Last year, a major festival of Arts and Books launched in Nigeria, and surprisingly it wasn’t based in one of the larger cities in the country, Abuja, Calabar, or even Lagos; instead the festival took place in the small town of Ake, famously the hometown of Nigeria’s Nobel Laureate for Literature, but otherwise not often mentioned in the cultural calendar until last year, when Lola Shoneyin, author of the best-selling novel, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, launched the AKE Festival to great acclaim. Ahead of the festival’s second edition which takes place in November, Dele Meiji Fatunla caught up with Lola Shoneyin to talk about her writing, this year’s festival, and rumours about her love of dancing, and a movie adaptation of her celebrated book.
Lola Shoneyin, Author, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives and Director, Ake Arts & Book Festival
DMF: Last year, you held what many hailed as a writer’s writer’s festival – how are you going to top the rave reviews from last year’s festival?
LS: This year, festival guests are coming from all over Nigeria, Africa, Europe, Canada and America. They bring an incredible vibe with them because they are focused and enthusiastic. On a practical level, the festival holds itself to very high standards. By starting events on time and doing away with time-wasting protocol, for example, we show that we respect our guests, that we admire their creativity and of course their audiences, some of whom have come a great distance. Our aim is to develop, promote and celebrate creativity in Africa and we’re very serious about this.
DMF: Why isn’t this festival in Lagos?
LS: Big cities have an incredible energy but there’s also a lot of noise, which can be a distraction. When it’s quiet, it’s easier for people to engage with the festival, the writers, the books, and the atmosphere, and as a place, Abeokuta (Ake) has a lot of character and history.
DMF: Many people find travelling to Nigeria – talk less of a small town in Nigeria – a bit daunting – how are you addressing this in the planning the festival?
LS: We’re in our second year and the international interest in Ake festival has been unbelievable. We’re thrilled that so many people from outside Nigeria are coming to Nigeria for the festival. Our website, akefestival.org, needs to do more by way of providing information about the city itself, in order to give potential visitors a feel of Abeokuta. Our plan is to augment what they’ve got going on at www.ogunstate.gov.ng. We’ve been focusing on the festival venues and the immediate surroundings but we realize we have to a little more to add on this; however our website has good information on where to stay, eat and how to move around.
DMF: Is there a network of people trying to create a festival infrastructure around Nigeria?
LS: There is a kind of network, in that nearly everyone comes from the same pool. I have known the organisers of the Lagos Book and Art Festival (which is in its 15th year) for years. I used to run into them at Association of Nigerian Authors events nearly two decades ago. The Port Harcourt Literary Festival is in its 6th year and then there are other festivals like Lights, Camera Action film festival in Lagos. I think Nigeria is ripe for a cultural explosion. Reading, books, culture are all going to become sexy again. Maybe it’s a subconscious pushback against the anti-intellectualism you find in the corridors of power. There’s a way in which culture grounds you. Young people want to be clued up about culture. Identity is important to them.
DMF: There’s very little specific in the programme about the 1914 amalgamation – why not? Was this a conscious decision?
LS: Last year, the Ake Arts and Book Festival theme of the festival was “The Shadow of Memory”. We dealt with a lot of the how we got here and the ‘whys’. The 2014 theme is “Bridges and Pathways.” We’re taking a closer look at conflict along ethnic, language, religious and gender lines and we’re asking, ‘where do we go from here?’
DMF: Obviously, this year is Wole Soyinka’s 80th birthday – can you tell us a bit more about the Vera Botterbosch exhibition – the context of those photos – and the book lauch as well?
LS: Earlier this year, Book Craft launched a set of four of Wole Soyinka’s memoirs consisting of Ake: My Years of Childhood, Isara, Ibadan and The Man Died in Ibadan, Oyo State. It’s exciting when Ogun State gets a chance to celebrate a most distinguished son. Vera Botterbusch has been taking photographs of Abeokuta, Isara and Wole Soyinka for decades. A stunning selection of her photographs will be exhibited alongside photos from Victor Ehikhamenor’s In the Lion’s Lair where you will see breathtaking, intimate shots of Soyinka in his home. Nigeria is lucky to have such a courageous writer, activist and public intellectual. That Wole Soyinka is 80 this year is just another excuse to celebrate him.
DMF: Which of your panels are you most looking forward to?
LS: We have a book event with former president Olusegun Obasanjo. Patrick Okigbo is interviewing this session. That’s not actually a panel though; it’s what we call a book chat. I am looking forward to hearing Chude Jideonwo, Yemi Adamolekun and a handful of other young Nigerians discussing ‘Education, Religion and the Menace of Violence’. Ayisha Osori, an incredibly astute woman from Northern Nigeria, is moderating the panel.
DMF: Is Ake different in terms of its approach to having an education element feature so strongly in its programme?
LS: I was a school teacher in the UK and in Nigeria for many years. The educational element is very important to me. We take our guest on visits to the local schools, some of which do not have physical structures you’d expect in a learning environment. Very few of the state schools have proper libraries. Our guest authors find the experience moving because the kids at these schools embrace them and want to listen to them.
DMF: How do you balance writing alongside the work you’re doing with Ake – and the literary foundation, Book Buzz?
LS: With a lot of difficulty. This has also been an incredible year for me with Ake, writing, and seeing my first child into university. And then, there’s the fundraising for Ake Festival. Sometimes, I get so frustrated with Nigerian institutions and companies and their lack of interest in supporting the Arts. We rely very heavily on Goethe Institut and the British Council. Embassies in Nigeria have also been extremely helpful, with the French topping the list. NGOs have it tough in this climate.
DMF: How did you get your book to be so funny? Did you set out to write a funny book?
LS: A lot of my close friends who read The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives said it was like I was chatting with them, telling stories. I come from a family of incredibly funny people; everyone is a bit of a clown. We’re all over 40 now but we still do funny faces and silly voices. We flog the Hell out of thirty-year-old jokes when we get together. I love books with humour, books that take me on an emotional rollercoaster. I like books that are gritty, books that hit the ground running. I write what I like, I suppose.
DMF: Do we get to find out what happens to Bolanle – do you ever imagine where she is now?
LS: There’s so much happening around us. I don’t have the patience to make my characters live the post-page life. I got a Babasegi Twitter handle a few years ago. I posted maybe six Tweets. I imagine what life must be like for the Chibok girls. They are at the top of my mind.
DMF: The language of the book is sometimes quite courtly, ornate – how much were you trying to give a sense of timelessness – and how much do you think is the echo of Yoruba in your work?
LS: The Yoruba ‘echo’ is easy to explain because when I was writing the book, my characters interacted in Yoruba all the time. The challenge was to express the Yoruba inflection as accurately as possible in English. Yoruba has a unique rhythm but when it is interspersed with the clucking, sighing and humming of co-wives, you really have to train your ear in order to capture the nuances of this interaction in English. This was pretty challenging because sometimes I would have to write the same phrase thirty times until it sounded exactly right.
DMF: What are you working on now?
LS: Poems, and a novel.
DMF: I heard a rumour that Baba Segi’s wives might be getting the film treatment – can you confirm these rumours?
LS: In my mind, I have always seen it as a Yoruba film with English sub-titles. I never actually shared these thoughts with anyone so I am delighted to see things going in that direction.
DMF:…I also heard a rumour, in fact, read somewhere in print that you are a writer who likes to dance – can you confirm these rumours?
LS: Absolutely. I’m the queen of the ‘jerky-twerk’.
The Ake Arts & Books Festival takes place from 18th November – 22nd November 2014