job as well. I am a school teacher and that requires attention and commitment.
Belinda: Given that you tackle some serious themes in this novel, did you consciously decide to employ humour?
Lola Shoneyin: I put my humour down to my upbringing. I grew up looking at the funny side of every situation. Writing a book without humour would be unnatural for me. I guess in many ways, the writing process pleasurable and entertaining too. I suppose most writers write what they would like to read. I am no exception. I like funny.
Belinda: In your opinion, what are the main reasons for polygamy and why do you think so many women get involved if it is so harmful for them? In a country like Nigeria, is this due to financial reasons/hardship/poverty or pressure from their family?
Lola Shoneyin: The main reason that polygamy is rife in Nigeria is that women are still defined by their marital status. Everything a woman achieves is filtered through the existence of a husband. If when women have simple altercation, the first thing onlookers do is to enquire about their marital status, and then they express sympathy for the husband, as if they are individual in your own rights and responsible for their actions. Many women would rather join a polygamous home rather than stay unmarried because married women are accorded a higher status. Apart from this, many women join polygamous homes out of desperation. 70% of Nigerians live below the poverty line so joining a polygamous has been known to improve the economic lot of the wife’s family. In this sort of environment, the emotional and psychological implications are secondary, if considered at all. So, poverty plays a huge part here, especially in areas where people have little or no education. It is worth adding that the majority of the 33% of women living in polygamous situations can be found in Northern Nigeria which is predominantly Muslim and where education is not prioritised.
Belinda: Or is it a case where the women involved simply feel too insecure to make statements against it?
Lola Shoneyin: Men are the main beneficiaries of polygamy. They enjoy the variety and I guess this makes it convenient for them. Some women would argue that they benefit from it too. The late president married off two of his daughters to two separate state governors who already had at least two wives. The fact that these beautiful worldly-wise women agreed to these unions suggest that they were given ample ‘encouragement’, either that or they looked forward to being married to men who had access to the public purse. It goes without saying therefore that women who enjoy such advantages will not speak against polygamy. Other women see it as part of their religion or culture. Everyone approach matters pertaining to religion with so much sensitivity that they are rarely discussed at all. When Ahmed Yerima, a former governor and member of the house of senate married a fourteen year old, Egyptian girl a few months ago, Muslim women came out in droves to support the marriage. In an environment where too many people will use religion to rationalise paedophilia and emotional battery, it is not surprising that polygamy is not going out of fashion.
Belinda: What do you want readers to take away from the book after reading The Secret lives of Baba Segi’s Wives?
Lola Shoneyin: I want my readers to see what a vile institution polygamy is. I also want to remind young women contemplating polygamy that there are other alternatives worth considering, options that could potentially be more fulfilling in the long run. This is why it was vital to expose the inner workings of polygamous homes through the eyes of the wives. We rarely get their perspectives. I want people to be witness to the cut-throat daily life, the underlying deceit, the subtle and not so subtle, scheming, the potential violence…. For me, the greatest tragedy is that polygamy changes women mild-mannered, decent; not because they want to change but because they have to, as a matter of survival.
Belinda: How has your novel been received, considering the subject matter?
Lola Shoneyin: Once my novel came out in the UK and US, a lot of Nigerians bought it and contacted me on email and facebook to tell me how much they had enjoyed it. Although the Nigerian edition hasn’t hit the shelves yet, there has been excitement, and, as expected, criticism from some quarters. A number of Muslims have mentioned that Islam permits polygamy so that makes it alright. And of course, there’s the culture brigade who believe all African traditional practices are flawless. Internationally, it has been very well-received. There have been very positive reviews in the US.
The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives is published by Serpents Tail (UK) and Cassava Republic (Nigeria)